Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 77
March 23, 2017
Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!
Quick note: Beginning with the next issue (No. 78), each new Cause & Effect will now be released every other Wednesday, alternating with the Richard Dawkins Foundation newsletter.
The Main Events
CFI Calls Out America’s Lapse in Leadership at UN Human Rights Council
The effort to advance reason and science cannot be limited to what goes on in the United States. Though the Center for Inquiry is a U.S.-based organization, its mission is global. Due to CFI’s special consultative status with the United Nations, we are able to put a face to our international advocacy, in person, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
That’s where CFI’s representative Michael De Dora has been for the past few weeks, meeting with diplomats, activists, and allies and giving voice to the crucial issues that affect the global community. As the Human Rights Council carried out its 34th session, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began making threats about pulling the U.S. out of the Council. With this, and other international tensions as background, Michael has delivered statements and collaborated with allied organizations on key areas of concern in places around the world.
One of those places is the United States. In 2014, the United States’ representative to the Council was among those who spoke up strongly in defense of CFI’s representative Josephine Macintosh when Saudi Arabia attempted to silence her as she spoke out against Saudis’ human rights abuses (the Saudi representative shouting, “I ask you to shut her up!”). But now in 2017, Michael warned that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in the defense of human rights. “We have been disturbed by the recent rise in baseless, xenophobic rhetoric and actions by political leaders, and heightened social hostilities, in many states—including our home country,” said Michael. “Across the country, there has also been a wave of proposals to criminalize protests, and an increase in threats and attacks—some deadly—on religious minorities.” See video of his statement here.
Michael also addressed an important distinction between people and ideas when it comes to who or what actually holds rights. Michael urged member states to remember, “the role of the state is not to protect beliefs” but the rights of individuals. “Beliefs cannot be rights-holders,” he said, noting that if they were, “any inconsistency would make a slave of every person to their present opinion—for they would preclude themselves of the right to change it.” See the video of this statement here.
There’s more. Michael also spoke to the council about engagement in the Istanbul Process, events that foster dialogue among nations on self-evident rights to freedom of religion or belief; addressed concerns over crackdowns by member states on the freedom of conscience; spoke about the responsibility of states to uphold their obligations to defend free expression rights; collaborated with the organization FreeMuse on the rights to artistic and cultural expression, even delivering the statement on their behalf; and joined with several other NGOs to recommend the renewal of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
Facebook Urged to Protect Pakistani Dissidents from Blasphemy Probe
Pakistani government officials have recently taken disturbingly aggressive public positions about online content that they consider “blasphemous.” A judge on the Islamabad High Court asked for the formation of a special investigative committee to seek out blasphemous social media content, the prime minister declared blasphemy an “unpardonable offense,” and the interior minister called upon social media companies to hand over the private information of users who post content the government doesn’t like.
We recently learned that Facebook has been invited to send a delegation to Pakistan to discuss this very issue with government officials, presumably hoping to forestall the calls in the country to have the service blocked entirely. We called upon Facebook to take this opportunity of a face-to-face meeting with Pakistani officials to impress upon them the folly of this kind of persecution and to protect the personal data of its users. Said Michael De Dora, “Facebook should use its leverage to encourage the government of Pakistan to abandon the theocratic, reactionary scapegoating of critics and dissidents, embrace the equal dignity of its people, and encourage the free and open exchange of ideas.”
Threats to block social media platforms are, sadly, nothing new. Twitter was in a similar situation in 2014, when Pakistan threatened to cut off its people’s access to the service. We led a coalition of organizations and activists against Pakistan’s censorship, reminding them of their obligations under international human rights agreements.
News from HQ and the CFI Community
Major New Avenues for the Freethought Trail
The Freethought Trail is a series of historic sites in West-Central New York (and a deeply researched website) that tell the story of the progressive and radical movements of the nineteenth century, such as secularism and freethought, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and more. A project of CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism, the Freethought Trail has just completed its largest-ever expansion, now featuring 108 sites across twenty-six cities and towns!
This expansion includes a great deal of additional coverage of the abolitionist movement, as well as the inclusion of two new reform causes: dress reform and Fourierist utopianism (a movement of communities that rejected private property and embraced labor pursuits based on one’s “proclivities”). There is new material on dress reform activist Mary Edwards Walker (statue pictured), a physician who was also America’s only female Medal of Honor winner; philanthropist William Smith, founder of the William Smith College for Women, freethinker, and champion of women’s rights; suffragist Harriet May Mills, the first woman to seek major statewide office as a candidate of a major political party; and much more.
There is a wealth of material to explore online and on the trail, and you can start by heading to freethought-trail.org.
The Promise and Perils of Algorithms and Automation in Free Inquiry
Do you, for one, welcome our new robot overlords? Or do you plan to join a ragtag group of insurgents to reclaim humanity from the cold tentacles of the Matrix? Either way, you’ll find what you need to nourish your carbon-based (for now) brain with the Deep Thoughts contained within the latest issue of Free Inquiry.
The April/May 2017 edition of the magazine focuses on the ethical and moral implications of our dependence on technology and automation, as they intertwine themselves into the fabric of our lives at every level. Wendell Wallach considers the dangers of crucial systems of infrastructure, automated to the point that their failures and errors cannot be reliably predicted or understood. Ryan Jenkins warns that autonomous weapons will be insufficient to the task of weighing complex ethical choices. Similarly, Patrick Lin wonders at the granting of life-and-death decision-making to autonomous vehicles that may have to decide who or what to crash into in a fraction of a second. David Koepsell calls for a robust ethical framework for developing nanotechnology, and James Hughes calls for “morality AI’s” that will enhance our ability to build these frameworks.
And of course, there is all of the excellent commentary and perspective that Free Inquiry delivers issue after issue. Find the latest issue on newsstands, and subscribe in print or on the web at secularhumanism.org/fi.
New Women in Secularism 4 Episodes on “Reasonable Talk”
Reasonable Talk, CFI’s video series featuring some of the best talks and presentations from Center for Inquiry events, is now in its third season with three new episodes from last year’s excellent Women in Secularism 4 conference.
First, the contentious debate over free expression and the notion of “safe spaces” on college campuses is explored from several angles in a lively and frank panel discussion featuring human rights activist Maryam Namazie, Columbia psychology professor Melanie Brewster, Ex-Muslims of North America cofounder Sarah Haider, and Diane Burkholder of One-Struggle KC and the American Humanist Association’s LGBTQ Humanist Alliance. Dr. Ashley Miller moderates.
Next, Maryam Namazie takes the stage for her own presentation on women’s resistance to oppressive Islamic regimes, with a particular focus on the debate over “burqa bans” and the role of the veil. Namazie compels us to take a hard look at the marginalization and dehumanization of women in Islamic societies, and where she believes Western progressives have fallen short in supporting those women.
Then, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor takes us back to the modern secular movement’s formative years with an inspiring and touching presentation on the activism of her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, who co-founded FFRF with Annie Laurie in 1976. Anne Nicol was an unstoppable advocate for contraception and abortion rights, whose groundbreaking work made plain the inseparability of feminism and freethought.
CFI Highlights on the Web and in the Media
- The Trump administration has taken a second stab at implementing a travel ban (which CFI continues to oppose as cruel and discriminatory), and like the first, its fate is as yet unknown. To better understand the tweaked order’s contents and implications, CFI’s Point of Inquiry podcast welcomes Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick.
- Also on Point of Inquiry, we learn about a newly discovered and surprising revelation about human conflict: Foreign correspondent Judith Matloff of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism discusses the unexpected correlation between communities living in high-altitude, mountainous regions and violence.
- CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry now posts weekly updates from Bertha Vasquez on our Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) program. Recent news includes TIES participation in the National Association of Science Teachers Annual Conference in Los Angeles and Bertha’s impressions from a workshop in Miami where she says, “The teachers were laughing and carrying on much like students.”
- In a Skeptical Inquirer web-only “QuickTake,” Benjamin Radford offers reasoned perspective on the leaked information about the CIA and its newly revealed device-hacking abilities, reminding us, “The problem that intelligence agencies face is not having too little data, but precisely the opposite: having too much.” (Ben also provides a skeptic’s review of the new comedy/horror film Get Out.)
- Tom Flynn describes secular humanism as “emancipatory,” arguing that “it frees us to develop a truly relevant morality, one rooted in the real world and in the physical and social consequences of life as humans live it.”
- Anthony Pratkanis discusses the social influencing phenomenon of “altercasting” with Susan Gerbic, as well as his forays into magic and his experience at CSICon 2016.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
- Emmy-winning journalist Rich Kellman speaks to CFI–Western New York at CFI’s national headquarters about the media’s role in the age of “alternative facts.”
- CFI–Portland learns some disaster preparedness from the Red Cross.
- Lawrence Krauss visits CFI–Los Angeles for a presentation on his new book The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far.
- Jennifer Beahan of CFI–Michigan holds an Advocacy Training Workshop.
- CFI–Indiana holds its annual ice cream social.
- CFI–Indiana hosts a presentation by Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
- CFI–Michigan holds a service day, preparing garden beds at the Well House facility for the homeless.
- Justin Schieber presents “An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar” for CFI–Michigan.
- Susan Jacoby discusses secular deconversion in an event by CFI–Michigan with the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and the Center for Secular Humanism.
- The March for Science: “A celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community.”
- Secular Celebrant training in Bloomington, Illinois.
- Secular Celebrant training in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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.