Topics of interest to Humanists, especially those in New Jersey

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sam Harris: In Defense of Elitism 

When Atheists Attack
A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin - and defends elitism.

Sam Harris
From the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008

Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin's performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin's speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who - being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy - could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones "God and country." If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.

Then came Palin's first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin's luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady's misfortune - and, above all, upon the "liberal elites" with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story - but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security ... the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

Palin's most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn't much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase "Bush doctrine." And I am quite sure that her supporters didn't care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin is guaranteed not to know - or will be glossing only under the frenzied tutelage of John McCain's advisers. What doesn't she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.

I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn't: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with mil-lions of Americans - but we shouldn't be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn't ready for? He wouldn't. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country - even the welfare of our species - as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.

In speaking before her church about her son going to war in Iraq, Palin urged the congregation to pray "that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God; that's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan." When asked about these remarks in her interview with Gibson, Palin successfully dodged the issue of her religious beliefs by claiming that she had been merely echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times later dubbed her response "absurd." It was worse than absurd; it was a lie calculated to conceal the true character of her religious infatuations. Every detail that has emerged about Palin's life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the "end times." Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war and bad weather. Undoubtedly Palin believes that this will be a good thing - as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists and other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire. Like many Pentecostals, Palin may even imagine that she and her fellow parishioners enjoy the power of prophecy themselves. Otherwise, what could she have meant when declaring to her congregation that "God's going to tell you what is going on, and what is going to go on, and you guys are going to have that within you"?

You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy "baptism in the Holy Spirit," "miraculous healings" and "the gift of tongues." Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin's spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of "the final generation," engaged in "spiritual warfare" to purge the earth of "demonic strongholds." Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: "All options remain on the table"?

It is easy to see what many people, women especially, admire about Sarah Palin. Here is a mother of five who can see the bright side of having a child with Down syndrome and still find the time and energy to govern the state of Alaska. But we cannot ignore the fact that Palin's impressive family further testifies to her dogmatic religious beliefs. Many writers have noted the many shades of conservative hypocrisy on view here: when Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant, it is considered a symptom of liberal decadence and the breakdown of family values; in the case of one of Palin's daughters, however, teen pregnancy gets reinterpreted as a sign of immaculate, small-town fecundity. And just imagine if, instead of the Palins, the Obama family had a pregnant, underage daughter on display at their convention, flanked by her black boyfriend who "intends" to marry her. Who among conservatives would have resisted the temptation to speak of "the dysfunction in the black community"?

Teen pregnancy is a misfortune, plain and simple. At best, it represents bad luck (both for the mother and for the child); at worst, as in the Palins' case, it is a symptom of religious dogmatism. Governor Palin opposes sex education in schools on religious grounds. She has also fought vigorously for a "parental consent law" in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning - or, indeed, of the 21st century.

We have endured eight years of an administration that seemed touched by religious ideology. Bush's claim to Bob Woodward that he consulted a "higher Father" before going to war in Iraq got many of us sitting upright, before our attention wandered again to less ethereal signs of his incompetence. For all my concern about Bush's religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to "talk the talk" between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to "walk the walk" until the Day of Judgment.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents - and her supporters celebrate - the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth-in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex - and dangerous - with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. "You can't blink," she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.

Harris is a founder of The Reason Project and author of The New York Times best sellers "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation." His Web site is


Comments: Post a Comment

IHEU September 2008 news 

This is a monthly update of news from International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). You can find the full versions of these news stories on our web site.

IHEU interviews new Nepal Deputy PM: Nepal commits to secular state
In a landmark interview, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the new Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal has spoken to IHEU of the new administration's commitment to secularism. "We will introduce Constitutional measures to protect Secularism", he told Babu Gogineni. Read more

Rally for secularism during Pope's visit to France - 14 September 2008
Four French Member Organizations of IHEU want to reaffirm the principles of secularism on the occasion of the announcement of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to France, September 12-15, at the invitation of the Bishops' Conference of France. This visit is aimed at "celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto of Lourdes". Read more

National conference on Osu caste system and untouchability - 21-22 October, 2008
Join Humanists, Freethinkers, human rights activists, intellectuals from Nigeria and Overseas to discuss and debate on how to eradicate caste discrimination and untouchability in the world. Sponsorships are available for victims of caste discrimination and untouchability in Nigeria. Read more

IHEU's UN campaign highlighted in Canada
IHEU's campaign for freedom of expression at the UN Human Rights Council has been highlighted by Macleans, the Canadian news magazine. In a wide-ranging article concluding that Islamic states are trying to stifle freedom of speech in the guise of anti-defamation rules, the magazine quoted the recent ruling at the Council that NGOs could not refer to Sharia law. Read more

World conference on untouchability - June 2009 - first notice and call for papers
Untouchability persists in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen and Nigeria. Nearly 250 million persons are directly affected by this disease. It is time for the world to take note and to eradicate this heinous practice. Calling Victims, Rights Activists, Academics and Governments to contribute to, and to participate in, the First World Conference on Untouchability. Read more

An eye-opener for India
In an illustrated article on the occasion of India's Independence Day, Babu Gogineni highlights the superstitious obstacles to India's progress and warns of the dangers of departing from the path of reason. Read more

Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society - London, 10 October 2008
IHEU member organization The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain presents its first international conference: "Political Islam, Sharia Law, and Civil Society" on Friday 10 October 2008 (International day against the Death Penalty) 10am-6pm. Read more

IHEU condemns attack on Indian Humanist
IHEU has condemned recent aggression against prominent Humanist Mr C L N Gandhi, including abuse based on his birth caste. Mr Gandhi is Additional Commissioner of Road Transport, Andhra Pradesh State, India. Read more

August 2008 IHN published
The August 2008 issue of International Humanist News has been published. This edition includes features on the 2008 World Humanist Congress; and Humanism in Europe. We have the full text, a PDF version with full layout and pictures and back numbers from the last 16 years available on the web site. Read more

International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella organisation for Humanist, ethical culture, rationalist, secularist and freethought groups. Based in London, it is an international NGO with Special Consultative Status with the UN (New York, Geneva, Vienna), General Consultative Status at UNICEF (New York) and the Council of Europe (Strasbourg), and it maintains operational relations with UNESCO (Paris).

Its mission is to build and represent the global Humanist movement, to defend human rights and to promote Humanist values world-wide. IHEU sponsors the triennial World Humanist Congress.

You can find out more about IHEU on our web site.

Comments: Post a Comment

Center for Inquiry Defends Freedom of Expression at U.N. Human Rights Council 

Center for Inquiry Defends Freedom of Expression at the U.N. Human Rights Council

New Report Critiques Movement at United Nations that would Prohibit "Defamation of Religions"

United Nations, Geneva (September 17, 2008) - As a coalition of Islamic states leads a movement to restrict freedom of expression that "defames" religion, the Center for Inquiry is speaking at the Ninth Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to defend liberty to doubt, dissent, and blaspheme. At a September 17 briefing at the Council, CFI released a new position paper, which critiques an effort led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to undermine the universality of human rights.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an umbrella organization of 57 Islamic states, has appropriated the traditions of Islam and Islamic law to contend that so-called "Western" conceptions of universal rights do not apply to their citizens. This effort has penetrated even the Human Rights Council (HRC), the United Nations body charged with defending universal rights.

In place of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, members of the OIC have adopted rival declarations, including the 1981 Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Despite official claims that they are "complementary," both undermine equality of persons and freedom of expression and religion by imposing restrictions on nearly every human right based on Islamic Sharia law.

In the HRC, a March 2008 resolution assigned the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression with the task of reporting abuses of free speech that offend religious belief. Non-governmental organizations have been silenced. Meanwhile, the General Assembly has passed yearly resolutions combating "the defamation of religions" and "Islamophobia." However, believers are already protected from dangerous incitement by existing human rights instruments. The new proposals seek nothing less than a blasphemy prohibition to protect belief itself.

"Rights belong to individuals, not ideas," states the Center for Inquiry report, titled "Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations." It describes the efforts by the OIC and its political allies seek to create a parallel system of human rights, and how some UN agencies are considering the integration of "defamation of religions" into international human rights law. Such an outcome would be "legally indefensible, morally objectionable, and politically disastrous," according to the report.


# Permit free discussion of religious matters at the HRC. When states use religion or culture as a justification for either human rights resolutions or transgressions, they must not be granted immunity from criticism, regardless of the sensitivities or cultural particularities involved.

# Restore the original mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The proper limits to free expression and threats to religious liberty are addressed by existing instruments. An official who protects free speech cannot simultaneously limit it.

# Reject the concept of "the defamation of religions." Believers deserve protection. Beliefs do not. Member states must move to stop these resolutions by the General Assembly and prevent the legal entrenchment of the concept of "defamation of religions."

# Clarify the status of Islamic human rights. HRC members and UN member states generally must voice their concerns about the "Islamization" of rights discourse, and its consistency with universal standards.

On Friday, September 19, representatives of the Center for Inquiry will address the Human Rights Council main session on the topic of the defamation of religions. Past interventions by non-governmental organizations in favor of secularism have been interrupted by representatives of the OIC.

The new CFI position paper is online at

Comments: Post a Comment

American Atheists: Ed Buckner new President & 2008 Winter Solstice Gala 

For Immediate Release: September 19, 2008

American Atheists Names Ed Buckner New President

(Cranford, NJ). Acting President of American Atheists, Inc., Frank Zindler today announced that the Board has named Dr. Ed Buckner as President, effective immediately. According to Zindler, "We were most gratified to have had a number of superb candidates for the position of President. The Board is confident that the future of American Atheists the organization and indeed all Americans who are Atheists is bright now that Dr. Buckner has accepted this appointment."

Dave Silverman, National Spokesperson for American Atheists, noted that "Many who are active in the movement know of Dr. Buckner's accomplishments, originating in the Atlanta Chapter of the Society of Separationists (then an American Atheists affiliated corporation), helping to grow the Atlanta Freethought Society through its formative years, and then most recently serving as the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism."

Buckner commented, "I'm honored and pleased to become the President of the world's best organization for promoting Atheism and for protecting the rights and reputations of Atheists. Religion and the followers of various religions certainly do some good in the world and in the U.S., but the dangers associated with religion are not merely abstract or historical. Every day brings fresh reports of horrors committed by those claiming to be doing what they do in the name of God, and the current U.S. Presidential campaign also shows that we have much work to do. Candidates like Senators John McCain and Barack Obama obviously believe that pandering to the shallowest emotions and the deepest, if ill-founded, beliefs in the name of God is still politically necessary in America. We must continue the courage and hard work of Atheists who came before us to educate this nation, to protect our liberty by defending the separation of government and religion, and to right many wrongs. I expect Atheists to hold me accountable."

A hardcore Atheist, Dr. Buckner has written, spoken, debated, and appeared often in the media, both locally and nationally. He has debated or spoken across the nation, and a few times outside the U.S. He earned a doctorate (1983) and M.Ed. (1975) from Georgia State University; B.A., English, Rice University, 1967.

American Atheists is a nationwide movement which defends the civil rights of nonbelievers, works for the separation of church and state, and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy.

Contact American Atheists

It's not too early -- make plans now to join us for a seasonal tradition!

The 2008 AMERICAN ATHEISTS Winter Solstice Gala & CESAALA Dedication

Friday, December 12 and Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mark your calendar now for a weekend of exciting events hosted by American Atheists and the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library & Archives (CESAALA).

Join us Friday afternoon, December 12, 2008 for an Open House and Dedication ceremony at the American Atheists Center in Cranford, NJ, and a tour of the largest private archive of Atheist, Freethough and related materials in the United States. This welcoming event runs from 1:00 PM to 7:00 PM, with a special ribbon-cutting at 1:30 to dedicate the remodeled Center and CESAALA facility, along with the new Eddie Tabash Conference Room. Special guided tours will be conducted. Included in the CESAALA facility are over 25,000 bound volumes, plus over 500,000 related items – pamphlets, signed letters, historical ephemera and other items that tell the story and preserve the legacy of Atheism and Freethought in America!

On Saturday, December 13, 2008, join us (11:30 AM - 4:00 PM) at the luxurious Crown Plaza Hotel in nearby Clark, NJ for the American Atheists 2008 Winter Solstice Gala featuring entertainment, speakers, great food and company and much, much more! Following the Solstice bash, make the short drive to the American Atheist Center for a live taping of the The Atheist Viewpoint television show in our new Conference Center, and more tours of our facility including CESAALA.

AND MAKE A FULL WEEKEND OF IT! We've arranged for a special rate at the Crowne Plaza Hotel that includes "shoulder dates" to allow you to visit the area, including nearby New York City! Rail transportation to Manhattan and other points is available at Cranford and Iselin-Metro Park. To qualify for the special rate of $109.00 (plus tax) per night - effective Thursday 12/11 through Wednesday 12/17) - you must make your arrangements directly with the Crown Plaza Hotel. Call them at 732-574-0100, or visit their web site.

Registration for the American Atheists 2008 Winter Solstice Gala is $34.00 per person ($17 for children ten and under) and includes all taxes and gratuities. There will be a cash bar. Register on-line using our secure transaction server below. Hurray, and reserve your seat now!

Helpful Links
Register Online at
AMTRAK - Metro Park, NJ station is nearby
NJ Transit

Comments: Post a Comment

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

AHA supports Bill Maher's new film "Religulous" 

Take a Stand for Free Speech!

The American Humanist Association, in partnership with Lions Gate Entertainment, is supporting the release of Bill Maher's forthcoming comedy documentary, "Religulous." We'll be organizing group viewings, hosting discussions after advance screenings, and placing national ads that ask people who like "Religulous" to take the next step and explore humanism.

We've agreed to support this film because efforts are afoot worldwide to limit the right of people to publicly criticize religion. Laws exist and are being proposed to prohibit "religious defamation." Can it happen here? Could America's free speech be curtailed?

Not if we stand up right now for the freedom of religious critique. And that includes going to see Bill Maher's "Religulous." It is set to hit theaters October 3rd in "limited release." This means only major cities and cineplexes will get it right now. But it may come to a cineplex near you--if not immediately then in a number of weeks.

An extension of Maher's irreverent humor, the film ridicules some of the extremes of organized religion. Since we anticipate a backlash against the movie, it's important to defend the freedom of expression--including freedom of religious critique. We see the value of social satire and want to encourage a current American trend toward greater questioning of dogmas and superstitions.

So we encourage you to not only see the film but be willing to counter those in your area who might promote censorship. You may also want to organize group activities around the film, perhaps in connection with a local chapter or affiliate of the American Humanist Association. A complete list of local groups is available online at

Your activities could include any of the following:

1. Attend a viewing as a group.

2. Build a local meeting around discussing the film.

3. If there is a picket against the film, launch a pro-freedom counter picket.

Please share information about the film with your friends, allies, local group members, and others so that more people become interested and perhaps involved.

Also, as part of this partnership with Lions Gate Entertainment, many local AHA groups are receiving free tickets to distribute to their members to generate interest and word-of-mouth promotion. The AHA is also running newspaper ads aimed at reaching the audience that this film will bring out of the woodwork. Your local group may want to run a similar ad in the theater section of your local newspaper. The AHA will provide an ad template on request.

To learn more about the film, go to the "Religulous" website to watch a preview and get updates: Then check your local theater listings to see when and where it is showing in your area!

Here's an excerpt from a review by Robert Koehler of found on Fandango:

In a string of frank, often hilarious but always well-considered conversations with various Christians, Maher incisively asks them exactly what skeptics always ponder about religion in general and Christianity in particular. To John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, which tries to "convert" gay men, Maher questions, given that Jesus never once talked about homosexuality, why is it such an issue for New Testament Christians? To churchgoers in Raleigh, N.C., he notes there's no firm proof that Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Perhaps most profoundly, he asks Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a devout evangelical, "Why is faith good?"

To the film's credit, Maher never engages in Michael Moore-style gotcha tactics, but rather asks questions that raise more questions, in the form of a Socratic dialogue. To believers expecting a blind hatchet job, this will prove both thought-provoking and a bit disarming; skeptics may be surprised (as Maher is) by the occasionally smart replies to his queries.

Pic gets in satirical digs at all faiths -- and yields some of its biggest laughs -- with clever inserts of clips from movies and other sources spinning off the topic at hand, be it fantastical Biblical tales, Mormon beliefs or the number of empires that have invaded Israel. Snarky subtitles are often inserted underneath conversations, meant to undercut the interview subject.

Latter section turns to Judaism and Islam, of which Maher is an equal-opportunity critic. Jewish laws around the Sabbath come in for some heavy ribbing, while the current wave of violence by wings of Islam is faced head-on. Chats with Muslims, from rapper Propa-Gandhi to scholars at the holiest Jerusalem sites, expose an internal debate raging among contemporary Muslims.

While he examines the Big Three religions of the West at length (Eastern faiths get a pass in Religulous), Maher even gets in some choice stabs at Mormonism (whose tenets may astound those not in the know) and Scientology.

Ending minutes, though, will catch auds up short: Suddenly, the laughs die down, and as in his closing monologues on "Real Time," Maher turns deadly serious with a final statement that will stir raging arguments in theater lobbies.

Considering he was once a minor comic on the circuit and a supporting thesp in generally awful film comedies, Maher's transformation into one of America's sharpest social critics is remarkable. He takes no script credit, but his periodic monologues to the camera are undeniably written, and written well.
Local NJ theater locations and show times don't seem to be available yet, but I'd like to see some organized group viewing for the weekend it's released, or even a counter protest, if anyone hears of some group planning a protest. E-mail me if you're interested.

Comments: Post a Comment

Friday, June 27, 2008

AHA Files Legal Brief: No Permanent Religion in Public Parks 

Humanists File Legal Brief in Summum Case: No Permanent Religion in Public Parks

For Immediate Release - Contact Roy Speckhardt at (202) 238-9088
rspeckhardt at americanhumanist dot org -

(Washington, D.C., June 23, 2008) The American Humanist Association today filed a legal brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Pleasant Grove City, UT, et al. v. Summum. The amicus brief argued against allowing the Summum religious group to display its aphorisms in the same public park where a Ten Commandments monument appears. In addition, the American Humanist Association urged the Court to hold that permanent religious monuments in city parks constitute government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

"It's a question of fairness," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "If you allow one religious display, to be fair you must allow them all. But government shouldn't be in the religious display business, and there are too many religions to be able to do that anyway. Churches, mosques and synagogues should erect their own displays on their own property and let the government worry about governance."

The case brings up 1st Amendment concerns of government endorsement of religion. According to the AHA's legal brief, "By itself, the text of the Ten Commandments ends an overwhelmingly religious message, and the context in which the monument is displayed here only heightens the effect of government endorsement of this message."

The brief also addresses the legal question of equal access. "The display of the Ten Commandments sends the message to nonadherents of Judeo-Christian religions that they are not full members of the political community. Although the Supreme Court has characterized a nearly identical Ten Commandments monument as nothing more than 'acknowledgement' of the role played by religion, there is no principled or neutral way to decide which beliefs are deserving of the government's 'acknowledgment' and which are not."

"We had two purposes for writing this brief," said Bob Ritter, coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association. "Our first priority was to inform the Court that public parks are not public forums for donated permanent monuments. Although monuments erected on public land may have been donated by a private donor, by virtue of government taking ownership and control of such displays, they represent government-endorsed speech and not the free speech of the donor."

Other organizations signing on to the Amicus Brief include The American Ethical Union, Atheist Alliance International, the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Secular Student Alliance, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

# # #

The American Humanist Association ( advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.

Comments: Post a Comment

HAGP Special Meeting Saturday, 6/28 

From Joe Fox at the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia:

Hello Humanists and friends,

Special Program Meeting this Saturday, 6/28
Time: 1:30 PM
Location: Upper Moreland Library 109 Park Avenue Willow Grove, PA

Guest Speaker: Dr. Vijayam


Dr. Vijayam, executive director of Atheist Centre, a major social reform organization in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh state, India, will speak on "Internationalizing the Common Good: Becoming Universal Humans."

Atheist Centre has been honored by the Indian government with a commemorative postage stamp for its social reform work. It is the area's First Responder for the natural disasters that strike frequently, providing well-trained and equipped teams that bring water, medical supplies and services quickly for disaster relief and recovery.

The Centre was founded in 1940 by Gora and his wife Saraswathi, both of whom were leaders in Gandhi's campaign to free India from British occupation. The Atheist Centre includes job training facilities, a hospital, apartments for women and their children who are escaping abusive relationships, facilities for administering social service programs, and a science center where educational programs are conducted regularly. The Atheist Centre has also established these programs and services in villages throughout Andhra Pradesh. The Centre works to eliminate the caste system, improve the status of women, promote universal education and end the harmful effects of superstition and blind belief. Dr. Vijayam will discuss how such social reform efforts contribute to the internationalizing of support for human rights.


HAGP supports Tabor Children's Services
Please consider helping to fill some of Tabor's needs. Some suggestions for donations (to be collected at the meeting) are:
-Book bags and school supplies
-Baby items
-Shampoo, toothpaste and brushes
-Linens/pots and pans/utensils

Following the meeting, join us for food/drink/socializing at the Mandarin Garden - everyone is welcome.

Joe Fox, President
P.O. Box 161
Willow Grove, PA 19090

Comments: Post a Comment

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Participate in a Non-Religious Identification Survey 

I received this survey request from CFI, and want to share the opportunity with NJHN members/supporters. Contact info below.

The Center for Inquiry requests your help with this important study of non-religious people being conducted by Luke Galen, PhD., Grand Valley State University.

Unlike previous surveys that focused on religious persons -- collecting information about the non-religious as an afterthought -- the Non-religious Identification Survey (NRIS) is the first rigorous survey instrument designed specifically to gather demographic, personality, social network, and group affiliation information about the non-religious community.

Invitations are being sent to select individuals who belong to freethinking organizations or subscribe to a movement publication. Because the pool of invitees is so exclusive, your participation is very important! So we strongly encourage you to log on ... and be counted!

The survey should take 20-30 minutes to complete. Data will be collected until July 2008.

When data analysis is complete, respondents will be notified via e-mail. The findings will also be announced online and through the news media. We anticipate substantial interest in NRIS and its first-ever portrait of unbelievers by the unbelievers themselves.

If you know others who would like to participate in the survey, please have them send a request via e-mail to Luke Galen.

Thank you in advance for your participation in this important research study.

Please let us know if you have any questions.


Luke Galen, PhD., Lead Researcher
Grand Valley State University
Department of Psychology
(616) 331-2904
Galen's email

Jeff Seaver
Center for Inquiry
(616) 698-2342
Seaver's email

Comments: Post a Comment

Monday, March 31, 2008

Toward a Humanist Foreign Policy 

Humanity is now in a transitional phase, moving reluctantly from Dodge City to a global society ruled by law.

This is Carl Coon's essay, in the current issue of The Humanist, and now available on . . . recommended reading for all Humanists.

President George W. Bush has proved to be as much of a disaster on foreign affairs as on domestic issues. More, if possible. And not just on Iraq. On many other issues, including global warming, missile defense, population growth, and now Iran, he has been just as flagrantly wrong as he was on the supposed weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. It's not just that he's getting bad advice: his narrow worldview is upside-down to begin with. Combine that with his desire to seek advice only from people who will fortify his prejudices, rather than from the ones who know and understand the issues, and you get a dangerous combination.

It was a national tragedy that we had this kind of person at the helm when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001. Bush used the attack to justify a foreign policy aimed at world domination, accompanied by an even more systematic and thorough attack on our civil liberties, all in the name of "protecting" us against further terrorist assaults. As a result we are no longer admired abroad - we are feared and hated - while on the home front we face an erosion of our rights, an extraordinary accession of executive power, and an assault on the wall separating church and state.

I think it was Henry Kissinger who once observed that absolute security for any one country meant absolute insecurity for its neighbors. The Bush response to a serious, but not existential terrorist threat, has been entirely disproportionate. We built up our conventional military forces and then used them against Iraq, a country that wasn't even threatening us. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda continues to regroup in the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan while we stride across the globe like some modern colossus, threatening anyone who disagrees with us, turning a deaf ear to their arguments.

There has to be a better way, and of course there is. We need to lead by example, not threats. We need to listen to others, learn what their problems are, and exercise our talents and ingenuity toward finding solutions that help everyone to the extent possible. We need to take the dawning environmental crisis seriously and show that we're willing to make our share of needed sacrifices. Above all, we need to recognize that we have to sacrifice some of our national sovereignty if we are to cooperate effectively on global problems with the rest of the world.

This last point is critical and is least understood, not only by Bush and his accomplices, but by many, if not most, Americans. The fact of the matter is that we can't have it both ways. We can't insist on total security for us and us alone, and expect full cooperation from everyone else. Cooperation requires some sacrifices, some concessions, from each of the partners.


The tradeoff between liberty and security is as old as humanity itself. Any human society that endures has rules that constrain its members in ways that make cooperation possible. So we prize liberty but fear anarchy. We are all for free choice but insist that everyone should respect the law of the land. We recognize that there's a contradiction, or at least a tradeoff, between our yearning for as much individual freedom as possible, and the maintenance of public order, but we also believe that a just society can have its cake and eat it too. We admire societies, including our own, to the extent they have worked out institutions and attitudes and principles that maintain order while maximizing freedom. We deplore both failed states, where chaos reigns, and dictatorships, where order is maintained only by force. Isn't that what democracy is all about?

Until now, there has been no such thing as a global society. The most complex societies have been nation-states. There is a global authority, the United Nations, but it has no teeth. On the most important issues, a sovereign nation can ignore any UN attempt to constrain or control its behavior. It's true that many international and regional organizations, buttressed by treaties and conventions, bring a modicum of law and order into specific areas of international relations. They are useful and respond to real needs. But on the most important issues, any member of the UN can defy its authority, and the only recourse the UN has is to try to persuade other nations to put pressure on the miscreant. This sometimes works with small and powerless countries, but the big ones can behave as they please. When the chips are down, the current global society resembles Dodge City from the mythology of the cowboy movie, where victory goes to the fastest draw.


Humanity is now in a transitional phase, moving reluctantly from Dodge City to a global society ruled by law. We've seen this kind of transition before, on more limited scales. Some combination of circumstances alters the environment and the existing social order comes under great stress. People get desperate enough to commit to a substantially different order that involves cooperating with former competitors, even enemies, in a larger society. There are problems of adjustment but eventually almost everyone is integrated into the new order and few want to go back to the old one. Our own nation's history tells the story: thirteen colonies, each of them filled with pride at its particular history and character, hesitantly agreed to form a confederation. From that, the tighter bonds of a federal republic were created and now here we are. Who wants to go back?

Our history of morphing from thirteen small societies into a subcontinental giant was extraordinary. Usually the process involves more trauma, more false steps (I say this even while acknowledging that our civil war was a thoroughly traumatic affair). European history is more typical in that respect. How many wars have been fought on European soil since the Roman Empire collapsed? And how difficult is it still, when all the disadvantages of narrow nationalism have been revealed, and all the blessings of union are being unveiled, for the several national parties to agree on the institutions and modalities of union.

All this suggests that creating some kind of law and order that will include the whole globe will be an enormously complicated task, one that certainly will not be fully accomplished during the lifetime of anyone alive today. But it's equally plausible that some such order will evolve eventually, if humanity is to survive at all. Right now we are living in a fool's paradise, based on an uneasy equilibrium backed up not by an effective international rule of law but by a balance of terror, known as mutually assured destruction. No nation-state is mad enough to use nuclear weapons first, not so far at least, and all are concerned lest some of those weapons fall into terrorist hands. But is this the best guarantee of stability that we can leave to our grandchildren? If this is the best we can do, will there be that many grandchildren left to receive our inheritance?


I think there is a special role in all of this for the humanist worldview. There are other voices being raised on this theme of world togetherness, like the descendants of the old world federalists, and some environmental groups. We can welcome their interest and cooperate with them as the situation demands, but we need to keep our own voice and perspective. Most humanists would support the view that the world needs a stronger UN and more effective means of controlling conflicts, and especially nuclear weapons. But we need more. I envision an active, explicitly humanist policy centered on a renewed dedication to certain basic rules of good conduct and an insistence that they apply to interstate relations much as they do to relations within the family, community, or nation.

Support for the concept of universal human rights is already an integral part of the humanist worldview, as is opposition to genocide. But for the most part, our concern has been directed at governments mistreating their own citizens. What I propose here is more general and more inclusive. I think humanists should judge the way all nation-states deal with each other by the same basic rules of good conduct as the ones that operate at lower levels of social organization. That is to say, the rules and taboos that make societies at all levels function harmoniously and efficiently. At the level of the family and the community, they can be defined loosely as: Don't kill people, especially if they belong to your own group. Don't try to cheat them, or steal from them, or run off with their spouse. Share, when you can, with the less fortunate . . . sound like the Golden Rule? Of course, for these are basic rules governing human social behavior that evolved long before religion - though religions falsely claim them as their own.

There are many different ways of formulating these rules. They take different forms when applied at the family level, for instance, as opposed to the state. And they are culture-bound to a great extent. But there is some form of them in every society that exists above the level of anarchy. They provide the social glue that keeps most people behaving decently toward other members of the group. They operate parallel to more explicit codes and institutions - the law, police, courts, and jails - that enforce the unwritten codes and back them up with explicit penalties for cheaters.
But how do we translate "do not kill people, or cheat them, or steal from them" into the language of interstate relations? Allow me to make a very preliminary stab at it here:

Do Not Kill:

  • No nation shall go to war against another nation unless first attacked in a clear act of aggression. No state shall join in a war except when authorized to do so by responsible global authority (in contemporary terms, the UN Security Council).
  • Genocide shall be considered a crime against humanity and its authors shall be tried and prosecuted accordingly.
  • Targeted political assassinations shall be considered crimes and both the leaders authorizing them and the persons carrying them out should be treated accordingly.

Do Not Cheat or Steal:

  • "Black" propaganda is a form of cheating and shall be condemned as such.
  • "White" propaganda, where authorship is correctly attributed, comes under the heading of freedom of speech, and should be allowed.
  • Bribery is inherently a form of corruption.
  • Elections should be open and certifiably fair.

Fairness, and Helping the Less Fortunate:

  • The disparity between the wealth of the rich nations and the poverty of the poorest should be of concern to all, and addressed through bilateral and other aid programs and other measures.
  • Development of resources in common areas, especially the deep seas, Antarctica, and outer space, should be regulated through international agreements and controlled by impartial international authority.


If Americans can rise above selfish, chauvinistic nationalism and recognize that global problems demand global cooperation, we ought to be able to agree that we have to have an international rule of law with teeth. Furthermore, if we honestly believe democracy is better than dictatorship, we should hold as a very high priority the objective of achieving a future world order that achieves peace and harmony, primarily because people everywhere want peace and harmony and are willing to sacrifice some of their narrowly nationalistic interests, when necessary, to make that possible. In other words, we don't want some highly coercive world government telling everyone what they can and cannot do, even if it's one we initially impose ourselves. What we do want is a more orderly global system based primarily on shared values and arrived at freely, through consensus. We want nation-states to cooperate primarily because they know it's the right thing to do, not because someone threatens to punish them if they don't.

Getting there will be a long and laborious task, but we humanists can start now by insisting that the same basic ethical principles that govern human behavior in families and communities should be binding on our country in conducting its affairs with other nations. If we can set an example in this regard, who knows, an enlightened public might follow. In the end, our country's moral authority could be multiplied. In time, this seed could blossom into a universal moral code for the planet.

Perhaps this is too visionary, but it is consistent with the broad pattern of social evolution we have seen in human society. Therefore, in the long run, this serves as the most practical possible alternative.

A world at peace is and should be the primary long-term goal of our movement. Using criteria such as those previously listed, humanists can establish a collective position on topical international issues, particularly those that involve U.S. foreign policy. Those criteria may not provide explicit answers, but it is better to have general guidelines than none at all. Most of the rest of humanity is floundering at this point, too involved in parochial concerns to see the big picture. We humanists are unencumbered by religious prejudices and as open to objective consideration of interstate ethical principles as most. Let's get out in front with a clearly defined, well recognized posture in favor of a world at peace, governed by law and not brute force, with the values we hold most dear undergirding that law, and shared by all.

Carl Coon is the vice president of the American Humanist Association and a former ambassador to Nepal.

Comments: Post a Comment

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Challenging Baseless criticism of Humanism 

Last weekend I read a disturbing commentary in the Home News Tribune, published in North Brunswick, NJ. For once, I was motivated enough to reply with a letter to the editor, and they published my letter today.

I found the title applied to my letter surprisingly friendly. You never know who you'll find is sympathetic to humanist positions...

Below is an excerpt from the commentary (full version at and my letter.

"Easter people" have work cut out for us
Home News Tribune Online 04/8/07


The American Humanist Association applauds California Congressman Peter Stark for proclaiming he is an atheist. Stark, also gained the attention of the Secular Coalition for America. He told The Associated Press on March 12 he "does not believe in a supreme being" and looks forward to "working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs . . ."

It is no surprise that the Man fro Galilee prophesied modern indifference in saying, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

As sheer science gains unbounded prominence, the frightening consequences of possible mutual self-destruction increases. In the face of Internet wonders, medical miracles, and the ease of traveling, we are nevertheless haunted by a need for trusted leadership, a savior as it were.

Universities are turning out specialists who make marvelous contributions to the advancement of civilization. However, as noted in Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, short shrift is given to the cross disciplines of philosophy and theology, which along with science have perennially produced humble humanists par excellence.

There is an exploitive muddle-ness in secular humanism. It allows individuals to make their own rules: there is no single authority (God) or group authority (church) to command what one ought and ought not to do. If rules don't work or cause harm, we change them!

We tolerate wrong as "mistakes" -- masks for sin. By what authority can exaggerated selfishness, greed or pleasure be restricted? Where is accountability when utilitarian actions of corporations, governments and scientists put people's lives at stake? Who challenges these forces? Their whimsical power becomes a headiness which slips into a corollary that "might is right."


Humanist values derive from reason rather than dogma
Home News Tribune Online 04/14/07

I was saddened to read yet another ad hominem attack on secular humanism in your Easter Sunday edition.

Columnist Paul Licameli displays a pointed ignorance about secular humanism that would be notable if it were not so common. While it is true that humanists decide how to be ethical on a personal basis, it is not the case that we choose our ethics in a vacuum. We judge actions not by intent but by their consequences. It is consideration of both short-term and long-term consequences that informs our formation of moral values, and our ethics derive from these.

Humanists are especially skeptical about the ability of people to be moral on the say-so of authority figures. People are not moral because of commands or scriptures but instead through inborn tendencies to value fairness and honesty. Developing these tendencies through lifetime education and critical thinking is how humanists determine how to be moral.

The writer wonders how evils such as selfishness, greed and unfettered corporate power are to be challenged without some ultimate authority. Experience shows us that the authorities who are responsible for challenging such problems are often to be found in bed with them, and this includes religious authorities who are raking in taxpayer money by the billions through George Bush's misguided "faith-based" initiatives.

Humanists do not begrudge Christians their Jesus. I wonder whether Mr. Licameli feels he is following his savior's instructions when he attacks others during his Easter celebration.

Timothy Ridge
Vice president, New Jersey Humanist Network

Great letter Tim!
Good for you for writing in such a reasoned and well-written response!

Post a Comment

Sunday, February 18, 2007

AAAS Study: Bigfoot Out, Creationism In 

Americans send mixed signals on science
Knowledge of core subjects increasing, but so is belief in pseudoscience

The Associated Press
Updated: 7:21 p.m. ET Feb 17, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.

In 1988 only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller, a Michigan State University professor. He presented his findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The improvement largely reflects the requirement that all college students have at least some science courses, Miller said. This way, they can better keep up with new developments through the media.

A panel of researchers expressed concern that people are giving increasing credence to pseudoscience such as the visits of space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes.

In addition, these researchers noted an increase in college students who report they are "unsure" about creationism as compared with evolution.

More recent generations know more factual material about science, said Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University. But, she said, when it comes to pseudoscience, "the news is not good."

One problem, she said, is that pseudoscience can speak to the meaning of life in ways that science does not.

Looking to the stars for love

For example, for many women having a good life still depends on whom they marry, she said.

"What does astrology speak to? Love relationships," Losh said, noting that belief in horoscopes is much higher among women than men.

The disclosure that former first lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer resulted in widespread derision in the media, but few younger people remember that episode today, she said.

Miller said most readers of horoscopes are women, contributing to the listing of "female" as a leading negative factor in science literacy. Women also tended to take fewer college science courses, he said.

Belief in abduction by space aliens is also on the rise, Losh said.

"It's not surprising that the generation that grew up on 'Twilight Zone' and early 'Star Trek' television endorsed a link between UFOs and alien spacecraft," she said.

Bigfoot out, creationism in

Pseudoscience discussion is often absent from the classroom, Losh said, so 'we have basically left it up to the media.'

Raymond Eve of the University of Texas at Arlington had mixed news in surveys of students at an unnamed Midwestern university.

The share that believed aliens had visited Earth fell from 25 percent in 1983 to 15 percent in 2006. There was also a decline in belief in "Bigfoot" and in whether psychics can predict the future.

But there also has been a drop in the number of people who believe evolution correctly explains the development of life on Earth and an increase in those who believe mankind was created about 10,000 years ago.

Miller said a second major negative factor to scientific literacy was religious fundamentalism and aging.

Having taken college science courses was a strong positive influence, followed by overall education and informal science learning through the media. Having children at home also resulted in adults being more scientifically informed, he said.

Nick Allum of the University of Surry in England suggested belief in astrology might be a simple misunderstanding of the question, with people confusing astrology with astronomy.

In one European study about 25 percent of people said they thought astrology was very scientific. But when the question was rephrased to horoscopes that fell to about 7 percent.

Comments: Post a Comment

Sunday, February 11, 2007

And nobody saw this coming? 

ESP lab shutting down, no telekinesis involved
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.

But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time.

The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university's engineering building since 1979. Its equipment is aging, its finances dwindling.

"For 28 years, we've done what we wanted to do, and there's no reason to stay and generate more of the same data," said the laboratory's founder, Robert G. Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton's engineering school and an emeritus professor. "If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will."

Princeton made no official comment.

The closing will end one of the strangest tales in modern science, or science fiction, depending on one's point of view. The laboratory has long had a strained relation ship with the university. Many scientists have been openly dismissive of its activities.

"It's been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton," said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist who is the author of "Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud."

PEAR has been an anomaly from the start, a ghost in the machine room of physical science that was never acknowledged as substantial and yet never entirely banished.

Jahn, one of the world's foremost experts on jet propulsion, defied the system. He relied not on university or government money but on private donations -- more than $10 million over the years, he estimated. The first and most generous donor was his friend James S. McDonnell, a founder of the McDonnell Douglas Corp.

"People say we didn't undergo peer review, but that's not the whole story," said Brenda Dunne, a developmental psychologist who has managed the laboratory since it opened and has been a co-author of many of its study papers. "We submitted our data for review to very good journals, but no one would review it. We have been very open with our data. But how do you get peer review when you don't have peers?"

Comments: Post a Comment

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy HumanLight! 

Yes Virginia, Humanists Celebrate the Holidays Too!

December 18, 2006
For Immediate Release
Contact: Fred Edwords, (202) 238-9088
fedwords at -

(Washington, D.C., December 18, 2006) Something positive lies just below the surface of the current culture-war fray surrounding the holiday season.

Of course, certain holiday displays on government land are still mired in church-state separation controversy. Some businesses still wrestle with the question of whether to wish customers "Happy Holidays" or a "Merry Christmas." And some religious groups strive each year to "put Christ back into Christmas." But as all this goes on, a growing number of humanists set aside December 23rd as "HumanLight," a time for quiet celebration and friendly conviviality.

Humanists have no belief in a god. But they know that human beings all over the world, from pre-Christian times to the present, have celebrated the arrival of winter as a special time of year. Because of this, the winter holidays are, to humanists and to others, an observance that is truly human--something that fills a human need for celebration and togetherness in everyone.

To give their own unique flavor to the holidays, humanists developed something for themselves. Commencing with the beginning of the new millennium, they developed HumanLight. And today that celebration has spread from coast to coast in the United States and overseas.

"Humanist families have a desire to enjoy the holiday season in many of the same ways that other people do," said AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt, father of two. "Yuletide celebrations became secularized in the United States in the early nineteenth century. So humanists and other nontheists have been participating in their own ways for a long, long time. Now humanists have a special way of celebrating the season."

Evidence of a secular winter celebration abounds. American author Washington Irving popularized a secularized celebration in his "Old Christmas," a part of his "Sketch Book" published in 1820. "Old Christmas" praises the holiday without ever mentioning Jesus or naming Christianity. (The work is available online at Charles Dickens later credited Irving as an inspiration for his own secularized story, "A Christmas Carol" (1843).

"My family and I have practiced holiday gift giving in a humanist spirit since my first child was born in 1984," said Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association. "Now that my daughters are adults, they still enjoy the holidays in this way."

Joe Fox inaugurated HumanLight as a specific humanist observance in 2001 and has established a HumanLight website at He and his family, along with other families, are available for interview. You may contact Joe Fox at the following address to interview him and get contacts for other families:

PO Box 8212
Somerville, NJ 08876

Joe Fox
Furlong, Pennsylvania
215-794-3860 (home)
201-280-1451 (cell)
joefox2 at

Millions of nontheistic people--whether they call themselves humanists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, or brights--recognize and observe this season in ways that are both unique and inclusive. HumanLight brings them all together.

# # #

The American Humanist Association ( is the oldest and largest Humanist organization in the nation. The AHA is dedicated to ensuring a voice for those with a positive outlook, based on reason and experience, which embraces all of humanity.

Comments: Post a Comment

Friday, December 22, 2006

Take time to thank Senators Lautenberg and Menendez 

From Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ:

Our Senators Stand Up for Family Planning!

The appointment of anti-birth control, anti-sex education advocate Eric Keroack to oversee the nation's family planning program is striking proof that the Bush administration remains dramatically out of step with the nation's priorities.

Over 72,000 Planned Parenthood supporters around the country have taken action already! Now help us thank Senators Menendez and Lautenberg for standing up for family planning and against the appointment of Erik Keroack.

Thousands of Americans are outraged by the appointment of Eric Keroack to the position of deputy assistant secretary for population affairs (DASPA). Eric Keroack's role as the medical director of six so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" that oppose contraception and family planning calls into question his ability to administer the nation's family planning program. Keroack also has testified in favor of biased counseling provisions in the Massachusetts legislature and has produced numerous writings that promote politics over sound science and medicine.

As the new DASPA, Keroack will oversee Title X and have authority over hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding meant to provide access to contraception and reproductive health information. Title X has been crucial in helping millions of American women prevent unintended pregnancies and obtain reproductive health care for three decades.

The appointment of anti-birth control, anti-sex education advocate Eric Keroack to oversee the nation's family planning program is not in the health interest of women and families.
Senators Mendendez and Lautenberg have joined with twelve of their colleagues in the U.S. Senate to ask Secretary Leavitt to withdraw the appointment. Please join us in saying thank you!

Dear [ Decision Maker ],

Thank you for joining with several of your colleagues in opposing the appointment of Dr. Erik Keroack as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs. As you know, this appointment by Secretary Leavitt speaks volumes about the Bush Administration's strategy of placing politics over women's health care.

Thank you for continuing to stand up for family planning and reproductive rights in the United States Senate. Your support of women's health care and family planning does a great service to the people of New Jersey.
Click here to take action. Thanks!

Comments: Post a Comment

American Atheists President on 20/20 tonight 



The popular ABC News "20/20" segment "Heaven -- Where is it? How do we get there?" -- hosted by Barbara Walters will re-air on Friday,. December 22, 2006 beginning at 9:00 PM ET.

Among those interviewed is Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, who says that tales about a heavenly existence amount to "a myth."

"Heaven doesn't exist, hell doesn't exist," says Johnson. "We weren't alive before we were born and we're not going to exist after we die. I'm not happy about the fact that that's the end of life, but I can accept that and make my life more fulfilling now, because this is the only chance I have."

Others on the "Heaven" special represent an overwhelming religious belief. They include Rev. Calvin Butts, the Dalai Lama, and Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf. The original program which aired last year included comments by disgraced preacher Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. That segment has been cut, and ABC edited in remarks from television preacher Joel Osteen.

WHO & WHAT: Barbara Walters interview with Ellen Johnson, re-airing of "Heaven" program

WHEN: Friday, December 22, 2006 beginning at 9:00 PM ET -- check local listings

WHERE: ABC television network, a "20/20" special.


(AMERICAN ATHEISTS is a nationwide movement that defends civil rights for Atheists; works for the total separation of church and state; and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy.)

Comments: Post a Comment

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Where Are All the State Science Advisers? 

From the American Institute of Biological Sciences:

Washington Watch: Where Are All the State Science Advisers?
September 2006
Gillian Andres

Since World War II, the federal government has set the science policy agenda for the United States. In recent years, however, states have increasingly sought to expand their role, at least perceptually, in an effort to nurture economic development. Although this growing state involvement in science policy by no means rivals the federal government's, it does suggest the emergence of a new research policy environment.

The recent push to take a greater role in science policy is partially a result of efforts to boost state economies or to support research that the federal government does not. For example, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut have approved state funding for embryonic stem cell research that a presidential executive order has prevented federal agencies from funding. Other states have begun encouraging public-private research partnerships that facilitate technology transfers from academic centers to private industry. Dan Berglund, president and CEO of the State Science and Technology Institute, a national nonprofit association that studies public-private research partnerships, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 that there has been "a change in the view that most states have of the role of their universities." Berglund explained, "The amount of interest in encouraging the commercialization of university-developed technology has just exploded."

As states consider taking a greater role in science policy, they face significant challenges, most important of which is to find ways to fund state-sponsored research. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) show state funding declining from 8.1 to 6.6 percent of total spending for university research and development from 1990 to 2004. The situation is poised to become more difficult: According to a February 2006 projection from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "All states face potential budget deficits that will serve to limit the funding of higher education" until at least 2013. These budget realities underpin questions about the sustainability of state initiatives.

If the forecasts are correct and budgets do tighten, states may be unable to fulfill their commitments, and they may even be forced to cut existing research programs. These concerns were realized in 2003, when state budgets were especially unforgiving. At that time, George Happ, a University of Alaska (Fairbanks) biologist and project director of the Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, told Science that cuts to state research funding "eat your seed corn .... Once that money disappears into operating funds, it's not likely to be used again for science."

Some policy analysts are beginning to think that within this new science policy environment, states could benefit from appointing a science adviser with a role similar to that of the president's science adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. State science advisers could play a central role in helping states ensure strong science education standards, develop science policy in a cohesive manner, and set realistic budget priorities.

Oregon is among the few states that have already appointed a science adviser. Governor Ted Kulongoski named Erik Stenehjem Oregon's science and technology adviser in February 2006, saying Stenehjem would help to "expand our economy and create economic opportunity for Oregonians ... [and to] attract the kind of citizens and environmentally sound businesses that share our high standards of performance and quality of life."

Although some states have created similar positions in recent years, they have done so independent of one another and without guidance from national science agencies. The NSF, the National Academies, and other national organizations do not have data on the number of states with science advisers, but an informal survey conducted by the AIBS Public Policy Office in July 2006 showed that the majority of states' governor's offices reported that they do not have an official state science adviser or that they could not identify the position.

Even in states that did report having a science adviser, it appears that such advisers are relatively isolated-there is no national association to facilitate communication among them, and it is difficult for individual advisers to identify their counterparts in other states. Lee Allison, director and state geologist at the Arizona Geological Survey and former Kansas science and energy policy adviser, explained that without a means to coordinate nationally, the existing state science advisers are essentially "doing this on their own."

The lack of information and coordination may seem daunting for states interested in appointing science advisers, but the challenge can be surmounted. Existing programs need to be evaluated, perhaps by the NSF or the National Governors Association, so that states can apply lessons learned from past successes and failures when they develop adviser positions that fit their specific science policy needs.

Gillian Andres (e-mail: gvandres at was with the AIBS Office of Public Policy when she wrote this article.

Comments: Post a Comment

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Next on Equal Time for Freethought 

Equal Time for Freethought
Sunday, December 10, 2006
6:30pm - 7:00pm
WBAI-NY (99.5fm); Streaming Live at

"The Science of Unselfish Behavior" - Part 2

Humanism requires unselfish behavior and human cooperation for it to relevant to the future of human society. It has become popular - perhaps as a backlash to the 1960s liberal strides - to think of humans as selfish, greedy and uber-competitive. A Hobbesian take on human nature which has been promoted to justify dangerous economic systems such as capitalism, as well as authoritarian fascist states such as the Bush Administration has been taking us toward. Some scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers and Stephen Pinker, while not backing the latter, have backed the former, and now claim that science backs such draconian perceptions of our basic nature.

Others haven't made such claims.

Evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson and philosopher Elliott Sober will be our guests the next two weeks to discuss what biology can tell us about human nature, in particular our proclivity toward altruism. Wilson and Sober are the authors of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.

The book description at reads as such:

No matter what we do, however kind or generous our deeds may seem, a hidden motive of selfishness lurks--or so science has claimed for years. In Unto Others, Elliott Sober and David S. Wilson demonstrate once and for all that unselfish behavior is in fact an important feature of both biological and human nature. Their book provides a panoramic view of altruism throughout the animal kingdom--from self-sacrificing parasites to insects that subsume themselves in the superorganism of a colony to the human capacity for selflessness--even as it explains the evolutionary sense of such behavior.

Explaining how altruistic behavior can evolve by natural selection, this book finally gives credence to the idea of group selection that was originally proposed by Darwin but denounced as heretical in the late 1960s. With their account of this controversy, Sober and Wilson offer a detailed case study of scientific change as well as an indisputable argument for group selection as a legitimate theory in evolutionary biology. Unto Others also takes a novel evolutionary approach in explaining the ultimate psychological motives behind unselfish human behavior. Developing a theory of the proximate mechanisms that most likely evolved to motivate adaptive helping behavior, Sober and Wilson show how people and perhaps other species evolved the capacity to care for others as a goal in itself.

Join us for this important discussion at 6:30pm EST on Sunday, December 10th.

And remember to Tune in, Pay it Forward, and Question Everything with Equal Time for Freethought!

Barry F. Seidman
Exec. Producer: Equal Time for Freethought

Comments: Post a Comment

On Faith: Susan Jacoby and Daniel C. Dennett 

On Faith is an interactive conversation on religion moderated by Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn of The Washington Post. This week's essays include:

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: History of American Secularism (2004), has an essay entitled Doubt: The Perfect Gift


Daniel C. Dennett, author of the recent Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has an essay entitled The Gift of Perspective.

Comments: Post a Comment

IHEU's latest newsletter 

The International Humanist & Ethical Union's December 2006 newsletter, International Humanist News, is now available online for download (48 pg. PDF) here.

This special double issue is very enlightening about the Humanist movement around the world.

The full text of the last 10 years of International Humanist News is also available here.

Comments: Post a Comment

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Thanks, Jerry! 

From Americans United from Separation of Church & State's weblog, The Wall of Separation:

Falwell's Flub: Jerry-Rigged Policy Opens Door For Pagan Proselytizing In Virginia Public School
December 05, 2006

A group of Pagans in Albemarle County, Va., was recently given permission to advertise their multi-cultural holiday program to public school children - and they have the Rev. Jerry Falwell to thank for it.

The dispute started last summer when Gabriel and Joshua Rakoski, twins who attend Hollymead Elementary School, sought permission to distribute fliers about their church's Vacation Bible School to their peers via "backpack mail." Many public schools use special folders placed in student backpacks to distribute notices about schools events and sometimes extra-curricular activities to parents.

School officials originally denied the request from the twins' father, Ray Rakoski, citing a school policy barring "distribution of literature that is for partisan, sectarian, religious or political purposes."

A Charlottesville weekly newspaper, The Hook, reports that Rakoski "sicced the Liberty Counsel on the county," and the policy was soon revised to allow religious groups to use the backpack mail system. Liberty Counsel is a Religious Right legal group founded by Mathew Staver and now affiliated with Falwell.

Some local Pagans who attend Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, decided to take advantage of the new forum as well. They created a one-page flier advertising a Dec. 9 event celebrating the December holidays with a Pagan twist and used the backpack system to invite the entire school community.

"Have you ever wondered what 'Holidays' refers to?" reads the flier. "Everyone knows about Christmas - but what else are people celebrating in December? Why do we celebrate the way we do?"

The flier invites people to "an educational program for children of all ages (and their adults), where we'll explore the traditions of December and their origins, followed by a Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule."

It concludes, "Come for one or both parts and bring your curiosity."

Many members of this congregation are strong supporters of church-state separation who don't believe public schools should promote any religion. But they were also unwilling to cede the field to Falwell and his fundamentalist allies. Falwell opened the backpack forum, and the Pagans were determined to secure equal time.

Suddenly not everyone was pleased by the open forum. Jeff Riddle, pastor of Jefferson Park Baptist Church in Charlottesville, wrote on his personal blog, "If the school allows the Baptist or Methodist church to send home a note to its students about Vacation Bible School, it also has to allow the Unitarian Church to send home a note about its 'Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule'.... This kind of note adds weight to the argument that it is high time for Christians to leave public schools for reasonable alternatives (homeschooling and private Christian schools)."

Another conservative Christian blogger in the county complained about finding the flier in her child's folder. Apparently unaware of Falwell's role in bringing it about, the blogger who goes by the name Cathy, noted disclaimer language at the bottom of the flier noting that the event is not connected to the school and wrote, "They [the school officials] aren't endorsing or sponsoring this? Then it shouldn't have been included in the Friday folders. The Friday folders have never been used for any thing other than school work and school board and/or County sanctioned/sponsored programs."

She then fumed that a "pagan ritual" is "an educational experience my children don't need."

Well, Cathy and Jeff, it's a new day. Your pals Falwell and Staver have opened up this forum, and now everyone gets to use it. Isn't that what you wanted all along - freedom of religion? That freedom means all religions - even ones you don't happen to like.

--Rob Boston

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?