Friday, November 27, 2009

Norman Borlaug

One of the greatest men of the last century has passed away: Norman Borlaug.

Although his was not a household name, he deserved everyone's respect, thanks and admiration. All he did was save untold millions of lives.

"Norman E. Borlaug saved more lives than any man in human history," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN's World Food Program.

As the population of the world exploded, food production was lagging; that is, until Norman Borlaug created the "green revolution," vastly improving crop yields and staving off starvation for so many in the last half of the 20th century.

Of course, nit-pickers existed; he was criticized for his use of fertilizers and chemcicals but the proof was in the pudding; people that were expected to die, survived. His genius in increasing yields was a gift; the population explosion that necessitated his innovations was not his fault. The alternative was mass famine.

It could truly be said that Norman Borlaug did the best he could possibly do. He will be missed but not forgotten.

Now if an atheist did this...

It's just one of those stories that just seems too cut and dry; a perpetrator commits an unethical act and then explains why in unambiguous terms. Does this change anything for anyone? Probably not.

According to Newsday a couple of weeks ago a trio of men in Lakeview, Nassau County, NY, approached a man in a convenience store dressed in drag; the cross-dressing may have been in connection with Halloween, although this doesn't really matter.

The three men began to harass the cross-dresser both physically and verbally. Later on the trio encountered the same man now with walking a friend. They again abused them both physically and verbally, punching and kicking them, giving them bruises, black eyes and bloody lips.

Fortunately the police were able to arrest one alleged attacker.

So what could possibly have motivated such a pointless attack?

The arrested alleged attacker offered a complete explanation: "God made me hate gay people" was the answer recorded in the court records.

Here is the clear explanation for the obvious which most persons will completely deny: religious belief does not lead to moral behavior - it leads to obedience and obedience can lead ANYWHERE. If scripture calls for hating gays, pigs, dogs, shrimp, women, sex or asking questions, followers are expected to hate all of those things. And they often do.

Those that rise above their scripturally mandated hatreds risk ostracism or heresy. What they typically do, however, is reside in a state of denial; while scripture obviously calls for enmity against gays (and shrimp, pigs, etc.) many believers find a way to ignore the Word of God and continue to believe that gods are great even though the gods are simultaneously repugnant in their actual attitudes.

Imagine if an atheist were arrested and explained their attack on gays by claiming that a "lack of belief in god made them hate gays." Non-believers would never hear the end of it.

But since a believer said it was (belief in) god that made him hate gays, no one will notice it. Gods remain great and their hate mongering is ignored.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Separation of Church and State (only for Muslims?)

On November 18, 2009, Newsday had an interesting story about a Mosque expansion which was drawing the "ire" of neighbors in a Westbury, Long Island, NY community. Why shouldn't it be controversial? The building that was proposed would be huge and the parking would be about 130 cars short of what the code requires. Many cars would therefore have to park in and around the residential neighborhood. A deal to allow some cars to park at a local church was being arranged, but such a deal is not "forever." There would indeed be inconvenience to the neighborhood.

Plus the building will be totally out of character for the area; original plans with an 80 foot minaret on top have been scrapped, but the building is still quite unique.

But this is not unusual. Churches and temples do this all the time to residential neighborhoods. They often lack parking; they're often out of place aesthetically. But you don't often hear about objections. The reason is obvious; no one wants to be seen as anti-religion.

Unless the religion is Islam.

Now it is the opinion of most, if not all supporters of church-state separation, that no special privileges should be given to religious institutions when building their facilities. They should have no special rights other than whatever other non-profit organizations have. If the Center for Inquiry must obey building codes, so should a church, temple or mosque. Most religious persons probably disagree; they prefer privilege for religious institutions.

Unfortunately, Congress, in its infinite lack of wisdom, egged on by an equally un-wise electorate, passed a law in 1993 that is plainly un-Constitutional, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which allows religious institutions to run roughshod over many zoning laws. It takes quite a court case to disallow something like this Westbury mosque to be built.

The residents of Westbury can thank those zealous anti-separationists for the cars that often flood their neighborhood. And perhaps it serves some of them right; I wonder how many of them would have supported this structure if it had been of their own denomination?

The Common Vices vs. the Common Virtues in Public Policy

The Common Decencies and Virtues that humanists claim to promote and encourage include the general categories of integrity/honesty, fairness/justice, responsibility/courage and benevolence/kindness. These virtues seem so universally accepted and admired that they appear to be internalized in most persons – we need no god to tell us that it is good to be honest, kind, courageous and fair. Natural Selection has placed our appreciation of these virtues in our minds naturally. From these decencies and virtues we build a moral system and code of behavior. None of this is a denial that experience, culture and society modify our innate tendencies; it is simply an explanation of the universality of many moral values. It also is not a denial that we innately can also be jealous, territorial, selfish and lazy; most cultures and societies recognize the universal existence of these human attributes but almost always frown on these “common vices,” at least towards those within the society. However, it is from these in-born common decencies (if not totally modified/destroyed by our cultural experiences) that we tend to build our most admirable political views.

We should therefore form political policies, in other words, to realize and express our honest intentions, our good will towards others, our courage and our sense of fairness. Although we can honestly disagree on the ultimate policies due to the incredible complexity of human nature, economics and the uncertainty of the outcomes, we should agree on the following: the use of reason to solve our problems that the Common Decencies and Virtues have uncovered and have made us care about.

Yet it would seem that anything but reason is the instrument of policy making in our country (and elsewhere) and instead, dogma (which depends on dishonesty), ideology and blind faith are the cornerstones of most policy-making.

Consider the major life-changing decisions in the United States that have been made over the last decade:

The Supreme Court’s 100% partisan-line decision to not count allow a count of all of the votes in Florida in 2000’s Presidential Election resulting in the selection a Republican president. Numerous so-called “over-votes” were never counted.

The ideological decision in 2001 to give a tax break to the wealthiest Americans, wiping out the Federal budget surplus, while doing little or nothing to improve the economy over the long run, and more likely, harming the economy.

Medicare Part D, passed in 2003 and effective in 2006, which disallowed the Government from negotiating with drug companies to reduce costs, widening the Federal deficit. This was not a “courageous” decision.

The Neo-Con influenced war in Iraq and Neo-Con influenced abandonment of the War in Afghanistan, again leading to ballooning deficits, and a decade of pointless wars and the attendant misery with negative returns on the so-called “War on Terror”.

The push to outlaw gay marriage and even civil unions as an election ploy in 2004, even though the lives of homosexuals, who are American citizens, would be negatively impacted, and no one’s life would be made better.

The ideologically inspired lax or non-regulation of financial markets which have been notorious for serial failures and serial reckless risk-taking, leading to the recent near financial meltdown.

The torture and un-Constitutional detaining of persons, including American citizens, based solely on the orders of the president.

Not included in the above was the horror of 9-11 itself which was not a choice made by us, but instead a completely ideological and dogmatic action made by religious fanatics, and perpetrated on us.

I am sure the reader could add numerous other policies and actions that in no way reflected integrity, kindness, courage or fairness, but instead only ideology and dogma, inspired by the Common Vices. And now, with a new administration, the trend remains difficult to alter.

The bailouts to major financial (made just before the election) and automotive corporations have again increased the deficit, and although financial meltdown has been averted for now, financial corporations are still “too big to fail” and little or no reform has been instituted to change this fact or the excessive risk taking which is encouraged and rewarded by huge bonuses to executives. Unfortunately big business is able to funnel big money to campaigns which inevitably influences elected officials. Elected officials, who have made being elected a “career” instead of the “public service” it was meant to be, are all too obedient to their benefactors. (Public financing of elections, term limits and a more parliamentary system of legislation anyone?)

Health care reform is another area where the problem is obvious; our nation has the most expensive health care “system” in the world, but it is far from the best. Although one can have legitimate objection to the plans being proposed, what cannot be justified, except dogmatically, are the lies and hyperbole used to defeat all such proposals. A health care system even as socialistic as Great Britain’s has not resulted in their citizens loss of freedoms; yet some opponents of US healthcare reform claim that reform is a threat to freedom; do these opponents of health reform propose to repeal Medicare while they’re fighting for America’s “freedom”? (Never mind paradoxically that one of their arguments against health care reform is that it actually “threatens” Medicare.)

Somehow opponents of reform depict the efforts as both socialistic and Nazistic; yes images of the holocaust and Obama as Hitler are in full view at many protests, as well as the weapons on persons who hold signs that proclaim that it is time to water the “tree of liberty” with blood. Are they promoting the assassination of public officials?

It is also appalling to see how many Americans, spurred on by some of their most dogmatic, ideological and partisan leaders claim it is an abomination to try the terrorists who perpetrated the 9-11 attacks according to the US Constitution! They seem to prefer kangaroo courts also known as “military tribunals” which command no respect internationally and whose decisions have a good chance of being overturned if appealed in a real court. They would be more comfortable with the Iranian system of law than our own.

Lest we forget, on June 30, 2006, “In a landmark decision restricting the president's powers during wartime, the US Supreme Court has dealt the Bush administration a severe blow in its push to prosecute terrorists in military tribunals.

The court ruled 5-to-3 Thursday that Mr. Bush acted outside his authority when he ordered Al Qaeda suspects to stand trial before these specially organized military commissions. The ruling said that the commission process at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could not proceed without violating US military law and provisions of the Geneva Conventions. "The commission lacks power to proceed," writes Justice John Paul Stevens for the court majority.

President Bush said he would honor the decision in the case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, but do it in a way that did not jeopardize the safety of Americans.
"I want to find a way forward," Bush told reporters. "I would like there to be a way to return people from Guantánamo to their home countries, but some of these people need to be tried" in court.” (CSM, 6/30/06, go to .)

In other words, there is no other way than to do it Constitutionally. Partisan Republicans impeached President Clinton for far less of a transgression.
And then there’s simple dollars and sense. Now that we are in a deep fiscal hole as a nation, angry citizens are holding “Tea Parties” to protest the mess we are in. The one problem is; where have they been for all these years? President Obama has been in office for about 10+ months and has passed but one budget in a time of the worst economy since the depression. Spending cuts in that budget would have been universally deplored and opposed. Increasing taxes to pay for the spending? Forget it!

Of course, the budget can be criticized for pork and wasteful spending; but of course, as atrocious as it was, it was nothing unusual. Why the “Tea Parties” now, when the party now in power had left the other party a budget surplus which it squandered over the 8 years it was in power?

Where were the “Tea Parties” when we actually needed them? How do they think we got into the situation we are now in? Did it just happen in the last 9 months?
Going forward, it is hard to see how the Common Decencies of honesty, courage, responsibility and kindness will prevail in our public policies over the Common Vices of dishonesty, timidity, willful ignorance, irresponsibility and meanness. The solutions that many citizens are demanding involve impossibilities: spending more while taxing less, fighting wars without any inconvenience, instituting privilege over justice and having the rule of the jungle prevail over the rule of law.

Although the Common Vices may lead to some form of satisfaction in the very short term, in the long term we will pay for it; we have already. We will continue to pay for it.

In the long run, the Common Virtues are what they are because they promote our well being. If humanity is to thrive, we must reject the Common Vices in favor of the Common Virtues, remembering that there is no guarantee whatsoever that we will do what is best for ourselves. Ignorance and dishonesty don’t need no stinkin’ facts after all, and real courage in our leaders in a rare thing.

Can you picture a leader with Presidential aspirations telling the country that it will be necessary to reduce health care spending per capita if we are to offer health care to all (probably leading to a single-payer system) and meaning that profit margins may have to decrease in the health care industry unless it becomes vastly more efficient? Yet, if one looks around the developed world for evidence, this may be the probable truth.

Can you imagine a leader with Presidential aspirations stating that an increase in taxation and cuts to the defense budget and entitlements are inevitable if the deficit is to be tamed? Exactly where else is the money going to be found?

Can you imagine a leader with Presidential aspirations coming clean on any number of issues, from torture, the deficit, to the economy, etc.? Once again, I’m sure the reader can list numerous items where the voting public prefers to be lied to. Real debate? Forget it; someone might have to say something thoughtful! So lies are what we will get, until there is no choice. This does happen; that is, the situation gets to the point where there is no choice, such as with the end of the Viet Nam War, after Pearl Harbor, or during the Depression.

Unfortunately, if health care reform is passed in its current proposed forms, this issue and the issue of the deficit will not soon go away; it will need revisiting very soon when Baby Boomers age and need more medical care and Social Security payments, and US Treasury interest rates increase, inflation rears its ugly head and we can no longer afford our denial of the facts. Then we will have no choice but to embrace the Common Virtues (such as integrity and honesty) in our policy making and we will have to do the right thing just to survive.

Easy Targets Obscure Culturally Acceptable Bigotry

In September 2009, Long Island was visited was again by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is headquartered in Wichita, Kansas. Members of the church staged “protests” at various locations in Brooklyn, Nassau and Suffolk (including at the Temple of God Squad rabbi Marc Gellman.)

What were they protesting? They were protesting the fact that the United States does not execute gays (as suggested in Leviticus) and that in the U.S., gentiles marry Jews among other things. By extension they indict the whole of the US, including the military and its soldiers, who they claim are being killed in wars as divine retribution for the country’s “permissiveness.”


Of course, the visit of this so-called “hate group” is an opportunity for one and all to get righteous and universally condemn the Westboro Baptist Church for its beliefs.
Yet the Westboro is spectacularly ineffective in getting anything done. If anything, their appearances evoke sympathy for their targets, thank goodness.

But there’s more!

Many of those who join in on the condemnations of this Church agree, in part, with the beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church and in fact have actually done things to harm the Church’s favorite target: gays.

Who among those who condemn the Westboro Church also oppose equal rights for gays, including gay marriage and/or adoption?

Well, for example, that would probably include Rabbi Marc Gellman, who, before resigning because of the presence of alleged radical Islamists within the organization, was a member of the Alliance for Marriage Foundation (AFM), a group that actively opposes gay marriage and adoption.

Here is snippet from a recent press release from the AFM:
"Americans believe that gays and lesbians are free to live as they choose, but they don't believe they have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society," said Daniels. “But the common-sense definition of marriage – and the values of most Americans – cannot be protected apart from AFM’s Marriage Protection Amendment.” (Go to .)

Although this press release post dates Rabbi Gellman’s tenure in the organization, the opinion expressed in it has remained consistent.
Now the AFM with its ability to lobby Congress and excite its membership to oppose equal rights for gays probably has done more to harm gays in a practical sense than has the Westboro Baptist Church.

And of course, Rabbi Gellman and the AFM are by no means alone in acceptable bigotry.
In fact, any religion (or secular dogma for that matter) that has a concept of a “chosen” people, or the “select” or the “saved” or the “damned” or the “infidel” is guilty of promoting enmity and divisiveness if not the outright hatred that typically flows from such beliefs.

This group would therefore include most versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others.

How do those who profess to believe in the same scripture that inspires the Westboro Baptist Church and who agree, in part, that gays should be persecuted, then have the gall to then condemn the Westboro Baptist Church who have the consistency to invoke the biblical remedy for this biblical sin that so many agree is indeed a sin, and that the bible is the authority on its sinfulness?

Dogma requires such denial and that is why dogma endures – denial seems to be a component of human nature.

In the meantime, the Westboro Baptist Church, in their unabashed adherence to scripture and their religion, serves to obscure the more culturally acceptable biases that religion and dogma typically propagate. This safe cover for socially acceptable bigots might be their most dangerous attribute.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Al Qaeda, Terrorism, Long Island & Rep. Peter King

News Item: (NY Daily News, July 22, 2009) A Long Island man confessed to feeding Al Qaeda information about New York's subways and LIRR trains, triggering last year's Thanksgiving Eve terror alert, the feds say.

Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, the son of South American immigrants and a convert to Islam, was captured in November in Pakistan after he joined in a rocket attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to court papers unsealed Wednesday.

He confessed his treason almost immediately and began cooperating, offering information of potentially great value because he had met with high-level operational leaders, sources said.

Vinas is one of a handful of Americans charged with joining the terror network that took down the World Trade Center and has sworn to destroy America. A former truck driver who grew up Catholic in Patchogue, he converted to radical Islam and became a fighter known variously as "Ibrahim" or "Bashir el Ameriki" - Bashir the American…

Vinas began attending a mosque in Selden, L.I., and dressing in Islamic garb, but never explained his conversion to his Peruvian-born father, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Read more:

Is there any lesson or meaning to be gleaned from this sad episode? Do we assume that the Selden Mosque that Mr. Vinas attended is the cause of his radicalization?

“Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Vinas case illustrates why mosques must monitor radicalism in their midst, one of his long-standing political talking points.

"There are a number of mosques under surveillance by law enforcement on Long Island and they've had radical speakers," said King. "I'm not saying they [the mosques] are involved in criminal activities, but they are not cooperating with law enforcement."
At the Islamic Association of Long Island mosque in Selden Wednesday its imam rejected him. "If he is al-Qaida, he should be arrested. He's a terrorist," said Imam Aziz. "Islam is a peaceful religion."
(See .)

Rep. King has often taken on “radical” Islam and depicted most mosques as being run by radicals.

In the past, “Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., told radio talk host Sean Hannity in an interview no American Muslim leaders are cooperating in the war on terror.

"I would say, you could say that 80-85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists," he said. "Those who are in control. The average Muslim, no, they are loyal, but they don't work, they don't come forward, they don't tell the police …"

King was promoting his new novel, "Vale of Tears," which he described as a "half truth and half fiction" story about future terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in Nassau County, N.Y.

In the interview with Hannity, King criticized a mosque in Westbury, N.Y., which he accused of failing to adequately condemn terrorism.

Hannity asked King to confirm he was saying 85 percent of mosques in America are "ruled by the extremists."

"Yes," he replied, "and I can get you the documentation on that from experts in the field. Talk to a Steve Emerson, talk to a [Daniel] Pipes, talk to any of those. They will tell you. It's a real issue … I'll stand by that number of 85 percent. This is an enemy living amongst us..."

King said while most American Muslims are loyal to this country, "They won't turn in their own. They won't tell what's going on in the mosques. They won't come forward and cooperate with the police."

Go to and .

Is Rep. Peter King correct? Are 85% of American Mosques run by “radicals”?

It would help if someone, preferably Rep. King, stopped to define the word “radical.”

Is a radical someone who voiced support for a violent or terrorist organization (not to mention actually committing violence)?


“Like British Muslim support for Muslim extremist terrorism, Irish American support for Irish terrorism came in many forms. There were Irish Americans who waved the Irish flag once a year on St. Patrick's Day and admired the IRA's cause but felt queasy about the methods. There were Irish Americans who collected money for Catholic charities in Northern Ireland without condoning the IRA at all. There were also Irish Americans who, while claiming to be "aiding the families of political prisoners," were in fact helping to arm IRA terrorists. Throughout the 1970s, until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked President Ronald Reagan to stop them, they were the IRA's primary source of funding. And even after that they were widely tolerated.

I concede there is one major difference: The Irish terrorists were setting off their bombs across the ocean and not in New York or Boston, which somehow made the whole thing seem less real. But in Britain the explosions were real enough. In 1982 -- the year an IRA bomb killed eight people in Hyde Park -- four IRA men were arrested in New York after trying to buy surface-to-air missiles from an FBI agent. In 1984 -- the year the IRA tried to kill the whole British cabinet in Brighton -- an IRA plot to smuggle seven tons of explosives was foiled, an action that led to the arrests of several Americans. As recently as 1999, long after the IRA had declared its cease-fire, members of an IRA group connected to an American organization, the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid), were arrested for gun-running in Florida.

The range of Americans who were unbothered by this sort of thing was surprisingly wide. Some were members of Congress, such as Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, who stayed with IRA supporters on visits to Northern Ireland and drank at a Belfast club called the Felons, whose members were all IRA ex-cons.”
(Go to .)

Here is what the Irish Echo, an Irish-American newspaper, writes about Rep. King:

“He was for years dogged by charges that he was soft on terrorism because he would not join the chorus of condemnation of the IRA.

He was once accused of having blood on his hands by a British ambassador to Washington because of his refusal to disown the IRA's campaign…

Never stepping back from his support of Sinn Féin, King engaged in a dialogue with loyalist leaders such as Andy Tyrie and John McMichael.

"When pressed he acknowledged support for the IRA," Mulvaney said of King.
King toured Protestant neighborhoods that were very bit as economically blighted than their Catholic counterparts.

"With the exception of Paul O'Dwyer, no one had more meetings with the Unionist extreme than Peter King. Make no mistake, that was a dangerous undertaking in the 1980s," said Mulvaney…

"I don't believe King's personal stances changed at all, but he proved that he was willing to listen and to see both sides of a complicated issue. I still believe that King's meetings in the mid 1980s were pivotal in the peace process. When King, and others, cajoled President Clinton into action, King was the one who could speak first hand of the suffering of both sides."

Attorney and Democratic party activist Frank Durkan agrees.

"Pete has been an effective voice. It took a lot of courage to speak out in defense of the IRA when everyone else was killing them. And remember, his constituency was not particularly Irish," said Durkan.

But though he stuck his neck out for Irish Republicans when it was distinctly unfashionable to do so, the post-Sept. 11 Pete King would have found it far more difficult to defend the IRA's campaign had it stretched into this century, and up as far as that fateful day.

The Sept. 11 attacks were a turning point for King. The son of a New York City detective, he lost friends and constituents in the attack on the World Trade Center and his now-unequivocal hostility towards anything that even remotely smacks of terrorism can be clearly traced to that attack on America.”

(Go to .)

To be fair, Rep. Peter King later became instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland during the Clinton Administration; in other words, his views and opinions and actions evolved to the point that he may have actually fully redeemed himself in this matter.

But shouldn’t he be more judicious in his condemnation of others, specifically American Muslims? Isn’t Rep. King in a perfect position to demonstrate an understanding of human nature and the tendency towards religious and nationalistic chauvinism that he once shared with the people he now chastises? After all, what percentage of Irish-American Catholics may have supported the IRA during those dark years? Could it be 80% to 85% or something approximate?

There is no doubt that ALL religions and dogmas open the door to radicalism; Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Fascism, Communism and so on are all easy examples of ideologies that have turned to unjustified violence at one time or another. When you hold a belief on faith or above question, you expose yourself to the possibility that you will hold dangerous beliefs. If you use reason, evidence and logic to guide you to a goal of improving the human condition, you may still make mistakes, but your chances of being a helpful person should be greatly improved! The alternatives of faith and dogmatism could lead to literally anything.

Rep. Peter King would be better served by denouncing faith and dogma – the real enemy. Although it is true that Islam can lead to radicalism and ultimately war, murder and terrorism, so has almost every other dogmatic religion and ideology including Rep. King’s own Irish Catholicism.

The real enemy within us is unreason and a lack of caring about others.

A Skeptical Look at the Economy

The last decade or so has been one giant roller coaster, economically speaking. It may seem like a long time ago, but in the late 20th Century, the United States actually had a balanced Federal budget. The head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, actually had a moment of worry about the US having too large a Federal budget surplus! As we now know, he needn’t have worried about the surplus.

The stock market was booming and reached an inflation adjusted peak in the year 2000. Unemployment during the Clinton presidency fell to levels of about 3% - does anyone remember that? It seems to be just a dream to us now.

One of the reasons for the good economic fortune back then was absence of wars bleeding our treasury and distracting the US economy away from more prosperous endeavors as well as a balanced budget. Peace is good for the economy, war inevitably is destructive. Why?

The quick answer is that when a country is at peace, human effort and labor is more directed toward products that make life better; confidence is high among producers and consumers and the cycle of productivity grows, leading to an actual improvement in people’s lives and an increase in the wealth of a nation.

During a war effort, the end products are more often destructive and lead to misery for someone, somewhere. The wealth of nations is decreased by war because of the destruction inherent in wars. Wars may serve to preserve our freedom which is worthwhile of course; but war only serves at best to maintain a status quo economically and socially. At worst, wars destroy freedoms and liberty if they are unjustified. The righteousness of a war is everything; an unjust war is doom to a country, both morally and economically.

After 2000 the stock market experienced a “bubble”; the prices of stocks related to the Internet were valued beyond all reasonable expectation and the NASDAQ index reached the 5000 level. The bubble burst when many companies failed to turn profitable and could not justify such prices. Easy monetary policy from the Federal Reserve enabled the speculators who inflated the bubble – and much wealth was destroyed when the bubble burst. The NASDAQ still is over 60% lower today than it was then, which is almost 9 years ago.

With a new president in place, an ill-designed tax cut following the recession caused by the bursting Internet stock bubble was implemented; the major beneficiaries were the wealthiest taxpayers. That was the end of the surplus. Although the stock market partially rebounded, the bang for the buck was poor; employment and income for the non-wealthy lagged.

Then came 9-11 and we were on our way to a non-righteous war – in Iraq - that not only wiped away any semblance of fiscal sanity, but completely replaced it with economic delusion.

Ridiculously easy credit and lax regulation led to a housing bubble that peaked in 2007. When foreclosures started to become a big problem, banks and mortgage backed securities began to tank. Soon, literally no one could find a lender willing to lend and business and consumer spending came to a screeching halt.

The enormous deficits that have resulted from the ineffective tax cuts of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, not to mention the Plan D Medicare giveaway to the major drug companies, have left us ill-prepared for the banking and housing crises that we are still suffering through. Ten percent unemployment is now a near certainty and the future looks grim.

Have we learned anything? Is the Obama Administration any better than the previous one?

There is no doubt that this administration is going after the problems more directly but unfortunately, for reasons of politics and popular sentiment, good solutions to difficult problems may elude us.

It must be admitted that the banking crisis which, if left unsolved would have led directly and swiftly into a depression, has been averted for now. The crisis is now just a lingering problem which will slowly return to “normal” unless a descent into a true depression occurs. Whether laws will be passed that will avoid future crises and banking abuses is unknown; if politicians were not involved, our chances would be better. Ideology is the enemy here as usual.

Similar comments could be made about all our other economic problems; health care, unemployment, the stimulus program, the federal deficit, and so on. In every case it seems that President Obama has the right idea; it also seems that in every case, Congress, to which the President has delegated the task of creating legislation addressing these issues, is not up to the task. Although the President highly values consensus and bi-partisanship, it may be that his preferences and ideas are better than consensus, the results of bi-partisanship or the ideas of the rest of his own party. His penchant for cooperation and delegation may not result in good health care reform.

This country desperately needs to reduce the cost of health care as a % of GDP while increasing the access of all Americans to healthcare (please note that it does not matter whether the solution is private or public). This may mean lower profit margins for the health care industry as they serve more people at a lower cost per person. Who has the nerve to publicly promote this kind of necessary policy?

The deficit MUST be reduced (please note that the amount of government spending is not the key issue, it’s the deficit). The government must stimulate the economy and increase employment while avoiding pork (please note that the stimulus must lead to productive labor, particularly involving infrastructure). This may mean higher taxes but if the budget is balanced and jobs created, and we are getting value for our taxes, ideology should not derail this solution. Are there elected officials who can balance all of these attainable goals?

It is hard to believe that most of our leaders are capable of putting ideology aside and doing what is most necessary. It is more likely that we will bounce from one emergency to another.
What do you think?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Macro Humanism and Micro Humanism

One of the things that religion pretends to be able to do is make its adherents “better” persons. How many times have you heard politicians or religious leaders bemoan the prospect of “godless” societies? How often has it pointed out that Hitler was an atheist (he wasn’t according to Hitler himself) and that the greatest wars of the last century were begun by non-believers (they weren’t.)

In fact it would be shocking indeed to hear a public official claim that religion wasn’t at the source of all morality, as if human concern for others could not have been the result of something like “natural selection” (it was.)

CFI-LI friend, Rabbi Marc Gellman often depicts non-believers as less likely to moral than believers; he’s implied that non-believers are more likely to run others over in a parking lot! There is no data to support this contention.

The lack of supporting is at long last being addressed, sort of. An article in Slate magazine noted that “In Gross National Happiness, author Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street.” (Go to I’m sure the experiments that led to this conclusion were very “scientific”.

On this issue, the Slate article cited a strong rebuttal argument:

“In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.”

What could be the explanation, other than the very possible explanation of falsified data, for this difference in American godless and foreign godless behavior? (Note: the possibility that American atheists are more generous after all is very real – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, James Simons, and Ted Turner are among the biggest philanthropists in the world – non-believers all.)

The Slate article points out, “The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, "[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them."

This is an obvious explanation that makes a lot of sense. In countries where secularism is the rule, it is often religious minorities that feel most alienated, fairly or unfairly. In the US, atheists, who are seen as the ultimate “outsiders”, could understandably be reluctant to donate money to, for example, the Boy Scouts, which excludes them, or the United Way, which gives to the Boy Scouts. It may be simply too much to ask for the despised to be generous to the despisers.

Humanism and secularism would seem to have much to offer on the macro level involving public moral policy; what could be a better philosophy for public policy than a non-dogmatic approach that uses reason, science and free inquiry with a goal of making the world a better place?

Humanists have consistently advocated for freedom, justice, and peaceful means for achieving these social aims. Humanism does not necessarily imply specific solutions to specific problems but it certainly is well equipped to frame problems properly and lead to asking the right questions. Secular humanism has little to apologize for as a basis for formulating a public, national, international and/or planetary or macro morality.

But this leads to the subject at hand which was inspired by the very compelling talk given by former Baptist minister Kevin Cordle at a CFI-LI forum earlier this year and an article in Free Inquiry by Paul Kurtz noting the shortcomings of many humanists on the personal level.

Mr. Cordle was a committed minister but his scientific orientation led to his questioning of his religious beliefs. However, the clincher was the lack of success that religious belief had in making his congregants better persons. In-fighting, politics and petty arguments that were the antithesis of “love thy neighbor,” soured the sincere minister on the necessity of religion.

But while it is obvious that religious beliefs do not make the religious better persons, neither does non-theism. Yes, on the personal level, humanists can act like jerks just as easily as the next person. Some humanists cheat, lie, hurt and behave poorly – is there any doubt? They profess humanism but cannot live its principles.

Hopefully this realization should make Mr. Cordle feel a little better; in no way should he feel that he failed because his congregants continued to behave poorly or indifferently despite all his efforts. Good character on a very personal level does not depend on belief, non-belief, zealotry or apathy; neither does good character depend on interest about god, religion or science.

So exactly how are we to nurture better behavior from fellow humanists and non-theists? Surely demonstrating that belief in god is unreasonable will not directly teach or inspire a person to treat others better.

The best approach must be setting a proper example. While humanism will definitely influence a person to denounce primitive and destructive religious practices, including FGM, sexism, many forms of bigotry and racism, religious war, religious intolerance and much more, it is much more difficult to make a person behave honestly, kindly, responsibly and courageously towards others on the personal level. But by showing others how to behave, we can practice our professed humanism on the more difficult micro level.

So what can we do to behave more humanistically? If I knew the answer to this question I would surely apply it to myself! I would figure out how to modify my own behavior so that I don’t yell at the kids, be more understanding of my wife and generally be more patient with everyone.
We are all works in progress; hopefully we’re getting better at applying the common decencies and virtues in our daily lives.

Perhaps working on an issue at a time would be a good approach to applying humanism on the micro level. Perhaps our character is too hard wired to be modified greatly, perhaps not. But we can take solace in a couple of facts; humanism is an approach that has been used to make great progress in civilizing humanity on the macro level to great benefit. Perhaps we need to discover the principles of a quantum humanism so that we can behave more humanistically toward each other every day on the micro level.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why We’re Secular, part 240

The dogmatic just don’t get it, do they? If they did, then they wouldn’t be dogmatic! Of course, the circular logic of a dogmatic belief system is successful in preserving itself precisely because a central tenet of an enduring system of dogma is that its assertions are beyond question; or, cleverly, beyond our ability to question; or even more cleverly, that belief in that dogma is a “gift” of some sort, hence the inability of dogmatic believers and followers to break free of whatever arbitrary and capricious system of dogma that entraps them.

Dogma need not be the full foaming-at-the-mouth kind that motivates terrorists and other zealots. Dogma can, in fact be totally mainstream and socially acceptable in polite company, but its acceptability renders the acceptor incapable of arguing against competing dogma even if it is indeed full foaming-at-the-mouth style dogma. A baseless and faith-held belief system has as much reason to support it as the next one.

Take for example our old friend, the God Squad’s Rabbi Marc Gellman. Considered a “moderate” by many, he seems unable to recognize the pointlessness of even bothering to use reason or logic (even poorly) when answering religious questions. Check out this exchange which appeared in Newsday on Saturday, March 07, 2009:

Question from a reader: I'm sorry that as a Jew you cannot accept the biblical fact, but Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and He came to save the world from sin and give us eternal life. If you accept this, you are saved; if you don't, then you're not. The scripture is clear that we are told these things so we may know that we have eternal life. Can't you acknowledge this truth? – B. via email

Answer: Not.

Does Rabbi Gellman realize that his answer to this reader’s question would suffice as an answer to his own question posed to an atheist on whether they could accept that God exists? Duh, I guess not!

The implications of faith-inspired tunnel vision and dogmatism encapsulated in this little exchange are mind-boggling and apparently totally lost on Rabbi Gellman. If he did see the implications he’d immediately become agnostic and understand he has no answers worth offering on the question of the existence of God.

Consequently, the need to continually justify his dogma often leads him into vicious and slanderous territory. Readers of the INQUIRER are well aware of his past attacks on non-believers (and his left-handed apologies). In the same column as his dogmatic rejection of salvation from a concerned dogmatic Christian letter writer comes the following piece of nuttiness:

Question from a reader: Considering, over many centuries, events like the Inquisition, countless and unceasing religious wars, the Crusades, 9/11 and the recent Mumbai killings, can you say that, on balance, religion has caused more good than bad things to happen? -- A., Melville, N.Y. via email.

A: Group A: (Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, and Father Tom Hartman)

Group B: (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin)

My conclusion: Group A wins over Group B.

(Go to

What is implied by these two groups and by what random process did he select the groups? Group A has two genuine heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, two homophobic Popes who believe that condom users deserve eternal damnation, a religious fanatic who believes that any woman who uses a contraceptive is incapable of love, an anti-Semite and a close friend of the Rabbi. You could ask yourself however, where are noted theists bin Laden and David Koresh?
Group B does indeed have all villains but includes Communists, a Muslim and a Catholic.

Oh yeah, I get it – in Group B they’re all really atheists because they are evil no matter whether they actually believe in God or not. The actual facts are irrelevant. I did notice that noted non-theists Christopher Reed, Pat Tillman. Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Kurt Vonnegut and John Lennon were omitted from Group B; it must have been an oversight!

But in the same newspaper edition that Gellman is attempting to claim that Group A (the “religious”) are better than Group B (the “atheists”) we have the following reality checks:
Senior leaders of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah offered international support Friday to Sudan's president after he was charged with war crimes in Darfur, a sign that the bid to prosecute him could sharply radicalize his regime.

For a third straight day, President Omar al-Bashir's supporters marched and vowed to defend him against what his government called a "colonial" conspiracy to overthrow him. Hundreds emerged from mosques after Friday prayers, chanting "jihad," or holy war, and shouting, "With our souls and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, al-Bashir."

After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for al-Bashir, Sudan's government responded by expelling 13 of the largest aid organizations in Darfur.
The U.N. human rights office said in Geneva that it was examining whether the expulsion could itself constitute a war crime.

The order opened a giant hole in the safety net that has kept many Darfur civilians alive during six years of war in the vast, arid region of western Sudan. Without the groups, 1.1 million people will be without food, 1.5 million without health care, and more than 1 million without drinking water — and outbreaks of infectious disease are a greater danger, the U.N. said.

"To knowingly and deliberately deprive such a huge group of civilians of means to survive is a deplorable act," said its spokesman, Rupert Colville. "To punish civilians because of a decision by the ICC is a grievous dereliction of the government's duty to protect its own people…"

Jennifer Cooke, head of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Western reaction "may drive al-Bashir further to the hard-line radicals."

"He is framing the ICC's decision as yet another Western attempt to undermine the sovereignty of a Muslim developing state," she said. "And realizing he can rally support, whether from the Arab League or more radical elements, and possibly the (African Union), it gives him less incentive to move back on his decisions." (Go to .)
Yes, support is lining up behind al-Bashir on a religious basis with supporters of al-Bashir depicting the “secular West” as colonialists when their only true motivation is mere religious chauvinism. (This is not to say that the religious elements in the “West” do not at times exhibit the religious chauvinism as well.)

If a religious “moderate” takes exception to the above story as non-representative, we offer another story regarding the supposedly non-extremist Catholic Church, the largest church on earth:

“The Vatican has defended the excommunication of those involved in helping a nine-year-old girl get an abortion in Brazil after she was allegedly raped by her stepfather.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the head of the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation for Bishops, told the Italian daily La Stampa over the weekend that the unborn twins the girl was carrying had the right to live.

"It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated," he said.

The senior cleric's comments come after Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, criticised Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the Brazilian archbishop who excommunicated the girl's mother and the doctors involved in aborting the baby, but not the stepfather who allegedly raped the girl.
Lula said that as a Catholic, he deeply regretted the archbishop's "conservative attitude".

"It is not possible to allow a little girl raped by her stepfather to have that child because it could put her life at risk," he said.

"I believe that in this sense, medicine is more correct than the church."

But the cardinal said "life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified".

The nine-year-old from the northeastern state of Pernambuco in the world's largest Roman Catholic nation, was found to be four months pregnant last week after allegedly being raped by her stepfather.

Abortion is a crime under Brazilian laws except in cases of rape, if the woman's life is in danger or if the foetus has no chance of survival

Doctors said they decided to terminate the pregnancy because the girl's life was in danger due to her young age, and because she was carrying twins.

But Sobrinho, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, in declaring the excommunication, said the abortion went against "the law of God".

The stepfather was not excommunicated because the church said that his action, although deplorable, was not as bad as ending the life of an unborn child.

"It is clear that he committed a very serious sin, but worse than this is the abortion," Sobrinho said.

Under church law, excommunication is automatic for followers who have, perform or help procure an abortion.” (Go to .)

Let’s summarize: the Roman Catholic Church position is that the raped 9 year old child should risk death so that the product of her rape not be terminated – not that they have a good chance of surviving this pregnancy anyway! In other words, a form of involuntary human sacrifice to an angry God! Yes the girl and her doctors would go to hell, but her rapist just needs to turn to Christ and he’ll be welcome in heaven!

To the reader; ask yourself what is the cruelest thing that a person could do to another person? The easy answer by definition would be to consign another person to an eternity of the ultimate in torment, misery and suffering. The Roman Catholic Church, believing in the reality of hell, has purposely and willfully committed the cruelest act possible; this is the horror of what they think they have done via ex-communication! And they have no remorse! They’re, in fact, righteous about their infinite punishment to a finite “crime.”

But wait! You might argue that an abortion, even to save the life of a child, is somehow immoral. Let’s go with another example of the “moderation” of the moderate and non-radical or extreme Roman Catholic Church, the world’s largest church.

While visiting Cameroon, where AIDS is a huge problem, the Pope said about the battle against AIDS, “You can’t solve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” (Go to .)

France’s health minister, Roselyne Bachelot said that the Pope “proffered a monstrous scientific untruth.” In other words, the Pope lied.

Rebecca Hodes, head of policy, communication and research for Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said the Pope should be promoting condom use if he wants to help fight AIDS. “Instead,” she said, “his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”

While the Pope lies, people die.

In the meantime, back in the US, one of the leading activists on behalf of the suffering people of Darfur is actor George Clooney.

Here is a quote from Mr. Clooney: "I don't believe in Heaven and Hell," he says. "I don't know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won't allow this life -- the only thing I know to exist -- to be wasted."

Rabbi Gellman, where does Mr. Clooney go: Group A or B and where does the pious al-Bashir and all his sanctimonious supporters belong?

To give you a clue, in recorded history, probably no war has been fought in the name of a non-belief (not counting self-defense) such as atheism or a failure to believe in capitalism. Wars are motivated by a strong positive belief in an economic system or religion or a form of nationalism; by something that compels many to give up their lives for an idea – in other words, a dogma.

Doubt leads to introspection and consideration of all the possibilities; it is certainty that can lead to fanaticism.

Advice to Rabbi Gellman: he should begin to appreciate the non-dogmatism of secular humanism.
At least we don’t think he deserves to rot in hell forever for his failure to accept the alleged “Truth” as some of his “fans” do.

The End of Faith and Denial

A few years ago Sam Harris wrote a scathing book about faith titled “The End of Faith”; it touched a nerve in many persons. Those of us who had their doubts that faith was a virtue easily related to the themes contained in this book. At the same time it presented a visceral challenge to persons of faith. After all, exactly why should anyone believe in something for which there is no evidence or poor evidence? In this book, words were not minced, feelings not spared.

The book had its faults, of course. While Sam Harris has amazing powers of observation and can effectively dramatize in writing the points he is making, his conclusions can be hit or miss, and his vision of the future can be unnecessarily inflammatory. Additionally, he could have made even more of the point that irrational faith is not restricted to religious matters; all beliefs held on faith, even those pertaining to secular matters, are not justified and can prove to be dangerous.

Surprisingly there has since been some progress in the battle against faith in this society. Thanks to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others, faith, religion, irrationality and unreason are no longer off-limits for criticism in the media. A flame has been lit. The youth in our society have shown some indications that they may prefer to “know” rather than simply to “believe”.

This modest progress is all good but of course, it is not enough. Faith is now occasionally questioned in public and although that is a welcome change, we have many more challenges to becoming a freethinking society.

Even if we were to vanquish the concept of “faith”, there is a related concept that although it does not necessarily lead to beliefs being held without evidence, it does lead to even not asking questions that could have unpleasant or inconvenient answers and it can lead to refusing to acknowledge what one actually believes; it’s called “denial.”

Denial is not just refusing to think about something; it almost certainly leads to not doing anything about things that can become a matter of life and death!

Consider all of the things that the average person may be in denial about; their health, their marriage, their job, their future, the future of their country and all things about all the persons they care about!

What could be more important than having a good handle on one’s life and the lives of those they care about? Yet many, if not most of us, refuse to deal with the most basic issues in life!

How many of us ignore health concerns and do not do what we know we need to do to stay healthy and not become a burden to others. Everyone must plead guilty to either not exercising enough, overeating, smoking drinking in excess or some other obvious form of abusing one’s own health. Yet this is still “small potatoes” for us as a society. In a sense, if we want to abuse ourselves, we should be allowed to do so although in most cases even self-abuse leads to pain for others.

As a nation, however, we have spent too much, borrowed too much and paid too little of it back – for at least the current decade if not for many decades. This harms generations not responsible for our current and past stupidity.

We have neglected our infrastructure, our schools and our energy self-sufficiency. We have no plan for the impending crush of baby boomers on social security or our health care system. We KNOW all this, yet we are in denial at one and the same time!

We absolutely already KNOW it is too expensive for most parents to send their children to private colleges without incurring too much debt on the student or the parents.

We already KNOW that our healthcare system is the most expensive system in the world even though many persons are not covered in any organized manner and that our outcomes are below average in the industrialized West.

We KNOW that we are sending our wealth out of the country, quite often to dictatorships, to pay for fuels that are contributing to a future environmental crisis. We’ve probably even started a war because we have not dealt with the well-known fact that we are not energy self-sufficient!
Denial almost makes faith look good! And denial crosses all boundaries of the secular and religious.

How many more matters of utter importance on a society-wide level can you name that we are and/or have been in denial about?

How about the fact that we cannot eliminate “pork” from the Federal budget as long as politicians are re-elected for delivering the pork?

Aren’t many in denial about our economic system being best left free from government regulation? Aren’t others in similar denial that government planning would solve all the problems?

How obvious is it that all vehicles should be fueled by renewable fuels (if not now, then eventually) and should be hybrids that also plug in? We KNOW that all cars could be designed & built thusly – why aren’t they?

It has become clear to me as time goes by that freethinking is little more than not being in denial. It is asking the tough questions and accepting the tough answers. It is acknowledging the obvious. It is not simply accepting authority or tradition as an answer.

Now we have the legal right to be in denial on any subject we choose as long as it does not lead to a crime against others.

But we no have no moral right to either belief in things for which there is no good evidence nor to ignore the things for which we know and accept that the evidence is overwhelming.

We no longer have a moral right to demand lower taxes, AND a expect a lower deficit; we no longer have the right to ask for universal health care and expect that everyone’s health care will be as extensive as before; we no longer have a right to buy SUV’s and complain about pollution and money being sent to Al Qaeda; we cannot expect to buy too much house, borrow too much money based on income that is not verified and then have other homeowners who are also suffering but more prudent pay more taxes to bail you out when you fall behind.

We, as a nation, have no moral right to attack a nation, kill tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their citizens based on mistaken or false premises and ever expect them to be your “ally”. Again, I’m sure the reader can supply many more examples.

In other words, we do not have the moral right to ask for what we KNOW is the impossible. War, suffering and poverty are the cost of denial. We need the end of denial.

There is No Place for the Supernatural in the Public Square

News item: (AFP, 3/5/09) An Iranian woman living in Spain who was disfigured and blinded by a man in Iran said Thursday she welcomed a Tehran court ruling that awards her eye-for-eye justice against her assailant...

"My intention is to ask for the application of the law not just for revenge but also so that no other woman will have to go through this. It is to set an example," the 30-year-old added.

In November an Iranian court ruled that the man -- identified only as Majid -- who admitted blinding Bahrami in 2004 by throwing acid in her face because she rejected his marriage request should also be blinded with acid based on the Islamic law system of "eye-for-an-eye" retribution.
Iran's Supreme Court confirmed the sentence at the beginning of February.

Bahrami, who moved to Barcelona after the attack to get medical treatment, said the court had originally ruled that she was entitled to have the man blinded in only one eye in Iran because "each man is worth two women".

"But I explained to the judge that with one eye one can still live," she told top-selling newspaper El Pais in another interview.

The court then ruled that the man would be blinded in both eyes if in exchange Bahrami agreed to give up the 20,000 euros (25,000 dollars) which she was set to receive from her assailant's family.

"He will be anesthetized and will not suffer pain. His face will not be disfigured because only a few drops (of acid) will be needed, he will not have the internal injuries which I had," she told ABC when asked if she felt she was less cruel than her aggressor…

She says she survives on a rent subsidy of 400 euros per month which she receives from the (secular) Spanish government and charity from friends. (End story.)

Some may suggest that incessant religion-bashing serves only to alienate religious moderates from the advancement of secularism and humanism. It would be suggested by those critics that, for example, the above monstrosity is not “typical” of religion or Islam or anything in particular. I maintain that such criticisms directed at the exposing of the excesses of religious belief are simply wrong; not enough persons are exposed to where irrational beliefs can lead, even if all such beliefs do not lead to disaster.

It is Iran’s Supreme Court’s claim that "each man is worth two women". It is the moral right (and duty) of anyone to denounce this ruling and beyond the utter misogyny of it, this ruling serves to show how laws and rulings based on supernaturally supported beliefs bring nothing to the table in the real world.

Is this a radical and exceptional ruling by an irrelevant body of fanatics? Although it is a ruling by a body of fanatics, a ruling by the worlds most populous Shiite nation’s actual Supreme Court is hardly irrelevant; and if this Court’s decision is exceptional, exactly where do we turn to understand what the orthodox ruling should have been?

Addressing religious moderates, is the religious attitude of the Iranian Supreme Court confined only to “radicalized” societies?

Please take note of the following; From Pew Research: “For example, six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants say that the Bible should be the guiding principle in making laws when it conflicts with the will of the people, a view rejected by an equally large majority of Americans, including most Catholics and white mainline Protestants.”

The last time I checked, evangelical Protestants had their run of the White House for the last 8 years and had a Vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, on the last national ticket of the Republican Party. An early favorite for the 2012 nomination is Rev. Mike Huckabee!

The ruling by Iran’s Supreme Court can be contested on grounds that it is un-Islamic; but if one is honest, one would have to admit that most conservative and literal Islamic fundamentalists would agree with the proposition that "each man is worth two women" and that a more “moderate” view has less claim to orthodoxy.

One can make the claim that “their religion” or “their God” would never endorse such a ruling but if one is honest, one would have to admit that many average Americans would agree “the Bible should be the guiding principle in making laws when it conflicts with the will of the people…”, a principle that entirely supports the ruling of the Iranian Supreme Court.

As a study in logic and law, is the passing of Proposition 8 in California destroying the right of gay couples to marry that much different that the Iranian Supreme Court’s ruling? Just substitute the concept that “homosexuality is immoral because it offends God” for "each man is worth two women" and the shared concept that “the Bible (or Koran) should be the guiding principle in making laws when it conflicts with the will of the people…” and let the results speak for themselves.

Religious moderates of all kinds must face up to the impossibility of governing fairly and reasonably if supernaturally supported beliefs guide law. There is no way to categorize a belief as “moderate” as opposed to a “radical” – certainly the fact that a belief is widely held is not assurance of its “moderation”!

From Iran to the US, the common thread is impossible to deny; human well being simply is not the goal of faith-held beliefs; faith-held beliefs have no goal – they are arbitrary and capricious. They can claim anything from “homosexuality is immoral because it offends God” to "each man is worth two women" to “all non-believers are damned and deserving of it.” What is sure to follow from these propositions is human misery.

There is no place for the supernatural in the public square.

How Does a Humanist Approach Economics?

Exactly what should a humanist think regarding the economic woes that we are suffering through in the US and around the world? What economic approach should a humanist embrace or are there a number of approaches that can be embraced?

There have been volumes written on the subject, of course, with points of view that are literally diametrically opposed to each other and everything in between. Ayn Rand, a non-theist, advocated unfettered capitalism; Karl Marx, another non-theist, advocated a communistic approach. Closer to the mainstream, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes have all exerted differing influences on economic thinkers and policies that have followed.

Indeed, if you enjoy contradiction and opposing opinions, listen to a number of different economists and economic forecasters explain what has happened and what is about to happen and you will undoubtedly hear everything ranging from a prediction of the next great depression to the next economic boom being just around the corner.

And this is the problem for the freethinking humanist; economics is most certainly still an inexact “science.” There are simply too many factors involved, not the least of which is almost completely factor of unpredictable human nature at play in the economies of an increasingly complex world. “Random” stimulus such as weather, war, corruption and good and bad luck conspire to make the future nearly totally unpredictable. Add human emotions such as fear and euphoria and it becomes clear that forecasting the economy requires more than complex math; it requires complex psychological analyses of masses of human beings as well!

That is why it is unwise, in this writer’s opinion, to have an unswerving approach to economics. The guidelines that we should respect in the economic field involve those common decencies that we revere in all areas of human endeavor, such as not causing unnecessary harm, enabling individual freedom to the degree that others are not harmed, honesty, responsibility, fairness and reasonableness.

This approach does not rule out many moderate economic approaches; it would rule out, for example, communism which promotes a dictatorship of a particular class and may disallow the individual right to be enterprising. A humanistic approach would also rule out a fascistic alliance of large businesses with government. These two approaches are not compatible with fairness or individual freedom, not to mention the fact that fanatical followers often will accept human suffering rather than sacrifice any aspect of their economic belief system.

What is left for us to decide as rational agents is to figure out in each economic situation, what approach harmonizes with the common decencies; what approach allows for individual freedom and, in addition, works well to raise our standard of living and mitigate human suffering! What may work for auto-making or banking may not be the right approach to a utility or other business involved with common areas of a nation, such as roads, police, the army or schools.

Should the goal be as little government taxing as possible, with its concordant fewer government services; or should we band to together via higher taxes to create a social safety net for those who may fall into need?

Would the low tax approach allow for more human suffering? Would the higher tax approach lead to sloth and “gaming the system” lowering everyone’s standard of living?

Should the market determine the price of a product; should a government or a bureaucrat?

Once again, we know that both approaches have problems and limitations. The market approach gave us Enron, Lehman Bros., AIG, Bear Stearns, the health care system we now have and the US auto industry. And, of course, the Great Depression and our current woes.

The Command Economy approach gave the world the disastrous economies of Russia and China for much of the last century. It has only been when both those countries abandoned those failed economic policies for freer markets that their economies grew tangibly improving the lives of many citizens. Even though their new economies have brought other problems to the fore, lives have improved. It is clear already that even in Russia and China, despite capitalism’s success in improving lives, this success is not unqualified.

Admittedly this is a frustrating and not totally satisfying way of approaching the topic of economics; it’s so uncertain and non-committal. It is much easier for those who crave certainty to be total and unblinking capitalists, libertarians, socialists or communists.

But no one said freethinking and humanism would lead to simplistic answers. In the category of economics there are none.

So when you read about the next “bailout” or “rescue” or “financial stimulus” plan, do not make up your mind so quickly; there is no guarantee that this idea is not either the best or worst idea to come down the pike. Each idea should be looked at in a non-dogmatic manner and assessed in as scientifically a manner as is possible. If our economy is anything, it is complex.

We do know that the previous administration proudly took the certain dogmatic approach: pure ideology ruled until disaster stared the administration in the face.

We can safely say that the dogmatic and ideological approach has failed.

Good riddance.

On a note of hope, the approach of the new administration of President Obama, has been, on the surface, open-minded. It remains to be seen if they can truly think “outside the box,” and govern in that manner as well, but that is the image they are trying to convey. We hope that they succeed in being innovative, creative and freethinking in their economic approach and do not succumb to political pressures, from the right or left that would promote an unthinking ideology.

We shall soon find out.

With all this said I can now offer my opinion on what the approach should be going forward, in the full knowledge that even the best of all possible plans has only a certain percentage change of succeeding as intended, and that even a bad plan might work - with luck.

It is obvious that the current problem has its roots in the abuse of credit by both business and consumers. Businesses borrowed too much, relying on continued growth in the economy to enable them to pay back their loans as they expanded. Consumers borrowed heavily on both the housing front and the credit card front in the expectation that their home’s value would always rise and if they were unable to pay the exorbitant mortgage, they could simply sell their house – at a profit.

The disaster began when so many persons could not pay their mortgages at the same time that home values started to decline because of the glut of homes for sale by distressed sellers.

The situation began to snowball – if sellers could not pay their mortgages and home prices dropped, banks that lent them money had to repossess home that were now worth less than the loans that were owed. It did not help that many mortgages were fraudulently issued without proper credit checks or home appraisals – many of these are the “sub-prime loans” that were the first to go bad.

As more and more persons defaulted, and banks lost more and more money on those loans, and houses became less and less valuable, those financial entities that had bought securities based on home mortgages came to realize that those securities were becoming less valuable. In fact, the value of securities backed by mortgages declined so badly that financial institutions soon had less overall capital or value in relation to deposits and other liabilities as required by both law and common sense.

So some stopped lending, especially to each other, and others went bankrupt.

When banks stop lending, it becomes difficult to buy a house, further driving down home prices, or even buy a car.

If you’re a business, it becomes hard to refinance as you had previously. Good luck to the firm that has a loan due to be paid or refinanced!

When consumers began to realize that their homes were declining in value, and they could no longer be used to finance other purchases they did in fact do the logical thing: they stopped making purchases.

Businesses started to realize that consumers had reached their credit limits and were not buying their products anymore – so they began to lay off workers and lessen inventories.
So this is what you get when consumers have little available credit, and banks have little to lend; a huge and sudden recession.

This is a negative feedback loop if there ever was one and there are many contributing factors. Last year, crude oil soared to $147 per barrel in price; at that moment the credit related bubble began to burst in earnest. Since then practically ALL commodities declined in value, including oil, metals, real estate and even gold. With billions and trillions of dollars in “paper” wealth gone, primarily due to the decline in real estate values, stocks and mutual funds, there was less cash in existence to chase commodities and who needs commodities when you’re not making stuff anyway?

This is called “deflation” and it is deadly to the economy. Why buy something now when it will cost less later? Another negative feedback loop!

Obviously, it’s not as if people do not want to buy stuff and banks do not want to lend their money. Both borrowers and lenders are afraid to do their thing.

Businesses know this and retreat to a protective position.

But consider this; the recession is essentially the result of future expectations which right now are extremely bad. In other words, there is great fear and it is fear that prevents consumers from buying, lenders from lending and businesses from expanding.

Remove or reverse or moderate the fear and the recession can be ended.

What would reduce the level of fear?

The key items must be jobs and job security and the banking system’s viability. If you are secure in your existing job, you will spend normally. Obviously if you are now unemployed and then find a job, your spending should only increase. When businesses see this happening, they will expand further.

If banks are not worried about being paid back because people will not be losing their jobs, they will lend - that is unless they are too bankrupt or deficient in reserves to lend.

So it would seem the task at hand for our government is to foster jobs creation and ensure bank viability.

A stimulus package not focused on job creation may be worthless. Simply sending out tax rebates, for example, will NOT ELIMINATE FEAR! Only a secure job will do this, in my opinion, and to avoid wasting taxpayer money, the job created should be a useful and necessary endeavor, not a time waster such as digging and filling in ditches.

“Fortunately,” over the decades, we have neglected many necessary tasks, such as improving our infrastructure and making our nation energy independent. Building schools, hospitals, repairing crumbling bridges or creating an improved electrical grid or funding advanced technological research would lead to further economic expansion, keeping the economy growing even after the stimulus has run its course. Our quality of life would improve.

Fixing the financial system may be the tougher task. The Federal Government has some choices; buying preferred stock, common stock or nationalizing certain banks. Or, if a price can be calculated, perhaps purchasing the non-liquid assets (e.g.: bad loans) of banks would be the right move; or facilitating a market or exchange where this junk could be sold in an orderly and transparent manner. The choice is complex but the goals are ensuring viability while keeping the expense to taxpayers to a minimum. Letting them go bankrupt is really not a choice – see the mess the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros. has caused. It could take years to sort it all out! Imagine the mess if a Citibank were to fail!

Allowing banks to remain “too big to fail” in the future should not be a choice either. Going back to their core business of lending to consumers for more than they pay out for deposits may be boring but it has worked for centuries. Exotic financial instruments such as derivatives, credit default swaps and triple short ETFs should be regulated if not eliminated. There is much to do.
But why did banks (and other companies) get in the position they are in? They were not required to make bad loans or bad business decisions, were they? After all, not all companies made those bad decisions!

As the system now works, the CEOs of banks (and other corporations) do not necessarily have their company’s interest in mind as they drive them to bankruptcy – why should they? If a policy is likely to benefit the CEO and other higher officers of the corporation, rather than the bank or corporation, what do you think will happen – or has happened?

A $100,000,000 bonus is a difficult thing to forsake for the good of a corporation!

Here is the conflict – a corporation, if it was a sentient entity, would have a goal of surviving well, like any other sentient entity. Unfortunately, running a corporation are numerous other sentient entities – officers, directors, and laborers, all with conflicting goals. The corporation thus suffers – you wind up with Enron, Citibank and General Motors.

Therefore corporate governance, in order to protect stockholders and employees in particular, must be codified and made into enforceable law or otherwise a company is at the mercy of sentient beings with conflicting goals. Simply requiring an officer to have a fiduciary responsibility has not worked particularly when corporate boards who oversee the executives consist of the corporate officer’s “pals” who are corporate officers elsewhere. (Note: I’m available for Board of Director work.) This is simply not working in too many situations.

Ethical and responsible captaincy of a corporation has long been neglected and too many in the corporate world accept the myth that humongous corporate bonuses are “necessary” to preserve “talent” within a company.

I don’t think so. In fact it may be that the larger the bonus, the worse a corporation is run.

Limiting bonuses to executives to stock in the company, with the size of the bonus tied to size of the executive’s salary, and then not redeemable for at least 5 to 7 years so that the current stock price cannot be manipulated is a simple solution.

Consider that Major League Baseball, an industry where performance can easily be measured, mostly bans bonuses – even based on performance. Why should they do this; wouldn’t it motivate players? Their answer is actually logical.

Major League Baseball limits bonuses because they do not want players to “game” the system and go for homeruns, strikeouts and other milestones that do not 100% correlate to winning baseball. Corporations similarly should NOT want executives that game the system in order to achieve bonuses in ways that could hurt the company.

What is the most an employee/executive should be paid? If Alex Rodriguez can get by on about 30,000,000 per year, and is obviously good (though not perfect) at his job, that should be about enough for most anyone else. But of course, I could be wrong or unlucky about all of this.

We would love to hear from readers how their humanism informs their take on the current economic crisis.

(Gerry Dantone has an M.B.A. in finance from St. John’s Univ. and was elected to their chapter of the International Honor Society for Economics - )

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Does Democracy Still Matter

Many Americans are still basking in the glow of Barack Obama’s victory in the Presidential election. It’s hard to blame them – after 8 years of an administration that has made a mess of two wars, oversaw the ruination of the economy, threatened our civil liberties, allowed 9-11 on their watch, reduced our stature in the eyes of the world, neglected the Mid-East peace process, and failed its citizens after hurricane Katrina, change is something that many Americans are eagerly anticipating.

But before we congratulate ourselves too heartily, we should look at some details. The electoral process itself has changed little since the debacle of 2000. We still have the ridiculous electoral college. “Black box” voting machines still exist and the fact that you may have liked the results this time around does not mean you should be happy with a voting system that is difficult if not impossible to verify.

Money still makes the major difference in elections and just because the winning candidate is hopefully a champion of the less affluent, it does not change the regrettable fact that the ability to spend in a campaign is too all-important. Obama supporters should instead realize that this year’s election was an anomaly in fundraising.

Even worse is the fact that the voting public remains ignorant and irrational. We are the same voting public that believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11 and collaborated with Al Qaeda and that WMDs were found in Iraq. Many voters, this time around, believed Obama was a Muslim, for example.

Although America now seems to be pleased with the election results, we should not be happy with the electoral process and the attitudes of many voters:

News Item: (9/20/08 Associated Press) (Excerpts) Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them "lazy," "violent" or responsible for their own troubles...

Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice…

The AP-Yahoo poll used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone…
Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.

Among white Democrats, one-third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.

The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites." Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn't…

Researchers used mathematical modeling to sort out the relative impact of a huge swath of variables that might have an impact on people's votes — including race, ideology, party identification, the hunger for change and the sentiments of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's backers.

Just 59 percent of her white Democratic supporters said they wanted Obama to be president. Nearly 17 percent of Clinton's white backers plan to vote for McCain.

Among white Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described blacks well, a finding that suggests many of her supporters in the primaries — particularly whites with high school education or less — were motivated in part by racial attitudes. (Go to .)

Polls after the election indirectly confirmed much of the above. A majority of white voters voted for McCain (55%); the only segment of white voters (other than white Democrats) to go for Obama were those under 29 years of age. Wealth and education did not matter for overall white voters. (Go to

For those who read the INQUIRER, the poll’s conclusions are not surprising. The September 2008 INQUIRER suggested that Obama would indeed have a disadvantage on account of prejudice.

At the same time, ignorance, superstition and an aversion to reason and logic are also at work in the election; all of these handicaps to good decision making will be at play.

For example, it was many of Obama’s African–American supporters as well as organized religious institutions that helped to pass California’s Proposition 8 which eliminated the right of that state’s gay couples to marry. It would be hard to argue that these Obama supporters were informed freedom lovers who were interested in social justice.

All of this is not to say that those who vote irrationally were not voting in a manner that will be best for our country. Maybe they are. But it is safe to say that voting irrationally is probably not the best way to go to obtain the best results in the long run!

This is also not to say that a President Obama will not serve to “educate” many American voters. It may be that President Obama’s presidency will deal a severe blow to racism, particularly if it’s a successful presidency. In January 2009, Obama’s positive rating was over 75% which would seem to guarantee that a majority of white voters supported him now.

A recent Free Inquiry magazine asked the question “Does Democracy Still Matter?” The simple answer is, “no, not if the voting public is irrational or uninformed; yes, of course, if the voting public is rational and informed.”

What attributes do you think describes various voters? Does Democracy still matter? Just because your preferred candidate won does not mean that the way we pick our leaders is not severely compromised.

Democracy requires reason, free inquiry, concern for others, responsibility and fairness – in other words, a humanistic outlook; for tyranny you need faith, certainty, greed, and ignorance. Not surprisingly, faith, certainty, self-interest (to the exclusion of interest in others) and a rejection of the scientific enterprise are often seen as virtues by many in this society.

Until the American voting public becomes well versed in civics, becomes less bigoted, less ignorant and less dogmatic in all matters relevant to governance, and we improve the actual system of elections, our democracy remains in peril, current results aside.