Thursday, April 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW-- The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Readers interested in the early history of Christianity will enjoy historian Bart Ehrman’s latest book and bestseller, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The book focuses mainly on what happened, and why things happened the way the did, during the 4th century. In 301 CE, Christians were a small but visible minority within the Roman Empire, subject to persecution by decree of emperor Diocletian. By 399 Christianity was the official religion of the empire, and probably half the population practiced it. How did so dramatic a change unfold? What factors made the rise of Christianity improbable? What factors contributed to its success?

Unlike some historians, Ehrman fully accepts the conversion of Constantine the Great, Rome’s first Christian Emperor, as entirely authentic. Constantine’s edict (312 CE) tolerating all religions, and the prestige of having an emperor who was Christian, spurred on the growth of the religion. But Ehrman gives less importance to these facts than some historians do. He describes a number of factors restraining the growth of Christianity. It’s insistence on worshipping only one god, excluding all others, was quite alien to the world view of pagan Rome, which encompassed a nearly infinite pageant of gods, spirits, and heroes. The idea of blending ethical philosophy with religion would also have seemed strange, maybe even a little bit crazy, to most Greeks and Romans, whose gods and priests had little say to about how humans should behave toward other humans. Moreover, Christianity’s emphasis on an afterlife might have seemed rather superstitious to people who mostly had only very vague and fuzzy notions about such things. Ehrman points out that many Roman graves of the era had an inscription that was as familiar to them as R.I.P. would be on our tombstones. It often read simply N.F.F.N.S.N.C., standing for Non Fui, Fui, Non Sum, Non Curo, meaning I was not, I was, I am not, I care not. Many modern secularists may share a similar notion today, expecting no more cares after death than before birth.

But some of Christianity’s oddities might also have made the religion attractive. An afterlife that included rewards in heaven could have appealed to a large portion of the population, whose lives were often hard. The possibility of punishments in hell, coupled with the claim that a final judgment was near at hand, added a sense of urgency. More than most of the religions of the empire, Christianity claimed to offer a plan, a method for getting that heavenly life ever after. Ehrman emphasizes, too, the importance of miracles in persuading many of the validity of the new religion. Miracles then, Ehrman suspects, were much the same as miracles today, meaning that most of the people who believed in miracles never experienced one personally nor witnessed one directly. People hear about miracles that happen to other people, and some come to believe those miracles are facts, and are persuaded by them. Miracles, or at least stories about miracles, were a major selling point of early Christianity.

One common understanding that Ehrman tries to dispense with is the notion that the Christianization of the Roman Empire required repeated conversions on a massive scale. Of course no solid numbers are available. But reasonable estimates of the population of the empire and the numbers of Christians at different points in time tell a story that is distinctly non-dramatic. The shift from tiny minority to clear majority took several centuries, and could have been achieved at an average growth rate in the range of 3% to 4% per year. That is, each group of 100 Christians had to increase their number by 3 or 4 persons every year, something that could easily result from converting a single family. That doesn’t sound like much, but like compounded interest the growth curve is exponential over time. Ehrman makes a strong case that a modest growth rate, sustained mostly by one-on-one, face-to-face communication, continued over several centuries, converted a vast empire.

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart D. Ehrman (Simon and Schuster, 2018), is currently available in hardcover, ebook, and audible editions.

Jim Dugan
NOSHA Board Member and Secretary

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

If the Humanist Manifesto Were a Book It Might Look Like This

Editor's note: The following is a continuing and expanded review of Steven Pinker's newly released book referenced in the previous post.


In what must be the most robust recent defense of the 18th Century social, political, and intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment, Steven Pinker stays true to the movement’s foundations by methodically presenting its case in his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018), affirming his  belief in the certainty of increasing progress and the widening of the availability of the necessities of well-being to more people across the globe. From the use of the human capacity to reason, tempered with another very human characteristic, sympathy, life is not nearly as pitiless and severe as it once was. Through the study of the natural sciences, whose practical applications are its fraternal twin offspring technology and medicine, a body of knowledge and infrastructure has evolved to provide more of the basic necessities for prolonging life and maintaining good health to an increasing number of the population.On the political front, the use of the rule of law, and rational debate and criticism in a better educated population in an open society helps  identify and correct overbearing social and political injustices, and has resulted in less violence, fewer catastrophic wars, and a more even-handed distribution of human rights and wealth.

***

Pinker explains very early in the book that the Enlightenment principles of reason, science, humanism, and progress are in need of a “wholehearted defense," since the wisdom that has been gained and the progress that has been made are not a “cosmic birthright,” but rather human accomplishments, and not guaranteed to advance or even remain at the current level of universality. He sets as the goal of the book to “restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.” The movement has had its detractors almost from its beginning nearly 300 years ago. But today’s opposition can be classified in several major categories: ideologies that suggest people are expendable units of a “superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group,race, or nation”; or religious appeals and theological promises of eternal life and transcendent salvation through belief in gods; concerns about the dangers of an unchecked rush to technology (the Frankenstein effect); the moral concerns of superabundance and the materialization and increasing  emptiness of character associated with consumerism; and the movement away from the humanities disciplines in educational institutions in favor of STEM curricula. Aside from opposition from the human side, physical laws of nature also work against improvement, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in a closed system, entropy does not decrease—which means, in practical parlance, that a physical arrangement either remains constant or tends to become disordered, so that no increase in ordering (which we can assume would, for the sake of the argument, be required to increase progress) can occur without investing energy captured elsewhere. As all of the concepts listed above have much to do with a certain ordering of the structures of animal and plant life, machines and structure, and information itself, a portion of any energy entering the system must be used to maintain the current standard or possibly increase the ordering (or lowering of entropy) for a beneficial outcome. The biological law of evolution is another burden to progress in a couple of ways: our genetic individuality “gives us our different tastes and needs, and it also sets the stage for strife.” Additionally, “our cognitive , emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one.”

But two features of human cognition work to overcome the tendency of these natural laws and the ill-advised grand schemes of humans to resist order and progress: abstract thought and “combinatorial and recursive power,” which, combined with language and writing, are recorded and can be “shared across a community of thinkers.This allows large and connected communities to take shape and come up with ways of organizing their affairs that work to their members’ mutual advantage,” including all sorts of practical applications such as food production, transportation infrastructure design, and educational principles.

With this abstract background of his premise, Pinker proposes 15 theoretical topics as metrics by which to evaluate the overarching concept of progress, and a steady (if not always smooth) increase of conditions and results indicative of human well-being and flourishing are demonstrated. He uses a similar approach in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. In Enlightenment Now, no fewer than 75 graphs are spread out among chapters titled

Life                                       The Environment Equal Rights
Health                                   Peace Knowledge
Sustenance                          Safety      Quality of Life
Wealth                                  Terrorism Happiness
Inequality                              Democracy Existential Threats

each chapter containing other confirming evidence drawn from the wealth of knowledge provided by the sources listed in the 20-page References section of the book. He makes what seems to an irrefutable case affirming the human condition has been improving, and that the principles of the Enlightenment—which is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism”—is the driving force behind it.
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So why, if the human condition is better for more people, doesn’t it seem like it? A shroud of pessimism has been a fixture in the psyche of modern man, and all the advances made since the dawn of modernism in the mid- to late 19th century seem to have been of little consolation. Certainly two major world wars, genocide, and the introduction of the specter of a nuclear Armageddon didn’t help. Existentialist and post-structuralist philosophies, social and cultural critics, and postmodern literature all help in unfolding and widening the shroud. In the chapter “Progressophobia,” Pinker sees a possible clue in this paradox of doom in the age of plenty in what psychologists Tversky and Kahneman call the “Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an (bad) event...by the ease with which instances [of it] come to mind. Frequent events leave stronger memory traces….” and thus establish as fact a questionable figment of that often unreliable source we call recollection. We hear from the news media of starvation in Africa, wars in the Middle East, but do not hear of the well-nourished in China or peace in Vietnam. So part of the “blame” in this positive feedback loop of pessimism and confirmation biases lies with the news media, with the academics and intellectuals, and some on the basic psychology of how we process and file incoming information. The author relates that he learned from interviewees' questions and objections while working on The Better Angels that “resistance to the idea of progress runs deeper than statistical fallacies.” “The answer is to count,” he quips later.

Pinker does not address what is the most troubling premise of the primacy of reason in Enlightenment and progressive thought. That is the assumption that anything which cannot be defended by means of argument or experience must be dismissed. This is what philosopher Karl Popper calls “uncritical (or comprehensive) rationalism.” Since that assumption itself “cannot, in its turn, be supported by argument or by experience, it should itself be discarded.” It is “logically untenable,” and analogous to the liar’s paradox. This point lies at the heart of the criticism of rationalism itself, and leads to charges that rationalism is nothing more than another faith. Pinker does, in at least one place, demonstrate the “contra-paradox” involved in this match of dueling reason that one cannot argue in a logically valid form a case against reason. Think about it. Pinker also acknowledges that humans are not perfectly rational animals, and that what seem as perfectly rational ideas and actions one day prove to be off the mark the next. It is a self-correction process, much like the scientific method. It is trial and error and retry. Popper recommends tempering the function of reason to “critical rationalism,” with the understanding that, even though there is no axiom behind it, it is superior to abandoning rationalism altogether in favor of its antithesis irrationalism. To him “The choice before us is not simply an intellectual affair, or taste. It is a moral decision…. Rationalism is closely connected with the belief in the unity of mankind. Irrationalism, which is not bound by any rules of consistency, may be combined with any kind of belief in the brotherhood of man; but the fact that it may easily be combined with a very different belief, and especially the fact that it lends itself easily to the support of a romantic belief in the existence of an elect body, the division of men into leaders and led, into natural masters and natural slaves, shows clearly that a moral decision is involved in the choice between it and a critical rationalism.”(1) And Steven Pinker does make this point, over and again—the moral point, that is. Working “reasonably” together as humans,  practicing a utilitarian, consequentialist ethics, and pulling back that dark shroud that drapes the modern age to reveal the lighted way forward is simply the only moral choice. Will Enlightenment Now become the Bible of secular humanism? Well, no: we don’t do Bibles; but a more comprehensive and persuasive polemic will likely be a long time coming; and one is not going to find a better sourcebook on current trends and topics in humanist thought.



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(1) Popper, K. 1950,1956. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp 417-418

Marty Bankson
The Humanist Advocate

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Elimination Through Enlightenment: Humanism and Capital Punishment

The trend in mass shootings  has been to find the body of the perpetrator among or nearby the dead and dying, prone on  the killing floor with his victims— either from his own hand or “neutralized” by the rescuers. (I use the masculine pronoun since these atrocities are always carried out by men.) We are then left with the multiple crises of grieving, the unending questions of causes and answers, and attempts to ferret out some sense of closure as we go about burying the dead. That is the trend, but occasionally the murderer escapes the scene alive, and is either captured in flight, or is subdued on the site. Once in custody, we are faced with another crisis, that of the choice involving continuing or ending the life of the accused: should this person live or die? The state, as a representative of the people forming it, has the legal monopoly to carry out killing, mandated through law. Should it? As it turns out in the case of Nikolas Cruz, the troubled teenager who shot dead seventeen in a high school building, this crisis of choice rests primarily with the jurisdiction’s district attorney or other designated prosecutor. Cruz’ defense attorney has already made the offer to agree to the defendant’s plea of guilt if the death penalty is excluded from the sentence. Almost two weeks has passed since this proposal was floated, but to date, no response has been forthcoming from the prosecutor. It is a “crisis” of choice inasmuch that if the prosecutor proceeds to send the case to trial seeking the death penalty, there is a good chance that, barring any legal snafus or abuses, Cruz will be found guilty. The defense of Cruz would boil down to his unfortunate circumstance of an unstable family life involving adoption, the loss of both adoptive parents, the move to a third family, and the failure of the state to recognize him as potentially sociopathic, and then failing to follow up with him—even with fair warnings from police records and personal testimonies. Neither of these, alone or together, are usually sufficient grounds for meriting a reprieve. The prosecutor in cases that involve the death penalty has a morbidly serious decision that no mere mortal should be confronted with, but usually manages anyway with a clear conscience, assuming a mandate has been proffered from the voting public which, in the United States, approve of the death penalty by over 60%. The United States government law allows for execution only in certain cases of terrorism and treason, but leaves individual states free to make their decisions about it. It is not certain why the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in abolishing this archaic ritual of ultimate vengeance,  it could be a hangover from mythical (read: religious) concepts of retributive and redemptive violence, wherein one is somehow “repaid” or redeemed through acts of violence; but allowing individual states their own option on moral issues involving matters of life and death is not a good idea. Even so, the practice is on the decline according to Steven Pinker in his newly released book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018). Seven states have banned capital punishment in the past decade, bringing the total to 19. Of the 31 states where it is still legal, 16 have moratoria against it. Some states have not used it in over five years. Pinker describes this retreat as a breakdown of the machinery “of the intricate apparatus of death and the team of mechanics to run and repair it,” and further, “As the machine wears out and the mechanics refuse to maintain it, it becomes increasingly unwieldy and invites being scrapped.” That cycle began with the “historical expansion of sympathy and reason,” to the point that even the strongest supporters of the death penalty “lost their stomach” for the brutality of it. Factors playing a role in the growing revulsion are forensic DNA and fingerprinting methods showing that the wrong person is sometimes executed; the relative “dignity” and humanity associated with even its “cleanest” iteration, lethal injection—although a long way from the “gory sadism of crucifixion and disembowelment”—is still fraught with unreliability and pain; and the increasing dependability of penitentiary design and operation making them escape- and riot-proof have made life terms of incarceration within them the more desirable option.
“The pathways [to abolition of the death penalty] are manifold and tortuous,” writes Pinker, “the effects are slow and then sudden, but in the fullness of time an idea from the Enlightenment can transform the world.” And why not? Many ideas from that age have transformed the world, literally . But  for the present, unfortunately, Mr. Cruz’ fate rests on the grim choice the district attorney makes with his state-invested authority to avenge death with death. And we know what that means.


The Humanist Advocate

Marty Bankson

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Young People Speaking Their Minds

Lie-In, February 19 

There's something happening here, What it is ain't exactly clear. 
There's a man with a gun over there, Telling me I got to beware.
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.  
Stephen Stills, 1966. 




One of the most significant and unlikely political movements involving constitutional policy in  United States history may have started Valentine’s Day, 2018. That day a mentally unbalanced teenager caught an Uber ride to his former high school in Parkland , Florida, and with his legally acquired assault rifle rained fire and bloody death on 17 students and teachers, and left a dozen others with injuries.

It’s an old story, right? Another week, another mass shooting; another month, another school shooting. As news reports start coming in, the first question that comes to mind is “how many this time?” Then come the whys—why here? why now? why does this keep happening? why can’t we stop this? But the first question is the only question that ever seems to get answered, and that comes pretty quickly. Seventeen, fifty-nine, forty-nine, nine, thirty-two, fourteen, twenty-six, fourteen, twenty-six….

And then the whys just stop coming and are left unanswered after a few days, or a week—the time before forgetting them just depends on the numbers (only three?), or depends on the relative heinousness (children? church-goers?). The demands for changes to gun laws fade to silence as lawmakers assure us that it is too early, it is a time for healing, it is a time for deep thoughts and piteous prayer. Changes can be made when cooler heads prevail. Like….never. Then February the 14th happened. The grim circumstance presented the same questions and the same silence... but not for long. Perhaps it began with two heartbroken students talking between themselves, maybe more; perhaps it got networked through Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram... but however it developed, it was soon viral. It seems for the first time a political movement has the potential of affecting some serious changes to laws dealing with firearms, and possibly even shaking the Second Amendment from its perception as being the most inviolable of all rights, which all but allows every individual to become one’s own personal military arsenal.
At last, a group has seized on the opportunity created from horror, the same horror that has created so many missed opportunities before. And that group —the movers of the movement, the spirit that drives it—are the students themselves. Fourteen to eighteen year-olds, mainly. This is the most unlikely part of it, though on second thought, it shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of them can’t even vote. But it is a matter of self defense, after all. What else can they do? There are no grown-ups in the room. It started with Parkland students speaking loudly and often this past weekend, and seems to be attracting young students in other parts of the country. Today a lie-in was held by students in the D. C. area near the White House. They are saying “these are our lives and dreams being shattered, and we will have something to say about it... if we can’t vote, we’ll be in the streets; and when we can vote, all of you NRA puppets will be out of here!” Plans have been announced for a “massive rally against school and gun violence in Washington, D.C., on March 24, with smaller rallies and protests in cities around the U.S.,” reported NPR yesterday. Women’s March organizers have planned a nationwide walk out of schools to protest gun violence. This seems to be a cause created for humanists. NOSHANs have been active in making their views seen and heard at events during the last few years, including several members going to Baton Rouge to join with other groups in a counter-rally to then-Governor Jindal’s love fest and rally with the American Family Association on the LSU campus; participating in two Women’s Marches; joining in with the March for Science last Spring, and a curbside sign-waving rally on Clearview Parkway in objection to the Hobby Lobby corporation's decision to refuse including payment for contraceptives in their employees' insurance plan (which later became the landmark Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case heard before the Supreme Court).
If students of local schools plan a version of this march for our area, we belong with them; if they don’t, perhaps we should take it on ourselves to become a visual or vocal presence on this issue. It would be an opportunity to show our solidarity with our young citizens, our children and grandchildren; and, for once, it can be an opportunity not missed.


The Humanist Advocate~ report by Marty Bankson

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Looking at Identity from the Center

A Liberal Opinion from Mark Lilla


 “...the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’ oppression.” —from the Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
"anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics."—Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal 

Once upon a time in recent history, someone altered the quotation  “All politics is local,” reportedly said by former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, to fit a blossoming cultural trend and controversial niche of higher educational study and curricula to “All politics is identity politics” (and its corollary “all politics is personal”), which has proven to be, at the very least, a fail proof title for bloggers and journalists under which to express their own two cents worth on the subject. A few examples can be seen here, there, and everywhere. One ambitious writer even tries stirring interest with its antithesis yonder.

Mark Lilla, author of last year’s much-discussed book The Once and Future Liberal (HarperCollins, 2017, Kindle Edition) is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and has written other books about political philosophy and history, including The Stillborn God, The Shipwrecked Mind, and The Reckless Mind. The oddly simplistic titles of the books, along with a lucid and straightforward writing style belie his  thorough understanding of the history of ideas of politics. In this book he takes a position that is usually associated with the thinking of both those farther left of liberalism and farther right at the same time, those which challenge the idea that identity politics is true politics in the first place; a paradox that I’ll try to illuminate later.

He sets up his premise looking at twentieth century U. S. history based on two different and opposing grand political themes—which he calls “dispensations,” borrowing from the theological term meaning, loosely, “ divine ordering of the world”—named for their association with the presidents that inspired them and became recognized as the guru of each. The Roosevelt dispensation began with the New Deal escape from the Great Depression and excesses of monopoly capitalists, and continued through the defeat of fascism, the civil rights movement—up to the Great Society days of Johnson. It “pictured an American where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of human rights.” and could be tagged with words like solidarity, opportunity,  and public duty. The Reagan Dispensation “pictured a more individualistic America, where families...and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state,” with watchwords like self-reliance and minimal government. The early 1970s is generally accepted as the time the transition began, culminating in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Lilla’s ultimate message is to emphasize party politics over movement and identity politics as the only successful way to achieve progress, but  that about this time,  democrats abdicated power to the Republican Party by not following this prescription. The New Left of the 1960s spawned  issue-based movements that helped bring about progressive change, writes Lilla, but did nothing to contribute to the unification of the Democratic Party and develop a liberal vision of America’s shared future.  Remnants of the New Left were left scattered following their attempt at a radical transformation of American society. Scattered, but not forgotten: many of the group, now with degrees, returned to campuses as instructors or activist hangers-on and “turned the university into a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas” which, “generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, and political correctness.”  On the other side, however, Republicans were spreading out across the country through small towns, rural counties, and big cities participating in “real” politics by getting people elected to offices of magistrates to judges to governors, where the power for change really rests.

Enter Reaganism—the new vision of bootstrapping one’s way to success if only big government would get out of the way was presented in 3D and replayed through political campaigns and commercial media. The economic lull of stagflation after the post-war boom years and flattening  wages was blamed in whole or part on big government with its proliferation of welfare and social aid programs, byzantine bureaucracy, and appetite for war (even if was about Communism). The vision of the newly empowered individual speaking true to the power of the monolithic state swept Republicans into the driver’s seat in statehouses, federal offices, and the Presidency. And this is the paradox: another form of individualism was populating our campuses and writing policy in the Democratic playbook. That form being self-definition, construction of personal brands, self-regard, and training students to become “spelunkers of their personal identities. Reaganism for lefties, Lilla calls it. We now had two identitarian groups; one of wallet-watchers and the other of navel-gazers, neither concerned much about the concepts of reciprocal rights and duties, civic responsibility as a virtue, a common vision for the future, or the priority of citizenship over group or personal identity. (Sam Harris claims we deny the common rationality shared by humans.) The conservatives are correct in saying that liberals run academia, but fail to see that it works in their own favor, since collegiate identity politics has a fragmenting, anti-political quality built in, which  should affirm that the Republican has no need to feel threatened or challenged for power, at least from those quarters. The left identitarians create their own problem, with the backlash from white supremacists gaining a renewed feeling of empowerment—courtesy of the student body’s lead that it was now okay for everyone to get along with expressing their own identity.

Some reviewers of The Once and Future Liberal see it as more of a polemic than a scholarly social analysis, filled with over-simplifications, stereotypes, and buzzwords. Lilla himself admits to being “harsh” in his criticism of the phenomenon. But often it takes a rousing polemic to refresh interest in a topic that has tended toward the over-analyzed and  a sameness that triggers the glaze-over-zone-out effects in readers. The feedback from writers in the national media demonstrates the controversy his book has created. Lilla’s insistence on moving on from what is now a four decades-long move from the civic-minded citizen working with others to get through troubling times and plan for the better future into today’s hyper-individualistic, atomizing, de-politicizing, and self-absorbing libertarian ideology is probably a project those who identify as humanists could agree with as project worth pursuing. Whether they would agree that working through grassroots Democratic party politics to accomplish that is another question. After all, the accusation that both major party organizations, as servants to a larger neoliberal capitalist ethos are systemically corrupting in themselves cannot be ignored. That the ethos motivated by profits alone can, in the course of one television program, promote ideal of all people of various cultures and skin colors celebrating life while enjoying their soft drink in one commercial; and in the next, offer inexpensive DNA test kits to show you just how different you are from the  folks in the previous commercial shows where the vision of the current party politics is likely focused.
So is Lilla’s solution to the problem viable? Is the problem really a problem?  Whatever the correct answers are, it is a good bet they won’t be the coming from one person, one party, or one identity group alone.

~reported by Marty Bankson NOSHA Board Vice-President

Friday, January 5, 2018

We Got to Admit It's Getting Better...All the Time



Even though that wall calendar with photos of wide-angle landscapes or cuddly kittens is now out with the trash, I’ll bet some of you are still writing 2017 in your checkbook (if you still use checkbooks), or just find it hard to break the habit of the year just passed in some other insignificant way; so I’ll use that as a justification to look back one more time at that curious time that was 2017— through the lens of NOSHA activity. Though most versions of “Year in Review” (and its concomitant long list of notable deaths) appear in media platforms the week after Christmas, this is only a week behind schedule, so please indulge me and overlook the lame checkbook reasoning.






In Memoriam: The Winter Solstice celebration of the year before (2016) was probably the last time many of us saw Harry Greenberger. His wry smile belied the almost limitless generosity of his spirit. He was the √©lan vital of The New Orleans Secular Humanist Association as President. He had just recently resigned from the Board of Directors; and following a brief illness, died weeks before his 90th birthday. He is NOSHA’s notable.





So….Just In Case You Missed It —

The year began with a shared and uncharacteristically cheerless mood for most progressive and optimistic humanists following the election in November of the current occupants of the White House, so much so that no January program was scheduled, as if in mourning to the dream of a better world that could soon possibly turn into a nightmare…...   Several members attended the first-ever national Women’s March, on January 21st, coincidentally held the day after the inauguration…... In February, in lieu of a formal program centered around Darwin Day, and in keeping with the spirit of Mardi Gras, a dozen or two gathered at Monkey Hill Bar on Magazine Street to pay tribute with drinks and and birthday cakes to the Evolution Guy…..
Returning to Jefferson East Bank Regional Library in March, NOSHA members and guests were presented a screening of the film Bag It! and an address by  Max Ciolino, with the No Waste NOLA group, both the film and talk about the potential for environmental—and thus human—catastrophic poisoning from the accumulation of indestructible plastic containers, packaging, and grocery bags. New Orleans goes through 225 million plastic grocery bags a year (!) Where do they go?…...
To my knowledge, the first field trip in NOSHA’s 17-year history hit the highway to Livingston, La., the site of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).

A description of this marvel of science and engineering is too long for this format, but some background about it  and our experience  can be read here. In short, no better way to experience Einstein’s prediction of the effects of the “warping” of space-time and how it can be measured…....


In May, Seth Andrews, the man behind The Thinking Atheist blog was our guest speaker and drew one of our largest audiences of the year. There is nothing quite like scheduling a “big name” atheist to pack them in. The previous year, David Silverman resulted in similar interest…...
The summer side of the solstice celebrations went off smoothly with the help and graciousness of Membership Coordinator Beth Deitch, once again offering her home as the venue. She cannot be thanked too many times…….
Marjorie Esman, the now-retired Executive Director of Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union, addressed the audience at the July monthly meeting, emphasizing some changes for the better that had been taking place within state and federal government laws through the ACLU’s diligent and legal involvement, such as bans on immigration on religious grounds, voter discrimination laws, reducing prison populations (and encouraging the establishment of programs to reduce recidivism), and sharing the good news that the theocratic lobby Louisiana Family Forum is losing its once very powerful influence in legislative and court battles…...
Williams and Bust of Volney, France
Thomas Christian Williams, probably the leading  historian on the works of the 18th Century French author Volney, and specifically, The Ruins of Empires, which is a “book of secular general principles,” most notably as the book that Thomas Jefferson began translating into English until a run for the presidency forced him to abandon the project. Williams’ presentation was proof that a lecture on the history and implications of a single book need not be dry or boring…... The subject matter of October’s meeting became deadly serious as Julie Hanway of The Final Exit Network came to town to tell us about her group’s dedication to and work for securing the right to die for the terminally ill and those suffering from chronic unbearable pain. The group was founded by some of the original members of the Hemlock Society (hemlock being the poison Socrates drank to emphasize his right to choose the time, place, and by whose hand he would die). This is a somber subject and occupation—but someone needs to do it ......
The third Saturday in November, NOSHA’s scheduled monthly meeting date, ended up on election day this year and we were forced to find an alternative meeting place since the Jefferson Parish library is also a designated polling place. The good folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue were kind enough to provide (for a nominal fee) their sanctuary for our “service,” which this month was an open discussion on atheism in general and as a movement (no irony here, right?), free speech and tolerance within the movement, and how our organization in particular could polish its public face with visitors and potential new members. Ms. Deitch did a professional job of moderating the discussion as she has done several times previously. Did I mention she was capable of hosting large parties as well?…...
But for the 2017 Solstice Celebration, Winter edition, Marshall Harris took over the reins as “official” host at his home on Bayou St. John.

Celebrating the Solstice
The gleaming white living area, all trimmed in red and strings of lights (similar the decorating theme of that
other holiday happening around this time of year) also served as a perfect setting and time for the presentation of the Harry Greenberger Humanist Award to Marjorie Esman, who was a lock to be the selection for this award as soon as she became able to except it. As the now-retired ACLU chief, she was no longer restricted from accepting gifts or awards from partisan groups, save possible accusations of conflicts of interests. Free of that, there has never been a more powerful group sharing NOSHA’s  concern of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment than Louisiana’s ACLU, and Ms. Esman continued that tradition as well or better than her predecessors in the role of Executive Director. We should be humbled by the fact that she took our award to be a true honor and compliment.
President Klasson (l.) Presenting the
 Greenberger Award to Esman


Behind the scenes of the public third-Saturday lectures, discussions, and parties are a couple of other projects that deserve a mention to appreciate the dedication of our members to getting out our message that one can be Good Without God. Some of our members took part in demonstrations having shared common interests with, and sponsored by, larger groups: The March for Science in April, the Chevron NO/AIDS Walk walk in October, and the Second Line for Equal Justice in November all drew at least a few NOSHAns.



Harris, Stage Right
Our own Marshall Harris served as the Master of Ceremonies for the No/AIDS Walk™ for the second straight year…...


Since taking over “The Humanist Perspective,” the television program aired on the access cable network NOA-TV, the team of Deitch, Dugan, and Klasson have, through scheduling interesting guests and with their unique interviewing styles, added a new a new twist to program. Dare I say a new perspective? A re-make of the introduction of the program is in the planning stages, so stay tuned. Archived programs can be seen on YouTube’s “New Orleans Humanists” channel…...
Our commitment to public service volunteer projects is undergoing a revitalization and evolution of the NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club, by expanding the scope of activities with which we will try to involve ourselves, and adding the name NOSHA Service Corps. What started out as clean-up crew under the city’s Save Our Cemeteries organization five years ago, the effort  has grown to include usually two shifts at the Second Harvest Food Bank, and this year, tree-planting excursions to Port Manchac, La.

Now that the shock of the national political turmoil has faded for most of us, we should expect nothing but a better year. It’s here!


January 4, 2018

The Humanist Advocate

Marty Bankson