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!

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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-√†-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 expos√© 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: "...an 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 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thanks to Dr. Forrest Long Overdue

Earlier in June, NOSHA hosted a members-only reception to show our appreciation for the years of contributions made by former board member, Barbara Forrest, who has done an incredible job both locally in providing guidance for our organization and, especially, on a national level. We knew we couldn't miss out on thanking her publicly! Harry Greenberger, president emeritus, prepared this statement to give everyone a brief understanding of her history with NOSHA that is touching and comprehensive. We wanted to share it with everyone who wasn't able to attend that day.
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As I think you all know, Barbara Forrest is a professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

In the early years of NOSHA, we were introduced to Barbara by one of our first Board members, Denis Dwyer, and she accepted our invitation to come to New Orleans to address our group. I recall having lunch with Denis, Barbara, her husband, Clark, and, I think, one or both of her teenage sons, at a waterfront restaurant prior to going to our meeting at the Harrison Avenue public library. At that time, I asked whether she would consider becoming a NOSHA Director and she agreed. She has also served on the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education and the Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since that early time until her recent obligations required her to not seek re-­election to our Board, Barbara has been a faithful (you know how I use that word) member and contributor to NOSHA activities, despite the fact that her Board membership was used to discredit her as biased and unqualified to criticize religious organizations.

In 2004, Barbara, along with a co-author published through Oxford University Press her sensational book: Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the Discovery Institute's intelligent design movement (which had replaced the unconstitutional "Creationism") and its attempts to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology. Her celebrity status as an authority on this farce is reflected in her many guest speaker roles at Secular and other national organization meetings.

Barbara's outstanding testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District trial, where the opposing attorney described her as "little more than a conspiracy theorist and web-surfing, 'cyber-stalker' of the Discovery Institute" none-the-less resulted in the judge's decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

And then there is the Louisiana Science Education Act, supported by Louisiana Family Forum, which allows science teachers in public schools to sneak in alternative "theories" to the theory of natural evolution, a law which Barbara along with young Zack Kopplin, continues to publicly oppose, so far without legislative success.

Barbara has been recognized through a number of awards. 1998 President's Award for Excellence in Teaching, SLU; 1999 Louisiana Library Association/SIRS Alex Allain Intellectual Freedom Award; 2001-2004 Women's Hospital Distinguished Teaching Professor; Friend ofDarwin Award, National Center for Science Education; 2006 President's Award for Excellence in Research, SLU; 2006 Public Service Award, American Society for Cell Biology; and 2006 NOSHA Humanist Award.

Forrest receiving a lifetime membership to NOSHA as a small
thank you for her service to our organization.
For her unremitting integrity and courage to fight for science and truth, with the support of her husband, Clark, despite possible ostracizing in the small Northshore towns while her sons were still in high school, we at NOSHA are proud to have known Barbara and have her with us through these years!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

REVIEW: Ghost Hunting for Beginners

I've been interested for some time in the “ghost” industry in America, from books of ghost stories to New Orleans ghost tours to endless ghost hunting programs on television. One of details that make this social phenomenon so fascinating is its nearly total lack of explanatory theory. Exactly what do aficionados think a ghost really is? What evidence do they have? How do they test their hypotheses?  I've been looking for a good book that attempts to explain some of the models in a more technical sort of way, but so far, without success.

I recently checked out a copy of Rich Newman’s Ghost Hunting for Beginners.  I picked this particular book because it claimed to take a more systematic approach, recommending that “the best way to investigate the paranormal is with proven, scientific methods.” I read the whole thing, and learned sadly little.
The problem with this book, as with most materials on ghosts and ghost hunting, is “energy.” “Energy” is a perfectly legitimate word with a certain scientific cachet. But when used with frustrating vagueness, with no respect to differences between types or how they’re stored or converted or transmitted, “energy” is one of those red-flag words signaling flimflam.

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Because of its vague usage of the term “energy,” the book doesn't even raise, let alone answer, the questions any technically minded person would naturally ask.Ghosts, the author tells us, are made up of electromagnetic energy. But if so, why are ghosts so hard for us to detect, given that we have reliable instruments capable of measuring all kinds of electromagnetic fields? We are told that ghosts sometimes set off EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors. But how does an observer distinguish between a ghostly EMF and a natural EMF or one generated by electronic equipment? Ghosts need electromagnetic energy to manifest physically. If so, why are the areas around power plants and substations not infested with ghostly phenomena? Ghosts sometimes drain batteries. But how does a ghost convert the chemical energy inside of a battery into electrical or electromagnetic energy? Ghosts sometimes leave EVP (electronic voice phenomena) on audio recorders. Well then, do they do that by creating a complex set of pressure waves in the air to be picked up by the microphone, or by generating analog electromagnetic signals that are picked up inside of the electronics of the recorder, or by generating digital electromagnetic pulses directly into the recorder’s memory?

Let me be clear: I think Ghost Hunting for Beginners is one of the better books in its genre. Many are far worse, bristling with the technical-sounding weasel-words that so often mark pseudo-scientific sloppy-headedness. They use terms like vibration, quantum, higher dimensions, anomaly, vortex, and others, with such looseness as to render them all meaningless.

Numerous other problems of a technical nature beset the book and the ghost business in general. These would be less relevant if ghost hunters and other adherents claimed that ghosts were beings of “spirit,” entirely bereft of any physicality. But this claim is rare, since ghosts that can’t interact with us are boring. If we can be aware of ghosts, than either the being of a ghost or the manifestation of a ghost must contain elements that exist in our material universe. The fact that the methods and models for understanding those material elements remain vague and under-theorized after decades of “paranormal investigation” convincingly tells us that the whole business belongs in the same category as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

~ Review by Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Vice-President


Ghost Hunting for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started, by Rich Newman. Llewellyn Publications (2011).  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Is Religion Firmly in Control of Our (Lack of) Modernity?

This essay is from NOSHA vice-president, Jim Dugan, who was inspired to write it after his visit to Baton Rouge once again to present the case for repeal of the Louisiana Education Science Act in April.. The effort was rejected again. **********

If we face the realities of history, we are forced to acknowledge that the world has always been run according to some kind of humanism. Earthly decisions have always been made by human minds. No god ever sat in assembly or parliament, no angel ever whispered into the ear of king or legislator, and no scripture has ever been more than an inspiration when taken too far out of the context of its original time and place. When we've had periods of peace and prosperity, it’s because smart people sat down to face our problems with honesty and pragmatism. When we've had eras of upheaval and decline, it’s because we've refused to face reality, or weren't smart enough, or weren't able to cooperate well enough to implement a solution.

For most modern Americans, this is simply a matter of observation. The wicked too often prosper, the righteous too often go hungry, and suffering is altogether too random, to allow a belief that any deity intervenes miraculously in earthly affairs. 

Even those who believe in one or another god must acknowledge this truth, although some will not. There are those who believe not only in a god and a soul, but also in divine intervention, in blessings and curses and miracles, in deities that take sides in our elections and wars. They believe that rules and maxims established by nomadic goat-herders or in agricultural kingdoms are sufficient guides for life in the age of the internet and global economy. But such people really are a minority. Pushing the numbers as far as demographics will allow, maybe a third of us could believe in divine miracles. That leaves at least two thirds, a super-majority, who do not. 

Why, then, is it so hard for the people of these United States to live in the 21st century instead of the 19th, or even the 16th?

We've achieved so much in the last 250 years. The Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century initiated profound social changes. We consciously developed new systems of government designed to enable individual agency by limiting the worst abuses of power and wealth. The struggle took centuries, but we did away with the institution of slavery, recognized the unfairness of racism, stopped treating adult women like dependent minors, and accepted the simple fact that not everybody is heterosexual. Along the way we built a growing economy, a vigorous middle class, a world-class system of higher education, and an information super-highway. We the people, rather than chance or deity, deserve the credit for the positive outcomes and the blame for the negatives.

Was it just too much too fast? In the early 21st century we seem to want not just to pause and reassess, but even to step backwards.

Once the driver of our economic growth, today’s middle class is experiencing an objectively measurable reduction in upward mobility and standard of living. Economic growth now largely improves the lot only of the wealthiest few. We know that education is critical to technological development, economic growth, and higher individual incomes, but invest less in it, both privately and publically, year after year.  The U.S. lags in the accessibility of health care and the certainty of social welfare. Our prisons are filled to overflowing, mostly with individuals who present relatively little risk to civil society, while corporate gangsters, economy wreckers, and grand-scale embezzlers are mostly free to go about their predations. This seems to be one of those periods of decay in which we’re unwilling to face our problems with honesty and intelligence.  We've gotten stupid about public policy.

Firmly embedded in this backwards march, and in many ways causing it, is a nauseating thread of counter-intellectualism, a hypocritical, disingenuous, public religiosity, worse now than at any time in the last 300 years. On May 5th (2014), the U.S.Supreme Court ignored the official secularism enshrined in our constitution,ruling that prayers said at the opening of city council meetings are not really religious, and so must be endured by all, regardless of differences in religion or lack of religion. Legislators in Louisiana and other states are trying to pass laws requiring a hospital to keep a dead ordying woman on life support against her express wishes, and over the objections of her next of kin, if the woman happens to be pregnant. The accessibility of abortion is fast disappearing, even though we still don’t have free and universal access to birth control, and most states refuse to require medically complete and accurate sexual education in public schools.

We’re on a fast track to granting a right of religious conscience and exercise to for-profit corporations. School boards (and in Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee) bend and twist to find ways to get Creationism and the Bible into the classroom. Legislatures around the country are using their funding powers to coerce public universities to drop curricular materials that run counter to “traditional family values.” Office holders pontificate about family values and the sanctity of marriage, and even though they are repeatedly revealed to be philandering frauds, this hypocrisy never stops.  Simpering public piety has somehow set itself in direct opposition to intelligence, knowledge, education, and practicality.

If we’re going to be fair, we have to acknowledge that religion has always been important in America. But it was never what made us great. Our historical achievements came at times when we were willing to use our heads, sometimes co-existing with religion, sometimes bitterly opposing religious teachings, but never subordinated to religion. Our greatness is best exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, not Cotton Mather, by the separation of church and state, not the Salem witch trials.

What will America be like in 50 to 100 years?  Is our early 21st-century backwards step a temporary pause, or is it the beginning of a new kind of feudalism?





Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where are today's John F. Kennedys?

A couple of months ago, Harry Greenberger did a reading at our regular NOSHA meeting that posed the question of where are the Kennedy-esque politicians for our era? Which is a good question, considering how many legislators across the country seem to do very little contemplation of the serious issues we face and only offer knee-jerk, simplistic viewpoints and solutions to the problems of our day.

He suggested that our federal and state governments have deteriorated since the 1960's, because we simply don't have this caliber of political leader out there who will take an important and courageous stand in the face of intolerance. Greenberger was referring to an article by Al Menendez that got him to thinking about this from The Voice of Reason: The Journal for Americans for Religious Liberty (page 3, issue #3, 2013).

He pulled several key points from this article during his reading: 
1. Kennedy emphasized the importance of separation of church and state as a key governing principle of the American ethos. In his Houston address to Protestant clergy in September 1960, he spoke these memorable words that still echo through history: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute...an America where religious intolerance will someday end...This is the kind of America I believe in and this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died."
2. The president thought public aid to church-related schools was unconstitutional, and he refused to include these schools in his federal aid to education proposals. 
3. Kennedy opposed the opening of formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, feeling that it would not be desirable for either party and would not advance good will between religions in the U.S. 
5.  In his Houston address, he proclaimed, "Religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." He said, "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish...and where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."
 These are just a few of the sentiments Greenberger shared of Kennedy's impressive grasp of church-state separation. And this is a concept we should all consider at this time during a legislative session steeped in religiously motivated bills. It is a question that needs to be explored and promoted often: where are today's John F. Kennedys? Maybe one of us will fill the void.