Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Spirit by Audrey Coulter

This is a poem by NOSHA member, Audrey Coulter. She read it to attendees at our annual Winter Solstice party earlier this month and we thought it was so good that we should highlight it for everyone who couldn't be there!

I no longer believe in Christmas
Nativity scenes make me cringe
Halleluiah choruses assault my ears
Santa and elves bring me to tears

I once believed in the myth
Believed in peace, hope and love
Decked the largest evergreen tree
For all to see and complement me

I baked the puddings, pies and cakes
Wrapped and tied a mountain of presents
Tipped the postman and the teacher
Prayed in church with the eloquent preacher

But in my subconscious year after year
I began to understand my deepest fear
That all of this was a grand delusion
Resulting in profound confusion

While I am celebrating the season
The chaotic world fights wars without reason
Religions fight over which one is right
There’s no peace on earth this Christmas night

No more will I drink from the cup of mirth
Toasting the season and expanding my girth
Maxing my credit to give more and more
I’m turning it off and shutting the door

I’ll light a warm fire and reflect in the glow
Dream of a world tranquil and free
Where nations agree that war should cease
Where all are free and live in peace

Than like the old man that flies through the sky
I’ll open my wallet and give my best try
To assist those who need me and have much to fear
Now that’s the true Christmas year after year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Joy of Politics: An Opinion from a Humanist

The recent Presidential campaign and election has revived a question about the role of NOSHA  when political issues steal quietly into our discussions, or when they smack us smartly across the face, as this grotesque campaign and its regrettable cast of candidates have. Are we a political group? Should our group be involved in politics? If no, why not, or why should it be; and if so, how much involvement is appropriate?

This much we do know without looking back at our history in this area or doing any soul searching about the “should” question: there are some limitations on what we can do. As a chartered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, loosely categorized as a “charitable” organization, the IRS does not permit direct campaigning for or against candidates in an election, or endorsing or contributing to candidates. If found in violation, we could lose our tax exempt status. That is the worse case scenario and is usually applied only to flagrant or repeat offenders; but an excise tax could be levied and an infraction could still end up being costly. This only applies to the organization and officially sponsored activities—individuals within the group are free to do as they please as long as the group is not directly endorsing such participation. Legislative “action”, or lobbying, is not permitted if it is a “substantial part of its activity”. Read here about the restrictions and follow the links for definitions of “political and lobbying activities”. Beyond those specific regulations about campaigning for candidates and frequent lobbying, the field seems almost wide open about political activism. There are no restrictions on legislative and issue advocacy, which, together would cover just about any political activity imaginable— from demonstrating in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, to holding placards on a busy boulevard alongside a shopping center, to offering opinions as a witness in a legislative education committee about the problems of laws allowing for religious interpretations of the origins of life on earth being given equal time in public schools. It could mean delivering a secular invocation at a city council meeting, or setting up a table in the rotunda of the state capital and speaking with legislators and civilians alike about some of our concerns about keeping religion out of the business of government officiating and laws. It could be participating in or observing a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ prophetic play on right wing populism based on his novel It Can’t Happen Here.

Except for the first, we have, as an organization, had representatives at each of these; and did not participate in the first only because it was cancelled by the officials of Planned Parenthood as being possibly provocative and counterproductive. So we do have a history.

History also shows that “education” might be a more apt description than “charity” when categorizing our programs; and the charity operation is more accurately a volunteer labor pool. The speakers we schedule and the educational programs we produce or take part in generally center around the common core of a worldview, or ideology, for living well while respecting our fellow humans and other lifeforms in our biodiverse and common home, Planet Earth. Humanism we call it, specifically secular humanism. The foundation for this worldview was established beginning with new approaches to scientific study and a philosophical optimism: the possibility that there were some absolute truths, and that new advances in sciences and the letters could make these truths knowable. Mankind would necessarily improve his lot accordingly with this knowledge . This movement began in the 16th Century and continued to the 18th  came to be called The Enlightenment. Secular humanism holds that the knowledge that leads to truth is discoverable in the natural world and documentable with the aid of the rational human mind; but warned that a pursuit of knowledge based on revelation from supernatural beings or the tutelage of ancient mythological tales will lead nowhere but backward.

A humanist ideology may, in a nutshell, be characterized as a union of two concepts of liberty philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of in 1958. The human citizen of the world would be the embodiment and balance of 1) having certain protections from other individuals or state taking away choices or placing constraints on her; and, at the same time 2) having the freedom to be her own autonomous agent, living and flourishing as the director of her own pursuits. This ideal arrangement may be a contrivance in the evolution of human thought in an expanding population whose stability was becoming more dependent on a variety of social constructions, but it does not mean it is not natural or that it and cannot succeed. This is the intersection of a progressive secular humanism and politics, because politics is the vehicle for dispensing or withholding rights, freedoms, and justice among divergent interests.

It would follow from this that humanism, and especially secular humanism, would come a-courting the power of politics. Without the vehicle to propose and construct such a complicated rights-based framework for improving the quality of life, humanism would remain as only another idea floating around in a nebulous land of broken dreams, unlived afterlives, and visions of fantasy from religious and mythological deities. Secular humanism needs a particularly cozy relationship to stay planted in terra firma and its polis, because from that aforementioned  ephemeral land emerge very natural-looking and convincing prophets of mysterious gods, well equipped to slick talk the virtues of theocracy. A more politicized version of our local chapter of secular humanists may be necessary not simply to keep alive the promise and actuality of a humanist world, but to work against the new administration’s troubling visions and venomous threats of compromised rights and opportunities expressed during the campaign. Federal court appointments and cabinet heads that share their leader’s nationalist notions of returning to the greater country that America was in days past is not a conservative idea, but a reactionary one. We need to aid and assist in coalitions with groups that are potential targets of scorn and  repression, including Muslims. (There, I’ve said it.) Mexicans. Pakistanis, Jews and Black Americans. Homeless Syrians and Hondurans. Women’s and LGBTQ rights have always been works in progress but now become even more tenuous. For that matter, the atheist and secular community could be subject to more scrutiny and derision, particularly if they get too vocal, if the executive and legislative branches cave to much more influence from the religious right.  We need to defend the premise of dignity communicated through standards of common decency known pejoratively as political correctness. We need to resist the temptation to normalize the rogues’ gallery of white supremacists set to run this country.

Political activism is not for everyone, conservative or liberal, maybe including many in this group. But in this unknown and unprecedented environment, it looks to be a necessity for assisting in the conservation of the pinnacle of American law: The Bill of Rights. The amount or depth of political involvement should be the only real question here: how much can you do?

—Marty Bankson

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Reading, Drama, and Advisories

When is a theatrical production not a play? When it is a reading, with  script readers  taking the place of actors and reading—while either seated or standing—the dialogue of a play written for actors by the playwright, and without a designed set or choreographed movement and action across a stage. It is still a theatrical production, but one stripped to the bare bones of voice. 

Five of the 13 players sitting in a closely packed row of chairs in front of the conference room-turned-theater at Jefferson Parish Regional Library in Metairie were members and directors of NOSHA in what was a special invitation to participate in a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ play It Can’t Happen Here on. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of its release; the play was adapted and distributed by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Berkeley Rep, a non-profit community theater established in 1968 is currently running the complete theatrical version of the play at its home base in California through November 6.  It was a special invitation for JPL and our own secular humanist group to participate, as it was one of the fewer that 50 venues in the country that hosted and produced the event on the evening of October 24th.  

The story was a preview into what America could look like if democracy succumbed to a political solution lead by a nationalist demagogue. Getting his gloomy inspiration from the election of Hitler in Germany and the rising influence of Louisiana’s populist Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, Lewis followed the career of small town Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup, who, though deeply motivated by the ideals of truth and justice, delayed getting involved in the growing movement that elevated a folksy charmer, a fictionalized authoritarian Long named Buzz Windrip. Windrip ends up winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, and is set to run for (and win) the Presidency against the Republican Trowbridge and Franklin Roosevelt (who ended up running on a third party ticket after losing the Democratic nomination).

Library program director Chris Smith introduced the program and narrated the settings between acts and scenes of the play. Curiously the readers were never introduced to the audience individually; time constraints may have been the reason: the reading took a full two hours, pushing the ending right up against library closing time. The readers seemed well-rehearsed—they spoke with just the right amount of dramatic inflection and were on cue most of the program, though the vocal projection of several waxed and waned at times. There were more characters in the script that performers, so some were required to do multiple parts. It could be a bit confusing if the observer wasn’t familiar with the storyline, especially with no action on a stage or costume changes to help visually associate the different characters.

Probably a more significant motivation than the 80th anniversary for Berkeley Rep’s staff to re-release the program was the current Presidential election campaign and to confirm that, yes, it could happen here. The rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump has uncovered an undertow of a new and septic populism—a populism founded on nationalism and some degrees of xenophobia and racism—and has found in Trump, warts and all, a bona fide advocate. Lewis’ story includes Windrip’s paramilitary Minute Men to deal with dissidents; Trump’s deportation force will be assigned to sort out the rapists and drug dealing illegals and place them on the right side of his Mexican-funded, beautiful wall. A probable adaptation by the Berkeley writers has Windrip reveling at a rally about how protesters were handled in the good old days. The historical Father Coughlin’s and his incendiary anti-semitic radio rhetoric becoming an ally of Long-Windrip parallels the evangelical Grahams’, Falwells', and Robertsons’ current romance with strongman Trump. The boorish everyday Donald we see is merely a simulacrum of the master wheeler-dealer of foreign trade, the ultimate job creator, and Isis-slayer Generalissimo Trump that he has cultivated and grown "bigly" with assistance from a ratings/profit-driven media. The power of the media in shaping pseudo-leaders and charlatans was a major factor in the rise of yokel Lonesome Rhodes, portrayed by Andy Griffith in the 1958 film A Face in the Crowd, who also had a bad mouth/hot microphone problem, which cost him dearly.

The program of It Can’t Happen Here on the Berkeley Repertory Theater website has the following advisory:

It Can’t Happen Here includes the use of herbal cigarettes, haze, and gunshot sound effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.

For those having seen enough of the similarities already, a trigger warning might indeed have been welcomed. Or at least, please, a caution about a possible circuit overload.  But to those who are just about done at this point, and are happy to just plug their ears and hum along with with this 50 year-old ditty from The Mothers of Invention, this advisory: Don't do it.


 Now, please, introducing our troupe, with kudos and congratulations to: Beth Deitch, Jim Dugan, William Gautreaux, Anne McKinley, and Charlotte Klasson.

~Marty Bankson

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Goodwill Takes on God's Will -- Late August 2016

Aunt Connie's Home--Before
The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes in the area traveled in separate cars—with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project with the Thomases were Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, Marty Bankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used  smartphone GPS  to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most  all had to park and locate a mailbox along the street to find the house number if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were buried along the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, and rolls of ragged-edged carpeting. A small hill of ruined doors, millwork, cabinetry and sinks and fridges would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.

Eve Ortiz sampling jambalaya, surveys the progress
The Thomases' acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”—though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a  500-year flood.

Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood  got  6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The math of that equation added up to more than three feet of water in the house . Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.

Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were sent scampering  when their space inside a wall was uncovered.
Big Fans Matter

The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something—anything—left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried some things she found. Maybe a crystal dish; maybe a child’s trophy from a past school competition, or a stuffed panda that had been placed on a high shelf: things once mundane and overlooked now became priceless survivors. A pop-up summer shower was about to spoil what the floodwaters missed as she fussed over them, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.

About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; so those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, but Cecelia had an overheating episode anyway. She later seemed confident that she had recovered to point of being  able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that smothered New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in the Katrina disaster was evident as they breezed through the day’s work like small potatoes, as if pantomiming “¡No problema!”.

Paul (left) and  NOSHA Volunteers (missing: Glenn Pearl)
This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it may be remembered also as most edifying when thinking of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us; and when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her—and for us.

~Marty Bankson

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

Readers interested in the early development of the Christian religion will enjoy Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by biblical scholar James D. Tabor. The book focuses on the first 30 to 40 years of the Christian movement, a period that is poorly documented and poorly understood.

Much of Tabor’s assessment falls well within the mainstream of scholarly opinion. Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person, although the romanticization of his life story makes it difficult for us to know anything about him. He was an observant Jew of the first century CE, who taught a particular interpretation of Judaism that was somewhat unique, but nevertheless within the known range of varied Jewish opinions of the time. He taught that an end of ordinary history was near at hand. He claimed, or others claimed about him, that he was the earthly Messiah, a political and military leader who would unify the Jewish people and guide them to independence and godliness. After Jesus was executed, his closest followers, including Peter and James, continued his teachings, which became one of the varieties of Judaism that existed side-by-side with others among the Jewish synagogues and communities already scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

The apostle Paul, too, was a real, historical figure. We know only a little more about him than about Jesus, but it is clear that his letters, forming a significant portion of the New Testament, have been hugely influential on the development of Christian doctrine. Tabor, like many scholars, takes Paul at his word when he tells us he never met the earthly Jesus. Paul also claims not to have learned Christianity from Jesus’ human disciples, but from the risen, spiritual Jesus, by means of divine visions. We know from his letters that Paul took Christian teachings to "gentiles," meaning to non-Jewish Greeks and Romans, while Peter and James focused more on people who already identified as Jewish. We also know that Paul sometimes had disagreements with Peter and James. Paul asserted that Greeks and Romans could become Christians without adhering to Jewish law, while the followers of Peter and James were more likely to keep kosher and abide by most or all of the other details of the Law of Moses. The exact degree of difference between these early schools of Christian thought is uncertain, though, because the more Jewish form of Christianity faded out over time and left little documentary evidence. The many varieties of Christianity extant today are all descendants of Paul’s more gentile Christianity.

 Parts of Tabor’s analysis emphasize a much greater difference between gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity than many biblical scholars would be willing to support. Here one must acknowledge that the documentary evidence is quite thin, and that some of Tabor’s positions, though feasible, may be based more on reading between the lines of scripture than on what the documents plainly say. In Tabor’s view, Paul actually saw his own understanding of Christianity as superior to that of Peter and James because Paul had direct communication with the heavenly Jesus. The writers of the four gospels of the New Testament were influenced by Paul and Paul’s followers, and thus understated the starkness of the difference between Paul’s gentile Christianity and the more Jewish form of Christianity taught by Peter and James, and presumably by the earthly Jesus. Paul saw in the death and resurrection of Jesus a pattern that he felt was about to be applied to all humans who were worthy. The righteous were soon to be converted from flesh and blood into beings of spirit, beings who had bodies, but bodies that were  glorified and incorruptible. These would be part of the new Kingdom of God. Paul expected the heavenly Jesus to return to earth at any moment to usher in this next phase of history.

Barring the unexpected discovery of some unknown and indisputable manuscripts from the first century, it is unlikely that Tabor’s more unusual claims will ever be broadly accepted or firmly disproved. Rather, they will remain one of the many and often conflicting interpretations that well informed scholars can develop from the limited evidence that is available.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor. Simon & Schuster (2013). ISBN: 978-1439123324.

 ~Jim Dugan

Monday, July 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

The literature, both scholarly and fanciful, on the European witchcraze is voluminous and of uneven quality. It was a pleasure, then, to find a work of scholarly quality that stands out for its unusual perspective. Historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow has studied the phenomenon from a much need feminist perspective in Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts.

There is far less here, than in many other studies of the same phenomenon, about religion and beliefs about witchcraft, and a lot more about the roles of women and men, and changes in the social and economic structures of Europe during the worst years of the witchcraze (1550-1750). Barstow sets the number of persons executed for witchcraft during that time at roughly 100,000, a lower figure than some other historians, and admittedly an estimate from incomplete sources. This does not mean she casts the witchcraze in a more positive light than others. In fact, she shows that a very large percentage of the accused and executed were women, and is careful to demonstrate the cloud of fear under which European women lived for those centuries, the nearly absolute lack of fairness or objectivity toward the accused, and the sexual sadism of the processes of interrogation and execution.

Why that time and that place? Barstow takes a multifactorial view. The roles and opportunities for European women had been narrowing for centuries (and would continue to narrow until well into the 19th century). The early rumblings of Capitalism were actually increasing the gap between rich and poor, and women who owned property but had no male protectors became especially vulnerable. Two religious movements, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, generated a drive toward orthodoxy that included formal control of sexual expression as well as of religious doctrine. Increasingly centralized religious and governmental power meant more intervention by authorities into local and private interactions. Witchcraft came to be seen as not merely heresy, but as a crime against the state.

In a brief but fascinating analysis, Barstow points out that the era of the witchcraze corresponds roughly with the age during which Europeans enslaved Africans. This is no coincidence. Barstow writes (pp. 159-160):

“We need to see the similarities between all women in a patriarchal system and all persons in an unfree status . . . . free women and slaves of both sexes fell into many of the same categories in the eyes of early modern European men. Neither had control over what they produced, other than in exceptional circumstances, and their labor could be coerced. Both were seen by the law as children, as fictive minors who could be represented in court only by their masters/husbands. Both could legally be beaten, debased, and humiliated. When mistreated, both were impotent to gain help from others within their group, nor usually could their families help them.”

For readers interested in what early modern Europeans thought witches actually did and why, Kramer’s (ca. 1486) inquisitorial handbook Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer against Witches) is indispensable. A similar insider’s view of the Salem witch hunts can be found in Cotton Mather’s (ca. 1692) On Witchcraft. But the Malleus and On Witchcraft are products of their respective times and places, making no attempt to place paranoia about witchcraft in a social and historical context. Anne Barstow’s Witchcraze helps make sense of the nonsense.

Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow (1994). Pandora/HarperCollins; ISBN 0-06-2500049-X.

~Jim Dugan

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

In Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, archaeologist William Dever grapples with the disconnect between biblical texts and the material remains of the ancient cultures of Canaan. Dever’s perspective is scholarly, based on a knowledge both of the contents of Hebrew scripture -- what Christians call the Old Testament -- and of what digging in the dirt can still turn up from biblical times.
Dever’s book focuses mainly on the origins of the Israelites, the Children of Israel who, according to the Bible, were enslaved in Egypt, escaped by divine intervention, and conquered the lands of the Canaanites in and around what we would call Israel today. Biblical lore emphasizes the distinctness of the Israelites, separating them ethnically and religiously from the peoples of both Egypt and Canaan. Scholars have long realized that the lines of descent must be much blurrier than the Bible seems to say. The Hebrew language is close kin of the languages of Canaan, and contact between Canaanites and Egyptians was frequent and prolonged.


Experts disagree with one another on many details, yet there is a mainstream consensus about the broad strokes. Dever’s opinions fall well within that consensus. The book of Exodus, describing the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the book of Joshua, describing the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, are literature, not history. The plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians were meant to emphasize the miraculous, and attempts to find scientific explanations for them are a waste of time. The desert ecology of the Sinai peninsula, in which over a million Israelites supposedly wandered for 40 years, simply could not have sustained a sizeable population for any length of time, nor is there any archaeological evidence that such a population ever lived there. Cities of Canaan fell, but at different times and by different means rather than all at once. There is evidence of a rapid population increase right around the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (broadly circa 1200 BCE), but there is no evidence of a sharp cultural break. In fact, what can be unearthed seems to emphasize the cultural continuity of the later population with its predecessors. The Israelites seem to be insiders, an integrated part of the milieu of western Semitic peoples, cousins of Moabites and Phoenicians, rather than foreign invaders.

Readers interested in biblical archaeology will find the book illuminating. It is especially useful for its survey of the various attempts by archaeologists to synthesize an understanding out of difficult and sometimes conflicting sources of information. Less archaeologically minded readers will want to skim over such details, paying more attention to the last two chapters, where Dever summarizes his own perspective.

As archaeologists sometimes do, Dever here criticizes some of his colleagues. He is especially critical of Israel Finkelstein who, with Neil Silberman, wrote The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Free Press, 2001). I have elsewhere reviewed The Bible Unearthed, and although there are differences in detail, the books agree about more than their author’s might care to admit. Both are worth reading.

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did they Come From? by William G. Dever. Erdmans Publishing (2003). ISBN: 0-8028-0975-8. 

~Jim Dugan

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reporting from Washington, DC: The Reason Rally 2016!

Main stage photo by Douglas Parfait
Four years ago, Reason Rally 2012 was promoted as the “largest secular event in world history,” a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics. Organized and produced by David Silverman, President of American Atheists, Inc., it was a momentous coming out party for 30,000 nonbelievers on the Mall in Washington, D.C. A long lineup of speakers from the scientific and entertainment fields were the main event.

Reason Rally 2016, held last month again in Washington, “had a greater variety of activities over the weekend, which reflects the happy fact that the secular movement has progressed beyond the need to merely show we exist,” said Beth Deitch, one of several NOSHA members from New Orleans who went. “The number of groups was so much larger than four years before. So many demographics and perspectives were represented.”


William Gautreaux & Beth Deitch
To be sure, over 30 groups were represented—from FFRF to Secular Media Network to Mythicists Milwaukee to Lady Parts Justice—almost all of them tabling in tents set up along the outer edge of the mall. The organizers set a decidedly more political slant to the speaking subjects and activities this year, probably in part due to it being an election year, and partly because so much legislative wrangling and a plethora of court opinions have been handed down over the last year. LGBTQ and other social justice issues were a recurring theme.

“The Reason Rally is absolutely a political event,” said executive director Lyz Liddell. "That's the reason we're holding this in an election year. We want to see reason taking precedence over religious-driven ideology.”

Traveling with Deitch was fellow NOSHA board member, William Gautreaux. NOSHA member John and Donna Williams and John’s sister, Darlene Reaves were in the crowd while also visiting their daughter during their trip to the city. Douglas and Yvette Parfait of Slidell came, said Doug, with one purpose: “I didn't go this time to listen to speakers, and I didn’t. Not one. I went to mingle, to find as many people I've only known on Facebook as I could.” Taking pictures was another thing he managed to do, and do quite well—thanks to him for the photos included in this story.

THE VENUE. THE CROWD. A noticeably lower turnout from the 2012 event has been the topic of discussion for just about everyone associated with the event. Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist blogger, came up with several reasons for the low turnout, including: the late cancellation of Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins; the novelty had worn off; it took place in the summer; etc., etc. A few observations, estimates, and a few explanations by our NOLA contingent:

Douglas P.  - “In 2012, the number was 30K-ish, I haven't heard of any official estimate for 2016, however I would say 4K (but that's just my estimation). The white chairs in front of the stage were VIP seating, and those chairs were never filled, sparse as well. I found that a little embarrassing.”

Beth D.  - “I do think the physical layout of the event made the crowd look somewhat smaller than it actually was. The stage was in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the space in front of the stage taken up by the VIP seating. We had VIP seats, which was nice, for sure, but it kept the bulk of the crowd from being close to the stage -- behind the chairs was the reflecting pool, so the crowd had to be split off on either side of the pool were still around 10,000 atheists gathered in one place for RR2016, which was exhilarating! I believe that growth may have contributed to the lower attendance in 2016 than in 2012: There are now atheist conventions and events and communities all over the country, all throughout the year….”

John W. - “I haven’t seen an official after-the-fact estimate of the turnout, but I’m guessing it didn’t reach the 30+K that was projected. [George] Whitfield was routinely delivering numbers like this throughout the colonies over 270 years ago, during the Great Awakening [the original American religious revival event], before there were planes or cars. So, for me the turnout was disappointing…We sat under a tree, in the shade, near the spot where, in the movie, Jenny spilled into the Reflecting Pool yelling for Forrest [Gump]. A few ducks with ducklings swam in the green water of the pond, shoveling algae up with their bills like a BP oil skimmer. A large egret flew overhead several times, and on each occasion was promptly mobbed by two crows. One of us sat in doggy doo. My impression is that D.C. is behind the times when it comes to curbing your dog. We even ran across it on our way out, in the airport, on the terminal floor.”

OBSERVATIONS IN THE PSEUDO-TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS. Public restrooms: almost every anti-theocrat and social justice advocate’s favorite issue this spring; and the management at the hotel where (ironically) the comedy program was presented was happy to accommodate; transforming, with a quick paper-over, the usually gender-specific WCs into New Age community toities.

Beth D. - “Friday night we went to a Reason Rally comedy show, which was so much fun! The emcee for the show was David Smalley, who is the host of the Dogma Debate radio show/podcast, and founder/president of the Secular Media Group. He has been a strong ally for trans people in this ridiculous focus on their right to pee in peace. So I was not at all surprised to find that the signs for the restrooms at the show venue had been covered with new paper signs reading “gender-neutral restroom.” And guess what? Not one person fainted away, or was overcome with a sudden desire to sexually assault someone! However, one of the comedians did comment on one behavioral change he noticed: with women being around, ALL of the men were actually washing their hands! William leaned over to me and said ‘yeah, that's not usually the case.’”

John W. - “We all attended the Friday night comedy show. The comics were Leighann Lord, Ian Harris, and Keith Jensen, and they were all very funny, as good as any New York comedy show I’ve been to. After the comedy show, off of the hotel’s lobby, I used my first gender-neutral public toilet. I’m not sure it was sanctioned by the hotel. There were several women waiting for stalls in the bathroom; and I’ve never seen men belly-up so close to the urinals, which is actually a good thing. The guys also all washed their hands when they left, just like one of the comics had just joked about. There is a lot of truth in good comedy.”

ON THE PROSELYTIZERS. No gathering of heretics, secular activists, or misguided souls debauching on Bourbon Street escapes their notice and compulsion to share God’s word. No one expected a reversal of this trend at the Reason Rally.
Lawrence Krauss and Yvette Parfait, all smiles!

Beth D. - “There were a few bothersome protesters and proselytizers about, but the occasional individual ranter was easy to ignore, and any protesting groups were small and on the periphery. (I know Ray Comfort had wished to bring a large contingent of harassers, but was informed that any sizable protest would require a permit and a designated location).”

William G. - “The Christian protesters were not allowed to organize within our rally to harass us, but they were sometimes alone or in groups of two or three within the rally proselytizing. Of course, we completely ignored them.

However, there was one guy handing out little cards with the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), symbol on them. It has a dark blue background with a yellow equal sign. Since I was a volunteer with HRC for 10 years, I wanted to support them, so Beth and I each took a card. We flipped the card over, and there were Bible verses denouncing gay people. We went to give the cards back to the guy and told him that this was dishonest and intentionally deceptive. I asked him why Christians needed to use lies and deception to get people to listen to their message. He did not have an answer. It's just like when Christians go into schools and bribe kids with pizza and other kinds of treats in exchange for listening to the Christian message.”

John W. - “…A little further down, at 17th and Constitution, my sister and I ran into an aggressive preacher with a bullhorn. I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage him, but again, like many times before,I did anyway. In an amplified voice he told us that we were going to live in Hell for eternity. We said we would be amongst friends and started dancing like it was Mardi Gras. With this he became unhinged. As we danced away the bullhorn quoted bible verses and called us fools. We were fools for reason.”


Many thanks to everyone who contributed by sharing your observations, thoughts, and photos; and your permission to edit them as needed.
~Marty Bankson

Friday, May 27, 2016

Signs, Trans, and the Times

Another post by NOSHA Board Member and Humanist Advocate writer Marty Bankson to his blog Bricolage.

Here is the opening excerpt:

I just became familiar with the journal First Things. The same people that published it have a Facebook page by the same name. I ended up on their mailing list and got a steeply discounted offer to subscribe. The mailer introducing the publication said First Things “is the home of today’s greatest religious thinkers and writers…with…lively ideas, debate, and commentary by noted…scholars and public intellectuals.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

God Took Care of Us!

    A NOSHA member passed along this cartoon from a former New Orleans resident, Ralph Scheeler, who was a kindred spirit as you can see from the punchline :

"We lost the house, the barn, the livestock and the farm equipment. Our two kids are still in the I.C.U. My wife has permanent brain damage and I have internal organ damage. 
But! God took care of us! We're still alive!"

    Ralph Scheeler and his wife, Annette, moved from New Orleans to Oregon in 2005 after the lost their home in Hurricane Katrina. He has continued his artistic work in Beaverton with his contributions to the Beaverton Resource Guide. His characters have become part of the community. You can read more here.

    We're delighted that he thought of us and wanted to share some of his recent work with his friends in New Orleans. We're certain that will hear this same tired line over and over again as we experience future storms here in the South. Anytime the inspiration strikes, we'll look forward to his secular take on life.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Hour or Two with Harry

Harry Greenberger in 2001 at Darwin Day.
NOSHA board member and Humanist Advocate reporter Marty Bankson presents a thoughtful interview with Harry Greenberger, president emeritus of NOSHA.

Born Free in Okeechobee

When the first question came up during my discussion with Harry Greenberger, a quotation came to mind: “Everyone starts out being an atheist.” It turns out to be the words of the sage, but sardonic curmudgeon-commentator, Andy Rooney who appeared regularly on CBS's "60 Minutes". Harry has earned the “sage” moniker, stating that he was always an atheist, in but contrast to Rooney’s crabby presentation of wisdom, the octogenarian Greenberger’s bonhomie and easy demeanor is as smooth as the Southern gentry of days past.

Humanist Advocate (HA)
: You related to me earlier that you were Jewish. Can you tell me a little about your childhood. e. g.— did you grow up in a strict religious home, or were your parents secular? Did you ever experience any overt or covert acts of prejudice because of your Jewish origins?

Harry Greenberger (HG): I lived in Okeechobee, Florida, which is a very small town in south Florida with my two older brothers, a sister, and parents, who had moved there from New York City, by way of Amarillo, Texas. There were from time to time maybe three Jewish families, but there was never a temple or synagogue where I grew up. My father had become a Christian Scientist, and the town was so small there were no Christian Science churches either. I’m convinced my mother was an atheist, but the subject never came up. We didn’t even talk about it. So I didn’t get any indoctrination as a Jew or Christian Scientist.


There were four children, and my parents didn’t try to force things, except by example. And by example I mean, as people in the South, they treated black people very well and were very liberal. My mother and father ran a little store in Okeechobee, and the children were raised by a black maid. I had no idea there were any problems between the races, except that blacks lived in one part of town and we lived in another. You asked earlier if I ever experienced any prejudice for being Jewish and we did not. No one was aware of those religious differences—we were just accepted as a part of the community. In school, we would recite the Lord’s Prayer every day, did readings from the New Testament, but I didn’t see anything to it, and we just did it. I was in a Christmas pageant play, and played the role of one of the wise men. But I didn’t know I shouldn’t have been doing that as a Jew.

Okeechobee High School, Class of ’44 Valedictorian, Harry then received a Bachelor’s degree, with Honors from the University of Florida, passed the Florida CPA examination and moved on to Florida State University, where he was an accounting professor’s assistant and earned a master’s degree in psychology. Soon after, he and a friend decided to move to New Orleans. After a career in accounting and a partner in the ownership of a French Quarter art gallery, Harry was ready to get involved with a group that had like-minded secular, non-theistic opinions.

Getting Started

“So, the man sitting next to me said, ‘How about this man?’ pointing to me.’”

HA: Did you consider yourself a little courageous or at least adventurous for getting involved with an atheist organization given the preponderance of Catholic influence in the city?

Harry models an early NOSHA T-shirt,
circa 2003.
HG: When the small group started NOSHA, I was retired by then. If not, I might not have been able to go public because it could influence people I worked with and also customers of our business. I was retired, so I didn’t have that restriction. When the article appeared [about the new group] in the Times-Picayune, which was a lengthy article about me and our atheism, I had friends who said “You’re going to be in trouble. People are going to break windows in your house and spray paint your car”. I had no problem, not a single instance, ugly phone calls, any problem. I think maybe people of New Orleans have enough of a varied background that they can accept people who are different.

HA: Tell me something about the early days, some of the background of getting started up.

HG:  Many years ago I got a notice that a group was forming an American Atheists group. It was kind of a small, ragtag group and I decided it was going nowhere; and it didn’t. Some years later, there was a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church, and in this case there were two people who came in from the Council for Secular Humanism—I think that’s where they were from—and talked about setting up a group. I had the feeling at the time that that group was not going to develop either. And it hung around a little while and went by the wayside.

My third invitation to become a part of a secular group was the one at which NOSHA was formed. There was a meeting of about a dozen people at a bookstore in Metairie and I was impressed that these people were of a good background and this would be a successful group. None of us knew each other. The woman who had arranged for this had contacted the Council for Secular Humanism to ask if there was a local branch, and they told her there was not, but that she could start one. She said she did not want to be the president; but she wanted a place where her young children could go because they wouldn’t be going to church or Sunday School; but she had to keep a low profile to avoid professional or social repercussions.

She had all the materials that showed how you set up an organization, and she said “...this is how you set up an organization—the first thing you do is elect a President.” So the man sitting next to me said “How about this man?” pointing to me. And I said to them “If anyone else would like to do it, please take it; if not, I’ll do it”

I felt like this group really had a chance for survival, because of what I perceived as the quality of the members. Three of those on the Board of Directors were college professors, Dave Schultz being one who is still with us on the board. I was never one of those “in-your-face” atheists, and I think we had a refined group on the board of directors.

Organization Man

HA: Had you any experience setting up a non-profit organization or was your career work helpful?
HG: Absolutely. At that meeting, we talked about getting organized, and I told them that I was a CPA, and had some experience in organization. As one of the owners of Nahan Art Gallery on Royal Street, I had called for a meeting of the Royal Street merchants to set up an organization to be called the Royal Street Association, because we had top quality art galleries, antiques stores, first class restaurants on the street that I thought we would benefit from being an organized entity. I called for a meeting to start the association. We had another store on Chartres Street, and when the Chartres Street people saw what we were doing they formed the Chartres Street Association and I served on their Board of Directors. I was the President of the Royal Street organization as well.

Come World’s Fair time, streets were under construction and killing business. Royal, Chartres, and Bourbon Street groups met with the Mayor and his aides to discuss problems, and a woman said “…what we need is a French Quarter Business Association and Harry Greenberger should be the president.” I became the President of another new organization. It was because of my presidencies that I got to know everybody on the New Orleans City Council, because we would go there with problems and complaints, and they all knew me.

Also, I represented our company at the Chamber of Commerce, and I was really pissed off because they just ignored the French Quarter. I arranged to talk at the meeting of their board and made the point that needed to pay more attention to the FQ because of the tourist business it brought. So they set up a French Quarter committee and made me the chairman, so that’s another one that I had to put together.

HA: You have given a secular invocation at the start of eight City Council meetings. Was it your familiarity with the council members that helped you to get your foot in door to do this?

HG: Councilman Marlin Gusman, and I do not remember what brought it on, approached me with the proposal that if I wished to give a secular invocation at a meeting, he would set it up for me.

And I did. That is how I got to know the city council’s chaplain, who usually gave the invocation. After a few months or year passed and I called him and said I would like to do another one. Since he found out I was not insulting religious people, I was just doing my thing, and any time I wanted to do one, I would just call him and he would fit me into the agenda.

HA: You also write the material and host a variety of guests from many walks of life on “The Humanist Perspective”, a locally produced cable TV program. How long have you done this, and did the idea for that come after NOSHA got off and running?

HG: My guess is that I have hosted the show for about 15 years. The tapes made prior to Katrina were lost in the flood. I’m doing two shows a month now; at one time I was doing more than two shows a month.

The way I got involved in the program was American Atheists was looking for people who would deliver their tapes to public access TV stations and sponsor them locally. I didn’t even know there was a public TV access station, but said I would do it. They would deliver the tapes to me and I would take them to the station to air them. When I went to do that the first time, I found out you had to be a resident of the parish or a member of a non-profit based within it. I also found out they were producing shows there, and I asked what you had to do to have a show. They gave me an application, and for an annual fee, you could do a show. That was part of the deal Cox Cable agreed to be awarded the monopoly cable TV provider in Orleans Parish—they had to put up a million dollars a year for public access programming between 4 and 6 channels in their lineup.

HA: Did you experience much frustration finding people to interview or scheduling appearances and keeping on schedule?

HG: Generally, this whole thing over the years has operated very smoothly. Sometimes I get a little anxious that I don’t have commitments from two people, because I do two interviews at the same session. But I always end up with two guests, and I cannot remember a time when someone didn’t show up. I rarely have a problem with thinking we will run out of things to say to fill the time. It usually goes so smoothly. I don’t know how many times I said to my guests “A half hour goes by fast, doesn’t it?”

HA: You recently retired as President of NOSHA. Given your age, is the end in sight for your work on this TV production?

HG: Let me put it this way…I stepped down from the presidency of NOSHA because I decided it was time for some new blood. I was a little tired of that. I did not give up the show because I still got some pleasure out of it. Do I see an end to it? Yes, because I am getting very old. I haven’t lost my mental capacity, but I can’t remember anything. But when I gave up the presidency, there was more than one person who was qualified to step into that position. But I don’t know anyone in NOSHA now who would take over that show if I said I was ready to give it up, and of course I’ll have to give it up because of age. But I won’t have to give it up for lack of guests to interview.

Early on, I got most of my guests from my contacts having been in public life, but that can’t go on forever. Now I get most of my guests from stories I read in the newspaper. But in fact, if I knew someone in NOSHA whom I thought would really like to do the show and was capable, I might be ready to turn it over, but I don’t see anyone who has shown any interest. [NOSHA Board Vice-President Jim Dugan has hosted several of episodes over the past few years when Harry was not available.]

HA: But it needs to continue…

When it came on, it appeared twice a week, at 2:30pm and 2:30am on the weekends. And originally, that’s all that I thought it was. But I knew we had someone who was converting our tapes to go on YouTube. I’m not much of a tech or a computer person, but found out when you go to YouTube to our link, it also shows how many people have watched. I couldn’t believe the number of people who had watched. For instance, the professor of economics at Loyola who was an Ayn Rand fan…I can’t remember…I think it was 4,000 views. I couldn’t believe how many people were watching my shows on YouTube! They can also been seen on Vimeo and on our website.

Harry the Humanist
“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”—
a quotation from Margaret Mead—and all that was printed on a letter-size sheet of paper Harry handed me.

HA: Strictly considered, atheism, or other brands of skepticism would not seem to be necessarily linked to any political ideology or viewpoint. In Humanism, from which NOSHA takes its name, that point is not quite so clear; and that some humanist principles are better represented in certain political parties than others. What is your thinking on this?

HG: First, on the Wall of Separation. There are some conservatives who say that say those words never appear in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of it, made it very clear that the First Amendment intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state. I think that is going to stand, no matter what. I still say we [non-theists] are the most maligned minority in this country. Polls show that we are the least likely out of any groups to be elected for office. I heard some commentator refer to Bernie Sanders as an atheist. Wouldn’t it be something if an atheist Jew was elected President?

I tell you what concerns the hell out of me: the Supreme Court. The ultra-conservatives are not going to let Obama get a new member in there. We’re okay if the Democrats win the Presidency, but if the Republicans win, we are gone forever, because not only this spot will be filled, but in the coming four years another one is going to die. Ginsburg would probably like to retire, but she doesn’t want the wrong person put in there.

But going back to humanism: humanism, with the lower case “h”, is not specific as upper-case Humanism, which is the philosophy of humanism, and that philosophy says we are concerned with the welfare and the living of full lives for ourselves and others without any reliance on the supernatural. People ask me all the time about secular humanism—what it is. I tell them “secular” means we are non-religious, but that just says what we are not, rather than what we are. Humanism says what we are, and says that since we are not going to have an afterlife and that this is the only life we are going to have we should live it fully and rewardingly, getting the most out of it we can and allowing others to do the same thing.

What I just told you has a lot to do with guests I’ve asked to be on the TV show. I couldn’t have just spent all these years talking about non-religion; how many guests can you have on that subject? Secular humanism says to live life fully, get out of it what you can. That enables us to do things that are worth taking a part in or observing—it contributes to the fullness of our lives, which is why I talk to people who are in theater and all manner of things, so long that this is a subject that can give some joy and pleasure and satisfaction in our lives.

HA: Do you think the usefulness of organizations which are founded on the principle of nontheism has passed its prime?

HG: No way. I think we are only in the beginning of it and see nothing but expansion in the future. This country is becoming a whole lot less religious. The young people…they don’t even talk about it. I was wondering why we didn’t have more secular organizations at UNO, Delgado, and Tulane and I was told that young people don’t even think about religion. That’s why the numbers are going to change, because of the young people. For us older people, we are trying to overcome the old discriminations and trying to make secularism more acceptable. The young people don’t have that same outlook.

In addition to scheduling over a hundred speakers for monthly NOSHA meetings during his time as President of NOSHA and interviewing hundreds more on “The Humanist Perspective” television program, here are some other noteworthy events, publications, and awards Harry has had a hand in:

2002—Interviewed by Elizabeth Mullener for the Times-Picayune
2005—Acknowledgement and photograph of the Mayoral Proclamation of “Day of Reason” in New Orleans requested by members of NOSHA published in Freedom from Religion Foundation publication, Freethought Today
2009—Recognition of New Orleans City Council Proclamation of “Day of Reason”  in Free Mind. Both proclamations were proposed as alternatives to the National Day of Prayer.
2012—Interviewed by Eric Nguyen of the Humanist News Network, the weekly online publication of the American Humanist Association.
2012—Recipient of The Humanist Award of NOSHA. The award was later given his name.
2013—Designated as President Emeritus of NOSHA
2014—Named to the Honor Roll of the Humanist Foundation, a subsidiary of the American Humanist Association.
2014—Published an essay in Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council of Secular Humanism, addressing the theme “The Faith I Left Behind”. His essay, “Why I am Not a Believer,” was one of several, out of the hundreds submitted, to be selected for publication in the book The Faith I Left Behind.