Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 88
August 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!
The Top Story
Confronting Hate with a Humanist Heart
The violence, hatred, and vile bigotry that erupted in Charlottesville earlier this month served as both a shock to the American conscience and as a moment of national moral clarity. White supremacists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and avowed neo-Nazis, many heavily armed, vented their racist grievances and protested their imaginary persecution by the light of torches while engaging in senseless violence that resulted in the shocking and brutal murder of peaceful counter-protester Heather Heyer.
It was upsetting, to say the least, to discover that even when given several opportunities, our president was unable or unwilling to place full responsibility for the mayhem on the white supremacists, insisting on the fiction that “many sides” or “both sides” were to blame and that many among the neo-Nazis and Klansmen were “very fine people.” It echoed the hollow and infuriating calls to “teach the controversy” about creationism and climate change that secularists are so familiar with, but it was more stunning in its defense of the indefensible. It revealed something dark and dangerous about our country’s current leadership.
Also revealing were the torrent of declarations and condemnations from public figures. Officeholders across the political spectrum were forthright in their denunciations of the white supremacists, with no less than Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring the violence to be an act of domestic terrorism and promising a significant response from his agency. Business leaders and other high-profile figures walked away from the president’s advisory boards in protest of his false equivalencies, forcing their shuttering.
Among the few remaining at the president’s side continuing to defend his “both sides” fiction about the so-called “alt-left” was President Trump’s cadre of evangelical advisors, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. The religious right’s unwillingness to fully distance itself from this series of moral outrages is telling, and it serves as a powerful contrast to the responses from the vast majority of faith communities, as well as, of course, our community of nonbelievers.
Attempting to calm a panicked Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the well-meaning Friar Laurence promises to “give thee armor” to defend himself from his distress: “Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy—To comfort thee….” After the tragedies in Charlottesville, the Center for Inquiry released not just a condemnation of the white supremacists but also some secular humanist “armor,” the “sweet milk” of secular humanist thought on the evils on display.
We provided a crucial reminder to our community that modern secular humanist thinking, particularly from CFI founder Paul Kurtz, arose as a direct response to Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. “Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable,” Kurtz and collaborator Edwin H. Wilson wrote in Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. Throughout the document they make clear, “We [secular humanists] deplore racial, religious, ethnic, or class antagonisms,” envisioning a world in which all human beings are “a citizen of a world community.”
Modern secular humanism, then, is an affirmative lifestance that in its very foundational documents seeks to ennoble all members of the human species, rejecting racism and discrimination outright. It is the opposite of what was espoused by the bigots in Charlottesville, and an unmistakable line in the sand against hate, whereas our current president has swept the line into a formless blur.
In 2015, Eddie Tabash, a veteran champion of civil rights and church-state separation and chair of the board for the Center for Inquiry, wrote a deeply moving piece for Free Inquiry magazine on his experiences as the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. His mother suffered unimaginably at the hands of the Nazis, and the horrors she witnessed are almost unthinkable. Eddie tells her story and how her trauma informed his own moral thinking, contributing to his conclusion that what his mother endured “is inconsistent with what we can justifiably expect from an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity.”
There is no room on Planet Earth for that kind of evil, and there can be no tolerance for its latter-day resurgence. It is a moral stance we take as secular humanists and as citizens of the world. And we are reminded of the words of Carl Sagan, who, gazing in awe at the tiny speck that is our home planet engulfed in a sea of blackness, said, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
News from the CFI Community
Public School Board Meetings Are No Place for Prayer
In 2014, much to our disappointment, the Supreme Court ruled in broad favor of prayers at public legislative meetings at all levels of government in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, a decision the Center for Inquiry vehemently protested as a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause. With this as precedent, the battle over government-endorsed religion moves to a venue fraught with even more tension: the public education system.
This week, in a brief filed on behalf of a coalition of secularist organizations, the Center for Inquiry petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case of American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District, in which the point of contention is whether school board meetings fall under the same rubric as city councils and legislatures when it comes to public prayer, or does a school board’s place in the educational system make prayer untenable.
As you might imagine, our position is that prayer clearly has no place in any government setting, but it is particularly problematic for school board meetings, because the participants in these sessions are not just members of the board but teachers, parents, and even students, all of whom have a crucial role in the shaping of educational policy. Sectarian prayer at such a meeting is plainly coercive and marginalizing to all those who do not subscribe to the particular faith being represented.
“The United States is becoming more religiously diverse with each passing year, and America’s young people even more so,” said CFI’s Nicholas Little, who authored the brief along with CFI Chair Eddie Tabash. “School boards should be concerned with enriching the minds of those students and encouraging them to learn from each other’s differences. The prayers can wait until the business of education is done.”
Skeptical Inquirer: The Slanting of Science and the Fallacy of Fallacies
In the cover feature of the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Jeanne Goldberg explores the roots of anti-science attitudes in American politics and the consequences we face as science and facts become malleable according to partisan interests.
Goldberg explains how the average American can feel intimidated and overwhelmed by science, alienated by the fact that some of our most hot-button issues can be fully understood by distant “elites.” This makes it all the easier for complicated scientific topics of global importance to be twisted into political and tribal signifiers. Writes Goldberg, chillingly, “This constitutes a form of authoritarianism that can be used to impede scientific progress and, in the long run, cause a government to fail.” But it can’t happen here…right?
Also of particular interest, this issue includes a powerful critique of one of skeptics’ most common sets of tools: logical fallacies. Philosopher Maarten Boudry is wary of skeptics’ over-reliance on the “gotcha” tactic of pointing out a logical fallacy in someone’s argument, so he thoroughly unpacks the assertions and implications within many of our community’s favorite go-to fallacies. Boudry reveals many holes in arguments that skeptics often perceive as impermeable, warning, “By carelessly throwing around labels and crying foul at every turn, defenders of science and reason may actually harm their own cause.”
What’s to be done about this overplaying of the fallacy card? Says Boudry, “I’ve now come to believe that this whole idea should be thrown overboard.”
The September/October 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is available now in print and on your favorite mobile platform.
Countdown to CSICon 2017: James Randi’s Amazing Life and Times
As summer begins to wind down, the excitement for CSICon 2017 starts to build exponentially. Taking place October 26–29 in Las Vegas, truly a city of illusions, CSICon is the biggest skeptics event anywhere. This year’s conference will feature speakers such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Joe Nickell, Eugenie Scott, and so many more.
Joining them for the second year running will of course be James “The Amazing” Randi. Last year at CSICon 2016, Randi took the stage with Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier for a live and lively conversation about Randi’s truly remarkable life and times, his adventures in magic, skepticism, and activism, and his hopes for the future of the movement.
You can see the whole conversation right here, as the “season finale” of CFI’s Reasonable Talk video series.
(You can also read Randi’s recent column for Skeptical Inquirer on the extremely dubious practice of “facilitated communication” with severely autistic patients.)
Of course, a web video is no substitute for the real thing. So make your plans to get to Vegas right now and register for CSICon 2017. You’ll see Randi in person, the huge roster of great speakers, fun entertainment events, and even a Halloween disco party. Not kidding.
See you in Las Vegas for CSICon 2017!
CFI Highlights on the Web
- Richard Dawkins is the special guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where he and Bill discuss KPFA’s cancellation of their event with him, CFI’s Secular Rescue program, and his foundation’s Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES).
- Did you get a chance to see the eclipse? In a web exclusive for Free Inquiry, Gregory J. Paul looks at how this celestial spectacle, despite the claims of some believers, has no bearing on the question of God’s existence.
- The JonBenet Ramsey murder was never officially solved, even though alleged psychics claimed to put their best paranormal efforts toward it. In Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell shows not only how the psychics blew it but what probably actually happened to JonBenet.
- Daniel Dennett opens the discussion in the most recent Free Inquiry’s symposium-in-print on the importance of naturalism in secular humanism, describing philosophy as an intellectual Las Vegas. “What happens in philosophy stays in philosophy, by and large, and a good thing it does, too.”
- The Center for Inquiry’s president and CEO, Robyn Blumner, heralds the increase in academic scholarship and scientific research to explain the roots of religious belief. “By understanding the cognitive components that make religion so intractable,” she writes, “we may develop social and psychological tools to loosen its grip.”
- Also in Free Inquiry, Sarah Haider critiques what she describes as the “noble lies” told by progressives who seek to shield Muslims from abuse but wind up excusing or obscuring the harmful and violent aspects of extreme versions of Islam.
- In Skeptical Inquirer, Gary Posner takes to task “Psychic Detective” Noreen Renier and her responsibility for the false hopes of a grieving family that placed its trust in her alleged abilities to find the missing Kimberly McAndrew.
- Stuart Vyse and his Skeptical Inquirer article on unintended consequences is central to an op-ed by Rich Elfers of the Courier-Herald in Washington state.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
- October 26–29: CSICon 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
- September 10: A former member of the Christian Science church discusses their escape from the faith.
- September 18: Mitchell Diamond’s presentation “Darwin’s Apple: the Biology of Religion.”
- August 23: Presentation from the Women4Change Indiana Restructuring + Activism Task Force on the Vote by Mail initiative.
- September 3, 17, 24: Hal Johnson delivers a three-part presentation on the Secret Origins of the Book of Mormon.
CFI Los Angeles
- September 3: Former Scientologist Sea Org member Janis Gillham Grady discusses a childhood with L. Ron Hubbard and the inner-workings of the organization.
- September 17: Glenn Branch from the National Center for Science Education discusses how doubt and denial about climate change affects science education. To be held at 11 am in Los Angeles and 4:30 pm in Orange County.
- August 23: Constitutional law professor Dan Ray and Freethought Blogs founder Ed Brayton discuss the 2017 Supreme Court term.
- September 13: A discussion on “Social Hope in the Time of Trump.”
CFI Northeast Ohio
- August 27: Members-only summer picnic.
- September 7: A screening of the documentary Reasons to Believe exploring the science of belief, followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers.
CFI Tampa Bay
- October 20–22: 2017 FREEFLO conference, featuring speakers from and associated with CFI.
CFI Western New York
- August 26: Tabling at the Elmwood Arts Festival.
- September 7: Susan Gibbons of Hospice Buffalo discusses the importance of planning for the end of life.
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 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.