Incivility firmly ensconced in Ohio


I frequently hear calls for more “respectful” dialogue coming from those on the political right.  At the same time, those making the call deride progressives as being ideologically rigid, arrogant, and disrespectful of their positions and their values  Obviously they’ve mastered the fine art of projection.
I’m all for civil and respectful political dialogue. I always try my very best to understand clearly what others on the opposite side of the political spectrum in which I stand are saying as well the reasons they offer as an explanation for the positions they’ve taken.  But something strikes me as absurd, if not impossible, about this request for “civility.”    They are asking for civility as they look us directly in the face with nothing but contempt and incivility.
Seriously, how does one have a respectful dialogue with a person who is convinced beyond any shadow of doubt whatsoever that their interpretation and understanding of a couple, cherry-picked passages from the holy book they carry in their back pocket trumps our secular Constitution and the secular order of our democratic system of governance?  I ponder this fundamental question with serious deliberation almost every day and I have yet to formulate a reasonable, intelligible understanding.
Case in point: Mike DeWine, Govenator of Ohio, recently singed a bill, SB-23.  The bill is commonly known as the “heartbeat bill” because the pushers of this rubbish claim that a real live human being exists the moment a high tech monitoring device is capable of detecting the beginnings of a heart pulsation (about six weeks into gestation, way before most women even know that they’re pregnant).   In a few years a new high tech gizmo will no doubt be invented to detect the ruminations of a pulse even earlier than six weeks.  Clearly, the bill is just another sly, underhanded, ridiculous attempt at outlawing abortion altogether in the State of Ohio.  And believe it or not, five other States have already passed similar bills.
In light of all this, I keep asking myself over and again as if I was afflicted with a bizarre form of brain tourette: how can one possibly have a respectful, civil dialogue and come to a mutually acceptable solution to this dilemna when one side of the debate declares that a few words in their holy book mandates the end to a women’s reproductive rights?  For these religious extremists (and their enablers), everything written in their holy book comes directly from the mouth of their celestial deity and therefore the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies is rescinded.  Period.  No exceptions.  Case closed.  Dialogue over.  These folks are convinced that their religious beliefs should be encoded in and enforced by law on everyone living in our pluralistic, non-theocratic, secular society, regardless of fact and regardless of the religious beliefs held by anyone else.  For these folks, the beliefs and worldview of others does not concern them.  Their religious beliefs do and they must be imposed on everyone else.
There is something very Machiavellian about this request for more civility because what they’re doing while asking for civility is pointing a gun directly at our heads and telling us it’s either their way or the highway.  Or, as their dear leader would say, “That’s the way it is.”
From my perspective, this situation is only marginally different than that of the religious police in Pakistan whipping women in the public square for wearing something less than a tarp covering them from head to toe.  I’d love to hear anyone explain how it isn’t.
As an American, it sickens me to the core.
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State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz is a disgrace for PA


By now you may have heard about worse invocation given in recent years, right here in our own State of Pennsylvania. It was the given by first-year Representative Stephanie Borowicz (Lock Haven, PA), which amounted to Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus (13 times), followed by the entirely false claim that this nation was “ founded on your principles in your words and your truth.”

In fact, the Christian lineage among our founding fathers is very weak with John Adams explicitly stating “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Also don’t bother wasting your time finding how many time the word “Jesus” appears in the founding documents. You won’t find it in any of the official founding documents. To matters even worse, State Rep. Brian Sims, the only openly atheist lawmaker in the PA House has not been allowed to give the invocation because of lack of faith.

Rep. Borowicz should apologize to the House and particularly to the state’s first Muslim legislator, State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who was officially sworn in and had family members in the gallery during her Jesus rant. This was a very sad day for Pennsylvanians everywhere and needs to amended as soon as possible.

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The Public Funding of Catholic Schools


We know that Catholic schools in Pennsylvania are fading in popularity. Part of this transformation is the changing demographics with the growth of the “Nones”, as well as less interest in programs that indoctrinate and proselytize, rather than serve all students regardless of background.  As in most states, Pennsylvania tax dollars were generally directed to public schools, rather than religious schools with very few exceptions.

However, that pattern of funding public schools through a mixture of income taxes and property assessments, as well as grants from the Commonwealth is changing. In a recent article in Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Deb Erdley note that Catholic schools can address their declining enrollment with tax credit scholarships that support religious education.

A quiet change in the law in 2014 that allowed individuals to divert their state taxes to the tax credit program helped fundraisers in the Greensburg diocese boost their tax credit bonanza to about $1 million this year.

“That was a game changer,” said Michael Lucotch, director of development for the Greensburg diocese. “It allows participants to redirect their personal income tax obligation to a Catholic school of their choice for use as tuition assistance.”

If that was not bad enough, it gets worse.

Unlike many scholarship programs, the tax credit-funded program is not limited to low-income families. Under state guidelines, a family of four with two children could earn up to $116,216 a year and still be eligible for aid. The eligibility cap grows by $15,608 a year for each additional child.

How are these programs allowed to exist?  Public funds should be directed to public schools. Those who want to have their children indoctrinated need to do so at their own expense.   And, if you think indoctrination is to harsh of a term, take a look at some recent arguments in support of indoctrination.

 

 

 

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The Wuerl-pool Never Stops


In regard to allegations against the former ‘Bishop of Pittsburgh’, Donald Wuerl, the Washington Post reported this week

WHEN ALLEGATIONS came to light last year of sexual abuse and inappropriate conduct involving children and seminarians by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who succeeded Mr. McCarrick as leader of the Washington archdiocese, expressed shock and denied prior knowledge. Now it turns out Mr. Wuerl was presented in 2004 with an account of Mr. McCarrick’s alleged misconduct, which he relayed to the Vatican.

Then: nothing.

In the ongoing tsunami of revelations about the Catholic Church’s willful blindness, conspiracy of silence and moral bankruptcy on clergy sex abuse, this particular revelation may count as little more than a droplet — although it does involve two of the highest-ranking and most prominent American prelates. However, it also encapsulates characteristics that continue to dog the church nearly two decades after the scandal burst into the open: callousness directed at victims; an insistence on denial and hairsplitting; and the hierarchy’s preference for treating allegations as internal matters, as if the world’s 1.2 billion lay Catholics were an irrelevance.

It is hard to believe that Cardinal Wuerl has not been removed from his position, asked to pay retribution to his victims, and charged with crimes in a court of law. Even the conservative talk show host, Hugh Hewett, recently described Wuerl as “The Con Man in the Cardinal’s Cap”.

While the Steel City Skeptics would argue that all who wear the pointy cap are con men with regard to the truth, Wuerl is clearly at the top the game. I would also argue that prison time is not out the question as more details come forth. The Catholic church has failed to police its own, but there is not reason that civil authorities cannot proceed under civil laws. The sooner, the better.

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A Cross to Bear


This week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a complaint about the painting of 9/11 cross, which has been posted in a waiting room within the Camden County Courthouse.  The complaint was not taken well by the County  Commissioner:

“This is something that’s been here for quite a while, and I don’t think we should have to take it down just because of others’ opinions,” said Melanie Thompson. However, Camden County Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty says the painting is not coming down. He cites a federal court ruling in 2013 which said the Ground Zero Cross was allowed to remain on display at the 9/11 Museum because there’s no evidence the display of the historic artifact entangles the government with religion.

One can argue whether, or not, two steel beams meeting at 90 degree angles has a special meaning in a building that was built with hundreds, if not thousands, of such beams throughout the structure.  That said, it is more telling to see previous responses to the actual 9/11 cross.

Father Brian Jordan call it a message.  Now here was God explaining Himself. It was a revelation, proof that “God had not abandoned Ground Zero,” even as the awful excavations continued.

Another website described 9/11 cross this way:

And yet, something did arise. Digging amid the ruins of Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers had collapsed only a month before, one of the rescue workers discovered something he felt to be a miracle. Two steel beams from the wreckage had fallen together, and landed in the form of a cross. The cross was set upright in the middle of the wreckage, to cast its shadow—literally and symbolically—over the scene. News spread quickly, and soon firefighters, police officers, and construction workers were making “pilgrimages” to the cross, to pray and reflect on the 9/11 attack. In that bleak landscape of despair, the “Hero’s Cross,” as it came to be called, became a source of spiritual strength. At a blessing service before that site, a Franciscan friar offered these words: “Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero,” he said. “This is our symbol of Hope. Our symbol of Faith. Our symbol of Healing.”

So what do we do with the claim that “there’s no evidence the display of the historic artifact entangles the government with religion?” 

Personally, I can see how the museum might display it as an artifact, just any good history museum might have display of Zeus and Jupiter, without implying it to be an endorsement to the idea. However, to put the cross in the Camden County Courthouse waiting room is just not the same.  It is clearly pushing one religion.  To argue otherwise is just wrong.

And, by the way, it is not even that good of a drawing…

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A Christmas Cross to Bear in Ozark


There has been a depressing fight going on in Ozark, Missouri, over a large lighted cross in a public park to celebrate Christmas.  The rather ugly, lighted 20+ foot cross was constructed around a utility pole and is part of a drive-through holiday light display in Finley River Park.  The problem with the lighted cross is quite clear from past rulings by the courts: The government must remain neutral with regard to religion, allowing secular symbols, such Santa Claus, reindeer, and snowmen, while disallowing religious symbols (see County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 1989).

Source: https://media.ozarksfirst.com

The city agreed to take down the cross after receiving a complaint from FFRF, but then immediately backed off that agreement, and will be leaving it up and lighted for this holiday season.

The placement of the 20 feet tall Christian cross is not only a clear violation but also just the wrong symbol. According to the myth, baby Jesus was born in a manger on Christmas day.  The whole execution-on-the-cross comes much later in the story, so in what way is the cross any part of the Christmas story?

Adding to the temporal misplacement (Christmas is not Easter) is the most recent Federal court ruling on the matter, issued in September of this year. In that case, “three U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled to uphold the lower court’s ruling that the city maintaining a cross in a public park was unconstitutional, and the cross must be removed.”

As for Ozark, Missouri, why not represent the secular icons of the season, of which there are plenty to go around?  Let Christmas be the season of reindeer and Santa Claus.  Let utility poles be poles.  Even though Ozark sits in Christian County, Missouri (a true fact), it still needs to respect that there is a well-established separation of state and church to uphold.

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FFRF in San Francisco


The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 41st Annual Convention was a resounding success.  Held November 2-4, 2018, in downtown San Francisco, just steps away from the California Street cable car, a BART station and ferry terminals, the location was ideal, even if the hotel itself was a little less friendly than we expected.  For example, a simple request to the hotel staff, asking to remove the bibles from the rooms was ignored, resulting in a growing collection of rejected bibles in the hallway.  Due to scheduling conflicts, the meeting rooms were on three different floors on three different days, some with clear gathering spaces near the meeting rooms but others with narrow hallways and little room to congregate with old and new friends.  As a result, one did not see as many people gathering in the common spaces outside the meetings as has occurred during conventions in the past.  Not surprising, many attendees were also drawn to the city outside, which was not unreasonable given the sightseeing opportunities in the San Francisco Bay area.

Despite those logistical problems, the schedule of speakers was excellent.  On Friday afternoon, Salman Rushdie gave one of the most notable keynotes that I have heard, engaging the audience with a mixture of thought, emotion, and humor.  U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman, the founding member of the new Congressional Freethought Caucus, gave a rousing speech that demonstrated that belief in a god is not necessary to be an active member in Congress.  (With representatives in California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, it would be great to have a Pennsylvania Representative added to the list). The first day ended with a presentation by actor John de Lancie and an engaging 90 minute monologue by former SNL member, Julia Sweeney.

Saturday morning was a mix of reports by groups, such as the Secular Coalition of America and the FFRF legal team, followed by an afternoon of several international freethought battles being wage in countries outside of the US with the support of FFRF.  The afternoon ended with Cecile Richards being interviewed on stage by Annie Laurie Gaylor in a free-flowing  discussion on Texas politics, Planned Parenthood and women’s rights.  After the conference dinner, the evening ended with the stand-up comedy of Leighann Lord, a Very Funny Lady as confirmed by her website is www.veryfunnylady.com.  It turned out that the moniker was not misplaced and her wrap up the weekend activities was a great end to the formal conference activities.

All in all, a good time was had by the participants at the largest FFRF Convention to date.  For those interested, the dates and locations for the next three conventions are set:

  • October 18 – 20, 2019:  Madison, WI
  • November 13 – 15, 2020:  San Antonio, TX
  • November 19 – 21, 2021: Boston, MA

If you missed it this year, you should start making your plans for the at least one of the next three conventions.

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Lettuce Prey


In a very bizarre rant this past week, creationist Kent Hovind wrote

“So for the 57th time, how could lettuce evolve slowly by chance and from what? How many trillions of intermediate steps would there have to be to go from a dot of nothing to a living lettuce plant? Is there any scientific evidence besides lines on paper?”

I think the real question is why did he pick the 57th time? It does not seem like a random number. Perhaps he channeling Heinz Ketchup, or perhaps there is some other nefarious reason behind this secret code.  Perhaps it is that the premise of his claim makes no more sense than the conclusion.  I will go with the last assumption, which makes me wonder why anyone would listen to his nonsensical claims on any topic.

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New Age Nones


The growth of the “nones”, being those with no religious affiliation, has been growing by leaps and bounds in the past decade.  The Catholic Church, in particular, has been losing members, due in part to the continued scandals that have been reported here and elsewhere.

But what does it mean to be a “none”? The Pew Research Center has just released a study that shows that 6 in 10 have replaced traditional religious labels with unfounded New Age Beliefs,  such as

  • Believe spiritual energy can be located in physical things (47%)
  • Believe in psychics (40%)
  • Believe in reincarnation (38%)
  • Believe in astrology (32%)

Belief in at least one of those four was found in 62% of the respondents!

There is some hope that the label of atheist resulted in the least acceptance of  unfounded beliefs.  That said, the freethought movement, as a whole, clearly has more work to do towards make “fact over fiction” a guiding principle in our lives.  In particular those who prefer the label “Agnostic” show much greater acceptance of unfounded beliefs.

Steel City Skeptics continues to encourage rigorous scientific studies without the “woo” of new age thought.  Unfortunately, there is much work to be done to make this principle universal.

 

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Roy Zimmerman in Pittsburgh!


We just got word that the great singer-songwriter, Roy Zimmerman, will be making a stop in Pittsburgh this weekend. You will not find a more poignant and relevant satirist today in America. His songs harken back to Tom Lehrer from a previous generation and represent some of the best in musical satire today, including songs like

  •  Defenders of Marriage (“Defending the institution against people who want to get married”),
  • Religious Freedom (“I’m free to practice my religion, and you’re free to practice mine”).
  • A powerful anti-gun song: To the Victims We Send Our Thoughts and Prayers.

Roy has played for numerous secular-minded audiences across the country – most recently at the American Humanist Association (AHA) national convention in Las Vegas and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) national convention,  as well as the recent PAStAHCon in Philadelphia.

To get a glimpse, check out the video link to Religious Freedom (To Burn Our Own Witches).

The concert will be Sunday, September 16 @ 7 pm at First Unitarian Church, 605 Morewood Ave on the corner of Melwood and Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. The cost is “$20 or pay what you can”.

At any price, it will be show not to miss.

 

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