Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 85
July 12, 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 Main Events
House Committee Schemes to Let Churches Evade Electioneering Law
When Donald Trump was courting the religious conservative vote during the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the prizes he offered them was the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, the provision of federal law that prevents churches and other tax-exempt organizations (such as this one) from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Though he vowed to “totally destroy” the amendment, so far he has only been able to soften it, and mostly symbolically, through an executive order signed in May.
The fact remains, however, that the Johnson Amendment is quite popular, with well over two-thirds of the public in support, including over half of white evangelicals, because they understand that churches don’t belong in the business of electioneering, nor do they want to see their houses of worship turning into political action committees. This is really a project of the extreme religious right, which would like to use churches as a means of bankrolling their favored candidates.
How then could Republicans help Trump make good on his promise to “destroy” the Amendment? On June 29, GOP members of the House Financial Services subcommittee inserted language into the 2018 appropriations bill saying that Congress would deny the IRS the necessary funds to investigate any potential violations of the Johnson Amendment…on the part of churches. Secular nonprofits aren’t mentioned. In fact, while the law change would apply to all houses of worship, the political intent was telegraphed by the failure to mention any places of worship other than churches.
This sneaky attempt at a “backdoor” repeal of the Johnson Amendment through the congressional budget process did not go unnoticed. The Center for Inquiry joined a coalition of organizations from across the political and theological spectrum urging Congress to reject this attempt to defang the Johnson Amendment, sounding the alarm about what this House committee was up to, and CFI quickly got word to the press.
As a result, the Associated Press ran an excellent report on the scheme, which featured expert commentary from CFI Legal Director Nick Little, who made clear who this was intended to benefit. “All they care about is the Christian groups, and in particular, it will end up as the extreme religious right Christian groups,” said Nick. “If this goes through, this would add just another way in which unregulated dark money could be used.” Newsweek also featured Nick in its coverage of the story.
Unfortunately, the measure survived its subcommittee markup, and this Thursday it heads to the full House Appropriations Committee, so this fight is far from over.
Video: Joe Nickell Talks to Vox about Ghosts
Belief in ghosts, the disembodied spirits of those who have passed on, is seemingly intractable. Forty-five percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts, and speculation about the afterlife goes all the way back to the beginnings of human culture.
But if anyone can begin to move the needle toward reason, it just might be Joe Nickell.
Joe Nickell is of course senior research fellow for CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the world’s foremost evidence-based investigator of the paranormal. This week, he was the star of a video for Vox on what causes people to believe they’ve encountered a ghost and the reality-based explanations for these experiences.
“Not only have I never found a single case that I thought was proof of a ghost,” Joe tells Vox reporter Dean Peterson, “neither has science.”
But what sets Joe apart from many other “debunkers” of the paranormal is his compassion and empathy for those who think they have truly had these otherworldly experiences. Joe says they “all have to do with our hopes and our fears,” adding, “The ghost idea … is powerful, because who doesn’t have an instance in which he or she would say, I just wish I could have told my mother that one thing.”
News from the CFI Community
Free Inquiry and Daniel Dennett Present a “Symposium in Print” on Naturalism
Naturalism, simply put, holds that all things arise from natural causes and that the supernatural need never be invoked in the quest for knowledge or meaning. While to many in the freethought community this is a statement of the obvious, in the world of philosophy—particularly secular humanist philosophy—naturalism’s role is both consequential and complex. What better way to explore this important topic than in the pages of Free Inquiry magazine?
The latest issue of Free Inquiry features a “symposium in print” on naturalism’s centrality in secular humanism, led by the inimitable Daniel Dennett. The renowned philosopher discusses the intractability of supernaturalism in philosophical discourse, but notes that its impact is minimal owing to philosophy’s place as “the Las Vegas of inquiry,” because what happens in philosophy stays in philosophy.
This special symposium includes substantive and deeply researched essays from Australian philosopher Russell Blackford, Acadia University’s Stephen Maitzen, Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University, and a combined effort from Scott Aikin, Thomas Dabay, and Robert B. Talisse of Vanderbilt University.
The August/September 2017 issue also features opinion and commentary from Ex-Muslim activist Sarah Haider, psychologist and author Valerie Tarico, CFI President and CEO Robyn Blumner, and much more. You can subscribe to Free Inquiry in print or on the web at secularhumanism.org/fi.
Countdown to CSICon 2017: Lawrence Krauss and Ron Lindsay Justify Your Existence
As the skeptosphere gears up for CSICon 2017 in Las Vegas, CFI’s video series Reasonable Talk offers two brand new presentations from CSICon 2016. Together, these two talks answer fundamental questions for the skeptical movement: Where did we come from and what are we doing here?
- Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss tackles the question of our origins: Not just of the skeptic community or even of humans as a whole but of the entire cosmos. In an engaging, funny, and enlightening talk, Krauss shows how today’s experiments in physics back up the theories of how everything came into being. Krauss, an honorary member of CFI’s board of directors, will return for CSICon 2017.
- As to what it is we’re all doing here, we turn to CFI’s former president and CEO, Ronald Lindsay. In this important presentation, Ron takes a broad look at the aims of the skeptic movement and eloquently illustrates why this work is so vital. Skepticism, says Ron, serves as a crucial bridge of understanding between the scientific community and the general public, sifting the facts from the fantastical and encouraging critical thinking from everyone.
Of course, you’ll want to see all of this year’s talks in person! CSICon 2017, taking place October 26–29 in Las Vegas, will be the biggest skeptics’ event of the year, with an incredible lineup of speakers including the amazing James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Cara Santa Maria, Michael Mann, Richard Wiseman, Massimo Polidoro, Carrie Poppy, and once again serving as master of ceremonies, comic-musician George Hrab.
Held in the Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, you’ll also get to experience a Tournament of Kings Joust Dinner, a magic show by Banachek, special lunch events with skeptic stars, a Halloween 70’s Disco Party (not a typo), a Sunday Papers session, and so much more. Get registered now.
CFI Highlights on the Web
- With the release of Hulu’s television version of The Handmaid’s Tale, CFI Los Angeles’s Jim Underdown notes the similarities between the oppressive fictional state of Gilead and the real Church of Scientology, which, Jim notes, also happens to include the show’s star Elizabeth Moss among its members.
- The Xbox Kinect is a piece of camera and sensor technology intended for enhanced kinds of video game playing, but did you know it could also help hunt for ghosts? Actually, it can’t, as Kenny Biddle explains at CSICOP.org.
- TV psychic Tyler Henry appeared to make some pretty startling connections during a reading on his show, but Susan Gerbic lays out all the ways that this “grief vampire” could have made lucky guesses, gotten the information in advance, and been helped out a great deal by editing.
- Joe Nickell looks back to a version of alternative medicine that vied for prominence in the nineteenth century, “Eclecticism” (which is a good marketing name).
- CFI’s master librarian Tim Binga reveals a very cool addition to the library’s collection. Donated by Douglas Kinney, it’s a signed and framed photo of the amazing James Randi with the late Martin Gardner, “the father of modern skepticism.”
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
- CFI Michigan holds its annual Secular Summer Retreat at the Long Lake Outdoor Center.
- CFI Los Angeles holds a “massive moving sale” where folks can buy books, furniture, magazines, and more for everything-must-go prices.
- CFI member Heather Davis discusses the costs and benefits of healthcare spending in the U.S. with CFI Austin.
- CFI Michigan hosts a presentation on environmental health after the Flint water crisis by Paul Hann, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.
- CFI Austin holds a Secular Summer Splash: “a poolside evening of BBQ, lounging, and of course, great conversation!”
- CFI Pittsburgh and Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh hold a picnic in Schenley Park.
- Philosophy professor Mark Pestana speaks to CFI Michigan on the evolution of consciousness.
- CFI Michigan takes part in a Secular Service project, canvassing with the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, meant to help those affected by the lead poisoning in the water supply.
- CFI Indiana hosts a Robert Green Ingersoll Birthday Celebration.
- CFI Austin welcomes David Oliverio for a presentation on his journey out of pentecostalism and into atheist activism.
- CFI Pittsburgh holds its 9th annual CFI Canoe Trip and Shrimp Boil Picnic.
- CFI Portland takes part in a solar eclipse viewing party with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).
- Constitutional law professor Dan Ray and Freethought Blogs founder Ed Brayton discuss the 2017 Supreme Court term with CFI 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 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.