Sunday, June 28, 2015

Science Cafe Serves Up Food for Thought

Local food and restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorrris lists 1401 eateries in metro New Orleans. And that’s not counting franchises or fast food outlets. He will probably not be including one recent opening in his updates—that of a local version of the new multinational concept of  “Science Cafes”. That’s because the fare served there is information, specifically about topics in science, rather than the latest twist on bistro comfort food or arty but bitty portions of nouvelle cuisine.

NOSHA has teamed up with Delgado professor Dr. Marion Freistadt to bring topics of different scientific disciplines to the general public. It’s an interesting new approach for widening public awareness about the value of having at least a cursory understanding of how science relates to issues in an increasingly complex world. Lectures and discussions are served up for small groups in an informal setting at easily accessible locations.

Freistadt’s educational and professional background is in the biological discipline of virology, the study of viruses. She comes “from a strong traditional academic background with grant funding,” she told me in an email. “I am currently setting out on my own and am therefore seeking a robust partnership of local and national sponsors.”

She is the founder and director of Virology Institute of New Orleans, a nonprofit incorporated in Louisiana, which was established for “Advancing Science Education” .Services provided by the Institute to achieve that end include “Science Cafe, monthly newsletters, the ‘Going Viral’ radio show, enhancement of science literacy, science career mentoring, research funding reform, and virology research”.

On May 12, Freistadt presented to a group of 20-25 at the uber-funky Neutral Ground Coffeehouse with a balanced overview on the topic of vaccines: the different types and how they work to protect from infection; a brief history from the earliest days of the discoveries of Edward Jenner and his discovery of the cowpox vaccine to fight the then rampant smallpox scourge; and Louis Pasteur finding defenses against rabies and anthrax. Her talk included some of the current issues centered around vaccination, and she put into perspective which concerns are legitimate and others that are based more on hysteria and conspiracy theories than fact. Over the years, we have basically eradicated smallpox and polio, and were on the way to ending measles before the recent upsurge in cases—primarily because of misinformation riding on the coattails of the vaccine-as-Autism-cause panic.

Dr. Freistadt’s long-term goal is to have her Virology Institute housed in a geodesic dome similar to the one Buckminster Fuller designed as the biosphere for Expo 67 in Montreal. She says it is “visually educational” because the design mimics the naturally occurring design that many viruses use to package their genome within a three dimensional structure.

More Science Cafe sessions are to be sponsored “in the foreseeable future,” said Freistadt. “The broader mission of VINO is to enhance science literacy….Lots of suggestions, such as astronomy and relativity have been put forward. I am open to many ideas. We are just starting.”

So let’s do lunch. And think about tipping VINO at http://virologyinstituteofneworleans.org. This fledgling good-cause operation is worthy of our support. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Night To Remember with Psychic John Edward

NOSHA member Mark Zeller (r)  and internationally-
known celebrity psychic, John Edward. 

Earlier this month, I was given the gift of a John Edward event. A good friend of mine wanted me to see for myself the powerful psychic abilities of Mr. Edward, so she bought us tickets. She had seen him once before in Baton Rouge, but had not gone to the additional “after event” on that occasion. So, she splurged and got us both “upgrades” for the extended show where John gets more personal. This was my first live experience seeing a medium doing readings with the audience, and I was curious to see if he could convince me to believe in his abilities, so I humored my friend and accepted her expensive gift. Also, this is my first attempt at writing a blog post, so I ask that you excuse my lack of experience in this and bear with me.

I would like to start my description of the evening with some plain statements of how the event occurred. First, the tickets! They were $150 per person, and the upgrade was another $75 per person. I counted five sections of 80 chairs in the hotel ball room where the event was held, and it was nearly packed, if not sold out. So, I’ll say at least 350 people were in attendance. Roughly half of the audience stayed for the extended show, so I’ll say about 150 people must have ponied up for it. The math tells me that comes out to be $63,750 for three total hours of work before paying anyone or covering expenses. To be a little more conservative, I will round down the total take to $60,000.

Now, John does not do all of this alone. He has what I will call the show director, an aggressive but friendly lady responsible for organizing the crowd and getting everyone checked in. Also, there were at least two other women working as assistants by taking tickets and passing out microphones. I am not sure if the sound man and personal security guard were hired locally, or travel with him, but the two of them had to be paid as well. No catering was required – only the large ball room and 400 chairs. The vast majority of the audience was women, and probably half of them were middle aged and up. I guess it may have been 20-to-1, women to men.

***

As for John Edward himself, I learned a little about him, too. He is very friendly and likable. He came on stage in jeans and a plain shirt, and if you didn’t already know who he was you would never guess that he is a famous psychic. He explained himself for a few minutes, stating that he has been doing this for 30 years. He assured the crowd that he does not have a gift, but an ability. The gift is from the spirits that communicate with him and pass messages through him. He is married and has children who he evidently calls between the main event and the "after event". He also spoke on positive living, positive energy, chakras, and a bit of astrology. He told his story of discovering his ability as a teen when his mother had a psychic friend come over and give readings. At that time he said he wanted to test this purported psychic with questions, so he did, and was astonished when what she told him was true, even things no one else could have possibly known about him (spooky, right?). He continued by explaining his approach as a teacher, and that he used to show more patience with his audience (my words, not his), but felt he was not being his true self, which is a smart ass (his words). So, he warned us that if we said something stupid, he would call us out on it. And this was in addition to being informed that we could be asked to leave if we were caught using our phones or any recording devices.

The real fun began when five audience members were randomly chosen to ask a question of John. So, scattered about the room were five women who received a microphone, and waited for their turn. However, midway through the questions, John began his readings, and expressed mild surprise that it was happening, because he didn’t think it was time yet. He started by pointing to one corner of the audience, because the spirits were guiding him that way, and he started throwing out clues. I don’t remember specifically what he asked for when he started, but I will give some examples of the questions and comments he offered once the spirits started communicating with him. He used generalities, because the spirits are generally vague. For instance, he said he hears/sees/feels “Karen, Karina, Christy, something with K and R” coming from that area of the room. Then, he waited for responses from the audience affirming someone in that general was, or knew, a Karen, Karina, etc.

He also referenced other common scenarios, such as: someone who committed suicide, someone who overdosed on drugs, a father figure (dad, step-dad, uncle, etc.) or mother figure (aunt, friend, big sister who had to raise you because your real mom died, etc.), someone who works in health care, someone who works in education, someone who died of cancer, and so on and so forth. For every hint at what he was being told from the other side, he would expect a suitable response from the area of the room in which he was being guided. When he did not get a positive response from whomever he was speaking to, he would switch to someone in the immediate area whom did give a positive response. That person would then get to hold the mic until another nearby audience member chimed in with something that fit what John was receiving from the spirit world. This continued for about two hours, as John, who remained on stage, would scan around the room looking for his next reading.

One reading surprised me when the “B” name he was trying to pinpoint turned out to be the family dog who was also at peace with the deceased relatives. In every case, the response from the dead was the same – they chose to speak through John, because it was their way of basically checking in and saying they were alright. He assured one woman, after she told him that she had a tumultuous relationship with her deceased sister, that her sister in fact wanted her to let go, and that everything was alright. He made a bunch of women cry that evening by convincing them he was in contact with their loved ones. John gave comments and details that were general enough to apply to most anyone, but he was clever enough to use more specific examples as they would apply to a situation. It was kind of like a big game of 20 questions, except John was allowed a lot more than 20 questions, and he could start over with another person if he wasn’t getting the right answers. A couple of times he even insisted a person was wrong, thereby forcing said person to think really hard to GIVE HIM A FITTING ANSWER. The man was not revealing anything, the audience was!

The "after event" was somewhat a continuation of the main event, where John came back out and answered as many questions as he could from the audience, as opposed to interpreting messages from the other side. He offered some kind, touchy-feely, new age, positive affirmation ideas for living a good life, and he answered questions about his personal experiences as a medium for the last 30 years. To conclude the evening, he answered a young black lady when she asked what his strongest communication was from the other side. He paused, and asked her age and where she was from. When she told him 38 and Kansas City, he literally jumped for joy and exclaimed “I found you!” It turned out that 10 or 11 years ago he was told by some spirits that he would encounter a middle aged black woman tied to Kansas City, and that he was to train her. Ever since then, he had been searching and waiting to find this mystery woman. So, he told her to see his assistant and give her information so he could contact her. To add to it, her last name was Edwards! Wow! It was very touching, and everyone applauded and congratulated her.

As a final note, I want to say that I am a skeptic by nature, and I only accepted the invitation to this event at my friend’s insistence, and after warning her that it would not change my mind. I did enjoy the show, and I consider it entertainment, if you pardon the toying with people’s emotions aspect. John Edward is a nice fellow on stage, and he entirely gives the appearance of wanting to help people, if you pardon the $150 dollar ticket price and the fact that you probably won’t be picked for a reading. Also, I received a one year membership to his website, and I will be receiving a signed copy of one of his books in the mail for (my friend) purchasing the upgrade to the after event. A small part of me wants to suspend disbelief in this stuff because it feels nice, and it would be nice if it was true, but the rational part of me says it’s just a show. So, if you have $150 to spare, and you want to be a part of mass hysteria, go to www.johnedward.net and look for him in a city near you. Seriously, he has another 40-something events scheduled this year.

~Mark Zeller

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

GROUND ZERO FOR MARRIAGE RIGHTS



April 27, 2015

I could hardly have imaged while planning a vacation late last year that one of the days of the scheduled time off would give me the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to argue the issue of the forthcoming decision on marriage equality before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Well, sorta.

Not actually arguing the case before the justices of the court, of course, but rather "debating" some of the points with a couple of the devoted End Times prophets assigned to take questions after an announced delivery of reams and boxes of petitions signed "by hundreds of thousands", reportedly, to voice opposition to expansion of marriage rights. I came with just one prepared question.

"Is marriage a civil contractual agreement or some sort of religious ritual or oath?" I asked the woman with a big voice and puffy pink insulated ski jacket.

"Marriage is a sacred union of a man and woman blessed by Jesus Christ," was her answer.

"Then you are saying it is a religious affair. So why is it that I did not have to go to a church or any officer of any religious affiliation to get a marriage license, or to have have the ceremony?" asked I, playing a little dumb, a little coy.

"What about the First Amendment, what about the separation of church and state?" I could sense I was getting close to her "final answer".

"The First Amendment shouldn't have been!" she interjected, "God's law trumps man's law!"

Time to redirect. "OK, God's law. So do you believe in Shariah Law?"

"I absolutely do NOT...that's the Devil's religion!" she chimed back, rather indignantly. At this point her bearded, burlap bag robed accomplice told me, in no uncertain terms "This ain't no Mooslum country, it's Cristiun!"

A youthful, self-proclaimed gay man had come up showing an interest to get involved in the discussion and was a welcome reinforcement: It had become apparent that the antagonists had not refined their arguments enough to carry on a keen, reasoned debate, and rather than get myself worked up into a day-long tizzy, I retreated quietly back into the crowd, my day of arguing before the Supreme Court finished, my Mitty-esque flight into the annals of "Equal Justice Under Law" (1) dissolved into the reality of just another day, another vacation.


~by Marty Bankson

(1) Inscription on the frieze of the Supreme Court building.

Photos provided by Marty Bankson.

Monday, April 27, 2015

HB 707 Deserves Our Attention!

It’s good to see various communities in New Orleans and across Louisiana getting organized against the proposed “Marriage and Conscience Act,” H.B. 707. Reacting to the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same-sex marriage legal, even in behind-the-times Louisiana, HB 707 ensures that the Louisiana cannot enforce any of its state laws regarding discrimination and public accommodation, provided that an individual or business acts out of moral convictions about the institution of marriage. Supporters of the bill reach new lows of disingenuousness when they claim it would not authorize any kind of discrimination. Technically, the bill does not make discrimination legal, but in any practical sense it completely neutralizes state power to act if discrimination is motivated by values attached to marriage. It clearly sends a message that those who wish to discriminate are free to do so.

***

HB 707 should not be confused with so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs), because HB 707 contains critically different language. It prohibits the state from acting against discrimination that is motivated by “a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.” For one thing, HB 707 does not require that religious beliefs be “sincerely held,” as many RFRAs do. Secondly, HB 707 also allows discrimination arising merely from “moral conviction,” rendering irrelevant any argument about what is or is not a “religious” belief. Obviously, “moral convictions about the institution of marriage” is hopelessly vague language, opening the door to all kinds of abuse.

HB 707 might be amended in ways that narrow the basis of discrimination that it protects. One proposed amendment would narrow protection to actions arising from beliefs or convictions “that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” This would eliminate some problems, though certainly not all. The passage of this particular amendment is far from certain, though, at least in part because it exposes the anti-gay animus that is at the heart of the bill. Such an amendment would raise the odds of an Equal Protection challenge.

Choosing up sides is already well underway. Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU, provided a scathing condemnation of the bill in a letter to The Advocate on April 21st, pointing out terrifying consequences of HB 707 as written. Unsurprisingly, a letter supporting the bill was penned by Reverend Gene Mills, Executive Director of the Louisiana Family Forum, a group notorious for its anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-woman activism. More disturbing was a screed from Louisiana’s part-time governor and full-time presidential wannabe, Bobby Jindal, published in the New York Times. It’s an explicitly Christian, anti-liberal and anti-gay hit piece that is also oddly (coming from a Republican) anti-business. Mills and Jindal both try to paint Christians as the true victims of discrimination, and both shamelessly misstate the likely impact of the legislation.

If the backing of Jindal and Mills is not enough to demonstrate the theocratic impetus behind HB 707, one need only look into the background of the bill’s author, recently elected state Representative Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City. According to Wikipedia, Representative Johnson is an attorney, a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, and a member of the Louisiana Family Forum.

There was a meeting in New Orleans this Thursday (4/24), hosted by a coalition of organizations like Equality Louisiana, Louisiana Progress Action, Louisiana Trans Advocates, and others. The short-term plan is to work to keep HB 707 from getting out of committee, and with legislators worried about business backlash, this could actually happen. Those who are interested should monitor www.notmylouisiana.org, which will provide updates on the bill’s progress.

You should also let your representatives in Baton Rouge know where you stand. You can look up your elected representatives HERE. The bill will next be considered by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, whose members are listed HERE. One of the members of that committee is the author of HB 70, Representative Mike Johnson.

~Jim Dugan


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Kopplin Tries Once Again To Get Senators To Evolve

On April 22nd, Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson and education activist Zack Kopplin again led an effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The LSEA was cleverly crafted to enable teachers and local school boards to bring anti-evolution materials into public school classrooms. It was easily passed into law in 2008, and efforts to repeal it have since become an annual event.

This year’s repeal effort was just a little bit different. While many supporters and opponents signed up to speak, the Senate Education Committee “called the question” quite early, cutting off most of the would-be speakers. The decision of the Committee came down to one vote, which is much closer than usual. But once again, the committee decided to defer the repeal, meaning that the LSEA remains in effect for at least one more year (click HERE to see a video of the 54-minute hearing).

***

Cheers go of course to Senator Peterson, who introduces the repeal bill each year, and to Zack Kopplin, who organizes support each year. Kopplin has been busy investigating the creationist misbehavior of some Louisiana public schools. His quite damning findings were published on Slate.com just the day before the committee hearing, and he summarized those findings for the committee. Special kudos go to the Lane family, who testified before the committee, and more importantly, stood up courageously for religious freedom and sound science against the proselytizing and frank creationism at Negreet high school in Sabine Parish. Senators Claitor, LaFleur, and Morrell voted against deferral, meaning that they supported teaching science in the science classroom.

Jeers go to senators Guillory, Walsworth, and White, who once again voted against both modernity and common sense, and to Senator Appell, who broke the tie vote in favor to killing the repeal. Particularly reprehensible was Senator Elbert Guillory’s anti-science tirade. Scientists, he claimed, have too often been wrong, having sometimes believed that the earth was flat and the center of the solar system. According to Senator Guillory, it was scientists who labelled those who disagreed with them as heretics, and had those heretics burned at the stake (click HERE to see a 2-minute video clip). Apparently Senator Guillory is unaware that Ancient Greeks realized the earth was a sphere suspended in space, that scientists accepted the heliocentric model as soon as sufficient evidence had been accumulated, or that it was religious institutions, not scientists, that consigned heretics to the flames. Frighteningly, such non-comprehension of actual history comes from someone with direct power over our state’s education policy.

The situation will probably be different next year. Elections will change office holders and alliances in the senate, and that will likely result in some changes to which senators serve on the Education Committee. It remains to be seen whether or not the result will be a Senate Education Committee with a better grasp of science and science education.

Monday, April 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them

The Barna Group is a Christian organization that does sociological research for churches and other Christian institutions. One of their recent publications is Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. If you’re interested in how Christians see those who've left the faith and why, Churchless could be a fascinating read.

Christian organizations are painfully aware of America’s increasing religious diversity and secularism. Through reports like Churchless they get a better understanding of the large and growing percentage of Americans who have no church affiliation. Surprisingly, only about 25% of the “unchurched” are agnostics or atheists. A majority are Christian believers of various sorts, who have chosen not to participate in any formal church. The unchurched form an increasingly diverse group, slowly becoming less white and less male, while becoming more educated and more geographically dispersed throughout the country. Those leaving Christian institutions are making informed decisions, as they are experienced both with Bible reading and active church participation.

***

While the authors point to the many distractions of modern life as factors that contribute to increasing churchlessness, they are also willing to consider that churches are driving members away. A common complaint among the churchless is that they were unable to feel the presence of God in their church experience, and the authors point out that this is also a common complaint among active church members. They've also analyzed the attitudes of active church-goers along such lines as whether they see value in all human beings, even those of different faiths, or whether they see believers and unbelievers as having different intrinsic values. The Barna Group’s startling conclusion is that 51% of active church members are more “pharisaical” than “Christlike.” By these loaded terms they mean that many of those sitting in church pews fall short of the Christian ideals of tolerance and civility. This is not news to many of the unchurched, who have been trying for decades to get this message across to church leaders. That message may have more weight in a book like Churchless, because it is a criticism of Christians by Christians.

The writers seem to come quite close to, and yet to miss, the realization that many ex-Christians reject Christianity in two layers. The outermost layer for many former Christians who've become agnostics or atheists is doubt or denial of the existence of God, certainly a sufficient reason to stay out of church, but often not the whole story. Many non-believers have a second layer of criticism, which is that they would not want to be like many of the practicing Christians they encounter, even if they felt more certain that God existed. Whether that second layer of rejection is based in the ways many visible Christians and Christian institutions fall short of their own ideals, or in a deeper deficiency in Christian doctrine, is a thornier question not examined in this book.

Reading Churchless really brought home to me the vastness of the chasm that separates the Christian worldview from the worldviews of non-believers. The writers are unwaveringly certain that Christians “are the stewards of the truest story about humanity and God.” They use phrases such as “the presence of God,” “discernment” and “wisdom” as if they are unambiguously clear and identify tangible goods that churches can physically deliver. They never doubt that first-century scripture is still an adequate guide to the major life issues of people living in the twenty-first. Churches may find ways to reconnect with the churchless who still hold some faith. But I see little hope for them to reclaim the skeptics, as long as they continue to behave as if hopelessly vague buzzwords can be useful in the real world.


Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Edited by George Barna & David Kinnaman. Tyndale House Publishers (2014) . ISBN: 978-141-438-7093.

~By Jim Dugan

Sunday, April 12, 2015

May the Circularity Be Unbroken

Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cezanne
"All Scripture is breathed out 
by God", 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Have you wondered why so many people believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, that the book is an “inerrant” document and all the tales, histories, biographies, and timelines are undeniably true and accurate? With just a little reading and reflection of the book, wouldn't it be obvious that there are too many inconsistencies, contradictions, and second-to-none tales of imagination and fantasy for anyone to believe? To understand why anyone would, it might be helpful to trace the origins of the idea and follow one possible thread of circumstances leading to it.

Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography follows a historical trail from what she believes is the origin to a period in the early Twentieth Century. Armstrong says that the claim of biblical inerrancy is a relatively recent phenomenon—really getting started less that about 150 years ago—and earlier interpretations (of the limited few who had the opportunity to read and evaluate the material) accepted the more realistic viewpoint that the Bible, while serving as the foundational narrative of Western religion, was also rich with allegories, mythical representation, and presented a morality play sui generis of good versus evil.

***

But in the late 18th Century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza claimed that the Bible could not have been of divine origin given the number of contradictions, and from that conclusion began construction of his “pantheistic” interpretation of the worldly order.

His criticism would become known as the “Higher Criticism” (later called “historical criticism”) and was taken up for study by other contemporaries of the age: "By the end of the eighteenth century, German scholars led the way in biblical studies and were taking Spinoza's historical critical method to new lengths…” (1) leading to the revelation ”By the nineteenth century, it was generally agreed by the scholars of the Higher Criticism that the Pentateuch was a combination of four originally independent sources.”(2)

These sources, writers or transcribers, would come to be designated J (Yahweh), E (Elohim), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly) and are still the standard model for interpreting the different nuances of style and terminology of the Torah. Moses as the author was now officially debunked.

It didn't take long for the thoughtful among the devoted to realize that this was a problem—the sole foundation, the surviving written account and singular record and history of Judaism and Christianity was now shown to be error prone. And if one or many— each and every error contributed to devaluing the veracity of the whole. Making things worse, the results of these critical works was reaching a larger audience— people of modest means were by now beginning to have greater access to the printed word. Specifically, a work called Essays and Reviews published in 1861 by seven Anglican clergymen created an such an uproar that little attention was given to a work published two years earlier that would soon become the most formidable and durable challenge to the seven day creation of a young earth related in the Bible: Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. But “Darwin did not attack religion and at first the religious response was muted.”(3)

The challenge to the divine inspiration of the holy book now firmly defined, apologists for inerrancy scurried from the woodwork. Pastor Dwight Moody published Many Infallible Truths in 1895, nine years after founding the Moody Bible Institute; Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield of the Princeton Theological Seminary worked together on an 1881 article about the inspiration of the Bible, and Warfield would later publish the book The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. “The belief in biblical inerrancy, pioneered by Warfield and Hodge, would..become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial.” (4)

The foundation for perhaps the largest intellectual scam in the history of Western thought was now laid, brought about as a reaction from fear (rather than a result of a premeditated conspiracy)—a fear of a loss of trust in a fable-backed religion which had heretofore been such an easy and accessible method for gaining and maintaining power and control of the innermost psyche of a populace needing and searching for security in a tumultuous world. The gross circularity of the apologetic, buried in volumes of abstruse verbiage made it particularly offensive.

The beginning of the 20th Century opens with a widening web of anti-Enlightenment thought, with fundamentalist Christianity assuming an interdependent and participating role in cultural and political developments. Unencumbered by “empirical correctness”, fascist ideologies flourished, often using the fundamentalist assumption of a self-sovereign, Higher Authority as legislator, judge, and executioner. In the Age of Modernity, a population just recently introduced to the seemingly unlimited possibilities of progress through science and world peace from toleration and pluralism was now confronted with what Karl Popper saw as the paradox inherent within, set like a trap to reverse 300 years of achievement.


(1) Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007)
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.

~ Marty Bankson
April 11, 2015