Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Copenhagen Declaration as Foundation for All Political Platforms

I am dedicating this entry to the declaration of the World Atheist Conference below. All politicians running for any office, local or national, should sign off on this set of principles as their baseline position. If they do not, then they do not deserve to hold public office and voters should decide their fate accordingly.

Notice that this declaration is certainly not an apologetic for atheism. It recognizes the right of religions and spirituality to exist. It merely sets limits to the encroachment of religious dogma into public discourse. Here is the declaration:

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

• We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
• We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
• We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
• We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
• We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
• We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
• We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
• We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
• We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
• We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
• We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Now I ask you, what reasonable person could argue with any of the above tenets?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CSPI vs Ronald McDonald

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is at it again. The “Food Police,” as food industry advocates have dubbed it, is now targeting that great American institution, McDonald’s.

The CSPI is best known for whining about consumer food favorites such as buttered theater popcorn and sugary-sweet breakfast cereals. This is the group that forced the Kellogg Company to stop marketing its sweetest and best-tasting food product choices directly to young children. Now, those kids will have to rely on Mom to decide whether to allow them to eat the foods they love best.

Did you know that one Boomin’ Onion from Outback Steak House has more than a full day’s worth of calories, about 2,500? Well, neither did I until the CSPI came right out and said it, thus spoiling the enjoyment of millions of Americans as they belly up to the table to devour one of their favorite appetizers prior to digging into that giant steak and potato meal.

This same organization is responsible for bullying KFC into frying its chicken in oil that has no trans fats. Now, although trans fats are a menace to health, it was the CSPI that, back in the mid-1990s, threw its weight around and forced restaurants to stop using saturated fats in their fried foods. So these restaurants, in order to appease the Food Police, started using trans fats in place of saturated fats. It is now known that trans fats are far worse than saturated fats for being deleterious to human health. In essence, then, the CSPI forced the food industry to start using a product that was actually worse than the product that it replaced. Ten years later, CSPI basically said, “Our bad, just kidding.” Its policy now is to promote the frying of food in oil that has no saturated fats or trans fats. But these are the exact kinds of fat that make fried foods taste the best.

It should be clear by now that the CSPI has a vendetta against great-tasting food, especially as it is marketed to young children. Soon, if the CSPI gets its way, there will be no more toys in Happy Meals, no more little doodads in packages of breakfast cereal, and dare I say, no more tiny comic books or cheap rings inside boxes of Cracker Jacks. What will be next, the demise of Bazooka Joe?

Think about it, a world with no bright and colorful cereal boxes with cartoon characters on them. And there’ll be no more Saturday-morning commercials with fun cartoon characters. No longer will kids get the pleasure of collecting cereal box tops to send in and get a cool decoder ring. Parents will be forced to determine what foods to buy for their children based on taste and nutrition rather than just letting their kids decide for themselves what to beg their parents into buying for them based on delightfully-funny cartoon pitchmen or the promise of cheap toys.

What a dull and listless world that would be.

But taking the tongue out of my cheek for a moment, obviously directing advertisements of junk food directly at young children is a bit dodgy. One might conclude that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. After all, state governments have mandated the use of car seats and seat belts for children because, the thinking is, if the parents are not going to take steps to protect their children from harm, then society will by enacting laws.

The Federal government has banned tobacco companies from marketing to teens by forbidding the use of cool images, like cartoon camels, in product ads. So is it much of a leap to advocate barring the use of cartoon characters in the marketing of junk food to kids or preventing restaurants and cereal makers from including toys in their unhealthy food products?

On the one hand, there is the argument that too much government interference in the free market is not a good thing. There are freedom-of-speech issues to consider as well. But, on the other hand, one job of the government is to protect its citizens, by preventing one group of citizens (the food industry, say) from harming another group of citizens (underage consumers). CSPI has threatened to sue McDonald’s if it does not stop giving away toys with the purchase of some Happy Meals. But a better solution might be to simply inform parents, or even to launch their own ad campaign directed at kids to inform them directly of the dangers of consuming french fries and other fatty, starch-laden foods.

Unless we, as a society, really do want to ban all advertising and promotions directed at children (which some say we should), then a better solution would be for organizations such as CSPI to educate and advise, rather than try to force compliance by suing.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

So am I Extremely Middle-of-the-Road?

I have had many labels placed on me during my life. I have been called a conservative. In fact, one man once described me as being "just to the right of Hitler." I, of course, disagreed with him. I’ve also quite often been called a liberal nut-job.

I don't mind being labeled. It is just interesting to me that I can carry so many conflicting labels, placed there by people trying to further their own agendas.

In actuality, it’s hard to pigeonhole me. To an ultra-conservative reactionary, I am a bleeding-heart liberal. But, to a bleeding-heart radical, I am a fascist! In reality, I can straddle the fence on many controversial issues. I can also hold strongly liberal views on one topic while being ultra-conservative on another. I take each issue separately, and decide on each using criteria that I feel applies specifically to that issue. And, when possible, I rely on reason more often than I rely on emotion.

As a public service to those who feel the need to stick a label on me, here’s a how-to guide describing my view on various issues.

Abortion -- I believe that elective abortion as a means of birth control is wrong. However, I also know that a fetus that is so young as to be unviable is little more than a foreign organ inside a pregnant woman's womb. Therefore, I believe that a woman should have the right to CHOOSE what to do about her pregnancy, as long as she makes that choice before the fetus becomes viable. Those who believe that abortion is murder should simply choose not to have an abortion, if it ever comes up. But to deny others the right to choose one way or another is a travesty of our American system that values free choice. (Ideology: left of center.)

Gun Control -- I believe that assault weapons and guns of mass murder should be outlawed for sale, manufacture, and importation. I believe that heavy restrictions should be placed on the sale of hand guns. (Ideology: left of center.)

Affirmative Action -- I believe that affirmative action, and its associated tenets, is probably one of the worst mistakes ever made by Congress. I believe that similar rulings made by federal court judges regarding forced busing, quotas in the workplace, etc., are similarly misguided. I believe a private employer should have the right to hire and fire whomever he or she wishes, for any reason. (Ideology: far right.)

Welfare -- Welfare should be "workfare" in that all able-bodied recipients should be put to work. In addition, they should be trained and given job skills, then sent through a placement program which will ultimately lead to their being employable, contributing members of society. (Ideology: right of center.)

Government -- I believe in the Federalist doctrine where that applies to everyone, such as in foreign affairs, domestic policy, and education. I believe in strong states' rights on issues that are more effective if handled locally, such as what speed limit to enforce. I don't believe that the federal government should create unfunded mandates. (Ideology: basically neutral.)

Prayer in school -- There has always been, and there currently remains, no ban on prayer in school. Every student, every teacher, and every administrator has the right to pray in school, (even out loud), as long as it does not interfere with the educational process. There is, and there should remain, a ban on organized prayer. I don't want any law or school policy dictating to kids how or when they should pray. (Ideology: left of center.)

Church and State – The framers of the Constitution built a wall of separation between religion and government. That wall should remain tall and firm. There is absolutely no place in public schools for religious indoctrination. There is no place in science class for the teaching of religious dogma such as Creation or Intelligent Design. The phrase “In God We Trust” should be removed from currency and license plates. The phrase “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. There is no room to display the Ten Commandments on government property. Religion should be taught in schools, all religions, from a historical perspective so that students can learn for themselves that religion is an antiquated notion whose time has passed. (Ideology: left of center)

Health Care – Health care should be a basic human right provided to all citizens equally by the government. For those who can afford it, they can opt in to a premium insurance plan that provides extra coverage if they wish. (Ideology: left of center)

Overall ideology -- Both liberals and conservatives believe in equality. The point of contention is what should be equal. It is said that liberals believe in the tenet of equality of condition; that is, the wealth should be spread around so that everyone has what he needs. It is also said that conservatives believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, in that everyone should have an equal opportunity to make it, or to fail. They must then live with their accomplishments, or lack thereof. I think these summaries are oversimplified. Economically, I tend to lean conservative, but with a nod toward the progressive ideals and ideas that prevent widespread poverty and lack of health care. (Ideology: slightly left of center)

In the end, I guess my conservative side balances out my liberal side, making me more or less "middle of the road," but with a slight leaning toward the left. But I'm not a centrist on most individual issues. When I do form opinions on an issue they tend to be strong, whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Five Reasons Christians Give for Believing

People believe in God for different reasons. But I believe the most common reason is that they were raised that way. Religion has hung on so long despite having absolutely no empirical evidence to support it because it has become an ingrained tradition in families. Couple that with the lucrative church business, so that religious organizations are compelled to keep the believers coming in, and you have what we all see today: The majority of people in the world, even as adults who should know better, keep believing in an unproven father figure in the sky.

Since I was raised Christian, and most people who live in America call themselves Christians, I am focusing this entry on why people claim to be Christian, as opposed to, say, Muslim or Jew. But it probably works similarly for any of the other monotheistic religions, too. They all assume the existence of a single god in the sky.

1. So the first reason mentioned above, that people are Christian because they were raised Christian, most likely means that, as adults, they probably just haven’t given religious belief much thought. I’m fairly confident that if most people by the time they reach the age of 18 would sit down and make a pro and con list of why they should keep on believing the way they were raised to believe, they would discover there is no real reason to continue in the charade.

Of course, some people do just that. My son and my daughter both overcame the religious upbringing their mother gave them (and I went along with because I was one of those who had not paid serious attention to why I was a Christian). My son bolted first, when he was about 15 or so. My daughter’s rejection of Christianity came during college.

2. Having faith is a good thing. I’m often told, “You have to believe in something.” But why is it that religious faith gets a pass when it comes to critical thinking? We have freedom of religion in this country, so that means we have to respect other people’s beliefs, right? Well, no. It only means people have the legal right to practice whatever kind of silly superstition they want. It doesn’t mean I’m required by law to respect that belief. I respect their right to believe it, but not the belief itself. So there is no reason for me, or anyone else, to tiptoe around someone’s faith. Faith should be met head on with as much critical thinking as you would give a salesman hawking a vacuum cleaner for $1,200. And why do I have to believe in something, if that something has no evidence to back it up? I believe in what the evidence tells me, nothing more. Why should anyone else have a lower criterion for what they believe?

People often say that even non-believers have a certain faith, too: They have faith in their children to do the right thing; they have faith the sun will come up in the morning. Well, yes, I do believe those things. But I believe them because I have past evidence that it will happen. My children have always shown me that they are capable. The sun has always come up, every day. So why shouldn’t I believe it will come up tomorrow? It’s not really faith if you know it’s going to happen. And you don’t really have faith in your kids, you have trust in them. Trust is something that’s earned; faith is blind.

3. “I need a solid foundation on which to base my life.” Well, so do I. But why base it on a superstition? How is that solid? People tell me that God is always there, never changing, when everything else in the world, including science, changes. They say they need that sense of stability. I can respect that. But, again, the people who claim that having a solid foundation and stability is the reason they believe are misguided. It’s true that Christianity is pretty much the same now as it was 2,000 years ago in terms of its core doctrine. It’s also still just as bogus. People point to science and say that it changes too much, that they don’t know what is true. Discoveries made by science might, indeed, change as time goes by. But that’s the beauty of science; it corrects itself. Religion does not. Why bother correcting yourself it you’re perfect to begin with? But that perfection is only assumed. Christianity has not proven itself to be true; it relies on people’s gullibility to simply believe it is. So even if it is stable and unchanging, why would you build your life around a foundation that may be stable, but is still imaginary? Scientific theories may need tweaking occasionally, but the scientific method is stable. Base your life around the scientific method. Its only goal is to find the truth about nature. And the methods it uses to search for that truth are as stable as religion.

4. “Society needs a moral framework to keep from falling into chaos. The bible and our Judeo-Christian heritage provide that moral framework.” Would you really give your child a copy of the bible and tell him to use it as a guide for moral behavior? He would go around smiting every one of his friends who did not believe as he does, because that’s what God commands. He would grow up with the desire to own slaves. He would kill everyone he knows that is homosexual. He would disown his parents in the name of Jesus Christ because that’s what Jesus tells his followers to do (although that contradicts one of God’s commandments, so who’s to know).

There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who do not believe in any god. The vast majority of them are not rapists, murderers, or thugs. Most of them live in civilized Western Europe. We do what’s right by each other because it is evolutionary beneficial for us to do so. It is how our society evolved. Of course there are those who go against society for personal gain. But there are no more atheists in that group than those who are Christian. In fact, a disproportionate number of locked-up criminals are believers.

5. “Jesus died on the Cross for my sins, so that I might have eternal life in heaven with him. How can I say no to that?” Well, first of all, there are almost no records outside the bible that Jesus ever existed. He probably did. And he might have been crucified; lots of criminals were at the time. But one would think that with all the miracles Jesus supposedly performed, with the earthquake that happened during his Crucifixion, with the sun being darkened at that time, too, and with all the hoopla that surrounded his Resurrection and subsequent appearance to thousands, that someone outside the framework of the biblical story would have at least made a footnote for the history books about the events. But no, during Jesus’ lifetime, he was a virtual nobody. He wrote nothing, not even a diary. He had some followers, but so did a bunch of other self-proclaimed messiah figures in those days. But, outside of one brief mention a century later by Josephus, no one wrote anything historical about this man who is supposed to be the savior of all mankind. Isn’t that strange?

But even supposing that he did die on the Cross for us, how does that make him so great as to deserve our worship two millennia later? We have, today, soldiers laying down their lives, some of them dying, for their country or for a way of life. Jesus was doing the same thing. So maybe he deserves our admiration and respect, but not our worship. Besides, what did Jesus really give up? He, according to the Gospel of John, is God. So God came down from heaven and manifested himself as a mere mortal for a few years just so he could be put to death and go back to heaven where he was to begin with? Where’s the sacrifice? He was God in heaven, then God on earth, then God in heaven once again. He’s still God! There was never any sacrifice. And what about the idea that God did it so that he would understand the suffering of mankind? He’s GOD! He’s supposedly omniscient. He knows EVERYTHING, including what it’s like to be human, especially since he supposedly made us.

I’m sorry but I can’t buy into any of it, and it amazes me how anyone who has actually given it some thought can fall for this hoax. The problem is, very few people have actually given it any serious thought. Some want to believe so badly that they are afraid to give it any deep thought because they fear they might actually lose their faith. That frightens them. But isn’t it better to live knowing the real truth than to go through life believing in superstitious nonsense? There are different ways to socialize than by going to church. There are many secular organizations that do wondrous things for people for you to donate your money to. These organizations don’t have the overhead of most churches, so more of your money goes to the actual charity. And your time spent praying and worshipping might be better spent in social activities with your family or your friends.

There are lots of other reasons people believe. It gives them comfort. They are afraid of going to hell. They believe the New Testament is historically correct. But there are alternative methods of seeking comfort. There really is no such place as hell; anyone who has graduated from a seminary knows that. And the bible was written by anonymous writers decades after the events described by people who were not eyewitnesses. The accounts are not even second-hand or third-hand. The earliest manuscripts we have were penned more than a century after Jesus’ death. It’s easy to make a claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy from a perspective of hindsight. Couple all that with the fact that the claims of Christianity are based on the supernatural and you’ll see how a modern adult human should be very skeptical.

That’s easy to imagine. You already believe that other religions are wrong, maybe even silly. You don’t for one minute believe that Mohammad was a great prophet sent by God. You most certainly don’t believe that a guy from New York named John Smith met up with an angel named Moroni who led him to gold tablets filled with the wisdom of Jesus Christ in America. Mohammad was a charlatan; Smith was a hustler. You might even believe these religions are just nonsense. And you would be right. But people who were raised in these faiths and who strongly believe them also believe that your religion is incorrect and that you are misguided. If you rely on only faith, and not evidence, then one person’s faith is a good as another’s. As author Christopher Hitchens wrote, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” But there is evidence, and it all falls against religious belief.

Imagine no religion. What a great world this would be if it were so.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Feeling Sorry for Children of Fundamentalists

I was watching this documentary called Waiting for Armageddon and it really made me sad and afraid. No, I’m not afraid that I will witness the end of the world or that I won’t be among those who are “raptured.” I’m afraid because of how the children of today are being indoctrinated into what is little more than a cult, and they will pay the price.

The beginning of the documentary focused on one Christian family who not only believed in the rapture but believed it was very near. The mom said that she didn’t think that her son would graduate before it happened. She said she didn’t believe she would see grandchildren, even though her daughter was in her late teens.

The daughter was lamenting the fact that she would not be able to have a family and raise kids. She was sorry that she would not be able to have stories to tell like her grandmother told her. “It’s not fair,” she said.

Not only are these kids being traumatized by their parents and their church, but what incentive do they have now to get on with their lives? What incentive does the son have to perform at a high level in school? What incentive does the daughter have to apply to colleges? They have simply given up on their future lives because they know for a fact that Jesus will be coming back any day now.

They point to things that are happening in the world that are fulfillments of prophecy. “There is nothing in the bible that has not bee fulfilled,” the mother said. The documentary shows conservative preachers and televangelists describe how the world is going to end and what will happen after the rapture, during the times of the tribulation.

It was funny to watch these grown men in suits that otherwise sound intelligent talk about this stuff with a straight face. It’s like they are playing the roll of an ultimate straight man for some comedian.

I am very sad for the children of conservative Christians today. Adults can believe what they want, of course. But there are no Christian children. There are only children of Christian parents. It’s a grave disservice to these kids to indoctrinate them at an early age into a cult that tells them they will not be around long enough to raise a family of their own.

Are these people not intelligent enough to have learned anything about history? There is nothing happening today that wasn’t happening in the days when Jesus walked the earth. There are wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilence today. There were wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilence back in the days of Jesus, too, and in every generation since. Jesus himself believed that the Kingdom of God (which everyone then assumed would be an earthly kingdom) would be within the lifetime of some of his own disciples. He says so in the Gospel of Matthew. He also said “This generation shall not pass….” He meant HIS generation.

Every single generation that has come and gone since Jesus walked the earth believed strongly that theirs would be the last. The Gospel of John, the last of the gospels, was John’s attempt to rectify the fact that all the original disciples had died off and the Kingdom of God had not yet arrived. John (although the real author is unknown) saved the church of the day by pushing the coming Kingdom of God into the future. The gospels had not been fulfilled according to Jesus’ own words, so John had to fix it.

If you read the bible from the point of view of a Jew who lived 2000 years ago, it will become clear that it was written by them, for them. It was never meant to be interpreted as applying to the period 2000 years hence. In the same way, the Old Testament was written for the ancient Jews. The prophecies were to be fulfilled within that time period, not hundreds of years in the future. The prophets were simply passing on messages from God to the Jews of the day, trying to rein them in. It was only in hindsight that the gospel writers applied the prophecies to Jesus, in much the same way that some people apply the prophecies of Nostradamus to World War II or to the 9-11 terrorist attack. It’s easy to make a vague prophecy fit a situation in retrospect. The problem is trying to use a prophecy to predict the future.

It is a shame that people waste so much energy waiting for an event that’s never going to happen, ruining their lives and the lives of their children in the process. Imagine if that much energy were to go to help improve society and the world we now have. It is the only world we will ever know and we live out our entire lives on this planet. How sad it is that so many people waste away their time on earth anticipating an event that will not happen.