Thursday, December 9, 2010

Would a Secular Majority Make a Better America?

NOSHA's president, Harry Greenberger, made this presentation to the Lakeview Community Unitarian Church here in New Orleans in November and we wanted to let everyone who couldn't be there that day read what he had to say on this important topic.


Would a Secular Majority Make a Better America?
By Harry Greenberger

All recent U. S. surveys have shown that non-believers and non-church-goers are rapidly increasing in numbers, yet are still below 20% of our adult population. When I made an outline for this talk, the last listed item was “conclusion” and I thought I knew what that conclusion would be. And I suspect you also think you know where this talk will end. But, as I present material assembled for this talk, you will hear many questions casting doubt as to where it would ultimately take me.

Where are we today vis-à-vis religion versus secularity?

Here are some descriptions of contemporary conditions.

At a recent conference of Free Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, Victor Stenger said “We are now probably only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems that are anticipated from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Such disasters are predicted to generate worldwide conflict on a scale that could exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars.”

Later he concludes, “So, the time has come to rise up against the unthinking, immoral acts that are brought about by religious views—to state the case for science, reason, and honest compassion. We need to demonstrate that a nation no longer dominated by religion will be a better nation and that we must work to achieve that goal no matter how long it takes.”

Atheists for Human Rights includes this paragraph in their list of principles: “Traditional religious morality is notorious for the astounding number of ways it hurts people. On a short list are: human sacrifice, slavery, subjugation and reproductive control of women, persecution of homosexuals, religious wars, cruelty to children, torture and execution of heretics, denial of end-of-life self-determination, and opposing every advance in science and medicine…”

In Michael Parenti's book God and His Demons the author writes, “Backed by moneyed interests, the right-wing Christianist media propagate free-market corporatism, militarism, and super-patriotism.” And he makes the accusation “…emotional extortion of money from the gullible for personal enrichment has been the hallmark of fundamentalist Christian leaders.”

Countering those negative views, we know of religious heroes—civil rights leaders, founders of universities and hospitals, Catholic Charities, etc. The comfort and solace that faith provides to believers in times of loss and sorrow can’t be denied. But zealous spokespeople warn against secularism. Televangelist Pat Roberson asserts that when a society is without religion “the result will be tyranny.” Ann Coulter says that societies which fail to accept God’s significance are headed toward slavery, genocide and bestiality. Bill O’Reilly advises that a society that fails to live “under God” will be a society of “anarchy and crime.”

Where will the recent “New Atheism” movement lead us?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently sponsored a billboard at Canal and Rampart Streets with the message "Imagine No Religion.” It might have added words from The Richard Dawkins Foundation: Imagine no “superstition, astrology, fortune telling, pseudo-science, voodoo, alternative medicine, or other …grandiose promises that are never fulfilled…Imagine a world where everyone has access to education, health care, and the freedom to explore and discover their world.”

Recent proposals for achieving this secularly improved society have developed a “rift” between confrontationists and accommodationists regarding the best strategies for advancing the secular, scientific worldview. Best selling atheist authors in the last few years, Richard Dawkins, Christoher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger aggressively promote activism for the public adoption of the non-theistic life stance, at the risk of offending large portions of the American society. The Council of Secular Humanism even promotes celebration of “Blasphemy day,” much to the chagrin of its founder, Paul Kurtz, who feels that the new angry atheists will set the movement back—not unlike the abrasive style of American Atheists founder, Madelyn Murray O’Hare

Greg Epstein, secular Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God, writes: “Atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration.” And, he adds, “Maybe if we allow the more aggressive ideas to gain a little speed we will see secularism being a stronger force in the community.”

On the other hand, where will today’s right-wing Christian movement, which now dominates the Republican Party, lead us?

While much of what is considered positive religious morality is adopted from much older classical ethics, it has been distorted from time to time. Newt Gingrich formed “American Solutions for Winning the Future” with the position that the Democrats are promoting a secular socialist America that violates what he deems to be the Christian or Judeo-Christian foundation of the Republic.  

This reflects the promulgated erroneous view that this country was founded on Christian principles, including the Ten Commandments. The Tea Party groups are seen to be primarily highly religious and anti-big government, women’s right to choose, gay marriage and adoptions, and church/state separation; and in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and Christian prayers and teaching of “creationism” in public schools. Many see their ultimate goal as a conversion of our republic into a theocracy.

So which is best course for America—the present status, where atheists will take us or where the Christian activists are leading?

Take a look at recent surveys of different countries

In an essay in the August/September 2009 issue of Perspectives entitled “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” sociologist Phil Zuckerman reported that “countries with the highest rates of happiness, life expectancy, literacy, income, gender equality, and education are relatively secular. So are the countries with the lowest rates of homicide, infant mortality, AIDS, and teen pregnancy.” Also covered in that issue is a David G. Myers article that cites a Gallop survey from 152 countries. “Countries, where most people say that religion is not an important part of their daily life and where most people have not attended religious services in the last week, tend to be countries where people report high quality of life. Folks in highly religious countries (think Pakistan, Uganda, the Philippines) mostly rate their lives well below the best possible life.”

Myers wrote further, “I extended this association between secularity and the good life by comparing U.S. states. The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen pregnancy and smoking rates.” However, the results regarding individuals provide a different picture. He writes: “National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey of 47,909 Americans since 1972, (reports) very happy people ranged from 27 percent of those who never attended a religious service up to 48 percent of those attending more than once a week.” “Although religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms, religiously engaged individuals, on balance, tend to be happier, healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

Reported in the November 20 edition of Times Picayune, a Gallup survey of over 500,000 Americans regarding their physical and emotional health and their work environment showed that the very religious scored 68.7% on the well-being index while the moderately religious and non-religious scored at 64.2%. Not much difference.

What measures of “good,” “better” and “best” can we justify?

Is it likely that the form of government might determine the level of individual wellbeing as documented for countries under communism, socialism, republic, democracy, dictatorship? But each of these can be either religious or non-religious, so what role does the government play? Are the ones allowing the most individual freedoms most inclined to produce general life satisfaction? How important is the concept of “Give me liberty or give me death?”

 How about Standard of living as it is generally measured to include necessities and luxuries.

Should we measure by the opportunity for individuals to achieve a high living standard or alternatively reach for “the greatest good for the greatest numbers”—e.g. Communism’s “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” If this requires a totalitarian government is that an acceptable cost?

Lastly, consider the quality of life, level of happiness (as reported in some of my prior cited surveys)

My inclination is for the “happiness” scales which are applicable in any of the forms of government, at various standards of living, and at a variety of levels of religiosity. Our Declaration of Independence proclaims the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right. But what is “happiness?” “America,” the national catholic weekly, reports, “The new study of happiness, or subjective well-being, is a growing interdisciplinary field…Any monopoly that religion or political philosophy once held as the preferred guides to Eden is over.” “Policy makers in developed and undeveloped countries are drawing on happiness research to increase the ‘gross national happiness’ of their populations.” However, there is a caveat to be considered before relying on these surveys, as  that article further reports, “Current secular critics will doubt whether happiness researchers have been able to avoid the problems of self-report, self-deception, response bias and social framing effects. Are the results and experimental interventions of happiness research reliable or valid by standard scientific norms.”

And one sobering thought about the role of happiness, is reflected in the final verse of a familiar poem by Thomas Gray published in 1923:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
  Condemn’d alike to groan—
The tender for another’s pain
  Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
  And happiness too swiftly flies
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;--where ignorance is bliss,
  ‘Tis folly to be wise.

Should this one concept invalidate an advocacy on behalf of reason and science?

And now for my Conclusion

I recognize that those with Ph.D’s, especially in study of philosophy, and others more learned than I will find my analysis of this question to be superficial and possibly naïve, but I am trying.

I’ve lost the source of the following pertinent quotation: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

The article I previously referred to in the National Catholic Weekly concluded with this: “And here we come to the theological crux of the matter. Is it possible to become positively transformed and virtuously happy without being empowered by God’s Holy Spirit given in, with and through Christ? Happiness and joy are promised to the virtuous followers of God’s precepts and to those who become Christ’s disciples through faith.”

(I am still quoting the National Catholic Weekly) “But does happiness seen as our loving relationship with God make other ways of happiness impossible, invalid or incomplete?” A Nathan Murillo article entitled “Why Religion?” opines, “The forces that propel and propagate religion are powerful indeed and are not likely to diminish in and of themselves. Perhaps there is only one force equal or greater than these and which offers the most likely challenge to religion: the truth of reality”

The previously quoted Myers article in the journal Perspectives equating frequent church attendance with “very happy” people, further wrote:  “…the data help us appreciate a spirituality that gives meaning to our lives, connects us in supportive communities, motivates morality and altruism, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.”

But he adds: “I hasten to remind people: these data do not validate theism. The benefits of faith are irrelevant to its truth claim. And truth is ultimately what matters. (If theism’s central claim is untrue, though comforting, what honest person would choose to believe? If true, though discomfiting, what honest person would disbelieve?”

Now here is my moot conclusion: A secular society, armed with the conviction that theism is untrue will be a better America because that awareness shall set generations free for their constitutionally provided “pursuit of happiness.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Carl Sagan Felt Our Pain

Humanist groups nationwide celebrated the life and work of Carl Sagan this month. Sagan (1934-1996) an astronomer, educator and secular humanist, was probably best known for his PBS series “Cosmos.” It has now been 30 years since “Cosmos” first aired.

This is a wonderful story he wrote that you can use when dealing with people who try your patience. You'll see what I mean.

The Dragon In My Garage by Carl Sagan

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely.  "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. 

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help. 

At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise.  The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch.  Your infrared detector reads off-scale.  The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you.  No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I'd rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they're never made when a skeptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. 

Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling.  Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Phantom Life

Since Hereafter, the latest movie by Clint Eastwood, prompted the media to go bonkers over the contemplation of an afterlife, non-believers should take a moment to reflect on this frightening reality. You don't think it's a little scary? That one day, each of us will die and we will cease to be? No? Well, it is one of the peskier concepts where even we non-religious types don't have the answers. And we're pretty sure the others don't either, but they are willing to go out of their way to make money by duping people with the aftterlife nonsense and promises they peddle.

Ponder this for a moment. Ceasing to be. Can you do it?

In this case, there isn't any question about whether to be or not. Because one day, you won't...and that is one of the major moments we all wrestle with from time to time. This is where fear for believers takes hold and never offers relief from the relentless worry of what will happen after they die. So death is a major reason so many people we know, who were never given to spiritual concerns before, all of sudden start going to church and talking about what they expect to find on the other side.

The thought of not being is very daunting and certainly not pleasant, because humans are not easily able to think of  what "not" is. We know that the people in the family photographs lived before we were a twinkle in someone's eye. We know that many beings and creatures came before us and that eons of time passed before now. And yet when you consider we were "not" then, dealing with "not" at some time in the future is a tad more difficult.

I had the chance to consider what that curious moment of unconsciousness must be like because of surgery this past summer. I use the phrase "must be like" because you don't really appreciate consciousness until you are pulling out of the fog from a chemically induced coma-like stupor; there is this single moment when your brain is aware that you were not dreaming and not thinking just then. (Yes, the brain is aware that nothing is going on. Which is kind of cool.)

It is quiet, painless and still and I like to think that moment is what death is probably like, only soon after that very moment, we no longer realize that we were ever even alive. Which is a tremendous thought all on its own. Nor do we have any means to worry about what just happened, so we're spared regrets and faulty reasoning. People who die in fiery crashes and from painful wounds should know some immediate relief and this is what I think it is. Likewise, dying peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age should also be as relaxing and calm. Maybe more so!

For the other perspective, however I believe that what religious folks must handle is far worse. Because they do fret over the next life. Who will be there? Will they be forced to be with peoople they didn't really like? Or maybe even hated? Which cannot be a fun worry to have! And what of the people who are sure they will end up in a hell, as they understand it? How awful to carry that fear with you your entire life only to die and realize something far worse. That's why I call this blog "The Phantom Life" because believers must be burdened with existence that is possibly not pleasant or even tolerable by our standards. Not to mention the longing and the sadness brought on by the memories of the previous life

It's this optional phantom existence that must torment most religious people because it is more than unknown, it is eternal speculation. And it is a waste of time. The most we can hope for is to do and feel as much as we can in the time we'll be here. Because if I'm correct, we won't be lingering. We simply won't be...whcih is very much a strangling thought in its own right. But it might make us more passionate about the life we have now since it is all we'll ever know.

And unfortunately, this gives new meaning to the old cliche "Life is hard and then you die." Because it is, you know. It's up to you to give your life meaning and let death take care of itself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Don't know much about First Corinthians?

Or maybe you do?

A letter to the editor from a local NOSHA member, Timothy Ruppert, deserves our applause. It's imporant when someone takes up our cause and lets the public know more about non-believers and that we are paying attention. Even better when it's in New Orleans.

Why atheists have the answers  (Published: Sunday, October 10, 2010)

(Re: "Most Americans flunk basic religion," Page 1, Oct. 3.)

The Times-Picayune's coverage of the Pew Research Center report glossed over the major finding.

If you have a question about religion, the best person in America to ask is an atheist or agnostic.

Bruce Nolan's coverage leaves one with the impression that non-believers were merely among the highest-scoring in the test of general religious traditions and beliefs. In fact, atheists and agnostics came out on top, scoring above everyone else including Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jews.

On questions specifically about the Bible and Christianity, atheists and agnostics ranked third, behind only Mormons and white evangelical Christians. Non-believers knew more about Christianity and the bible than Christians of every other stripe and flavor.

I am not surprised.

Atheists and agnostics are often well-educated people. They are open to inquiry and learning beyond the religion of their childhoods.

My experience has been that religious believers typically wall themselves off from information and learning about other religions and any topics they deem threatening to their belief systems.

The Pew study confirms this. They found an inverse relationship between educational level and religious belief.

So the headline, "Most Americans flunk basic religion," might more appropriately have been, "Atheists have correct answers to religious questions."

Timothy M. Ruppert
New Orleans


If you'd like to take the quiz yourself, check it out.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finally,,,,Some Sanity for Anne!

Recently vampire author and spiritually "determined" Anne Rice revealed that she is giving up on Christianity:
"For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
Thankfully, for those of us who have really liked her books (before her transformation), seductive characters and that she has paid a lovely homage to New Orleans, she decided that she refuses to be "anti-gay," "anti-feminist," "anti-science" and "anti-Democrat." Just like that. Cold turkey!

Which, in essence, does mean that you really can't be a Christian the way they way some people define it these days!

But there's more: the Los Angeles Times is declaring in an opinion piece by William Lobdell (the Times staff writer and author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace) that it might just be the beginning of the "slip sliding away" for the Christian movement in the United States. 

I think many of us would agree this is a tad Chicken Little more than a reflection on religious reality. However, evangelical pollster George Barna says "...they can find little measurable difference between the moral behavior of churchgoers and the rest of American society. Barna has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce (an act strongly condemned by Jesus) than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than other Americans."

Huh? You mean Christians act like the human animals they really are? That they have physical desires, emotional weaknesses and intellectual proclivities that they must reconcile with a civilized society? But that is what makes it a crises for the religious among us. In the 21st century, they must acknowledge that they are not divine or special, except that they have the brain capacity to weigh the consequences of their behavior. Until they accept that fact, they will continue to wallow in the simplicity they call their doctrine and faith.

That Rice is shedding these spiritually dishonest shackles is refreshing and perhaps a testament to her growth as a person. Afterall, she's on a soul searching mission, you know. But welcome back, Anne. It's nice to have you back among the (somewhat) rational, where you belong.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The F Word

It seems that we should keep this list tucked back in our memory. Don't know much about fascism...well, let's help you out a little.

The 14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism
(From Free Inquiry, Spring 2003)
Dr. Lawrence Britt has examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found fourteen defining characteristics common to each:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
- Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
- Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
- The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military
- Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

5. Rampant Sexism
- The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.

6. Controlled Mass Media
- Sometimes the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.

7. Obsession with National Security
- Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
- Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government's policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is Protected
- The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labor Power is Suppressed
- Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
- Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
- Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
- Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent Elections
- Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

While the United States is certainly not fascist by the standards of the countries in Britt's study, there are moments when these abhorrent little tendencies float to the top like oil on water. Maybe we should set up a test, "...if you answered 'yes' to 7 or more, then you're in need of assistance..."?

Certainly, some people have fascist thoughts and even try to impose fascist ideas. Are there enough of them to worry about? Let's check back after the next elections

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Real family values in the 21st century!

I'm very surprised that more progressive people like you aren't talking about this. It is a huge chink in the armor of the religious right and it's fallen into our laps with little fanfare. Let's shout it from the rooftops!

The recent article by Jonathan Rauch published in the National Journal magazine ("The Leading Weekly on Politics and Policy") highlights research in the new book, "Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture," written by two family law professors from George Washington University and the University of Missouri. What they have discovered is a monumental leap in the argument against the right's hold on the that thorn in our non-religious sides, family values.

The paradox is this: Cultural conservatives revel in condemning the loose moral values and louche lifestyles of "San Francisco liberals." But if you want to find two-parent families with stable marriages and coddled kids, your best bet is to bypass Sarah Palin country and go to Nancy Pelosi territory: the liberal, bicoastal, predominantly Democratic places that cultural conservatives love to hate.
Isn't this an important piece of amunition against the junk that the "family values" crowd spreads whenever they want to silence someone about improving sex education, teaching evolution in the public schools or recognizing diversity in the community? What would they do if they learned that their side is failing the very tests they hold up to belittle the progressive crowd?

Parenthood and sexual activity are extremely important in our human development and it's unreasonable that we are allowed to forget how hard it is to resist the one that leads to the other. And if you recognize that we can physically engage in sexual activity long before we realize how important the consequence is, then you have a leg up on helping to keep parenthood from derailing adulthood. This is where Red America fails, doesn't see the folly of their dogma and hurts young people in the process.

Older parents make better parents....wiser, smarter and with better finances....everything you need to have a more stable parenting where children are involved. And Red America makes it a rule to put as many obstacles in the way of delaying parenthood. They would prefer no sex education while preventing access to abortion, which contributes to early marriages for people who lack emotional maturity and who are likely to fail under the pressures of taking care of a newborn. Not to mention the young people who miss going to college for more advanced education which could make their lives more stable and successful. It's almost as if the Religious Right is designing an outcome so their children will fail. (And perpetuate the dependency on an outmoded religious doctrine.)
Cahn and Carbone find an asymmetry. Blue norms are well adapted to the Information Age. They encourage late family formation and advanced education. They produce prosperous parents with graduate degrees, low divorce rates, and one or two over-protected children.
Red norms, on the other hand, create a quandary. They shun abortion (which is blue America's ultimate weapon against premature parenthood) and emphasize abstinence over contraception. But deferring sex in today's cultural environment, with its wide acceptance of premarital sex, is hard. Deferring sex and marriage until you get a college or graduate degree -- until age 23 or 25 or beyond -- is harder still. "Even the most devout overwhelmingly do not abstain until marriage," Cahn and Carbone write.
So why isn't the mainstream and even the not-so-mainstream media talking about this? Why aren't we all hammering this point home everytime we encounter the neanderthal-like arguments that teenagers (especially the females) must be "punished" for engaging in behavior that their religion detests....while offering nothing practical to improve their chances of avoiding pregnancy?

Our society has suffered enough from this nonsense and we must stand up against these cruel and backward arguments. Let us all step into the 21st century and demand that we stop adhering to dangerous religious practices that no longer have a place in a modern society. Buy the book or better yet, send a copy to the political leaders where you live.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ways to support the goals of NOSHA and secular humanism in our community

Ways to Support the Goals of NOSHA!

1) Be a good person that you are and also be open about your atheism to others.

* When appropriate, wear symbols that identify your beliefs. For example, the atheist “A,” or other images from the Freethought movement are available. You can also buy items with the NOSHA logo.

* If someone asks you which church you attend, don't become defensive or shy. Just matter-of-factly say that you don't go to church, because you don't believe in god.

* If someone publishes a letter or article in the Times-Picayune that unfairly denigrates non-believers, write a letter to the editor explaining rationally why you disagree.

2) Help out as a volunteer when we organize events that will make us visible in the community.

* Also, find charitable projects that NOSHA can get involved in and volunteer to be the leader of the project. For example, sponsoring a team on a walk-a-thon, or a road clean-up campaign are two easy ways to do something that would get people involved and active.

3) Help us get an "In Reason We Trust" Louisiana license plate for our state.

4) Start a freethought/atheist/agnostic group at your workplace, if appropriate, especially if there are religious groups already in place.

5) Read freethought books and educate yourself about diverse religions so you are well informed and can make well-reasoned arguments. Here are some you might add to your library: (when possible, support local bookstores by letting them order a copy for you)

+ The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
+ Godless by Dan Barker
+ Why I am not a Christian (an essay) by Bertrand Russell
+ The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
+ Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
+ Freethinkers - A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
+ End of Faith by Sam Harris
+ God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
+ Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett

6) Join us at NOSHA social functions! This may seem like too much fun to be helpful, but remember that there are many non-religious people in the New Orleans area who feel isolated by their lack of belief.

Going to a potluck party, picnic, monthly meeting, happy hour or other social event would not just be fun for you, but it would be your way of offering support to others who need to see that they are not alone.

7) Participate in discussions at our Google Group and offer to contribute articles to the NOSHA newsletter. Contact newsletter editor Connie Gordon if you would like to submit a suggestion. Also, write a guest review of any book, film, website, article or other item that might be of interest to and they will be posted at the NOSHA website

8) Join NOSHA (pay your annual dues faithfully) and other organizations with related objectives (Americans United, ACLU, FFRF, Secular Coalition, etc.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Celebrate National Day of Reason 2010!

We'll have a special happy hour in May to commemorate "National Day of Reason." Instead of our regular Wednesday gathering, we're moving it one day to Thursday this month so we can recognize one of our major secular days of the year.

The purpose of the National Day of Reason is to celebrate reason—a concept all Americans can support—and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.

The Day of Reason also exists to inspire the secular community to be visible and active on this day to set the right example for how to effect positive change. Local organizations might use "Day of Reason" to label their events, or they might choose labels such as Day of Action, Day of Service, or Rational Day of Care. The important message is to provide a positive, useful, constitutional alternative to the exclusionary National Day of Prayer.

As always, you will find friendly people and good conversation!

Thursday, May 6
Monkey Hill Bar
6100 Magazine St.(70118)

Located in historic uptown New Orleans, just three blocks from Audubon Zoo and Park, Monkey Hill Bar offers a wide selection of martinis, wines and beers. They have large couches to relax on and a free pool table as well as a shuffleboard table. Also, this area of Magazine Street has a lot of unique restaurants in the vicinity, so it makes for easy dining if you wish to grab a bite after a quick drink with your secular friends.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cultivate Your Michael Shermer

Cultivate Your Garden
How a lack of control leads to superstition and what can be done about it
(published February 2010 in Scientific American)

Imagine a time in your life when you felt out of control—anything from getting lost to losing a job. Now look at the Figure 1 on this page. What do you see? Such a scenario was presented to subjects in a 2008 experiment by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleague Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University . Their study, entitled “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception,” was published in Science.

Defining “illusory pattern perception” (what I call “patternicity”) as “the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli … (such as the tendency to perceive false correlations, see imaginary figures, form superstitious rituals, and embrace conspiracy beliefs, among others),” the researchers’ thesis was that “when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually.”

As Whitson explained the psychology to me, “Feelings of control are essential for our well-being—we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control—even if those patterns are illusory.”

Whitson and Galinsky sat subjects before a computer screen, telling them that they would be presented with a series of images for which they were to determine the underlying concept. For example, they might see a capital A and a lowercase a, one or both of which could be colored, underlined, or surrounded by a circle or square.

Subjects would then generate an underlying concept, such as that all capital As are red or surrounded by a circle. There was no actual underlying concept—the computer randomly combined characteristics and was programmed to tell the subjects that they were frequently either “correct” or “incorrect.” Consequently, the ones hearing that they were often wrong developed a sense of lacking control.

In the second part of the experiment subjects were shown 24 “snowy” photographs, half of which contained hidden images such as a hand, horses, a chair or the planet Saturn [see Figure 2], whereas the other half just consisted of grainy random dots. Although nearly everyone saw the hidden figures, subjects in the lack-of-control group saw more figures in the photographs that had no embedded images.

In another experiment Whitson and Galinsky had subjects vividly recall an experience in which they either had full control or lacked control over a situation. The subjects then read scenarios in which the characters’ success or failure was preceded by unconnected and superstitious behaviors, such as foot stomping before a meeting where the character wanted to have ideas approved. The subjects were then asked whether they thought the characters’ behavior was related to the outcome.

Those who had recalled an experience in which they lacked control were significantly more likely to perceive a greater connection between the two unrelated events than were those who recalled a controlling situation. Interestingly, the low control subjects who read a story about an employee who failed to receive a promotion tended to believe that a behind-the-scenes conspiracy was the cause.

In their final experiment Whitson and Galinsky gave one group of subjects a sense of control by asking them to contemplate and affirm their most important values in life—a proven technique for reducing learned helplessness. The researchers then presented those same snowy pictures, finding that a comparison group of subjects in a lack-of-control condition with no opportunity for self-affirmation saw more nonexistent patterns than did those in the self-affirmation condition.

In 1976 Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer and Judith Rodin, now president of the Rockefeller Foundation, conducted a study in a New England nursing home in which the residents were given plants, but only some had the opportunity to water them. Those residents who were in charge of watering the plants lived longer and healthier lives than the others, even those given plants watered by the staff. The sense of control had the apparent effect on physical health and well-being.

Perhaps this is what Voltaire meant at the end of Candide, in the title character’s rejoinder to Dr. Pangloss’s proclamation that “all events are linked up in this best of all possible worlds”: “’Tis well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our gardens.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Learning more about Easter....

Active NOSHA member, Robert Carver, got his letter published in the Houma newspaper and it has caused a stir IF you are NOSHA Google Group member. Decide for yourself!

Easter practices based in paganism

I read the stories in the paper about Good Friday with interest especially the one about the reenactment in Dulac. The faithful in these reenactments are fascinating since they are commemorating a mythical event as if it were a historical fact. Easter was celebrated long before Christianity co-opted the holiday. Many modern Christians are ignorant of the Pagan origins of their faith. They act as if the story of Jesus becoming the resurrected Christ was unique in history which leads them to conclude this myth must be the literal historical truth. Their belief is misguided as even a cursory examination of history clearly shows how the early Church created and evolved this myth.

The word Easter itself is likely derived from Eostre, the Saxon mother goddess, whose name in turn was adapted from Eastre, an ancient word for spring. The Norse equivalent of Eostre was the goddess Ostara, whose symbols were an egg and a hare, both denoting fertility. Festivals honoring these goddesses were celebrated on or around the vernal equinox, and even today, when Easter has supposedly been Christianized, the date of the holiday falls according to rather pagan reckonings, i.e. on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Throughout recorded history the focus of spring religious festivals was a god whose own death and rebirth symbolized the death and rebirth of life during this time of the year. Many pagan religions had gods who were depicted as dying and being reborn. In some legends this god even descends into the underworld to challenge the forces there. Attis, consort of the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, was more popular than most.

Attis was simply the latest manifestation of earlier resurrection myths, like those of Osiris, Orpheus, Tammuz and Dionysus, who were likewise said to have been born of virgins and resurrected three days after their deaths. In areas where Christian beliefs later took hold, these already existing tales were grafted onto the story of Christ, and continue to be retold to this day as evidenced by those who “recreate” this myth this Easter in our region. They have every right to practice their faith thanks to the Separation Between Church and State enshrined in the Bill of Rights even if said faith has no basis in reality.

Robert Carver

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Great Divide

There seems to be a real schism in the ranks of atheist activists these days. As usual, we seem to be missing the "ingroup loyalty" thing about one for all and all for one. Ingroup loyalty is touted as one of the hallmarks of the religious movement, as is extreme passion and dedication (epitomized by the Tea Party movement that has sprung up so viciously this week), so it seems we have much to learn.

Why do we keep eating our own? Pretty boy physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson bad mouthed Richard Dawkins as "obnoxious" and "completely ineffective" in the September/October 2009 issue of The Humanist Magazine. Dawkins brings something to the table that makes Tyson's work easier as a frontman for science, so what is gained by this pissing contest?

In the book, "Good Without God" by Greg Epstein suggests that atheists too often reject the ceremony and emotional community that many seek out when they join groups.

From the book:

“Atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration.”

Most of us do want a connection to others in some form. Maybe that comes in the form of a poetry reading at a secular meeting or hosting social events that are designed for fellowship as much as debate. We have enjoyed this kind of interaction since we lived in caves and it brings some of our humanity to our otherwise mundane lives.

Maybe if we allow the more aggressive ideas to gain a little speed, we will see secularism being a stronger force in the community? I'd like to think that the guy who challenges religious people makes my life a little easier. Let’s stop this “us or them” mentality and realize that we are on the same side and it takes all kinds of philosphies to propel secularism in our society.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Robertson should be hospitalized!

Why does this man get any media coverage at all?

His latest pronouncement that the Haitians brought this devastating earthquake on themselves because of some purported agreement with Satan in the 18th century is beyond insanity. It's certifiably nuts!

And yet, there he is in the Times-Picayune getting valuable news space complete with explanations and public respect, if that's what it's called. What kind of modern person can spout this crap and not be carted away by the white coats? Oh, that's right. A religious person. But not only a religious person, but a leader who makes his living lying to the public and getting paid handsomely to do it.

Any average person would be stared at and shunned (we hope). But no, not Pat Robertson! He is given a voice in our public media to say whatever he feels no matter how ridiculous and harmful. And we allow it by letting the media get away with treating this as being "fair and balanced" to religious views.