Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Thanksgiving Sermon by Robert Ingersoll

At our November meeting NOSHA board member, Rose Mortillaro, read this time-honored piece to commemorate the holiday. We wanted to share it here for anyone who has never experienced it.

Whom shall we thank? Standing here at the close of the 19th century -- amid the trophies of thought -- the triumphs of genius -- here under the flag of the Great Republic -- knowing something of the history of man -- here on this day that has been set apart for thanksgiving, I most reverently thank the good men. the good women of the past, I thank the kind fathers, the loving mothers of the savage days. I thank the father who spoke the first gentle word, the mother who first smiled upon her babe. I thank the first true friend. I thank the savages who hunted and fished that they and their babes might live. I thank those who cultivated the ground and changed the forests into farms -- those who built rude homes and watched the faces of their happy children in the glow of fireside flames -- those who domesticated horses, cattle and sheep -- those who invented wheels and looms and taught us to spin and weave -- those who by cultivation changed wild grasses into wheat and corn, changed bitter things to fruit, and worthless weeds to flowers, that sowed within our souls the seeds of art. I thank the poets of the dawn -- the tellers of legends -- the makers of myths -- the singers of joy and grief, of hope and love. I thank the artists who chiseled forms in stone and wrought with light and shade the face of man. I thank the philosophers, the thinkers, who taught us how to use our minds in the great search for truth. I thank the astronomers who explored the heavens, told us the secrets of the stars, the glories of the constellations -- the geologists who found the story of the world in fossil forms, in memoranda kept in ancient rocks, in lines written by waves, by frost and fire -- the anatomists who sought in muscle, nerve and bone for all the mysteries of life -- the chemists who unraveled Nature's work that they might learn her art -- the physicians who have laid the hand of science on the brow of pain, the hand whose magic touch restores -- the surgeons who have defeated Nature's self and forced her to preserve the lives of those she labored to destroy.

I thank the discoverers of chloroform and ether, the two angels who give to their beloved sleep, and wrap the throbbing brain in the soft robes of dreams. I thank the great inventors -- those who gave us movable type and the press, by means of which great thoughts and all discovered facts are made immortal -- the inventors of engines, of the great ships, of the railways, the cables and telegraphs. I thank the great mechanics, the workers in iron and steel, in wood and stone. I thank the inventors and makers of the numberless things of use and luxury.

I thank the industrious men, the loving mothers, the useful women. They are the benefactors of our race.

The inventor of pins did a thousand times more good than all the popes and cardinals, the bishops and priests -- than all the clergymen and parsons, exhorters and theologians that ever lived.

The inventor of matches did more for the comfort and convenience of mankind than all the founders of religions and the makers of all creeds -- than all malicious monks and selfish saints.

I thank the honest men and women who have expressed their sincere thoughts, who have been true to themselves and have preserved the veracity of their souls.

I thank the thinkers of Greece and Rome. Zeno and Epicurus, Cicero and Lucretius. I thank Bruno, the bravest, and Spinoza, the subtlest of men.

I thank Voltaire, whose thought lighted a flame in the brain of man, unlocked the doors of superstition's cells and gave liberty to many millions of his fellow-men. Voltaire -- a name that sheds light. Voltaire -- a star that superstition's darkness cannot quench.

I thank the great poets -- the dramatists. I thank Homer and Aeschylus, and I thank Shakespeare above them all. I thank Burns for the heart-throbs he changed into songs. for his lyrics of flame. I thank Shelley for his Skylark, Keats for his Grecian Urn and Byron for his Prisoner of Chillon. I thank the great novelists. I thank the great sculptors. I thank the unknown man who molded and chiseled the Venus de Milo. I thank the great painters. I thank Rembrandt and Corot. I thank all who have adorned, enriched and ennobled life -- all who have created the great, the noble, the heroic and artistic ideals.

I thank the statesmen who have preserved the rights of man. I thank Paine whose genius sowed the seeds of independence in the hearts of '76. I thank Jefferson whose mighty words for liberty have made the circuit of the globe. I thank the founders, the defenders, the saviors of the Republic. I thank Ericsson, the greatest mechanic of his century, for the monitor. I thank Lincoln for the Proclamation. I thank Grant for his victories and the vast host that fought for the right, -- for the freedom of man. I thank them all -- the living and the dead.

I thank the great scientists -- those who have reached the foundation, the bed-rock -- who have built upon facts -- the great scientists, in whose presence theologians look silly and feel malicious.

The scientists never persecuted, never imprisoned their fellow-men. They forged no chains, built no dungeons, erected no scaffolds -- tore no flesh with red hot pincers -- dislocated no joints on racks, crushed no hones in iron boots -- extinguished no eyes -- tore out no tongues and lighted no fagots. They did not pretend to be inspired -- did not claim to be prophets or saints or to have been born again. They were only intelligent and honest men. They did not appeal to force or fear. They did not regard men as slaves to be ruled by torture, by lash and chain, nor as children to be cheated with illusions, rocked in the cradle of an idiot creed and soothed by a lullaby of lies.

They did not wound -- they healed. They did not kill -- they lengthened life. They did not enslave -- they broke the chains and made men free. They sowed the seeds of knowledge, and many millions have reaped, are reaping, and will reap the harvest: of joy.

I thank Humboldt and Helmholtz and Haeckel and Buchner. I thank Lamarck and Darwin -- Darwin who revolutionized the thought of the intellectual world. I thank Huxley and Spencer. I thank the scientists one and all.

I thank the heroes, the destroyers of prejudice and fear -- the dethroners of savage gods -- the extinguishers of hate's eternal fire -- the heroes, the breakers of chains -- the founders of free states -- the makers of just laws -- the heroes who fought and fell on countless fields -- the heroes whose dungeons became shrines -- the heroes whose blood made scaffolds sacred -- the heroes, the apostles of reason, the disciples of truth, the soldiers of freedom -- the heroes who held high the holy torch and filled the world with light.

With all my heart I thank them all.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Christianity In Its Own Words: Cherry-picking the Bible

NOTE: This is a guest column by NOSHA member, Bill Sierichs.

For those who are not aware, for several years Sierichs has written a regular column for the Atheists for Human Rights newsletter (edited by Marie Alena Castle). It's called "Christianity In Its Own Words." He focuses on specific issues (marriage and sex, racism, church-state separation friends and foes, laws Christians used to suppress dissent) by mostly quoting from Christian sources with some commentary and context.

In the following, he dissects a Cal Thomas column from earlier this year. The column is self-explanatory. This is his second dissection of a Thomas column, which explains his lead sentence.


I hate to keep picking on Cal Thomas because it’s such a guilty pleasure: It’s too easy and it’s too much fun.

But Thomas wrote a May 2012 column that is more honest than he likely intended. He attacked President Obama for endorsing same-sex marriage as cherry-picking Scripture by referencing the Golden Rule: “It is difficult to be [a Christian] while simultaneously holding a low view of the Bible …” Thomas assailed Obama for ignoring biblical statements about the beginning of human life, fornication, marriage and adultery. He blasts those who disagree about the Bible “to claim that the Bible doesn’t say what it says, in effect calling God a liar. Obama apparently hopes there are sufficient numbers of biblical illiterates” he can fool. Thomas correctly notes that “Liberal theologians have tried to modify, or even change, what is contained in the Bible …”

This cherry-picking has been going on at least as far back as Christian abolitionism. That subgroup of abolitionists routinely claimed that the Bible did not say what it actually says about slavery, at times either retranslating passages to say that “slavery” references were actually to “servants” or claiming that generic Jesus statements about humanity were a repudiation of slavery. Liberal Christians since then have somehow found pacifism, human rights, democracy, feminism, etc., in the Bible.

The problem is that most Christians historically did not see these ideas in the Bible and certainly did not act as if the Bible condemned slavery or endorsed equal rights for women, gays and non-Christians, and representative governments. For example, the Bible speaks only of kings and kingdoms; Jesus is praised as a king, and he prayed to God that “thy kingdom come.” This also was an appeal for the apocalypse to occur soon, in which most of humanity is slaughtered and then tortured eternally after death, while Jesus reigns as a king over his followers, who share in some sort of paradise.

Consider Christianity’s history on the issue of homosexuality. Passages in the scriptures plainly condemn homosexual acts, even mandating execution for people convicted of sodomy. Despite some modern attempts to reinterpret the Bible so as not to condemn homosexuals, Christians historically disagreed.

In the late 7th century, the Visigothic law code banned sodomy: “The doctrine of Orthodox Faith requires Us to place Our censure upon vicious practices, and to restrain those who are addicted to carnal offences. For We counsel well for the benefit of Our race and Our Country, when We take measures to utterly extirpate the crimes of wicked men, and put an end to the evil deeds of vice. For this reason we shall attempt to abolish the horrible crime by which men do not fear to defile men by filthy debauchery, which is as contrary to Divine Precept as it is to chastity.” Castration and other penalties were ordered.

In a study of heresy in Germany, scholar Richard Kieckhefer noted, “Thus, it is not surprising that popular dialect in parts of southern Germany placed heresy and unnatural sexuality on the same level, as perversions of Christian decency: the term ‘Ketzerei’ could mean either ‘heresy’ or ‘sodomy.’ ”

In a history of Italian law under Christianity, scholar Carlo Calisse said that burning was the common penalty for sodomy.

A similar legal penalty led Portugal’s inquisition to burn five men at the stake for sodomy in 1559 in the colony of Goa, India.

England’s Virginia colony decreed, “No man shall commit the horrible, and detestable sins of Sodomy upon pain of death …” The Puritans likewise mandated death for homosexuality. A 1658 New Plymouth colony law: “Capital offences liable to death … Sodomy Rapes Buggery.”

Christian literature was anti-gay. One earthly apocalyptic vision, “Pseudo-Methodius,” saw the 7th-century conquests of the Arabs — who “are not human beings but are sons of desolation and upon desolation their faces are set upon the sword” as agents of God — as punishment for Christians’ sins, which included homosexuality among other sexual acts.

Another, “Wetti’s Vision” in 824, said God was offended most by sodomy. “For not only does the violent contagion of this creeping disease infect the polluted soul of males who lie together, but it is even found in the ruin of many couples. Stirred up in madness by the instigation of devils …”

So naturally, gays were counted among Hell’s more-tortured occupants. The “Monk of Evesham’s Vision” of 1197 found in the lowest level of Hell that, “The most loathsome and severe of all remains still to be told, because all who were punished there had been guilty of a wickedness in life that is unmentionable by a Christian, or even by a heathen or pagan. Those therefore were continually attacked by huge fiery monsters, horrible beyond description. Despite their opposition, [the monsters] committed on [homosexuals] the same damnable crimes that they had been guilty of on earth.”

Dante put gays on the seventh level of Hell, where they supposedly must walk endlessly on a burning plain under a constant rain of fiery drops.

For many decades, the U.S. treated gays as criminals. The Christian-dominated government considered them security risks and so barred them from many government jobs unless they hid their sexual orientation. The psychiatric profession even classified homosexuality as something like a mental illness down into the 1970s, not on the basis of any scientific evidence but simply because of traditional, that is, Christian, bigotry.

Opposition to equal rights for gays, including the right to get married, has come almost entirely from Christians, led generally by clergy. Arguments, even when put into a somewhat-secular form, invariably draw upon Christian beliefs, notably that marriage was instituted directly by the Christian god. Despite changing modern views, we have had the following incidents very recently:

In December 2011, Catholic Cardinal Francis George compared advocates of equal rights for gays to the Christian Ku Klux Klan, which used terrorism and murder to deny blacks and sometimes Jews their equal rights.

In a May 6, 2012, sermon, Ron Baity, of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., called for the prosecution of gays, “For 300 years, we had laws that would prosecute that lifestyle. We’ve gone down the wrong path.”

In a May 10, 2012, Facebook posting, Miss. state Rep. Andy Gipson quoted the Bible in condemning homosexuality as a sin and cited Lev. 20:13 about executing homosexuals.

In a May 13, 2012, sermon, preacher Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., called for all gays to be quarantined within an electric fence and allowed to die out because “They can’t reproduce.”

These statements highlight just how religiously bigoted was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 5-4 ruling, under Chief Justice Warren Burger, in Bowers vs. Hardwick that sodomy laws were constitutional. Burger’s concurring opinion with the majority cited Roman death-penalty decrees for sodomy — he specifically called homosexual sodomy a “crime under Roman law” — but his citations were not to pagan laws but to laws by Theodosius II and Justinian, both Christian emperors, and declared, “Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeao-Christian moral and ethical standards.” The U.S. Constitution explicitly rejected biblical and Christian beliefs, so Burger was openly incorporating Christian beliefs into secular U.S. laws. Burger also lied about history to justify a subterfuge to insert a Christian prejudice into American law; pagan Romans, like many other pagan peoples, had no prohibition on homosexuality (Roman culture did have taboos on aspects of sexuality, but not on homosexuality in general; and other, ancient, pagan cultures either tolerated homosexuality or even sometimes encouraged it, such as in Sparta or Thebes.)

When the court reversed its “Bowers” injustice by a 6-3 ruling June 26, 2003, in Lawrence vs. Texas that people’s sex lives are private and cannot be controlled by the government, the three justices (Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas) who voted to uphold Texas’ sodomy law were all conservative Christians noted for their hostility to the godless Bill of Rights and to the right of non-Christians, particularly nontheists, not to have religion forced on them.

Then there’s slavery, for which Christians found ample support in the Bible. The Jewish scriptures contained numerous pro-slavery passages and specifically or by implication allowed the rape of slave women, such as the story of Abraham and Hagar, Gen. 16; Ex. 21:4-9; Lev. 19:20; Num. 31:17-18; Deut. 20:14; and Deut. 21:10-14. The Jewish scriptures even provided laws to regulate slavery, such as Ex. 21:1-11; Lev. 25:39-55; and Deut. 15:12-18. Two versions of the Tenth Commandment explicitly condone slavery — Ex. 20:17 and Deut. 5:21 — by forbidding the coveting of a neighbor’s male and female slaves (some translations use “servant” instead, but the texts implied property, i.e., slaves).

Passages cited from the Christian scriptures included: Mt. 18:23-35, 24:45-51; Lk. 12:42-47; Rom. 13:2; 1 Cor. 7:20-22; 2 Cor. 11:20; Gal. 4:30; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25, 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-20. Whether all these passages actually supported slavery was open to debate — 19th-century abolitionists disputed the meaning or interpretation of many of them — but slavery defenders held to them.

Scholar A.J. Mattill Jr. has noted other passages that condoned slavery including Mt. 6:24, 10:24, 20:26-28; Mk. 10:43-45; Lk. 7:1-10, 15:22, 16:13, 17:7-10, 19:12-27, 22:50-51; and Jn. 18:10. Perhaps most important of all, as slavery defenders liked to point out, Jesus is never quoted as condemning slavery or ordering his followers to free slaves, while Paul implicitly condoned slavery in giving slaves advice, including obedience to their owners, while never denouncing slavery itself.

Christians certainly understood the Bible to support slavery. A few examples:

In 511, on the request of King Clovis of the Franks, bishops met in Orléans and issued decrees on the laws. One law said a slave who fled to a church could be forced to return to his owner if his safety were guaranteed; the owner would be excommunicated for violating his oath; the owner could seize a slave who refused to leave the church after his safety was promised.

Charlemagne issued laws in “The Capitulare Paderbrunnense” in 785 that taxed people to support churches and “for every 120 men among them, be they noble or free or ‘lidi,’ they are to give a male and a female slave to the church.”

The laws of King Wihtred of Kent, England, (695) stated:
· If a slave sacrifices to devils, he is to pay six shillings compensation or be flogged.
· If anyone gives meat to his household in time of fasting, he is to redeem both freeman and slave with ‘healsfang.’
· If a slave eat it of his own accord (he is to pay) six shillings or be flogged.
English courts ruled in 1677 in two suits, both styled Butts vs. Penny, that “negroes were infidels, and the subjects of an infidel prince, and are usually bought and sold in America as merchandise … negroes being usually bought and sold among merchants, as merchandise, and also being infidels, there might be a property in them sufficient to maintain trover …” and in 1694 (Gelly/Gilly vs Cleve) that “trover will lie for a negro boy, for they are heathens, and therefore a man may have property in them, and that the court without averment made, will take notice that they are heathens.”

To put these rulings in historical context, the word “slave” comes from Slav because, during centuries of anti-pagan crusading in northern Europe, Christians sold captive pagan Slavs into forced labor. So what Christians did to Africans was no different from what they did to countless millions of European pagans.

Which is why it should be no surprise that most of the hundreds of defenses of slavery written in the U.S. were composed by nearly 300 clergymen, nor that during the Civil War, many people blamed churches for being the leaders of the secession movement, specifically to defend slavery.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

By Any Other Name....Vouchers Wouldn't Smell Sweet

By Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Member

If you're not up on Louisiana's new voucher system, let me start by filling in a few details. The voucher program is supposed to expand parental choice as to which schools their kids can go to. A parent who wants to send his or her child to a private school can get a voucher for a fixed amount from the state. The parent can give the voucher to the school in payment or partial payment for tuition, and the school can redeem the voucher for cash from the state. While schools have to be approved to participate in the program, the requirements and process for approval remain poorly defined. It is clear, however, that public funds are now going to private schools, some of the religious. (Please note: there isn't an actual paper voucher used by parents.)

I'm interested in this issue because I was simply flabbergasted by what I saw in the textbooks some of the religious schools use. I suspect most people imagine, as I did, that religious schools used the same books as secular schools to teach math, science, or history, adding separate courses on religion to the secular curriculum. That is the case with some religious schools, but certainly not all. Some are choosing to use textbooks that insert religious dogma into all subjects. Their science books have good science in them, but they also have bad science in them, and some material that isn't science at all, but pure religious dogma.

This morning (August 14th), I managed to attend a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which was at least partially about that approval process. I was the only member of the public to speak on this agenda item. I pointed out that some schools were subordinating their entire curriculum to religious objectives, using textbooks that insert dogma into non-religious subjects such as science and social studies. Far from "teaching the controversy," or presenting both sides of the Creation-Evolution debate, some textbooks teach only a straw-man version of Evolution that is easily undermined. Some books go so far as to say that belief in Evolution is what Satan wants, that science can not produce truth, or that any belief that contradicts the Bible must be wrong. I emphasized that these claims are not being made in the religion curriculum, but are embedded in books that are supposed to be about science.

I specifically asked that all private schools applying to participate in the voucher program be required to file documents specifying exactly which textbooks are used for which subjects and grades. I also asked that these documents be posted to BESE's website so taxpayers and parents can see what their tax dollars are underwriting and see what educational content their children are being subjected to. I also asked BESE to vet the identified textbooks, developing a list of books that would disqualify a school from the voucher program, if used outside of a course on religion. I emphasized that none of these proposals would restrict in any way what a private school teaches or which textbooks they use. These proposals would only restrict how tax dollars are spent.

I could not read the reaction of the Board members, which was mostly polite, but silent. I suspect that most were unaware of the details of the content of some of these textbooks. Only one Board member asked me a question, which allowed me to provide some examples of how these books teach a straw-man version of Evolution in place of actual scientific theory. I was able to meet with him briefly to share copies of pages from some of the texts. While I hope to be able to follow up with him, it is far from certain that any action will be taken.

I suspect that public funding for such mis-education is not gong to go away by itself. Taxpayers are going to have make noise about it. We need to educate both BESE and the public about poor quality of content in some private, religious schools. Above all, BESE needs to hear from more taxpayers who oppose this abuse of public funds.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Women In Secularism - Reports from the Conference

“Given the role religion has played in the repression of women, they would seem to be natural allies, and, indeed, many feminists have been outspoken and influential secularists. However, the relationship between secularism and women’s issues remains largely unexamined. UNTIL NOW.”

This was the intriguing (and totally overdue) challenge that piqued my interest earlier this year. Discussing openly how dogmatic religion conspires to prevent the progress of women’s rights in our country, well, more women should be willing to confront that!

I was kind of nervous about attending this conference last weekend, “Women in Secularism,” because I was attending on my own and probably wouldn’t know anyone very well except by recognizing their faces from Facebook or other secular organizations. But since I am planning to lead a session on women at the American Humanist Association convention in New Orleans next month, I felt I couldn’t miss out on the chance to hear what women leaders in the movement were talking about. It would be embarrassing to do otherwise and risk being misinformed or totally behind the times.

So I decided that since I missed out on the Reason Rally in March, it would benefit me to make the effort to attend an event that would address issues that are near and dear to my heart: feminism. And secularism. And the meshing of both.

The first session was a panel moderated by well-known author Susan Jacoby titled “The Intersection of Non-theism and Feminism.” The speakers included Ophelia Benson, Sikivu Hutchinson (who will be a speaker at AHA in New Orleans in June), Jennifer McCreight and Rebecca Watson. Needless to say, there were some major names and I was excited to hear them in person.

Jacoby is a lovely person, full of incredible knowledge and humor. She explained in her opening remarks that she has asked this question, “…why are women more religious than men as whole?” to her regular readers and she didn’t sugar coat the responses, however misogynistic they might be.

“Because women are dumber-er.” That was the typical comment or variation of a theme that some men offered. Being religious is known as a common trait and characteristic of females world-wide across all socioeconomic levels. Education is not as much of a factor either. Black women with better education than black men are still more religious on average. It is heartening that younger women and better educated women are more than likely to be less religious, but as a whole, they aren’t as involved in atheism as a movement. It isn’t an easy sale to them.

“Dawkins is not the pope, Sam Harris is not a cardinal and Christopher Hitchens is not, forgive me, the Holy Ghost. And Susan Jacoby is not a nun,” she quoted to uproarious laughter.

She made a very important point that philosophy and science were not hospitable academic fields for women prior in the 1980s which was when and from where the leaders in the secular humanist movement developed, so it isn’t hard to see why women didn’t gravitate towards it as a group. They simply weren’t involved in the same numbers.

Oddly if men of the late 20th century were not interested the history of civil rights for women, Robert Ingersoll, the 19th century Golden Age freethinker, resembled more the feminists of the 1970s. Jacoby said he believed that it was a lack of opportunity for education that held women back and that the right to vote was a big “salvation” in his eyes. And it should be noted that women have always been part of the secular movement over the past two hundred year, but were never given as much public credit.

Jacoby concluded that women’s rights should move into the mainstream of the secular humanist chapters and conferences throughout the country. And furthermore, she believes that non-believers should not think of the religious as stupid. Not only do most of us not respond well to others when we’re called stupid, but her work and support of church-state separation has made her realize that believers think they have the absolute truth and that it is a gift. They sincerely wonder how their insistence of religion in the public square (and as a guide for American policy) can be an imposition on others. It is this view that is a constant source of agitation for most of us, isn’t it? And that alone is a paramount problem for secularists to tackle.

However, she has found that men as a group tend to not see this as a primary interest for them and the idea of the “smart-ass nerd guy” prevails. She would like to see more men become in involved in education issues and the civil rights of women which would lead to growth in numbers overall.

Next, my report on the panel discussion.

Monday, May 21, 2012

There's still time to attend the AHA conference!

If you have delayed registering for the American Humanist Conference  in New Orleans, here are the rates for June 7-10. If you want to attend but can't swing the full registration, there's an "a la carte" price list:

$179 = Full Registration Only (access to all breakout sessions, no meals)

$60 = Day Pass (access to all breakout sessions for one day, no meals)

$20 = Single Session Pass, Award Ceremony Pass (attendance at one session or one award ceremony, no meals)

$65 = Friday Night Banquet
$45 = Saturday Luncheon
$65 = Saturday Night Banquet

These rates are not available online. You must make your payment by phone at 1-800-837-3792. If you are a student, you can find out more here. You may register for only $25 if you produce a valid/current student ID.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Glimpse of Rationality

For anyone who has followed Jessica Ahlquist's endeavor to remove a religious banner in her public high school in Cranston, RI, (and followed it in the recent NOSHA spring newsletter), you're no doubt familiar with the other bizarre twist that occurred as a result: "Floristgate".

Various secular organizations tried to send Jessica a spray of flowers to celebrate her legal victory and found that several of the florists refused to comply with their order, saying because they didn't agree with the teenager's efforts, they weren't going to accept the business.

While I don't want to rehash the entire ordeal, I did want to share a letter from the florist who eventually did fill the orders, Glimpse of Gaia. The Freedom From Religion Foundation profiled this in the January/February 2012 issue of Freethought Today. This is the response to one of the few negative emails he received and it touched on some very important principles. Sean deserves his own big bouquet of flowers.

Feel free to liberally apply this reasoning whenever possible!

Thanks for writing. I realize that the Cranston West prayer banner lawsuit and resulting abuse of Jessica Ahlquist has been a heated issue in Rhode Island. I am sure that you respect our Constitution and the laws which prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and religion. I understand that you disagree with Ms. Ahlquist’s position on the banner, so I would invite you to perhaps think about it another way.
Imagine that instead of asking to take the banner down, she had asked for a Secular Humanist expression to be put up. Perhaps next, some Islamic students could request a prayer banner that reflects their beliefs. Likewise, Hindu students could ask for something to represent them. Perhaps Evangelicals would want a banner to distinguish from the Catholic message. I am sure you see the problem this creates. I suspect you would agree that we don’t want the walls of our public space littered with competing dogma, all of which would need to be paid for and maintained by those same public institutions. Instead we have private space, including your place of worship, car, home, Facebook and Twitter pages etcetera, which you can use as you like to express your beliefs, whatever they may be.
I would like you to imagine another small change to this situation. Instead of flower delivery being denied, it was something more important. Should this young lady be denied food because of her, legally expressed, opinion? What about housing? How about fuel when her car is close to empty and it’s a frigid evening? What about medical care?
Let’s go one step further and imagine that it is you or your loved one who needs to purchase something, but is denied the opportunity because the seller doesn’t like your beliefs. Is this the kind of society in which you would want to live?
Of course companies can deny service for certain grounds, but not any grounds. A store can refuse to sell products that they know you will use illegally. They can deny service if you are belligerent or intoxicated etcetera. However, they cannot deny you service because they don’t like how you think. This is not just a matter of opinion, it is the law.
Those laws are here to protect us. Our Bill of Rights guarantees fair treatment of everyone, even against the will of the majority. It is a foundational premise of our great country. We have rights. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have been born with those rights, hard won by our forebears. I think we should respect and protect them.
Thanks for your interest and attention. — Sean

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

To Live at All Is Miracle Enough

I came across this by chance the end of December and had intended to post it sooner. (You can see the original post by  Faisal Saeed Al Mutar.) It reminds me how lucky I am, we all are, in fact, and is something that I should read every once in a while when I'm feeling stressed about what I'd like my world to be. Doesn't Monty Python have something similar to say?

But Richard Dawkins is eloquent in his observations and everyone should be reminded how unintentional life really is. So many people talk about how much they honestly believe that they should be guaranteed some power and importance in this world. Maybe religion helps alleviate the fear that arises when some of us recognize how unlikely that is: however I can say religion offers me nothing when I consider how brief our time is.

When you think about it, the planet existed long before our consciousness ever sparked and it will go on for a very long time after we're no longer here. Whatever happiness we have is right now and if we're to live fully, we need to embrace the majesty that the natural world provides us. It is fleeting and sometimes very harsh, but it can be so much more if we don't squander it on the illusions modern society pushes on us.


Excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity" of Richard Dawkins 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow

To live at all is miracle enough. ~ Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower (1950)

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you still must regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly became trillions of times more foreseeable than it was a split second before. To be sure, the embryonic you that came into existence still had plenty of hurdles to leap. Most conceptuses end in early abortion before their mother even knew they were there, and we are all lucky not to have done so. Also, there is more to personal identity than genes, as identical twins (who separate after the moment of fertilization) show us. Nevertheless, the instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.
The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:
Napoleon started it all. If it weren’t for him, I might not be sitting here now writing these words … for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of my great-great-grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.
Morris tells how his ancestor’s enforced change of career had various knock-on effects culminating in his own interest in natural history. But he really needn’t have bothered. There’s no ‘might’ about it. Of course he owes his very existence to Napoleon. So do I and so do you. Napoleon didn’t have to shoot off James Morris’s arm in order to seal young Desmond’s fate, and yours and mine, too. Not just Napoleon but the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else’s instead. I’m not talking about ‘chaos theory’, or the equally trendy ‘complexity theory’, but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.
When compared with the stretch of time unknown to us, O king, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight. Man’s life is similar; and of what follows it, or what went before, we are utterly ignorant. ~ The Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People (731)
This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century’. Interestingly, some physicists don’t like the idea of a ‘moving present’, regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.
In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don’t misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.
We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random would have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation would put it at less than one in a million.
Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.
But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.
As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t that what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder.
Of course I am playing tricks with the idea of luck, putting the cart before the horse. It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that other kind of life that would have evolved here. But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.
Here, it seems to me, lies the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science. In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. ‘Sir,’ Faraday replied. ‘Of what use is a new-born child?’ The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how ‘useful’ it is — useful for staying alive, that is — we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers’ money endangered species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they ‘pay their way’. And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One of Us

Amid curls of smoke, Christopher Hitchens and
his famous matte of fur from his Vanity Fair days.
“Isn’t that so sad,” I said more as a declaration than expecting someone to agree.

“Well, not really. I mean, it was expected,” said my always witty friend, so matter-of-factly. “It would have been sad if it wasn’t, don’t you think?”

I had to admit, my friend was right and his perspective made me pause to think more about the heartache that was palpable on the web. It would have been stupefying if he had passed away suddenly and without warning. But we had warning and the man I was lamenting had brought us along with him during his final year and a half with his usual critical brilliance and unwavering nerve.

The man I’m referring to, of course, is Christopher Hitchens who died in December. And his death, while talked about openly by Hitchens himself, nevertheless made many of us entreat (dare I say pray) that death would spare him for as long as possible.

One night a week or so after his died, I found myself wide awake and fitfully dozing and drifting as is often the case when dawn is close. After rolling through my standard litany of minor worries (that always seem worse in the dark and cold), I found myself thinking about Hitchens and was astonished at how quickly my eyes were welling up. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet and I whispered to myself, “…just what brought that on?”

I was genuinely sad and mystified because it seemed embarrassing on some level. I didn’t know the man and, while I followed his progress since he announced his illness, I had assumed he would be here for several more years yet. We lost a couple of his books to the Katrina floods, so maybe it was my sentimentality getting the best of me. But when I saw the video of him at an atheist convention in Texas in October, the limitation of a cure and the cancer’s persistence had made it impossible to pretend that he could have gone on much longer, much less beaten it. He was a mere slip of himself, but the thrill he could still evoke in the crowd was manifest. I wish I’d been in that crowd.

When these same tears occurred again a few weeks ago during another sleepless night, I realized that maybe I should write my own version of a tribute, since all secular websites worth anything have posted something about this lost horseman of non-belief. I can start by saying that, while his death wasn’t unexpected, the finality is what gripped me and made me mourn openly someone I have never met.

A fond memory of Hitchens that makes me smile every time is his strange and glorious observation that appeared in one of his early columns for Vanity Fair in September 2010 when he candidly talked about his June diagnosis. “The Topic of Cancer” was a bold and fierce examination of cancer and, while I could never hope to pull off such vulnerability and acute descriptions with as much defiance, Hitchens made it a cerebral partnership for us all.

His comments on the side effects of chemotherapy: “Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.)”

Chest hair! I have no doubt that it was enjoyed by many admirers on two continents (maybe more). My brother said while he was dealing with prostate cancer, which uses estrogen therapies to combat its progression, mentioned that he also noticed the loss of body hair and he joked heartily at how smooth it made his skin. Humbling to the core, it’s refreshing that Hitchens could remind us how damning and precious those memories are.

Another interesting tidbit is my own "one degree" of separation. A colleague I used to work with at a weekly publication (and to whom I was once tethered during one of those arduous team building adventure/climbing courses) wrote about having drinks and conversation with Hitchens one on one. “J.” was at an industry convention and won a category in which his writing had been judged by none other than Hitchens himself. He was also a featured speaker that day and while J. had tried to edge close enough to speak with him afterwards, the adoring onlookers made it impossible.

In what may be one of the most spectacular feats of daring that I’d like to think I would have done if I’d been in his shoes, J. decided to call Hitchens at his home to request a few moments to express his appreciation. That Hitchens’ home phone number was listed in a Washington, D.C. phone directory is like something out of a Hollywood script, don’t you think?

To his astonishment, Hitchens returned the call and suggested that J. come on over. Let me repeat that slowly. A personal invitation to Hitchens’ house! What a splendid memory to have. (Things like this make me consider that even as a non-believer, if this had happened to me, I just might start believing there was a God after all.) It seems Hitchens was every bit the over-the-top drinker and intellectual that we’ve been led to believe. And J. was there to soak up every minute that he could. It was truly momentous that Hitchens could still entertain mortals; it's possible that one day, J. may return the favor to an unsuspecting writer himself.

When my father was dying of lung cancer, I remember my brothers and I discussed that a parent’s death, at whatever age you are when it happens, makes you very aware that you are next. It might not happen for another 50 years, but you are mortal and here’s the proof. One thought that kept popping into my head was that Hitchens’ was one of us and now he is gone. He was an unlikely guardian for those of us who enjoyed and needed to hear his thoughts on being an atheist. In spite of the criticisms that he probably deserved, he made us proud to call him on of the tribe. And he slipped away, but not before he moved us with his humanity and intelligence.

If you missed the final tribute in Vanity Fair by his long-time friend, Salman Rushdie, here it is. I think we all want to be loved by our good friends as much as Rushdie clearly did Hitchens.

I still wonder what provokes my tears for him even today. But I'm at an age where I wantonly hate that we're all mortal. I like to think that Hitchens made our movement, if I can call it that, stronger and more invincible, just like the man himself.
“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;”
~Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Want to present at the AHA Conference in New Orleans, June 2012?

Or do you know of someone local who might be an excellent candidate?
The AHA is proud to hold its 71st Annual Conference in the great city of New Orleans, hosted by the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA).

Call for Speakers Now Open
If you are interested in leading a breakout session, speaking on a panel, of if you are an entertainer, send a proposal, outline, complete text, audio, video or web link to Brian Magee at  (Please include your name and complete contact information with your material. Also indicate your audio visual needs, if any.)
We are particularly interested in sessions that cover gay rights, women’s rights, minority outreach, political issues, human rights, the right-to-die movement, the environment, community issues, humanist activism, international issues, science, and critical thinking.

All program suggestions must be received by January 27, 2012 to provide the planning committee adequate time to review submissions, allot space, and prepare a final agenda.

Conference speakers are volunteers who will receive complimentary conference registration (banquet meals not included). If, however, there are special financial requirements that come with your proposal, such as travel or lodging expenses, please indicate.