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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Congressional Freethought Caucus takes a stand


There is a brand new Freethought Caucus in Congress that is making its views known in regard to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The new group representing five states consists of Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Jamie Raskin, D.-Md.  They recently penned a letter against the approval of Kavanaugh signed by the Caucus and ten additional members of Congress!

FreethoughtCaucus2

 

As pointed out in a press release by the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

The letter outlined six main areas of concern the group recognizes as disqualifying factors for Kavanaugh to serve a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Chief among these concerns is Kavanaugh referring to the “wall of separation” between church and state as a metaphor “wrong as a matter of law and history.” “The wall of separation is critical because genuine religious freedom requires a secular government,” the letter says.

Additionally, the letter calls attention to Kavanaugh’s history of hypersensitivity to burdens on religion, citing his 2015 dissent arguing that it is a “substantial burden” to ask a religious organization option out of the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate to fill out five blanks on a form, while two years later he deemed that forcing a 17-year-old girl detained as an illegal immigrant to continue her pregnancy did not constitute an “undue burden” on her constitutionally protected reproductive rights. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, interrogated Kavanaugh on this very point and his answer fell flat.

Finally, the letter notes the threat Kavanaugh poses to 70 years of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, the danger he poses to our secular public schools, and his history of hostility towards secular Americans and state-church plaintiffs.

The members of the Freethought Caucus are Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Jamie Raskin, D.-Md.

Additional members of Congress who signed onto the letter include Reps. Judy Chu, D-Calif., David Cicilline, D-R.I., Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., Henry “Hank” Johnson, Jr., D-Ga., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., James McGovern, D-Mass., Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

It is time to write to your Representative and stop this nomination.  In the meantime, the growth freethought to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values in halls of Congress is a refreshing change from the past.

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Removing a Wuerl of Catholics


This past week saw the release of a horrific report of abuse by Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania with CNN reporting

a grand jury report released earlier this week that accused more than 300 Catholic “predator priests” of abusing more than 1,000 children over the past 70 years in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

The outrage over the behavior detailed in the report has been growing across the Commonwealth since the release of the report, with a particular concern that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, hid what he knew about the abuse and reassigned predatory priests to new parishes, where they continued to abuse children as they had in the past.

A number of Pittsburghers are now calling for removal Wuerl’s name from the Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School, located in Cranberry Township, PA, 20 miles north of Pittsburgh.

KEITH SRAKOCIC / AP

An online petition has garnered 5000 signatures as of today, while vandals have started using spray paint to cover his name on the various signs around the school, just a few days before the start of the next school year.

While removing his name is fine and dandy, it is only the first step.  Wuerl is just one person in a corrupt institution.

Would it not make more sense to also remove “Catholic” from the name as well and simply make it an independent, religious-free, institution? It is not just Donald Wuerl that let down the students, it is the entire religious education system that is a problem.

Stop supporting Catholic schools.  Stop supporting Catholic churches.  They are both harmful to your health and the health of your children.  To state otherwise is putting your head in the sand and ignoring the real problem.

As to what we should call the school, let me suggest the “North Skeptical High School — A Religion-Free Zone” would be the best name and slogan for the building.  Feel free to adopt it.

 

 

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Incivility? Or Legitimate Protest?


Author’s Note: I know I’ve painted with a broad brush, but if I put in all the nuances and caveats, this would be a novella. So take it for what it is – my take.

Two weeks ago, Sarah Huckleberry-Sanders, Der Gropenfuhrer’s press secretary, went to a restaurant called the Red Hen in Lexington, VA. The restaurant owner and her staff were uncomfortable with her presence and asked her to leave. Huckleberry and the Mango Moron then tweeted out to the troops to instigate harassment of the restaurant. If that ain’t incivility, what is? (Of course, MM got the restaurant wrong and his supporters attacked a restaurant with a similar name within DC city limits.) On either the same night or a day or two before, Kristjen Nielsen and her husband were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and were harassed by a crowd of protestors. (I find the irony of this so delicious – by day she tortures Hispanics and by night she wants to eat in a Hispanic restaurant. If ever there were any legitimacy to the crazy notion of “cultural appropriation”, it’s here.) So of course, the RW pundits, especially on FAUX News,were all up in arms about the “incivility of the left” – completely ignoring the last ten years of incivility by the RWNJs or the last couple years of near constant incivility by the Orange Bully.

Every society has a mechanism for sanctioning those whose actions are so egregious or beyond the pale that it is offensive to the society as a whole. This is usually done through a legal system, often by way of the criminal justice system. But what is to be done when those engaging in the egregious behaviors are the ones in control of the entire justice system and have used bogus “security rationale” to justify their behaviors or have effectively ruled themselves to be above the law? How is the society to sanction them and their accomplices?

Such is the situation that we now have with the current administration. The Mango Moron has stated in a variety of ways that he is above the law. He also has instituted a number of policies that are racist, discriminatory, and even contrary to universal human rights. So by extension, any member of his administration who helps to implement these policies or to attempt, however lamely, to justify them, is every bit as culpable for such egregious and immoral behavior. Of course, they would claim, as the Nazis did at Nuremberg, that they were only following orders. But that is a bogus excuse. If they were decent people with any ethical standards, they would have resigned rather than implement such policies or taken such actions, as some people have. And it’s not like another job couldn’t be had – they’re always telling us how the economy is booming and there are more jobs than people to fill them. Otherwise, they are making it clear that they either approve of this administrations actions, or are willing to accept them for a better career opportunity. So they are therefore totally unethical without a shred of human decency and unfit to associate with the majority of Americans who are decent people , slim though that majority may be as the 2016 election showed. They need to be excoriated as pariahs and treated as such. And if it means making their private lives unpleasant, all the better. They need to pay a stiff price for being part of and enabling this administration.

Let me digress for just a minute. To me, one of the most criminal things that this administration has done is to remove virtually all regulation(s) designed to mitigate anthropomorphic climate change. As our NSA (when it was still legitimate) stated, the number one threat to global stability and our security is global climate change leading to mass migration. So to work to accelerate climate change and quite possibly hasten the extinction of the human species is downright criminal. I don’t recall all of the other people on this planet getting to vote on the current POS in the White House, and yet he is working at breakneck speed to destroy their lives. Either he’s too stupid to understand the consequences of his actions or he’s stupid enough to believe that he has some kind of immunity. Maybe from his imaginary friend in the sky. But back to the topic at hand.

One of the arguments against what is being called incivility (ignoring for the time being the massive amount of incivility perpetrated by the RWNJs over the last ten years) is that it poisons the well and prevents civil dialogue and compromise. That is indeed true, but in order to have dialogue and compromise, there needs to be common ground and shared values. Unfortunately, in American society today, there are no real shared values and therefore little or no chance of compromise. Liberals/progressives tend to place strong emphasis on improving the overall human condition and recognizing the inherent humanity in every humn being. Conservatives (or what passes for conservatives today) are concerned primarily with maintaining the privilege of their tribe – white x-tians. They view the world as a zero-sum equation where keeping their foot on the neck of, or taking from, “the other” is the best way to perpetuate their dominance. They also think that black and brown people are inherently inferior and therefore don’t deserve the same rights and or opportunities as the white x-tian tribe. And of course, this notion of divinely endowed privilege is buttressed by their religion. (That’s one of the many reasons that they hate atheists because we don’t buy into their delusional nonsense. But that is a topic for another time.)

So my point is this – the notion of incivility on the left is a non-issue. Worrying about compromise when none is possible is a waste of time, so let’s be in their face everywhere they turn making sure that they are constantly made aware that they are persona non grata among civilized people.

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SCOTUS Got It Wrong Again – Part 1


This past Monday, SCOTUS issued its ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, ruling 7-2 in favor of baker Jack Phillips against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Their ruling was based on the premise that the Civil Rights Commission did not show sufficient deference to the baker’s deeply held religious beliefs. They got it wrong. Way wrong.

The facts in the case are pretty straightforward. A gay couple wanted to avail themselves of their legal right to marry and wanted to make it a special day. So among the other arrangements that they wanted to make to mark their special day, was to order a wedding cake from what was reputed to be the premier wedding cake bakery in the area. The owner of the bake shop refused to provide them with a wedding cake because they were a gay couple. The couple filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission claiming discrimination and the Commission subsequently ruled in their favor. The baker, Phillips, sued the Civil Rights Commission on 1st Amendment grounds claiming that being forced to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple violated his deeply held religious beliefs that gay marriage is wrong.

But the Commission did not deny him the right to believe what he wanted. Colorado has a public accommodations law that ensures equal access to all legal services offered by a vendor for every member of the public. They merely said that he was not permitted to weaponize his religious beliefs and use it as justification to discriminate against the rights of others by refusing to provide equal service to those who do not hold those same beliefs.

SCOTUS ruled that the Commission was hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs and that was a violation of his 1st Amendment rights. But there is nothing in the 1st Amendment about being able to use religious belief as justification to harm other people. As the saying goes, “your right to swing your fist wildly about ends where another man’s nose begins”. And that fully applies in this case. The baker has the right to believe whatever sort of bigoted nonsense that he wishes, but he does not have the right to use those beliefs to inflict harm or emotional distress on other people. What if he were a white supremacist with a deeply held religious belief against miscegenation? According to this ruling, he could deny service to a mixed race couple. Or an African-American couple.

The bigger problem here is that, just as in the Hobby Lobby case, they are sending the message that we must always show not just deference, but preference to religion – or at least approved religion(s). And that is directly contrary to the 1st Amendment because they are, in practice, establishing a hierarchy of approved religious beliefs, if not approved religions. And by codifying undue deference to those religious beliefs, they are creating a situation that is fertile ground for establishing a theocracy. In part two, I will explore just why deference to religious belief at any level is harmful to society.

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SCOTUS Got It Wrong Again – Part 2


So why is deference to religion so detrimental to society? There are a couple of reasons for this, but let’s start with one of the most fundamental problems by examining religion at its most basic level. Every religion or faith tradition is a way of a.) denying human mortality through wishful thinking, and b.) attempting to provide a structure for peace and harmony within a tribal society by establishing a set of rules enforced by an imagined reward/punishment system. But in all cases, the truth claims have no evidentiary support, no basis in reality; in fact most faith traditions hold that believing their truth claims, their dogma, especially when factual evidence proves them false, is a virtue.

And in the case of virtually all religions, especially the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), the whole basis of their faith is an a priori assumption for which there is no credible evidence. And all that flows from the basic premise is based on personal revelation, contradictory ancient writings, and conjecture commensurate with man’s understanding of the nature of the world 3000 years ago. Rationality would seem to insist, even demand, that such unsubstantiated and unwarranted beliefs would meet the definition of a delusion. (This is why I often refer to believers, especially the more rabid ones, as delusionals.)

Since religion has no credible evidentiary support, it therefore has no basis in reality. It follows then, that arguments based on such fantasies have no place in the public square. There is nothing abnormal or wrong with having rational disagreements over public policy or the best way to solve a particular problem. But when irrational fantasies are injected into the discussion, they offer nothing other than to muddy the waters and, because of the divisive tribalism and “certainties” inherent in religious dogma, actually make solution(s) or consensus more difficult to achieve.

It’s even worse when there is an existential issue involved, such as anthropogenic climate change. Because of religion’s insistence that believing nonsense is a virtue, it sets the stage for climate change denialism – which is nothing more than wishful thinking. The unfortunate part of such ignorance (I prefer the term stupidity even though it is not correct) is that if nothing is done soon to mitigate the damage caused by some human activities, life as we know it will be irrevocably altered, perhaps even culminating in the extinction of our species.

So there are a multitude of reasons why we should never show undue deference to religion; in fact, we should not show any deference whatsoever to religious belief. The 1st Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion” and then adds the qualifier “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Of course, that was in an era before the weaponization of religion like we have today. And in a civilized, rational society, there must be restrictions on the “free exercise” of religion where it involves causing harm to other people. Anything else would be delusional.

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AG Jeff Sessions: Religion trumps established law


religious-freedom

(Photos: Reuters/Nate Chute)

Without much fanfare late last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an addendum to the US Attorneys’ Manual: 1-15.000 – Respect for Religious Liberty, which  clearly lacks all respect for the 1st Amendment.  The document, which seems to be flying under the radar, is just now getting attention from the American Atheists and other progressive bloggers.

It is worth reviewing the policy in depth, but for now, let me just point out a few of the dangerous statements that were made.  Of critical importance was the requirement that each of the 93 regional US Attorney offices (which including our local office in Western PA) must assign member to “to coordinate religious liberty litigation issues” at the cost of ignoring other issues.  The document goes on to state that

Under certain conditions

the Internal Revenue Service may not enforce the Johnson Amendment—which prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from intervening in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate.

The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.

The Free Exercise Clause protects not just the right to believe or the right to worship; it protects the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs. Federal statutes, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), support that protection, broadly defining the exercise of religion to encompass all aspects of observance and practice, whether or not central to, or required by, a particular religious faith.

The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.

The Free Exercise Clause protects not just persons, but persons collectively exercising their religion through churches or other religious denominations, religious organizations, schools, private associations, and even businesses.
Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.  ….  Although the application of the relevant protections may differ in different contexts, individuals and organizations do not give up their religious-liberty protections by providing or receiving social services, education, or  healthcare; by seeking to earn or earning a living; by employing others to do the same; by receiving government grants or contracts; or by otherwise interacting with federal, state, or local governments

I would beg to differ.  If you are Amish and your religion tells you not to drive motorized vehicles then perhaps “school bus driver” is not the best job for you.  Likewise, if you bake wedding cakes out of your storefront business, then current anti-discrimination laws say you need to bake cakes for all customers or close up the storefront.

The point is once you give a blanket pass for religious views in a pluralistic society, one be concerned about just how far could you legally move the bar.  It is worth recalling that interracial marriage was banned in Virginia for religious reasons as recently as 1967.  That Virginia statute was overturned by the Supreme Court, just as same-sex weddings are now legal in the US as a result of the 2015 Supreme ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

However, by the wording in Jeff Session’s memo any hotel owner or restaurateur could say “I don’t care about the law.  We don’t serve interracial couples for religious reasons”, as was documented in the powerful 2016 movie Loving.  Under the Session’s memo, there is no bound to the discrimination that might occur.

The simple point is that we have laws and courts for good reasons.  We have a separation of church and state for good reasons.  To blur the line between church and state should not be done by the stroke of a pen, especially the pen of the leading law enforcement official in Washington.

As pointed out at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog:

Under guidance from the Trump administration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly installing “religious freedom” czars in every U.S. Attorney’s office. And the country continues to march towards a Christian theocracy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who charged with enforcing laws, has published a new policy (1-15.000 – Respect For Religious Liberty) that is confused, misguided, foolish and wrong.  The United States is a much more dangerous place when basic civil rights are overturned by the theological zealots.

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