Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 93
November 15, 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 Stories
Biology Teachers Honor TIES’ Bertha Vazquez
Each year, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) honors individual teachers for their outstanding contributions to this important field of work. One of those awards is the Evolution Education Award, honoring the teacher whose classroom and community efforts have advanced the public’s accurate (and that’s important) understanding of evolution.
We are proud to tell you that the recipient of the 2017 Evolution Education Award was none other than Bertha Vazquez, the powerhouse middle school science teacher who heads the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES). Bertha was given the award at the NABT’s conference last week in St. Louis.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by such a wonderful organization, the National Association of Biology Teachers,” said Bertha. “The success of TIES is the result of the efforts of my fellow TIES Teacher Corps Members. We all recognize the importance of teachers helping teachers.”
As for TIES itself, it has kept up its incredible pace of activity and growth. TIES teacher Gemma Mora-Azuar recently ran a workshop in Houston that trained a record seventy teachers. That same weekend, TIES workshops took place in Columbia, South Carolina; Santa Barbara, California; and Panama City in Florida.
Congratulations to Bertha and all the great teachers powering the work of TIES.
The House GOP Budget’s Church-State Sneak Attack
The wall between church and state is the fortification that keeps our democracy from collapsing into theocracy, and the religious Right is always looking for ways the breach the wall where they think it weakest. The Johnson Amendment, to belabor this siege metaphor, is akin to a long-range weapon along the parapets of the wall, archers let’s say. It’s a part of federal law that forbids tax-exempt nonprofits (such as churches and the Center for Inquiry) from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. Though it has proven to be a difficult law to enforce properly, the very presence of the archers has kept most of the enemy at bay.
That’s all changed. While those bows and arrows dissuaded most individual churches from engaging in electioneering (and indeed the majority of religious organizations support the Johnson Amendment), a well-funded and maniacally obsessed army of hard-right religious groups is not so easily spooked. Hurling massive payloads of political influence and lobbying dollars from their cross-shaped trebuchet, they aim to knock the archers of the Johnson Amendment from their perch. If they go down, the entire wall will not collapse, but gates of another kind would certainly fly open: the floodgates of political cash, flowing directly toward those churches that wish to become de facto political action committees for religious-Right candidates. (Sort of like a freelance cavalry? This metaphor may be going too far.)
A huge volley was flung toward the wall at the beginning of this month, when the House GOP released their proposed tax reform bill, which includes a provision revoking the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment for churches, allowing these institutions to openly support candidates for office. Donations to these churches would remain tax-exempt, and churches have tremendous leeway when it comes to what they use their donations for and how much they reveal about it to the public. That’s how these churches then become unofficial arms of a given candidate’s campaign.
Clergy, church employees, and members of congregations have never been prohibited from speaking their minds and supporting the candidates of their choice, despite the shouts and complaints of the religious Right and their allies in Congress and in the White House. The Johnson Amendment limits the activities of the institutions themselves, not individuals.
So it’s up to us to shore up this crucial part of the wall of separation. Luckily, most religious organizations and most of the American people agree with us: Churches shouldn’t meddle in elections. We put out an action alert to make it easy for you to contact your representatives and tell them that you want to keep those defenses strong.
News from the CFI Community
Paul Ryan’s Prayer Fallback: Sad!
After the horrific shooting massacre that left twenty-six dead in a Texas church, our leaders reverted to many of the same arguments and platitudes that almost always follow tragedies like these. While many are once again driven to take actions that would prevent further needless slaughters, others warn us that “now is not the time” and default to the now-cliched “thoughts and prayers.”
But as secularists and skeptics, we know that prayers are never enough. Certainly individuals can find comfort in their prayers, and we hope that everyone affected by these tragedies can find whatever means they can to help themselves and their loved ones heal. But prayer is not a solution to the crises that we face. It couldn’t possibly be.
But try telling that to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. On Fox News’s The Ingraham Angle, Speaker Paul Ryan berated those who have criticized him for solely relying on prayer and expressions of piousness whenever real-world problems overwhelm us. He proclaimed his “disappointment” with the “secular left,” saying how “sad” it is that we “don’t understand faith.” And then he told Ingraham:
And it is the right thing to do, is to pray in moments like this because you know what? Prayer works. And when you hear the secular left doing this thing, no wonder you’ve got so much polarization and disunity in this country when people think like that.
There’s a lot wrong with those sentences, not least of which was the idea that secular Americans who want reality-based solutions to our nation’s problems are somehow responsible for political polarization and division.
But more importantly, Ryan made the claim that “prayer works.” In our official statement, we reminded the Speaker that in fact there is no evidence that praying has any effect on earthly events, apart from an individual’s personal solace from the practice. Prayer certainly won’t fix the national emergency of gun violence.
As our president and CEO, Robyn Blumner, said, “Speaker Ryan’s imperative is to use his influence and power as our highest ranking legislator to create real, positive change that keeps all Americans safe while upholding our nation’s highest ideals. That he chooses this moment to belittle secular Americans, or Americans of any religious affiliation, is what is truly sad.”
Go check out our action alert and tell the Speaker that actions speak louder than prayer.
Some Justice—Maybe—for Avijit Roy
Four years ago, the Center for Inquiry formed a bond with a brilliant writer and science communicator in Bangladesh, Avijit Roy. Several atheist bloggers had been arrested at the time for “hurting religious feelings,” and we coordinated with Avijit to organize protests in locations around the world to demand their release.
In 2015, Avijit was murdered. He and his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed were ambushed by Islamist militants at a book fair in Dhaka. Bonya suffered terrible injuries, and Avijit was hacked to death. It was a killing that heralded a wave of such murders in the months and years following, targeting secularist writers and activists. As a way to honor the memory of our friend Avijit Roy, and to support the cause of free expression, the Center for Inquiry established Secular Rescue, an initiative to provide assistance and relocation to activists whose lives are threatened by religious extremists. More than thirty people have been helped through this program so far.
Last week it was reported that one of the men believed to have participated in the attack on Avijit and Bonya has been arrested by Bangladeshi authorities. Abu Siddiq Sohel, allegedly a member of the al Qaeda–linked organization Ansar Ullah Bangla Team, reportedly told police that he had been a part of the attack.
We have no way of confirming the accuracy of these reports. However, we do have more than sufficient reason to be skeptical of any official news surrounding the murders of secularist activists, as the government of Bangladesh has been overtly hostile toward the victims of these attacks, blaming them for their own deaths and denouncing their writings. We declared the official response to the killings “appalling” and called upon the authorities to defend free expression rather than foment anger and hate.
For the sake of Avijit’s family and friends, secularist writers in Bangladesh, and for the sake of justice, we truly hope that all of Avijit’s killers will be apprehended and fairly tried. We’ll be watching these events closely as they develop.
Secular Rescue Success Story: Lubna Ahmed
Because of the nature of CFI’s Secular Rescue program, though we assist secularist writers and activists whose lives are threatened by extremists, it’s not always possible to publicly celebrate its successes. Even after someone has been relocated out of immediate harm’s way, it may be necessary for them to maintain a low profile for the sake of their own safety or that of their family.
How rewarding it is, then, when one of these brilliant and courageous people can step into the spotlight, tell their story, and continue to fight for their cause. On Monday, Lubna Ahmed, a human rights activist and chemical engineering student from Iraq, was the guest on The Rubin Report, where she eloquently described her struggle as an atheist living under threat in an ultra-conservative Islamic society.
“[The Center for Inquiry is] helping me, they supported me … They supported my case with the lawyers,” she told Rubin, when asked about the financial and legal assistance the Secular Rescue program provided. “I’m very grateful to Mr. Richard Dawkins. He takes his words into actions, not like others, because he sees that it’s very important to save people who are like me.”
We do believe in Lubna and all those who are striving to advance reason and secularism in the places most hostile to them. And we’ll keep doing all we can to help.
CFI Highlights on the Web
On Halloween, the Science Channel show Strange Evidence provided an example of how not to handle actual experts on the subject of extraordinary claims. CFI’s Joe Nickell and Tom Flynn were both asked to examine video purported to be evidence of Bigfoot, but as Joe explains in his post, the video he and Tom saw was not what they aired on the program, and in neither video was there proof of any Sasquatch to be found.
Joe has a lot more of substance to offer on this cryptozoological subject from his article in Skeptical Inquirer on the evolution of the Bigfoot myth, how it borrows and adapts from various cultures’ beliefs and legends, and has been molded by the “shrinking” of the planet.
Joe also recounts his visit to a Las Vegas–area saloon after CSICon last month, where legends tell of ghosts that haunt every part of the establishment, including the restrooms. As you could probably guess, Joe concludes, “There is only one kind of spirits at the Pioneer, the kind poured into a glass.”
Tamar Wilner does a true service for consumers of media, as she teases out the various strains of misinformation in the news media, most of which is being categorized as “fake news,” which she says “is a wooden mallet. It’s blunt. It can only smash, not carve, pluck, or hold up for inspection. The more we use it, the more dulled we all seem to its effects.”
Can chiropractors cure diabetes? No, but it makes for good marketing copy. William London looks at the various gimmicks that are bandied about to promote chiropractic, including the claim that diabetes can be “reversed” by chiropractors.
Consistently enlightening are Ben Radford‘s correspondences with those who vehemently disagree with his skeptical take. Here, he delicately engages in an exchange with someone who is sure that psychic powers exist (and something about Thomas Edison having been thought of as a “lunatic” in his day).
From Free Inquiry’s special issue on blasphemy in art, Bruce Adams tells of his own development as a blasphemous creative artist, and how his aim is to irreverently confront difficult issues through his art. The blasphemy is just a bonus.
In celebration of the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth, Inverse highlights an excerpt from a piece written by Ann Druyan about her life with Sagan for Skeptical Inquirer in 2003. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again,” she wrote. “But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
- November 27: Cristine Legare of UT Austin presents her talk, “Evolution & Ontogeny of Cultural Learning.”
- December 10: UT Austin psychology professor Chris Robison gives a presentation on the brain’s structures and functions.
- December 16: Saturnalia (Winter Solstice Celebration).
- November 20: Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in Grand Rapids.
- December 9: Secular Service time, helping out the nonprofit Kids’ Food Basket as they address childhood hunger through their Sack Supper program.
- December 13: Solstice Dinner in Grand Rapids.
- December 16: Solstice Dinner in Madison Heights.
CFI Western New York
- November 17: A screening of the documentary Losing Our Religion.
- December 13: Winter Solstice Celebration.
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.