Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thoughts on Darwin Day By Marty Banks

After a long hiatus, NOSHA teamed up with the Department of Anthropology at Tulane University under the direction of NOSHA Vice President and Tulane Adjunct Instructor Jim Dugan to return the annual tribute to the work and legacy of Charles Darwin to the Tulane campus this year. Each year similar gatherings take place virtually worldwide, with most organizers using Darwin’s birthday, February 12, as the date to plan around. In New Orleans, the timing more often than not conflicts with Mardi Gras festivities and is usually scheduled weeks or even a month after the “official” day.

The carefree spirit of the Carnival season did nothing to diminish the educational experience that some 90 participants in attendance were exposed to in the four and a half hour presentation, but those expecting “Evolution 101”, or rote historical recaps of Darwin’s life probably regretted leaving their scratch pads and pencils behind, because each of the four speakers offered presentations about as diverse as possible without abandoning the general theme of Darwin and his contributions altogether. The opening speaker, Dr. Steven Darwin (probably related, he assured us), introduced the listeners to the concept of invasive species, those life forms that are not native to a geographical area or island, but once introduced into the new environment can thrive, often and the expense of native fauna or flora. This fact is interesting as a retort to the theistic creation-style notion of teleological-design, or environments “fine tuned” for certain species, rather than the the life form evolving and adapting to the environment in which it finds itself.

Professors C. Mark Phillips from UNO’s Department of Philosophy and Marc Zender of Tulane’s Anthropology Department applied the idea of evolution in broader senses. Phillips approached the “evolution” and development of the philosophical analyses of the concept of self identity—from Rene’ Descartes (I think, therefore I am) and Hume, who claimed the “self” was nothing more than the collection of perceptions an individual is experiencing at a given time — to Darwin himself, who Phillips called the "Father of Psychology", establishing that self-conscious animals are driven to find out who and what they are. Religion has been from the earliest days of humanity a part of the equation of self-identity asserted Phillips, giving the individual a sense of connection with the rest of the cosmos, which is what makes it very hard to escape for most people.

The concluding presentation was made by NOSHA VP Jim Dugan, but not before he performed the double- and triple-duty functions the lead organizer is often required to fill — greeter, Master of Ceremonies, and extra seating procurer for the overflow crowd. The extracurricular chores did nothing to lessen the liveliness of his discussion about the growth in the size and sophistication of the Christian textbook industry.

From the meager and overly-simplistic library of titles just several decades ago, Dugan said the business has grown to dozens of publishers, including the better known Abeka, Bob Jones University, and Christian Liberty Press, printing a full list of titles for elementary and secondary school classrooms. The increased demand for this material likely came from the explosion of the homeschooling movement in the ‘80s, and an improved academic polish of the materials was becoming a necessity to gloss over the dependence on Biblical text as the ultimate foundation of all historical and scientific truths. Understanding that the creation story, taken literally, is irreconcilable with Darwin’s theory, textbook writers and editors have been forced to cobble a complex index of “Evolution Straw Men” arguments, along with other informal fallacies and specious reasonings, said Dugan, not as proof of their own creation tale, but as attempts to discredit Darwinism. The conflation of the evolution of life forms with an imagined “Theory of Everything” (that all things, from elementary particles, to the grand history of the development of the cosmos) as one and the same process is an obvious misrepresentation of the basic theory, but is often used as an attempt to show a weakness inherent in evolutionary science. Another prestidigitation popular with Christian authors is disproof by way of the Young Earth model—convincing, obviously, if one is taught and believes the Earth is only thousands, and not billions, of years old. Other tired tropes of anti-Darwinism include the “Missing Link”; and the uni-directional progression of development (think Great Chain of Being), in contrast to the ‘branching’ model Darwin’s proposal establishes.

Something resembling comic relief was in order for concluding a program with such weighty themes and was provided in the form of some short clips from several campy Christian youth oriented videos. The variety of topics chosen by the speakers was a tribute to the educational function NOSHA tries serving in the community interest, and to this end the event was an unqualified success. Thanks to everyone who made this possible!

~Marty Bankson

Monday, February 23, 2015

Total Eclipse of the Heart and Mind By John Patrick Lestrade, Ph.D.

During our January meeting for NOSHA,  member John Patrick Lestrade, Ph.D., did a reading that we'd like to share for everyone who couldn't attend that day.

Please enjoy!

We all know that there are basically two types of eclipses: The lunar eclipse, when the Moon is behind the Earth and slips into the Earth’s dark shadow, and the better known solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks the Sun from our view. I thought that you might enjoy an intellectual gem for each of these celestial events.

Lunar Eclipses and the Heart. (We’re talking about real romance here, so you will want to take notes.)
Some of you may have never experienced a lunar eclipse. During this event, when the Moon finds itself in presumably total blackness behind the Earth, the Moon can still be visible to us. It shines with a deep red color. The first question is “Why is there light shining on it?”

***

This is the Earth (holding up a grapefruit), I am the Sun, and the Moon is in the Earth’s shadow. This side of the Earth is in daylight. This side is experiencing night. Everyone along this boundary is seeing sunrise while those on the opposite boundary experience sunset. If the Earth had no atmosphere, there would be a sharply delineated column of darkness forming the Earth’s shadow. But our atmosphere along these two boundaries bends the light so that some of it strikes the Moon and bounces back to us. Now why is the light reddened? Our skies are blue, which means that as light passes through our atmosphere the short, bluish, wavelengths are removed from the beam and scattered in all directions. The light rays that remain in the beam are made up of longer wavelengths and look reddish. So, when you are with someone you love, watching a dark, red lunar eclipse, impress them by saying that the light you are seeing is the light from ALL the sunrises and ALL the sunsets happening on Earth at that very moment.

Solar Eclipses and the Mind
You may have noticed that the Sun and the Moon appear to be the same size in the sky. Of course, the Sun is much larger than the Moon - almost a million miles wide for the Sun versus only 2,000+ miles across for the Moon. But the Sun doesn’t appear larger because it is much farther away. What’s interesting is that although the Sun is about 400 times wider than the Moon, it is also 400 times farther away. Thus both appear to be the same size!

So, during a Solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun for the lucky few in the path of totality, the lunar and solar disks match up almost exactly. This leads to especially beautiful solar eclipses, where the Moon blocks the bright disk of the Sun but leaves the outer, very hot corona visible. Sometimes there are beads of sunlight that filter through the mountains on the lunar perimeter.

So think about this: Is the fact that our Moon is just the right size and distance from us a coincidence or can it have a deeper meaning for us? Remember that the Moon causes tides on the Earth. Evolutionary biologists will tell you the importance of tides and tidal pools in our evolution. So perhaps it is not just a coincidence that we have a Moon of the right size and distance relative to our star. Perhaps without it we wouldn't be here to enjoy these celestial displays.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Looking for a crack team of newsletter volunteers!

The Board of Directors would like to bring back our quarterly newsletter, so we're asking for volunteers who might be able to do this as a service to NOSHA.

We're happy to report that we have at least one person who is willing to work on content, which can be the most daunting task when creating pages as anyone who has ever done a newsletter can often attest! So, we really need a volunteer who can use a graphics program and has the basic skills to develop it.

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If you would like to know more or can give a sample of a newsletter (or similar product) that you've produced before, please send an email to charlotte@nosha.info and we'll help get this started! Thanks in advance for your interest!

Friday, February 6, 2015

BOOK REVIEW - Grandiose Delusion: Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy

I admit I had multiple prejudices before I even opened this book, based solely on the author and title. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t read a book by Mike Huckabee, one-time governor of Arkansas, Fox News bloviator, wannabe presidential candidate, and Baptist minister. Nor would I usually read a book with a title like God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. But Huckabee is a notable public figure and has been a best-selling author before, so I decided to give it a try. At least I didn't pay for a copy, checking one out instead from the public library.

By page seven, I knew finishing the book was going to be difficult. It’s not as bad as reading Ann Coulter, which is like listening to fingernails screech across a chalkboard, but Huckabee’s book is vapid and banal. One would think that someone who has held high public office before and wants to hold higher public office in the future would show some depth of understanding of the issues he raises, would demonstrate an awareness of the interests of the various parties to a debate, and would at least sometimes offer a way forward through the controversy. Huckabee provides none of that here relying instead on empty platitudes and vague superficialities. Baldly theocratic, he feels no need to dig further than the Bible to resolve any dispute. “I believe we live in a God-centered world,” he writes, “and that all the definitions of success, fulfillment, morality, value, family, and life are His to give and ours to follow. They provide a roadmap for us. They also are immutable, meaning unchangeable” (p. 79).

***

In this book Huckabee describes America as divided into two major groups which he labels “Bubble” and “Bubba.” The Bubbles are modern and left-leaning, living in the urban areas of both coasts, best exemplified by the cultures of New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. Bubbas, on the other hand, are traditional, salt-of-the earth Americans who live in less urban areas and value faith and family. The Bubbas are oppressed by intolerant Bubbles, as exemplified by controversies such as those surrounding Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, and Duck Dynast patriarch Phil Robertson. In each of these, God-fearing Bubbas were “angrily shouted down as ‘haters’ simply because they held to biblical standards on issues like marriage and the sanctity of life.”

***

One paragraph in the first chapter could easily stand as a summary of the entire book:
“But as much as there is a great divide in this country between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ there is also a great chasm between the ‘believes’ and ‘believe-nots.’ And, increasingly, the ‘believes’ in America have come to feel like cultural lepers – untouchables and undesirables – and an embarrassment to their fellow Americans who equate the holding of traditional views on marriage, religion, family, patriotism, an even the rule of law and the Constitution with ignorance and superstition. The snobbery and bold bigotry aimed at the ‘believes’ goes unchecked and unchallenged by ‘believe-nots’ who call themselves ‘mainstream.’ But such condescending attitudes toward people of faith are hardly mainstream in the geographical center of America” (p. 17).  

Would that the book had stopped there! But Huckabee natters on through 240 pages, hitting all the right-wing hot-button issues, but delving with acuity into none. He’s worried that leftists will take away his guns, thinks the Bible settles matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage, disapproves of political correctness and left-wing censorship of right-wing views, detests the “nanny state,” reality TV, and environmentalist extremism, opposes the Affordable Care Act, opposes government regulation of business, and so on.

The only valuable information that I found in the book was that Huckabee and his crowd have a growing awareness that they are considered “lepers” and “an embarrassment” by many of their fellow Americans. One might hope this could lead them to rethink their positions. But the book makes clear that any such hope is unrealistic. It never occurs to them that they are regarded as lepers because they behave as anti-intellectual, anti-modern, anti-social prigs. In their minds, they are oppressed because of their religious beliefs. And in their minds this elevates them to the status of martyrs to their faith. This is grandiose delusion, and it stymies any chance they have of rediscovering reality.

Huckabee and his ilk are free to run their personal lives, their families, and their churches well within the confines of their various doctrines. But they are unappreciative of this fact. It is not enough for them to own guns, choose which church to attend, home-school their children, or to make their own choices about abortion, birth control or whom to marry. They want desperately to make those decisions for everyone else as well. They want to subordinate our secular state to the theocratic goals of one particular variety of Christianity. They want a United States without government regulation of business or guns or health insurance or seat belts or religion or school curricula. But they also want their small and weak government to prohibit abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, sexual education in schools or sexual content on TV. This they call “freedom.”

God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, by Mike Huckabee. St. Martin’s Press (2015). ISBN-13: 978-1250060990.
~ Jim Dugan

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pray The Hate Away

“Pray it away”, indeed; that was but a part of the orchestrated chant put together by the organizers of the “Organize, Reflect, Act: A Day of Action for Justice in Louisiana”, a protest on the LSU campus Saturday against the unholy union of the churchy fundamentalist group the American Family Association and state chief executive Bobby Jindal.  Arriving about thirty minutes early, I was concerned that the turnout was not going to be as strong as hoped; there were only about ten or so people mingling in the chilly sunshine in front of the Bell Tower, but Louisianans, and especially students, are notorious late arrivals, and within 30 minutes the crowd had grown to an estimated 400. 

No group of LGBTQs and heathens that large would escape the notice of a diligent street preacher, (witness the French Quarter at Mardi Gras or the Southern Decadence Festival), and the start of today’s activities was no exception, especially given the likely sizeable contingent of preachers on hand for the day’s activities. The wiry fellow was clearly flushed with Red Bull as well as the holy spirit, his carotid arteries straining visibly through his scruffy neck whiskers.

The little guy persisted and followed the group around the block to the main staging area for the rest of the demonstration near the gate entrance into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. He was soon made inaudible and even less significant when the Master of Ceremonies, a burly, part-time rap artist began introducing the speakers. A total of about 12 people spoke for 3-5 minutes each, a group that included professors, lawyers, student LGBT activists, a young Muslim woman, a city councilwoman from Grambling, La., Jessie Nieblas with the New Orleans Abortion Fund, and an aspiring youthful poet.

Halfway through the talks, a small army of pro-lifers approached the PMAC in their own march. I am not sure, but I suspect this group was put together after Response organizers realized there would be a protest. I would be misrepresenting the facts if I said it wasn’t a lot of people: there were at least as many as in our gathering. Barricades separated us from the oncoming group, which was then directed toward the ramps that enter the Assembly Center. A few chose to linger, either scowling or trying to stare down our wickedness, and one wannabe masochist-for-Christ got down on his knees on the rough asphalt and waved a crucifix at us for about 20 minutes.

***

At the conclusion of the talks, we made our way the Student Union and gathered in the ballroom for a panel discussion. Panel members were organizer Peter Jenkins, State Representative Patricia Smith, law professor Jack Harrison, and, now to remain nameless, an Southern Poverty Law Center representative and another of the program’s organizers. The panel did a good job of fielding and answering questions; State Representative Smith was particularly astute and politically motivational, having just been through a week of Martin Luther King activities. An unannounced and almost unnoticed appearance of Zack Kopplin in the audience for a few minutes was not mentioned. I found that a bit curious; perhaps he was on the down low for a reason.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, four small workshop groups concluded the day. I attended one on social media, the remaining NOSHAN listened to one on grassroots organizing.

“Organize, Reflect, Act” sponsors, participants, and coordinators did a professional job with this project. And mine is just one view, much like theirs, a view from the outside. Inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center? No one out here really knows if they prayed away the hate or not. But we really doubt it.   
~Marty Bankson        

Friday, January 23, 2015

Just Who The Hell Are We?

There was a thread in our Facebook group recently that elevated the apparent (and possible lack of) understanding of who non-believers are in the political spectrum of thought. It seemed that not everyone realized that "we" all don't believe the same way, whether we label ourselves atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers or whatever. On top of that, some people may have misconceptions about the non-religious because of their own limited awareness or lack of experience, especially if they have only recently left their religion.

Generally, it is safe to say there are basic perspectives that probably are held by the majority given our more progressive slant. Many people who feel religion should be at the forefront of society rarely if ever "lean left", as they say.

For instance, it is likely that if someone believes in a strong separation of church and state concerning most social and medical issues in our society, chances are they are more liberal than they are conservative. How could they not be? Part of religious group-think is to believe that everyone should accept religion as a part of how decisions are made. And by religion, they mean theirs. And they usually assume you are okay with their religion making these important decisions in your life, too. And that's whether or not you're a member of their religion. It is one of the many blind spots we encounter when we discuss certain topics with religious people.

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There also might be various understandings of how secular humanism is defined and how we use this as a value system for everyday life. If a certain part of a definition resonates with one person, they may assume that it will be important to everyone else. And then there could be plain ol' misunderstanding and denial. Sometimes we simply believe the parts that confirm our suspicions and discard the rest. And that makes for another whole can of worms in discussions and is a blog for another day.

This link will give you some idea of how the religiously unaffiliated think politically, but here are the highlights of this crowd: (To be fair, this specific Pew survey does not represent only the non-religious community, but anyone who claims to be "unaffiliated", or not a member of any religion, which is the only category under which we will find non-believers. Only 32% of the people in this survey claim they do not believe in God or are unsure, for example.)

55% lean Democrat
73% consider themselves moderate or liberal
66% believe Government is too involved in morality
69% believe that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost
71% believe that homosexuality should be accepted
70% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases

None of these specific areas of opinion hits 100%, so it is unwise to assume that everyone in a group will share the same opinion on everything (duh, right?). Still there is a trend to the majority of these people, so if you are a betting man or woman, you should assume that when you join a secular humanist or non-religious group, you will be dealing with people who are more progressive than most on social issues and, depending on the group, have a settled definition of what their brand of non-belief is about.

Does this mean that these people are not willing to consider outside points of view or that they will only consider the black and white arguments of a pet topic? Of course not. But if you disagree in some way after putting an idea out there, it doesn't mean you can't hang out and discuss issues of interest at another time. It just means you may not agree on everything all of the time. Kind of like most situations. Stick around and give it a chance. You might actually like some of the people when you get to know them better and you might have more in common with us than you first thought.

One challenge to everyone: try to understand where the other person is coming from. Try. Think about what you intend to post one more time, especially if you think it could be misunderstood. Sometimes you will see a word or phrase that is confusing or could be changed for greater understanding. Confusion is part of the human condition and a little extra effort can go along way to prevent potential hurt feelings. All we have are words in social media, so let's make sure they are the best representation of ourselves that they can be.

Monday, January 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, 2010


John W. Loftus has given us a number of volumes, most famously his monograph Why I Became an Atheist : A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Continuing the themes and arguments from that work, Loftus gathered a group of writers from different disciplines to expand on or respond to topics such as the relationship between Western society and Christianity, the psychology of religion, the relationship between world-view and reason, the morality of the Judeo-Christian God, and the like. The result is an admirable edited volume, published in 2010 under the title The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Each chapter of The Christian Delusion presents one writer’s perspective on a particular idea.  In The Cultures of Christianities, Anthropologist David Eller reminds us that Christianity is not a monolith, and that each variety of Christianity is intertwined with a particular culture.  Culture, for the most part, is something we absorb unconsciously, so changing it can be quite difficult.

“Christians are not easily reasoned out of religion,” he writes, “since they are not usually reasoned into it.  Christians, like other religionists, are not so much convinced by arguments and proofs as colonized by assumptions and premises” (p. 44). 

***

In Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science, psychologist Valerie Tarico asks secularists to better understand religious believers in light of the fact that our shared human nature is to be irrational. She points out that “certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing,” and that “the structure of thought itself predisposes us to religious thinking” (48). It is worth repeating the adage that the scientific method is “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.” Each of the thirteen other chapters offers its own particular perspective on similar themes.

For me, the last section of the book, dealing with Christianity and society, was the most interesting.  Anthropologist David Eller argues that Christianity Does Not Provide the Basis for Morality, while Hector Avalos, a child evangelist who became an atheist academician, clarifies that Atheism was Not the Cause of the Holocaust.  Historian Richard Carrier deftly demonstrates that Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.  To many secularists it might seem that these positions are too obvious to need argumentation. Sadly, that is not the case. Creationists and other Christian apologists repeatedly make exactly these claims, and that is one of the main reasons a volume such is this is so necessary.  

~ Jim Dugan