Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 53
April 8, 2016
Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible.
The Main Events
Atheist Law Student Killed in Bangladesh
In 2015, several secularist writers and activists in Bangladesh were slaughtered by Islamist radicals, beginning with CFI ally Avijit Roy, in a campaign of terror targeting critics of Islam. This week, they claimed the life of the first victim of 2016, 28-year-old law student and activist Najimuddin Samad. Samad had been organizing campaigns advocating secularism on Facebook, and he criticized the Bangladeshi government’s unwillingness to maintain law and order. The next day, he was attacked by machete-wielding thugs who hacked him to death and shot him in the street.
It goes without saying that at the Center for Inquiry we are grieving Samad’s death and are furious that these murders keep happening. Of course, CFI maintains its Freethought Emergency Fund, by which secularists in countries such as Bangladesh can seek assistance and relocation if they believe their lives to be in danger, and many of them have been helped. But if more serious action is not taken by the government of Bangladesh to protect its people and their rights, CFI’s efforts will only be able to scratch the surface. In our official response to this latest attack, UN representative Michael De Dora said, “These murders keep happening because they are allowed to happen, leaving writers and activists like Samad, Avijit, and the other victims as the only ones willing to stand up to those fomenting this violence.”
Women in Secularism 4 Is Coming in September!
Few events in the freethought world have sparked as much conversation, debate, and inspiration as CFI’s Women in Secularism conferences. It’s been almost two years since the third such conference, and the time has come to reconvene on this pivotal topic. This week, Women in Secularism 4 was officially announced, and it will be taking place September 23–25 in Arlington, VA.
There is a lot to talk about. The intrusion of religion into women’s lives in the U.S., including how it prevents access to abortion and contraception; violence against women around the world who are religious dissidents or who refuse to let dogma relegate them to second-class status; the role of “safe spaces” within a movement that champions free expression; and so much more.
Appearing at the fourth Women in Secularism conference are such brilliant speakers as Rebecca Goldstein, Julia Sweeney, Bonya Rafida Ahmed, Melanie Brewster, Wendy Kaminer, Kavin Senapathy, and many more.
So don’t wait. Register now for this highly anticipated conference.
Nick Little Takes on Secularism’s Big Legal Issues
CFI Vice President and General Counsel Nicholas Little is more than just the organization’s lawyer—he’s a passionate defender of equality and fundamental rights, and it’s a passion that you can see from his public speeches as well as his written work. This is a time when major legal issues regarding the privileging of religion and personal autonomy are consuming the nation, and Nick has been diving head first into each fray.
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of Zubik v. Burwell, where religious nonprofits seek to exempt themselves not only from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act but from even having to declare their opposition, seeing it as a violation of their religious liberty. The court even issued a rare order to the parties, instructing them to consider particular compromises. Nick was a primary author of CFI’s amicus brief on the case with American Atheists, and he elaborates on CFI’s position with a hard-hitting article at the Free Thinking blog, where he writes that Zubik is not really about anyone’s religious freedom but about a few people’s ability to use their religion to enforce their values on others:
For religious groups, being allowed to not participate is no longer enough. They want to prevent contraception, not just avoid having to provide it. And while their utter inability to provide a legal justification for this is amusing to lawyers, it will, if permitted, have devastating real life consequences.
Another major case, also before the Supreme Court, is the controversial “Texas abortion case” of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, where onerous restrictions placed on abortion providers, if cleared by the court, would cut off abortion access to millions of Texas women—in a case that balances precariously on pseudoscientific claims from the plaintiff. It is that angle that Nick focused on in his op-ed for Salon last month, exposing the sham behind the state’s case against women’s constitutional rights. Nick recently appeared on PublicSquare.net to debate the case against Steven H. Aden of the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom.
And while not yet before the Supreme Court, Nick has also weighed in on the case of Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old woman who was forced to abandon her seat on an Israeli airline’s flight out of JFK airport because of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man’s objection to being seated next to a woman. Nick has written a correspondence to the Federal Aviation Administration, asking them to explain their policy on such matters and why, exactly, the burden was placed on the woman, who had done nothing wrong, as opposed to the man who refused to allow the flight to even take off until he was pandered to. Observes Nick:
[The airlines] bow to the pressure, and they require women to bear the burden, and to make the change. It strikes me as inconceivable that an airline would be permitted to operate in the United States if it treated people of color in this fashion—if a white passenger was allowed to complain that he didn’t feel like sitting next to a black person, and that the airline should move the black person to a different part of the plane.
Stay tuned for more developments on all these important cases.
Joe Nickell on the Creators of the “Paranormal,” in Skeptical Inquirer
Often when we think of the paranormal, we think of mysteries and forces that span the ages into deep time—mystical forces and beings that predate our civilization. But it may surprise you to know that what we think of today as “the paranormal” is largely a series of relatively recent unscientific claims, the inventions (or delusions) of colorful and eccentric personalities from the early twentieth century and onward. In the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell—perhaps the world’s foremost authority on all things paranormal—introduces us to a cavalcade of characters whose combined imaginations created our modern notions of the paranormal.
These include Harry Price, “the original ghost hunter,” who in the 1930s first employed an arsenal of electronic gadgetry to detect the presence of spirits. There was Dr. J.B. Rhine, who tested subjects using a deck of cards to evaluate their psychic powers (think Bill Murray at the beginning of the original Ghostbusters). In the 1960s, Erich Von Däniken introduced the concept of “ancient aliens” responsible for humanity’s early wonders. And even more recently, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley brought us crop circles (and couldn’t seem to convince people that it was all a hoax). We also meet the men responsible for concepts such as “cryptids” such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda Triangle, and even an original purveyor of UFO myths, science-fiction author Raymond A. Palmer.
Also in this issue, Massimo Polidoro shows how “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo uses social media to “read” her subjects; Matthew Nisbet sees a silver lining in the food industry’s capitulation to anti-GMO zealots; three U.S. Air Force scientists explode the nonsensical claims about the health benefits of titanium necklaces; and much more. The May/June 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands and mobile digital platforms.
News from HQ and the CFI Community
Richard Dawkins Recovery Update
In February, the freethought community was taken aback by the unhappy news that Richard Dawkins had suffered a stroke. Though he quickly put himself on the road to recovery, doctor’s orders prevented him from taking part in some speaking engagements, and he has recently announced that he will not be able to attend the 2016 Reason Rally in June.
As disappointing as this is, the good news is that Prof. Dawkins is very much on the mend and recovering very well. Since the stroke, he has posted regular updates as to his condition and what is keeping him occupied, outside of the often-difficult work of healing. “My balance is improving with physio exercises such as impersonating a stork standing on one leg,” he reports.
This week, Prof. Dawkins writes that he is supposed to be avoiding stress, but nonetheless tackled what is for many one of the most stressful tasks imaginable: organizing one’s books. Luckily, he’s found some useful tools, and he happily shares them with his readers.
More Big Stars Announced for Reason Rally 2016
The lineup of speakers for the 2016 Reason Rally is growing ever-more studded with stars, as a fresh list of confirmed entertainers and luminaries have signed on.
Last week, the Reason Rally Coalition (of which CFI is a major sponsor) announced the appearances of film star Amber Heard, who will play Queen Mera in the upcoming films Justice League and Aquaman; co-creator of The Daily Show Lizz Winstead; magician and skeptic Penn Jillette; singer-songwriter Shelley Segal; 15-year-old songwriter Sophia Kameron, who will debut a new song specifically for the Rally; Spin Doctors bassist Mark White; and skeptic icon James “The Amazing” Randi.
They’ll be joining stars such as Bill Nye, Johnny Depp, Julia Sweeney, Caroline Porco, John de Lancie, and many more. Go to ReasonRally.org right now to get all the details and plan your trip.
Point of Inquiry on Firebrand Atheism and Dealing with Dying
Two things are certain in this world: Death and ... atheism? Point of Inquiry, CFI’s popular podcast, talks to experts in both of these hot-button topics.
This week, Josh Zepps interviewed the self-styled “Firebrand Atheist,” American Atheists president David Silverman. A frequent Bill O’Reilly sparring partner, Silverman has some very strong opinions about the state of nonbelief in America and what his prediction of its eventual dominance over the religious landscape means for modern politics. It is a spirited discussion indeed.
Lindsay Beyerstein walks into the valley of the shadow of death but is guided by writer Ann Neumann, author of a new book on the often harsh realities of the process of dying. While the culture would rather paint death and dying as a serene transition out of this life, the truth is often much more painful, more harrowing, and frankly, much messier. Neumann brings her real life experience and deep research on dying to this weighty conversation.
Book Award Nominee Captivates CFI–L.A. with Talk on 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Seton Hall historian Mark Molesky enlightened a full house of seventy-five attendees at CFI–L.A. on his topic, “Science and the Apocalypse: The Great Lisbon Disaster of 1755.” Molesky’s new book, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, is nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award in History. An estimated 40,000 people died in that little-known earthquake that was followed by a tsunami and fire. Researching libraries around the world, Molesky has compiled numerous stories about the disaster into a highly readable narrative. In addition, he examined the resultant debate about the meaning and causes of the earthquake, in which three of the most celebrated minds of the eighteenth century—Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant—participated. The debate on whether the disaster had supernatural or natural causes resonates even today.
Highlights from CFI on the Web and in the Media
● The National Rifle Association has gotten into the business of rewriting fairy tales so that the characters all brandish firearms. CFI President Ron Lindsay takes the next logical step, writing at Huffington Post about some ideas for bringing guns into the New Testament: “Jesus blessed the guns and bullets and bade his disciples to set them before the crowd, and all left satisfied with a choice weapon and a full magazine.”
● Brandon Withrow at The Daily Beast looks at the very real plight of persecuted Christians in parts of the Muslim world, and CFI Communications Director Paul Fidalgo talks about CFI’s efforts to protect the rights of all people, believers and nonbelievers alike.
● Point of Inquiry’s producer Nora Hurley is one of the subjects of a WIVB TV News piece on Catholicism in the Buffalo area, representing young people who have left the faith.
● A reader asks Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn to explain how secular humanism could have prevented something like the Brussels terror attack. The answer? It couldn’t have, but secular humanists can be “influential out of proportion to our numbers” in fostering a world where such things happen far less often.
● Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn is the guest on Jay Forrest’s podcast, discussing the concept of “spirituality” for atheists and why he finds it problematic.
● Harriet Hall warns: There’s no duck liver in that duck liver pill, but it wouldn’t cure your flu anyway. Yes, it’s about a homeopathic remedy; how’d you guess?
● Morton Tavel’s cover feature from Skeptical Inquirer on the bad science of polygraphs is now online, saying that law enforcement should “completely abandon this method of testing.”
● Stephen Law looks at the cause-and-effect confusion surrounding things such as jihadism, and he cautions everyone to avoid simplistic explanations.
● Debbie Goddard, CFI’s outreach director, is among the 10 “fierce” black atheist women highlighted by Sikivu Hutchinson at Huffington Post.
● Susan Gerbic posits that perhaps one of the best ways to keep the skeptical community feeling like a community is to use pie. And pi.
● At Skeptical Inquirer, Kylie Sturgess interviews Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
● Brother Sam Singleton, the “Atheist Evangelist,” brings his “Peyote and Puritans” presentation to CFI–Michigan in Ypsilanti.
● Brother Sam Singleton presents for CFI–Michigan in Grand Rapids.
● Dr. Laura Colgin of the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of Texas speaks to CFI–Austin about “The Symphony of the Brain.”
● Investigative journalist and Point of Inquiry co-host Lindsay Beyerstein looks at the Donald Trump phenomenon through the lens of Harry Frankfurt’s famous “On Bullshit” treatise in a presentation at CFI–Transnational in Amherst, NY.
● CFI Legal Director Nick Little speaks to CFI–Northeast Ohio about the problems with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
● Biology professor Mike Henshaw talks to CFI–Michigan about the importance (and misunderstanding) of “kin selection” in evolution.
Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!
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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and will soon be home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net.