Monday, December 11, 2017

Defining Our Terms—and Ourselves

An event  that would not have been expected is one of several current definitions of irony. NOSHA’s November program—in a group discussion format— "Atheist Infighting: Is the Movement Falling Apart or Just Growing Up?” fit the definition perfectly when the monthly meeting at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library had to be moved because it was election day and the library also serves as a polling place. The First Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue became the most practical venue substitute, offering a flexibility of attendance size and affordability. Not that NOSHA has been averse to meeting in churches; it has done so before; but it’s likely the gods couldn’t have been more devilishly gleeful at the prospect of atheists discussing their own demise in a house of worship.

As is usual, however, group discussions raise more questions than are (or can be) answered. Membership Coordinator and moderator Beth Deitch was well-prepared to lead the discussion, and with a deep background on the current movement to keep the discussion moving and even offering a few suggestions—if not hard answers—of her own. A sampling of interesting questions that brought mention on the topic were:

  • Are we (speaking of NOSHA) an atheist group or a humanist group? This one seems easy: “Secular Humanist” is part of our group name. “Secular” implies non-theism.
  • What do we claim as our position and whom do we claim to be our spokespeople?
  • What, exactly, do we want? Political power? Community?
  • How much did social media contribute to opening up the atheist movement to racist, anti-feminist, and more generally, anti-social justice and reactionary political opinion. And its logical follow-up question:
  • Do we have to be accepting of all viewpoints? Does the ideal of freedom of speech require us to tolerate the intolerant?   

Some may question where the title subject for the program came from to begin with. New members and followers of our local group, and even old veterans might ask what all the fuss is about. Is there really “infighting” about atheism, and how can that even be? Is atheism really a ”movement,” or just a mindset or philosophical opinion about metaphysical questions, and is the movement no more than local organizations of like-minded folk? More than one person shared with me (and I’ll bet there are more than a few others) that she wasn’t up on all the current goings-on in the cybersphere or skeptic and atheist national conventions. So maybe a very brief history—as I can relate with my recently refreshed memory on it—about when and what the disagreements and bickering began, and, for some, how it has become a Manichean duel to the death.
Atheism has been around human culture as least as long as belief in gods, and its voices in literary and philosophical thought have waxed and waned since at least the classical Greek civilization. September 11, 2001, many have been the trigger for the most modern version, “New Atheism,” a term coined by Gary Wolf in 2006 after the publication of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, mostly inspired by the 9/11 attack. It was the first of a group of books published by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens, philosopher Daniel Dennett about the foibles of true belief and religious thinking. This latest iteration was the first to benefit from the internet era, where it became a topic of blog writers, videographers, social media and news platforms, sub-reddits and YouTubers. Almost from the beginning, both ends of the political spectrum were showing up in what had been more generally also secular, atheist webpages. Susan Jacoby, a longtime skeptic and humanist, pointed back to in this article in 2011, opening with “The world, it seems, is waking up to the existence of politically right-wing atheists,..” Secular Right still displays archives from 2008. At the same time (2011), a decidedly uglier offshoot of secular righties’ conflation of social justice with social Darwinism was starting be heard. Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson’s “Elevatorgate” reporting seemed to offer for some a prime example of why feminism—and for a few of them, all three waves of it—was not only unnecessary bitching, but symbolic of the inherent evil embodied in all forms of identity politics. Blogger Thunderf00t was fired from PZ Meyer’s enlightening Freethought Blogs for his increasing anti-feminist posts, and the war was officially on. Now that feminism was an acceptable object of fear and scorn, race, religion, and the basic liberal foundations of an open society became available for the next round of hate-thy-neighbor-in-the-name-of-atheism wannabe YouTube stars like The Amazing Atheist, Sargon of Akkad, The Armored Skeptic, and —the appropriately named—Slymepit and Shoe0nHead.

These perversions should be expected in a free press, but do the divisions among atheists on political, social, or, more fundamentally, “human nature” spell the end of the “atheist movement?” If one could define atheism in one sentence, it might be “a metaphysical concept of natural causes and explanation of the universe versus a supernatural one.” No basis of a movement there, in my opinion. Indeed, part of the vulnerability of atheism to “being hijacked” (as one commenter observed), lies in its breadth and vagueness. Secular humanism, said another, has an advantage of a more specific identity because it has its own code, viz., The Humanist Manifesto. We should be thinking in terms of different sects of atheism, because atheism, in itself, is not a sufficient measuring stick to make a judgement between an alt-right atheist oozing anti-feminist, Islamophobic and anti-semitic bile over there, and a liberal humanist encouraging inclusivity and respect for all over here. And given that insufficiency, we are not obliged to either support or even defend bullshit coming from a fascist playbook or its readers. As the commenter above also noted, the best thing we can do is partner with other groups, growing a community of people committed to a much higher ideal.

And in doing so, perhaps the irony of a NOSHA program in a U.U. sanctuary becomes not quite so great as it first seemed to be.


Thanks again to Beth Deitch, The First Unitarian Universalist Church, and everyone who participated by offering your thoughts in the discussion. And have a Great Holiday Season, Solstice, or any other favorite flavor you may have for celebrating the season!

The Humanist Advocate ~Marty Bankson December, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Horror, 365

Socrates Chooses to Self-Administer Death

Right-to-Life Laws Punish as Hell Could Only Dream

The Final Exit Network “is the only organization that educates individuals that are suffering, either with terminal illness long term untreatable pain, and provides a compassionate presence at their bedside,” said Julia Hanway, who had come to New Orleans to make a presentation at NOSHA’s October meeting. Most would agree with little argument that is a noble calling.

Part of the “education” she refers to, however, is counseling the individual on humane ways to end suffering by terminating the patient’s life, which, most states prohibit through archaic religious-based laws. Leaders and activists in the Final Exit Network (FEN) have paid the price for following their conviction and dedication to their humane mission. In 2009, Thomas Goodwin, former  president of FEN, and Deems Egbert, the medical director of the then Georgia-based organization, along with two others, were arrested and charged under Georgia’s assisted suicide law in the death of John Celmers. At the time, FEN only accessible method for assisting the patient’s life was through asphyxiation, using helium and plastic “exit hoods”. All charges were dropped when the Georgia Supreme Court found the state law prohibiting assisted suicide in violation of the free speech provision of the First Amendment. Things did not go so well for FEN in a Minnesota case involving decedent Doreen Dunn, however. In 2015, FEN was convicted for violating Minnesota’s assisted suicide statute and was order to pay a fine of $30,000 and reimburse the family $3,000 for funeral expenses. In December, 2016, a Minnesota appeals court refused to reverse the decision, and the case awaits a review before that state’s Supreme Court, and if the case is not taken there, it is also to be considered for a hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Much of the legal challenge is based on the language of “advising and encouraging” the patient, resulting in the free speech defense being used in these cases; another, can lead to an even more varied interpretation of “suicide”, or, as FEN calls it, “self-deliverance.”

It would seem that the ultimate goal of the Final Exit Network would—indeed, should— be the end of the need of itself, or any other organizations providing the same service. Oregon was the first to adopt a Death with Dignity Act, followed by Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. The laws, also categorized as physician-assisted dying and aid-in-dying laws, provide that physicians may provide pharmaceutical options for ending life to patients with prognoses of death within 6 months. The Canadian Supreme Court recently “threw out” existing laws, said Hanway, and deemed that under their national healthcare system, doctors “must provide for your wishes in dying.” Still, many states refuse to recognize the inhumanity of forcing people to go through the suffering of pain or the anxiety of waiting on the inevitable and cling to punishing laws based solely on Biblical and Koranic ethics. (While euthanasia and assisted-suicide are prohibited in the Islamic faith, turning off life support systems is permissible in hopeless cases.)

There is a certain irony of that goal of eventual self-extinction by the Final Exit Network and its current function of providing counseling and—usually—assistance to those in dire need of escaping traumatic pain and grief through “self-deliverance.” But given the current conservative climate in many statehouses, the goal may yet remain in faraway territory for a while longer. In the meantime, families, loved ones, and lone individuals alike need to take precautions for any and all eventualities regarding end-of-life issues, including preparing a Living Will, stipulate a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) clause, and generally become educated on the options and support groups available for guidance on those issues. Bookmark websites like , The Conversation Project , and National Healthcare Decisions Day Support efforts to dismantle laws restricting the individual’s freedom of choice on life and death matters. And support and encourage groups like the Final Exit Network to continue their challenge to cruel laws, including their acts of civil disobedience of disregarding and breaking the law. Without these test cases to the criminal statute, the faraway land of sane and rational laws could be a hopeless destination.

October 31, 2017
Reporting: Marty Bankson

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Renaissance Man? Lessons from a Lost Classic on Secularism

In the current (Sept/Oct 2017) edition of The Humanist, former president of the American Humanist Association Lyle L. Simpson marks the centennial anniversary of the modern humanist movement with a brief summary of its improbable beginning in a Minneapolis Unitarian Church, while also mentioning its ancient origins with Greek and Roman literati Epicurus and Lucretius.
Epicurus' teaching, "centered on each of us maximizing our life here on Earth instead of our life being regulated by the gods"  was "spelled out in detail" in Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things" writes Lyle, and was later translated into Latin and adopted by the Medici family, Florentine rulers in the early 1400s, as a code for living.
Missing from Lyle's abbreviated history was an entire movement generally referred to as Renaissance Humanism, beginning with the efforts of Italian poet Petrarch, promoting the idea of human progress—only three centuries removed from the Dark Ages—  and as an alternative to the static outlook of Catholic scholasticism. Petrarch's belief was that in order for humanity to advance and regain "cultural excellence"—and thus "progress"—Classical-era texts and histories of needed to recovered, restored, and thoroughly studied and then emulated in life. He considered the Greek and Roman classical age as the high point of civilization, and emphasized the need to get back to a culture modeled after it. From the late 1300s to the 1600s, humanists went about searching "private and monastic libraries, [the region of] Byzantium, and [interviewing or uncovering works by] Muslim scholars and merchants," (1)  collating and cross-checking translations for accuracy. The rebirth of the Classical age was the goal, and that would be progress.

September 16, 2017
Williams and Bust of Volney
Thomas Christian Williams introduced attendees to the NOSHA September monthly meeting to the signature accomplishment of Constantin-François de Chassebouef, compte de Volney: his book Les ruines; ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires; author and book hereinafter referred to as Volney, and the English title The Ruins of Empires, or just Ruins. Williams' lecture, titled "The Modern Day Relevance of Volney's Ruins" suggested that there can be lessons for humanity in this book he calls a "lost classic," "lost" even though it was popular in the late 18th and through much of the 19th centuries. ***
Perhaps the most interesting points about the history of the author and book is that Volney was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who, in turn, introduced him to Thomas Jefferson during the fledgling days of the American republic. Jefferson apparently liked Ruins well enough to attempt (anonymously) translating it into English, completing about 80 percent of it before abandoning the project to pursue running for the office of President. The remainder of the translation was completed by Joel Barlow and first published in the United States in 1828. The book was read by George Washington (the pre-Jeffersonian edition), Frederic Douglass (Volney was also an abolitionist), Abraham Lincoln (who wrote an essay about it), atheist crusader Robert Ingersoll, poets Walt Whitman (whose "Leaves of Grass"  is based upon) and William Blake, and women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. With a list of readers such as these, it should  easy to believe in Williams' claim that this book of "secular general principles" is one "our species needs in the tumultuous opening decades of the 21st Century," and is one "people could use to build a peaceful, prosperous, and transparent democracy."
Williams is, by some accounts, the world's leading expert on Volney's Ruins, and that pedigree would be hard to deny. His expertise on the different editions and translations of the book can been seen on the Amazon website under comments section where he himself contributes to reviews of several versions of the book, including in some of them "Five General Rules to Purchase a Jefferson-Barlow Translation". He is the searching, diligent 15th Century humanist in this respect—making sure the Jefferson translation is properly identified, while giving background on other editions, motivated by the belief that a true understanding and implementation of Volney's works would be a progressive move forward. Unlike the Renaissance Humanists, though, his reflection to the past is not toward the cultural Shangri-la of the classical Greek era, but rather to a much more recent period of—primarily—intellectual history known as the Enlightenment, of which Volney and Jefferson  could be considered exemplary heirs.
For today's reader, getting through a translation of an 18th Century French work will probably prove to be cumbersome and tedious. One reviewer describes it as a "belated example of 'philosophic' polemics," so, dear reader,  be prepared to add to the already slightly arcane language layers of hyperbole and obscure allusions; and wading one's way through it could become an even slower slog for all but the most dedicated scholar. It is here where Williams' world class expertise is again on display by distilling  the highfalutin and flowery prose to straightforward interpretations for the modern day audience.
ISIS Execution Event at Ancient Palmyra: Cause and Effect of Fundamentalism
Volney was a secularist, who believed the cause of the demise of empires was rooted in a conflict between fundamentalism and modernity; the fundamentalist system of morality  being based on "metaphysical assertions," where modernists' moral code is based on the "physical realities" of nature. And the most evident of all physical realities to living creatures is based on the imperative to survive. Humanity—in the form of  governments and groups and individuals alike—can flourish only by accepting this basic natural law and encourage an ethic of "enlightened self-interest," which Volney defines as self-interest combined with education, moderation, and always applying the Golden Rule. This ethic, Williams writes in Amazon, is "a direct challenge to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract—if you refute the Social Contract, you refute the moral foundation of the big government social programs that exist in the world today."
The principle of enlightened self-interest, at least Volney's definition, may not sit well with many humanists who believe that government social programs are not a bad thing in themselves; on the contrary: it can be shown that they help mitigate many excesses of "self-interest" run amok, unfettered by any enlightened constraints, which has resulted in gross concentrations of wealth and political power in a world of capitalist economics.
But Volney’s ideas of a morality based on naturalism over the "metaphysical assertions" of religions; his promotion of  strict separation of church and state; and his abolitionist stance on slavery should be enough for secular humanists to at least familiarize themselves with his work, but not, as did the Renaissance Humanists, for the purpose of a nostalgic trip back to the past—where they believed were better books and a better life—to aid any attempt to emulate or recreate it in the present.
NOSHA extends its appreciation and thanks to Mr. Williams for his interesting and thought-provoking presentation!
—Marty Bankson

(1)The Teaching Company, LLC. (2007). Great Scientific Ideas that Changed the World, Steven L. Goldman, Professor. "Progress Enters into History"

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Someone once told me that opening up your Facebook app was like going to the neighborhood bar. The lyrics:

"Sometimes you want to go     
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

soon came to mind and continue—complete with the sappy melody from the Cheers sitcom theme of the '80s—to initiate a daylong ear worm every time I think about it.

For my purpose, the barroom analogy may be well-suited. Whether  you sit there reading, scrolling—latte or Red Bull within arm's reach of your keyboard—or with elbows and forearms prone on the counter guarding the  micro-brew standing between them,  with a co-relaxant/conversationalist on the next barstool, the inevitable interloper will walk through the door. How she got here if she were not otherwise on a "Friends with" list or a page group member, we may not know, possibly gaining entry through algorithmic aberrations of the Facebook master plan to have eventually everyone become friends of everyone else. But your space is public, just like the pub, so no explanation is ultimately necessary—it just happens. But this character is not the overly-welcomed Norm or the just-irritating trivia monster Cliff of Cheers, but a full-on goddamned troll; and just when you thought the day's stress was evaporating with each passing minute, she's on a mission. The analogy fails when, as most in-the-flesh disagreeable strangers keep to themselves in public settings like pubs,  the newcomer, seeing a group expressing opinions contradictory to his own, is more likely to grab a stool at the far end of the bar. Likewise the troll without the cover of his basement or bedroom, or the road-raging driver without two tons of Ford F-150 armor is effectively neutered. Isolation seems to bring out the worst in us.


The rather extended lead-in here is to illustrate that possible mistaken or just haphazard confluences of associations of people with others or groups that would not, on the face of it,  appear as natural matches, in fact, occur; and when confined to the internet, telephones, or other non-physical modes of contact they can lead to very acrimonious verbal exchanges. This is not news to anyone who participates on social media or has ever had to deal with an inept customer service rep; and it is not news to frequent visitors to group pages like our own NOSHA page. There can be some interesting speculation on how these ill-matched conversationalists end up in the same place though.

There can be some confusion to the assumed general outlook and reason for being of the NOSHA organization itself, which can carry over as a misrepresentation in the social media. Some incorrectly assume that disbelief in the supernatural—all variations of atheism, etc.—is, pretty much, the beginning and end of the conversation, when, for NOSHA, it is really just the beginning. The American Humanist Association recently published a brief and insightful look into this topic  with a very brief review of historical highlights of atheism through the ages and a statement of principles of humanism, concluding with quotes from influential writers and scientists involved in AHA.

With the advent of the New Atheism in the mid-2000s came a resurgence of interest in the topic, and a new cottage industry of book and essay writing and speaking tours was born, followed not long after by the more contemporary communications available through social media, blogs, and  podcasts. The underlying theme of most of it was that atheism was a "movement". The NOSHA Facebook discussion page doubtlessly benefited from this surge, now approaching 1,000 members, doubling the number from five years ago. And since the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association was founded before both New Atheism and social media, it could be considered a placeholder when referencing the birth, development, and outlook of similar groups that have sprung up since.

But atheism—in itself—cannot be the foundation of a movement: the dialectical refutation of an idea (or, in this case, gods) can lead only to a 'higher" truth, not a validation of itself as the end. It is only a method, a tool. Negation alone leads to nihilism. So it should come as no surprise that lately cracks have  begun showing in the unity of the mission, perhaps the most glaring being the woeful attendance at the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington. Some blamed the scheduling at the beginning of summer, but much of it was due to atheist "purists" refusing to attend in reaction to programming geared more towards social justice and identity politics issues.  Podcaster David Smalley most recent contribution to the cybersphere is titled Eating Our Own: How You Can Save the Movement, which acknowledges that there are divisions within "The Movement," but tries to demonstrate that none of the divisive issues can be of more importance than keeping The Movement together. One would need not look far to find other examples or commentary on the subject.

But there are some bad actors who are atheists, let's face it; and the web is being populated with more white nationalists/supremacists and closet fascists by the day, not to mention the standard complement of politically mainstream Democrats and Republicans—many avowed atheists— that hold unprogressive notions antithetical to the goals of humanism. Smalley can't be further from the truth with his call for unity for unity's sake. All atheism may be created equally, but where one proceeds with it is what matters.

A recent dust-up on the NOSHA Facebook group page is what drew my attention to this conflict. It happens sometimes, but I suppose we should still—in the spirit of humanism—maintain a policy of open membership to anyone requesting it, and even let members speak their piece, even if that opinion involves an obviously anti-humanist agenda. That same antagonist, on the other hand, should expect pushback. If he (in this case) is unaware of the ideals of humanism, he needs to be informed, given that some may see NOSHA as primarily a gathering place for "just" atheists. Once informed that the tenants of humanism stand in sharp contrast to his own agenda, but he relentlessly pushes on, "speaking one's piece" becomes miserable trolling in its worst form.

In this case, the reactionary atheist interloper decided to leave the group. That happens sometimes as well, reminding me of another interesting analogy that compares entry into Facebook Land to " being hit with the braggart Christmas letter every single day—Johnny is doing this, Jane is doing that—thereby making you feel bad about all the things you're not doing. It's pushing you to participate in a game you didn't really want to play." (1) We have too many positive things going on, and that may, just may, be our "braggart Christmas letter" to reactionary and misanthropic atheists who really have nothing much other going on themselves.


Havens, Sara. The Bar Belle, Vol. 2. 2015


An afterword, taken from the AHA's link above.....

“It is quite possible to be an atheist and be quite deluded about other things other than religion. ‘Atheism’ is an empty category. ‘Humanism’ may be deluded about human potential, but at least it is a hopeful and non-exclusionary delusion!” – Joyce Carol Oates, AHA Humanist of the Year and prolific author.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


NOSHA Meets in Remote Livingston Location to Learn About LIGO  

Dimples in Spacetime
Many, if not most of the advances in the discipline of science and its utilitarian child technology have come from man’s ability to devise new ways to observe, measure and record the physical world around him—and the worlds beyond his own.

At last count, there are five space observatories in Louisiana, all but one resemble the image most visualize when hearing the term, of an igloo- or dome-shaped building with a the barrel of a telescope jutting out at an angle. It works on the very old math of focal lengths and the craft of lens making. Thanks to this measuring stick (and Galileo, of course) we know that we are not at the center of our solar system, much less the universe.

The fifth space observatory is an example of a new way to observe nature. It was conceived, designed, and constructed for the purpose of observing, unlike telescopes, phenomena that are invisible. And not only invisible, but, at the time, were only known to exist as a necessary consequence of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. The phenomena are gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime proposed by the theory that undulate outward from a large celestial events.

In April, about fifty NOSHA members went on a field trip to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) ten miles or so north of Livingston, La., for their monthly educational meeting, and got a first hand experience and tour of how it works. The LIGO operation is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by Caltech and MIT universities, with assistance from students and staff from LSU. An identical facility is located in Hanford, Washington; the idea being that with two observatories, any errors in measurements at either location—false positives—caused by local conditions or glitches would be cancelled by the other.

In the Control Room
LIGO began taking its first measurements in 2005, and made upgrades to the facility in 2015, which included the Science Education Center, a building designed for the general public with an auditorium, classroom, pre-control room area, and exhibit hall with about 50 interactive exhibits. The NOSHA group spent time with the hands-on giant, suspended slinky, bobbing and wagging their heads following the  pendulum apparatus, trying to determine the heat source from a large concave mirror, and other exhibits while waiting for the guided part of the tour.
DIY Physics
The guide walked about half of us (our group was split up due the the numbers and others outside of the group mixed in) to the main building where a short film was presented, followed by a visit to the central control room of the complex. Banks of monitors, almost floor to ceiling on three walls looked down on the three or four operators staffing the control. The operators seemed unfazed by the crunch of tourists that squeezed in the the tight space down the center aisle and around their desks and were prompted by the guide to take questions from the guide. (There always seems to be a smart ass in these open question sessions, who purposefully ask a very technical question that would possibly leave a technician without an answer, thereby showing off his own expertise on the subject. Our group had one.) One of our members commented later that this part of the tour might better be served with a more dramatized presentation of goings-on with the maze of data displayed in the monitors and work being done by the operators rather than allowing questioners wander down rabbit holes with their abstruse musings.

So how do we observe something we cannot see (or is not detectable by any of our other four basic senses)? This is possible by observing the effects the phenomenon. In the case of the LIGO observatory, two 4-kilometer arms resembling inverted concrete half-pipes radiate at a 90° angle from a common point from within which a laser beam is sent traversing through a vacuum tube and reflected back to the center by suspended ultra fine mirror.
The passage of a gravitational wave alters the length of the tubes, causing a difference in the time it takes for the beam to travel, and shows up as a slightly out of phase wave length.

Heading toward the Vanishing Point
On September 14, 2015, such a disturbance was noted with the observatory in Livingston, and then, milliseconds later, at the Washington installation. By triangulation, the origin of the wave is determined, and the result agreed with a  previous observation of the merging of two black holes over a billion years ago. “Slightly” is a vague and greatly understated term to describe the actual measurement: the variation amount to a mere 1/1000th of the diameter of a proton was all there was on the wavelengths. The precision involved in locating the mirrors to this degree of measurement is almost incomprehensible, as well as the technology to assure that the foundations in the ground were perfectly level; the concrete base poured to offset the curvature of the Earth, which would be a significant factor for error, even over the relatively short 2.5 mile length. Another wave was observed on December 26 of the same year at both locations. One gets a feel for the sensitivity of the equipment upon entering the facility. The two-lane road is lined on both sides and down the middle with traffic cones and the posted speed limit of 10 mph about a quarter mile before arriving at the main entry and guard shack. Some restrictions on tours are in effect to minimize traffic vibrations.

NOSHA brought a few scientists and engineers of  our own!
Some philosophers of science have pointed out that in the course of building new devices for observing natural phenomena-—even though the original conception may be sound and the intentions admirable-—may have biases built into them, causing them to yield results that they were specifically designed to observe or validate. Understandably, an area where the actual phenomenon remains invisible to the human sensory apparatus, doubt about the validity of positive results can persist, even among those involved in the project. Einstein himself waffled on his own idea, at least once publicly doubting the existence of the gravitational waves. But to Rainer Weiss, who by 1972 had drawn up a design for these long-armed “antennae” as a way to catch lightning in a bottle, a Nobel Prize may soon be on its way, and the burden of disproof remains on the skeptics.

Thanks to Charlotte for putting this together and everyone who helped with the carpooling!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Together we lost our great friend and mentor, Harry Greenberger ( June 22, 1927 - May 3, 2017 )

Marshall Harris addressed the audience at the monthly May 20 program of NOSHA and we felt this was a wonderful statement to share with everyone who knew and loved Harry.

Harry was the most unique of friends in his way of giving, his honesty and sincerity.

I don't think I'll ever come across a friend quite like him ever again in my lifetime.

He lived his life his way.

He pretty much took charge of every aspect, even his exit.

Harry had accomplish many things in his 90 years, but ultimately it was NOSHA, The New Orleans Secular Humanist Association that gave him great joy in his life.

He told me many times how he had always wanted to create an organization where people who felt alone in their thinking could come together to feel a part of something that would keep them from that loneliness.  He wanted nonbelievers to have a place where they could be around like-minded people, and could share, discuss their thoughts and views freely, without judgment or ridicule.  

He knew it would be tough because there was nothing like that available back during the time he began NOSHA. Not to mention there being such a stigma out there about Atheists, Humanists, nonbelievers under any name, your choice.

Harry said to me one morning while I drove him to his very first New Orleans City Council Secular Invocation…

"I don't want to rid the world of religion, I just want my seat at the table, when all others are asked to gather."

He said… "There are lots of people,Marshall, really good people, that simply need religion to function in their life."

"I don't want to take that comfort from anyone. I just want to be respected for my not wanting or needing religion in my life."

Watching Harry I've learned... If you really want people to accept you for who you are, you need to approach them as a gentleman.  If you come across as a screaming radical, you just don't get the same result. You'd be surprised how the gentleman's approach will open doors, and even sometimes have your chair waiting for you to arrive at that gathering table.

The simple proof his way worked was how at first he had to push and really wedge his way in, to even have a secular invocation considered at the City Council of New Orleans, but later after hearing his eloquent words that very first time, Harry was then invited to do so several times thereafter.
These small victories made him so proud.  He was making a difference in some way.

With his television program "The Humanist Perspective".  His regular appearances giving secular invocations to open the daily business of the City Council of New Orleans', and with you, NOSHA, Harry has accomplished something very unique. He made a difference.

If we look around here now, we see a room full of people here today that would not be gathered here, or even know each other at all, if it were not for one man's vision.  Harry Greenberger's hopes have come true.  We are not alone here today... now are we.

I'd like to take this time to thank Charlotte Klasson, who was there next to me when I needed a friend the most.  I appreciate and love her so much for loving Harry and continuing to carry on his life's work so wonderfully as President of NOSHA.

I thank you NOSHA, for being Harry's incredible extended family. He loved you all very much and was so proud to speak of this organization wherever he went.

He wanted me to give you this special gift of $10,000.00, in hopes you guys will continue to work together, keeping his dream alive by reaching out and letting more and more people know NOSHA is here for them.  Letting non-believers know... "they are not alone."

All My Love & Gratitude,

Saturday, May 6, 2017

New Orleans Has a (Plastic) Trash Problem

Max Ciolino with
No Waste NOLA
The ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, with high tensile strength disguised in its tissue paper sheer, along with water bottles and coated aluminum cans, is deservedly near the bullseye of environmentalists’ target for elimination. New Orleanians go through 225 such bags PER DAY, which comes to nearly 2.5 billion in a typical year. No Waste NOLA was a part of the larger coalition Louisiana Reusable Bag Alliance supporting a city ordinance which would have placed a ten-cent fee on non-recyclable plastic bags. The ordinance was withdrawn in September 2016 by councilwomen Guidry and Cantrell, who introduced it, as it appeared to have little support. There is a well-funded lobby opposing placing fees or reducing consumption of non-recyclables. The reasoning is that such restrictions would be “job killers,” but the underlying agenda is corporate profit. State legislator Paul Hollis attempted to introduce a bill in the state house earlier that year which would have prohibited New Orleans from imposing fees on their use, which probably also was a clue to the opposition in conservative, pro-business Louisiana and the councilwomen’s decision to withdraw it. From the Texas-size Great Pacific Garbage Patch (formally know as the North Pacific subtropical gyre) where water bottles, styrofoam cups, and wrappers float, trapped in an spinning cesspool of “single use” packages, to the invisible chemical reaction to human hormonal systems from bisphenol-a (BPA) and pthalates on newborns, to the image of the dead albatross in the Midway atoll, its partially decomposed body revealing plastic bottle caps and disposable lighters it had ingested, we have a constant reminder that “jobs” will be irrelevant on a dead planet.
The month of March brought NOSHA  members and supporters back to their meeting home base, the East Bank Regional Jefferson Parish Library, for the first time since November of last year. The annual Winter Solstice party during the holiday season and the unsettling changes in the national political  outlook in January, along with renovations to our meeting space and the usual Mardi Gras break,  all contributed to our three month absence from the venue.

For our first full meeting of the year, Max Ciolino, a local attorney and president of the advocacy group No Waste NOLA introduced the screening of the 2010 documentary film Bag It! Is Your Life Too Plastic? and followed the hour-long film with an open discussion about the scope of the local plastic pollution problem and his group’s efforts to reduce it by working through city and local  governments.

Usually arguments against “job-killing regulations" favoring a cleaner environment are never balanced (in their makers’ minds) against cases of animal and human life preservation without them. The accumulating disaster of the petrochemical products that we throw away is in plain sight—maybe not in your backyard, but somewhere else on the planet—because there is no “away”, toward which shit can be thrown, other than another part of the planet. Degraded organics may fall apart and end up being ground into topsoils or sinking to ocean floors, but there they enter fresh water supplies and food chains. In Bag It!, film director Susan Beraza balanced the apparent apocalyptic consequences of a throw-away consumer culture left unchanged with a light-hearted—at times, almost comedic—role of the documentary’s protagonist Jeb Berrier, who is on a mission to do his part by eliminating these plastics from his life (and others, as well) showing the process of his awakening and education about the problem. Jeb and partner were expecting the birth of their first child in the narrative, which made for a clever allegory of the life-death-rebirth cyclical mythos of the ancients. His easy going portrayal did not, however, marginalize the enormity of the problem.

Monday, April 24, 2017

News... More or Less. Non-Fake

Since the recent retirement of the production manager at the Humanist Advocate, (NOSHA's quarterly newsletter) the editors will use this blog to report on the recent goings-on with our group—official events or impromptu get-togethers, or co-participation with other groups' events. Many thanks to John Simon for putting up with Charlotte and me for nearly two years, and good luck to him and his career. If anyone has the experience and software tools to design and publish to the web a four-page newsletter letter every three months, please contact either of us about a chance to sharpen your skills and burnish your image as a dedicated freethinking volunteer!


Jennifer Porter
For the past several years, February has been set aside for a celebration of Charles Darwin's birthday, February 12. Since February is usually the month Mardi Gras falls, the celebration, in the form of an educational forum of several speakers covering evolution and other related science topics, has been a good fit for the end of the holiday season and getting the new year jumpstarted.

Except this year. This year, every humanist, every social liberal, and every science advocate and human rights champion came face-to-face with a sense of dread not many had experienced before, caused the election of a United States President with one of the most unworthy agendas of nationalist hubris, racial and religious exclusion, and climate and environmental disregard not seen since the days when the world was going nuts with fascism The board of directors for NOSHA decided to take the month of the inauguration as an appropriate time for mourning and reflection, scheduling only an informal group discussion, since several others in management had chosen to join forces with nation-(world-)wide Women's March scheduled Saturday, January 21, the day following the official Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. Beth Deitch led the discussion theme "Secular Humanism 2017: Where Do We Go from Here?". Over thirty made their way to Loyola University to sit in and participate on the topic. Meanwhile, on the other side of town—

...and the other suffragettes
From Washington Square in the Marigny, NOSHA members Jennifer and Ricky Porter, Michelle Abeyta and I hung together for the march all the way across the French Quarter, through the CBD, and ending up at Duncan Plaza, where Charlotte Klasson was holding down the info table for NOW (National Organization for Women) alongside the pavilion. Joyce and Dave Thomas and Jim Dugan were also among the other verified Unholy Strollers, as well as Adam and Ariel Kay, who were met along the way; but NOSHA's group remained mainly separated in the unanticipated large crowd of 10-15 thousand.


Charles Darwin's traditional role as subject and centerpiece for our January event may have been postponed, but it was not forgotten. His memory was a fine excuse to enjoy a a pint or glass of wine, even though excuses for toasting are hardly required in New Orleans—much less at the run-up to Mardi Gras. After a few suggestions at an earlier planning meeting, a "social" at Monkey Hill Bar in Uptown, complete with a cake was set for Sunday, February 12.

Photographer arrives one slice
 too late!
As watering holes go in the Crescent City, Monkey Hill was quite civilized—unusually comfortable, in fact, with over half of the area furnished with sofas and cocktail tables and overstuffed armchairs, and warm, ambient lighting accenting the hunter green walls—although the early Sunday afternoon time may have contributed some to the relaxed atmosphere.

A dozen or two members and supporters turned out, several from out of town, including Douglas and Yvette Parfait of Slidell, Jon Kennedy from down-da-bayou Cut Off, La., friend Chris from JPL, and a follower who made it all the way from Baton Rouge.

Ms. Beth!
Ms. Rose!

Tall tales and bad romance find a welcome home in public drinkeries. A story was overheard about Darwin's misadventure into the Gulf of Mexico. Navigational errors, ill winds and ocean currents steered the helm and blew the sails of H.M.S. Beagle into the Gulf of Mexico and up the mouth of the Mississippi River, eventually to dock at the port of New Orleans. After several days of observing the native population, a sizable a percentage of which was considered the "property" of the rest, it was rumored that C.D. was on the verge of reformulating his theory after plugging in the data sets he gathered there.

Will, Thomas, Charlotte, Jim

Smiths, Schultze

But all jokes aside, NOSHAns know he had it right from the beginning; but we still need to work around that Mardi Gras thing to get his birthday tribute on a more regular schedule.

See ya in a few...Marty Bankson

Friday, March 31, 2017


 (Another newsletter submission from our November 19 meeting)

Sally Jackson was, at different times, a band director, trumpet player, and professional photographer before she moved to New Orleans from Houston and subsequently began to express herself through writing novels and poetry. That was also the time she transitioned at the mature age of of 57, though she had known she was different at the age of four. Caroline L’huillier was born into a military family two months premature on All Saint’s Day, and thus had a special remembrance of Halloween, when she liked costuming as woman. She married and had a child, but could no longer keep her identity from her wife, and the marriage was ended. She spent 18 years enlisted in the military herself, but was ignobly discharged because of her sexuality. Maxx Sizeler knew at three he wanted to marry a girl; he knew he was different, but decided on taking the process slowly, spending half of his life in the gay community. He finally had chest surgery, and has spent the other half in the trans community.

NOSHA members got an introduction to one of the newest human rights issues that has been gaining ground in the quest for resolution in media and cultural discussions and political legislation—transgender sexuality. It has typically been bunched together with gay, lesbian, and other non-traditional sexual orientations, but was the topic of a panel discussion “Transgender 101” at the November meeting in Metairie. The three panelists backgrounds were as varied as their experiences; but there was a common thread of the rational, intellectual decision-making on initiating the transition process to the gender identity each knew was the only correct one. But the transgender cause remains one with no national spokesperson; and the legal support groups are in their infancy.

Religious or just conservative lawmakers and enforcers seem to have their heels dug in against what is the last barrier for hetero- and cis-gender bigotry have to defend. Jackson said that even though the name changes, employment opportunities, and public accommodations are difficult, the emotional changes are the hardest of all, even with the best reasoned plans. When asked about Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist decathlete and current co-matriarch of the celebrity (famous for being famous) family, the Kardashians, Jackson said she was really not typical because of the money and celebrity, but that she should be given a chance.

L’huiller became emotional as she said it would have been so much easier for herself to have remained the sex her body agreed with, but…She then continued with an introductory overview of the terminology everyone needs to know: cis- and transgender; gender identity vs. gender expression, sexuality, and the “gray area” that most people could be placed in—one’s identity and expression are never black and white. And sexuality (who your really loved loving) adds another element to the complexity. Caroline updated the definition of the procedures that had previously be termed “sex change ” to “gender confirmation”— which makes much more sense. She herself had agonized on going through with it, but realized immediately after waking up in the hospital room she had done the right thing.

Sizeler addressed a question about the same topic from another perspective: “When I hear the word transsexual, I think of changing one’s genitalia. Is that always to be expected?” asked one from the audience. “No,” said Sizeler, “...that change is no longer that’s not about what’s between your legs but what’s up here,” he said pointing to his head.

A young lady in the audience from a more rural suburb asked what the panel would recommend for support for a young person who would be dealing with parents, friends, and schoolmates. Jackson and L’huillier recommended Louisiana Trans Advocates, which has been around for about 6 years and has 1250 members. Support groups like this one will be essential, along with other non-specific human rights and humanist groups to overcome the societal stigma and all its dehumanizing consequences placed on these brave souls who were born with bodies unrepresentative of their true sexuality.

~Marty Bankson

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Just a Walk in the Park

To follow is an article from our current newsletter, The Humanist Advocate (Issue 1, 2017)

September 24

The “Unholy Strollers,” the unofficial walking (and parading) group of the also unofficial NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club turned out a good participation for The 27th Chevron No/AIDS Walk—a yearly fall fundraising event organized by the No/AIDS Task Force. Not only did 11 walkers make the two-lap trip around Audubon Park, but the NOSHA group pledged at least $650, both of which are probably records since NOSHA has been active in this community project for about the last five years.

Marshall Harris, also one of our own, was chosen as the Grand Marshall (not a pun) and Master of Ceremonies of this year’s rendition of the fundraiser. He turned in a strong performance singing the national anthem at the Newman Bandstand; and then led the way in his trademark plumed tophat and baton in hand, to begin the 3-mile trek around the park’s walking and biking path.