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Science and religion are incompatible

By Ed Neumann on December 20, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Science and religion are incompatible

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” These first words of Genesis suggest the heavens and Earth are the same age, but science tells us the universe is three times older than the Earth.

So how do we decide which to believe? Are science and religion even compatible?

To judge, we must analyze science’s ways of knowing and compare them to those of religion. Harvard biologist Steven Jay Gould referred to them as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where science documents the factual character of the natural world, and religion concerns itself with human purpose, meaning and values. Because they dealt with separate issues, Gould believed science and religion could live in harmony.

But, as Jerry Coyne argues in his book “Faith vs. Fact,” in making empirical truth claims about the origins of the universe, the Earth and humankind, religion violates NOMA. As “truth” can be defined as conformity to objective reality, the differences between the two magisteria in ascertaining truth are striking.

Unlike religious dogma, scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional. Rather than devoutly championing a particular hypothesis with fervor, the ideal scientist’s confidence rises in proportion to the amount of supporting evidence accumulated.
A good scientific theory is parsimonious — it invokes no more factors than necessary; the fewer assumptions the better. For example, germ theory explained smallpox with fewer prior assumptions than the previous explanation, that the disease was divine punishment for immorality. Science is married to a naturalistic philosophy, that all of nature operates according to observed mechanical regularities — natural laws. Inserting supernatural entities into the equation is anything but parsimonious.
A theory must be falsifiable by observations or experiment. If evidence accumulates making a claim no longer tenable, it is either discarded or altered. A declaration which is not subject to disproof cannot be accepted as fact. As the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Alternative explanations also must be explored. Can they more adequately fit the data? Isaac Newton assumed the planetary orbits would be unstable without God’s intervention. A century later, Pierre-Simon Laplace demonstrated mathematically that divine tweaking was unnecessary. When Napoleon asked him why in his massive book Laplace never mentioned a creator, he famously replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” To accept the veracity of the miraculous, one has to regard the suspension of the laws of nature more likely than other possibilities — fraud, mistakes, confirmation bias, myth-making — what David Hume labeled the “default explanations.”
Core scientific methodology is based on doubt, observation, replication and reason. Unlike religion, science transcends geographic or ethnic considerations in determining truth, and faith in the supernatural is not seen as a virtue in the lab.
Finally, scientific truth is progressive and cumulative, and it has the added benefit of being self-correcting over time. While some theories are overturned, most are improved upon if found to lack explanatory power.
Most religious believers accept the scientific method, with good reason. In fact, we all display high confidence in science when we board a plane, train or automobile, take a medication, or have our children vaccinated. You merely have to look at your smartphone — science delivers.

Yet, some claim there are other valid methods for apprehending truth: authority of holy books and personal revelation. However, if these were reliable, the doctrines of the thousands of religions would be universal, or at least reconcilable. And unlike science, they fail to produce a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

Believers should take a more critical look at their religion and ask themselves, “What evidence would it take for me to abandon my faith?”

Here we’ll find another way religion diverges from science: how its adherents behave when the facts don’t support their beliefs. So far, science and critical-thinking have discredited several biblical claims. The creation tale, Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood, the exodus from Egypt and the census of Augustus have all been falsified. Yet, in a 2005 poll, 64 percent of Americans said they would reject the evidence if it disproved their religious convictions. As Martin Luther once quipped, “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.”

But if your mind is closed to the facts, you’ve removed yourself from rational discourse. While conservative clergymen fight the facts tooth and nail, more sophisticated theologians reinterpret the once dogmatic assertions as metaphorical. Nevertheless, some prominent clerics are showing signs of hesitant uncertainty. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, freely acknowledges his doubts about the very existence of God. I don’t blame him, as the undetectable and the nonexistent look very much alike.

While religious faiths can’t all be right, they can all be wrong. Better to trust in a truth-finding method with a proven track record.

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We must strike bias in search for truth

By Jeremy Fejfar on November 22, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

We must strike bias in search for truth

Through my involvement in the skeptical community, I have learned just how susceptible we all are to bias, particularly confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe to be true, and to pay less attention to information that contradicts our beliefs. This is seen widely, from politics to religion — and everything in between.

For example, the full moon is thought by many to have effects on everything from violence and suicide to accidents and mental illness. Even words such as lunatic and lunacy come from the Latin word for moon, luna. One may sometimes hear professionals working in a hospital’s hectic emergency room exclaim, “It must be a full moon.” However, when one studies the effect of the moon phase on any of these factors, these supposed effects evaporate.

So why do these beliefs persist despite proof to the contrary? Confirmation bias certainly plays a role. For instance, if one already believes that the full moon makes for a busy night in the ER, when one looks out the window on one such hectic night and sees a full moon, this belief will be reinforced. However, little attention is granted to the hectic nights that fall on nights when the moon is not full, or on full moon nights when there is very little activity in the ER. In this way the belief is perpetuated, even when the effect is imaginary.

If we want our beliefs to accurately reflect reality, we must take care to guard against bias, while realizing that it may not be possible to remain completely unbiased.

For example, in quality scientific research the preferred research method is called a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Under this methodology, a pool of subjects is split in two. The first group gets an intervention (a medication, procedure, etc.), while the second group gets a placebo (a fake intervention, such as a tablet that contains no active ingredient). This is done so random variations in the study group can be controlled for, by comparing the active intervention group to the control group.

Double-blind means that neither the researchers nor the subjects know which individuals are receiving the intervention and which are not. Scientists discovered long ago that experiments could be swayed dramatically when a subject’s or researcher’s bias and expectation bled into the study, and only by removing this bias could the true effect of the interventions be gleaned.

Blinding is also an essential tool in the skeptic’s toolbox; incredibly simple, yet often overlooked by most. This was realized by an 11-year-old named Emily Rosa, who designed a test to see whether practitioners of “therapeutic touch” (a practice that claims to heal through the manipulation of a subjects’ aura) could detect a person’s aura, because they claim to be able to manipulate it. Once the practitioner was blinded, it became clear that she could not even detect whether a person was in front of her hands, let alone manipulate this imaginary energy field.

Blinding reveals the Ouija board to be nothing more than a child’s toy once the users are blinded and gibberish comes forth from the planchette. The supposed abilities of psychics, who use nothing more than cold reading techniques, disappear when they are blinded. Deprived of the feedback and response of the individual being read, the psychic is left to engage in pure guessing or vague platitudes.

Dowsers also do no better than chance when they are blinded. Dousing is the practice of locating underground water (or anything invisible) by observing the movement of a pointer, often a forked stick or bent wires. While belief in this brand of nonsense is typically benign, this is an example of where uncritical thinking can have unforeseen consequences.

About 15 years ago, a company named ATSC began selling a device called the ADE 651, which is now described as a glorified dowsing rod. The device was claimed to be able to locate everything from ivory and narcotics to guns and explosives. The company’s founder, Jim McCormick, sold these “devices” to many, including governments. The Iraqi government reportedly spent more than $40 million on these products, to use at checkpoints to locate bombs. It is tragic to think of how many explosives were smuggled past soldiers relying on a dowsing rod for national security.

In 2013, McCormick was sentenced to 10 years in prison for fraud. To think, all of this expense and risk could have been avoided if the purchaser had simply subjected the device to a blinded test.

By acknowledging our own biases and how they can influence our understanding of the world, and through the use of blinded testing, can we come closer to the truth.

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Nobody benefits from discriminatory society

By Mike Dishnow on October 25, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Nobody benefits from discriminatory society

Commerce and business interests affect all of us. When a religious belief extends into the public sphere it has the power to affect others. This has the potential to lead to discriminatory and biased behaviors toward those outside the fold. Discrimination has no place in commerce in the public sphere.

While one can argue that individual conscience and personal religious belief are protected under our Constitution, it’s more difficult to argue successfully that this is true when the “greater public” is involved.

When an individual or group is doing business, the purpose of which is to turn a profit — to gain from the buying habits or needs of the public at large — then the public is to be protected. It follows that discrimination toward shoppers and clients is suspect.

Religious belief is a personal choice. When one chooses to accept the beliefs and practices of a particular church, it does not extend to coercing others to accept them. Faith is individual in nature; it does not extend to business activities.

A nonbeliever operating a public print shop should not be allowed to turn away customers wanting religious materials produced. An atheist, Buddhist or follower of Islam should not turn away Christians from their bakery when the cake is for a Christian wedding and would feature a cross on the top.

If one enters the public sphere, intending to make a living or otherwise profit from the commerce of the public, one should be held strictly accountable to laws prohibiting discrimination and bias.

There are compelling reasons in a diverse nation, like the United States, to protect the public from discriminatory behaviors and practices. It is not just common sense and practical, it’s also the morally right thing to do.

Harmony is important. Without mutual respect and harmony in the public sphere, we risk more of the social unrest and disorder we have often witnessed.

History is not on the side of those who resist societal changes and seek to pass laws protecting the status quo. So-called “religious freedom laws” fall under this umbrella. People have the freedom to practice their religious views in the privacy of their homes and in their churches with like-minded people. It is unwise and counterproductive to attempt to extend these rights to the public sphere.

Change is the only reality, and generational change is ongoing. In the decades to come, these arguments will be long forgotten or seen as remnants of old and discarded prejudices. The younger generations, including the majority of those considering themselves evangelical Christians, support equal rights, regardless of sexual orientation, race or gender. They represent the future.

One only need listen to Pope Francis’ pronouncements to understand that even very conservative and traditional belief systems, like those of the Roman Catholic Church, are subject to change and evolution of thought. The church authorities often are the last to change, but change they do. Their viability as an institution depends upon it.

The vast majority of Catholics in developed nations support and practice birth control. Reality and the changing societal norms win in the long run. Do you really doubt that the “powers that be” will not follow suit in time? It might seem impossible now, but they will follow suit on the issue of gay marriage, too. This already has begun to occur in many mainstream Protestant churches.

Visit the antiquated views of the past, many of which were supported by Scripture and church laws and proclamations. Many were passed as “laws” in our nation’s states.

Forbiddance of interracial marriage.
Permission of slavery.
Statutes against various sexual practices between consenting adults.
Prohibition of alcohol.
One could go on and on naming deeply held convictions that have fallen into disfavor and cast away as antiquated and, indeed, immoral or unconstitutional. Younger generations see this as progress as it is happening. Eventually, all generations shake their heads and wonder how people could have been so foolish and unenlightened years ago.

It is healthier and wiser to adapt to the long-term view, to accept the generational changes that are becoming part of the fabric of our lives. Knowing when to “throw in the towel” is not a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary.

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Heaven’s location seems up for debate

By Ed Neumann on September 27, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Heaven’s location seems up for debate

Millennia ago, the majority of people not only believed in heaven, but they could point it out for you. Beyond the clouds was the mysterious workings of the celestial vault, and the Earth was widely perceived as a flat disc positioned in the center of the cosmos. The Book of Daniel (4:11), for example, mentions a vision of a great tree reaching into the heavens that “could be seen to the ends of the Earth.”

Divine beings were believed to rule the nearest discernible heavenly bodies, and the starry backdrop appeared to be a single stratum of lights in the sky. Genesis 1:14-17 states that God attached the stars to the firmament, like a diamond-studded canopy. In fact, it was thought a sufficiently powerful earthquake could shake them loose and send them plummeting to Earth. According to this view, the underworld was, quite literally, beneath the Earth where the sun paid a nightly visit.

By the dawn of the Common Era (about 2,000 years ago), popular cosmology around the Mediterranean basin changed. Educated people now understood the Earth to be spherical, and they envisaged the universe to be divided into multiple geocentric layers. The most commonplace scheme depicted seven heavens — one for each major celestial body — supported by the firmament, the lowest layer consisting of the “air” between the Earth and moon. They considered this sub-heaven a region of change, corruption and decay. Because there was now no underworld, some claimed Satan presided over this realm.

One can find clear evidence of the evolving zeitgeist. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul claims he knew a man (probably himself) who traveled up to the third heaven, where he says the Garden of Eden exists (a common Jewish belief at the time).

The Dead Sea Scrolls also delineate seven ascending levels of heaven. The first heaven began in the region of the moon, then on to Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, usually in that order. Mesopotamian myths describe the floors of each level of the heavens as composed of a different type of stone. This idea finds support in a parallel from the Old Testament, where the floor of heaven is apparently built of blue-sapphire brick (Exodus 24:9-10).

It was commonly held that the sky teemed with life — trees, horses and people — essentially everything on Earth, though more perfected versions. The cosmos also was populated by angels, demons, archons and intercessory guides. Moreover, keys and passwords were required to open gates from one heaven to the next, a concept also taught in Mithraism.

What may shed light on incipient Christian beliefs is an early 2nd century text called the Ascension of Isaiah. Here, Isaiah receives a vision of a celestial Jesus descending through the seven heavens (shedding layers of glory at each stage) to the misty realm just below the moon, where, according to historian Richard Carrier’s interpretation, he is humiliated, tried and crucified on a tree by Satan — “the ruler of this world” — and his minions.

Though this death in outer space sounds bizarre, it has established precedents. According to Plutarch, Osiris also was said to have been killed by his evil brother Set just below the lunar orb. And in The Revelation of Moses, Adam was buried in the 3rd heaven, somewhere on or near Venus.

People of ancient cultures also imagined divine beings enjoying the aromas of cook fires as the smoke rose heavenward. Hence, sacrificial meats were seared because “burnt offerings are pleasing to the Lord” (Numbers 29:2; Exodus 29:18; Genesis 8:21).

Due in large part to the sciences, our worldview is coming into sharper resolution — a picture conforming ever more closely to objective reality. However, the church always has been stubbornly slow about altering its outdated ideas. Yet change it eventually must. For instance, in 1992 the Vatican finally admitted it was wrong to condemn Galileo for asserting a sun-centered solar system.

Certain members of the clergy have also recently deigned to voice hitherto heretical views. In 2012, Cardinal George Pell opined that the tale of Adam and Eve in Paradise (whether Venusian or earthly) “is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain evil and suffering in the world … it’s certainly not scientific truth.”

I agree. But if original sin is merely metaphorical and one does not inherit this “sinful nature,” might that not obviate the need for baptism and render the archaic idea of atonement by blood-sacrifice unnecessary?

Modern astronomers have abandoned the quaint cosmologies of the past, replacing them with observation-based science. It’s time we do the same with all antiquated ideologies steeped in the supernatural.

So where is heaven if we can no longer confidently point to it in the sky? Like Nirvana, the Elysian Fields and Valhalla, the “abode of the blessed” has since been relegated to the nonphysical realm of myth, metaphor, and the human imagination.

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Are Ten Commandments good moral guideposts?

By Janeen White on August 30, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are Ten Commandments good moral guideposts?

It may look like another of David Letterman’s Top 10 lists, but the Ten Commandments are no laughing matter. They are seen as the foundation upon which morality is based, and there are numerous places in the United States where the commandments are prominently displayed, even here in La Crosse.

But the Ten Commandments should not be the yardstick upon which we judge the morality of others. There are a number of flaws with the commandments and, as a result, we should consider a new set of commandments, one that fits in with today’s diverse society.

One of the big problems is that the Ten Commandments are a list of “thou-shalt-nots.” As a parent, telling a child not to do something is nowhere near as effective as telling that child what to do. This is backed up by most parenting books. We also saw how well this worked in Genesis.

The first few commandments look specifically at worshiping God. While understandable in the process of setting up a very homogeneous nation of the ancient world, that’s not the case today. Not only is the United States rather diverse religion-wise, but the rest of the world is as well. Therefore, these three or four commandments — different religions have variations on the numbering of the commandments themselves — strike an us-against-them chord that is at odds with having a peaceful world.

In fact, many of these Ten Commandment monuments were erected during the Cold War, at a time of great discord when the United States was against anyone who might appear to be sympathetic to communism, even going so far as to say that atheists were a threat. This was not a time of peace. It was a time when differences were considered a threat, and one of those differences had to do with which god one did or did not worship.

Honor thy mother and thy father. Why the focus on them? Why not honor those who are older and wiser? Why not honor those in authority? Were mother and father chosen for a particular reason? Was God’s own failure in Genesis to get his children to honor him by not eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil the reason behind this particular commandment?

Thou shalt not kill. Why isn’t this the first commandment? This should be the most important commandment in any society. Not only that, let’s expand it to include respect for the Earth and for other living things in order to leave our planet a better place. As a species with the ability to change and affect our environment, this should be one of our highest responsibilities.

Thou shalt not commit adultery. I remember asking about this when learning about the Ten Commandments while attending Catholic school. My mother quickly said this was a grown-up thing and not to worry about it. While cheating can cause great pain in a relationship and a family unit, it’s something that, as a moral benchmark, has become largely ignored. Plus, the burden of the commandment itself was typically placed on women, which was horribly unfair.

Finally, we have stealing, lying and coveting. While there are laws for the first two, there’s enough of it going on inside the letter of the law that it has me thinking that many people don’t consider them commandments anymore, especially during election season.

And I have never understood the prohibition around coveting. Why is it bad to covet? Even God talks about being a jealous god. If humans are made in his image, then jealousy — and therefore coveting — would be natural human traits. I can understand why it would be bad if the coveting led to stealing, adultery or murder, but beyond that, coveting is almost necessary. In fact, it’s how our economy thrives.

Some people say morality comes from God, but I have a difficult time going along with commandments that focus primarily on worshiping a jealous deity and others that people find easy to get around. In order to have a better world and to get along better as humans, we need new commandments, or at the very least some amendments, that people of all beliefs can agree and follow for the betterment of humankind.
Janeen White is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Yes, what you believe actually matters

By Jeremy Fejfar, July 05, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Yes, what you believe actually matters

“Why does it matter what people believe? It doesn’t affect you; just let people believe what they want. It’s not like you are going to change anyone’s mind.”

This is a critique I hear, sometimes in response to one of my columns. While I fully support freedom of thought — and everyone should be free to believe what they like — I also think it’s best when our beliefs are based on reason and evidence. When sufficient evidence comes to light that contradicts our beliefs, we should be willing to discard the debunked notions.

One does not need to pay attention to national and international events very long to see the consequences that beliefs can have.

Seven children die in a New York City house fire when a hot plate is left on for 25 hours because their community’s interpretation of sacred scripture told them that a god would be displeased if they pressed a button on Saturday. This is the fourth deadly fire in this community in the past 15 years due to this belief.

In many parts of Africa, people with albinism are slaughtered and their body parts are sold off because of local beliefs that they are magical.

Scarcely a year goes by where a child is not injured or killed because the parents choose to forgo modern medicine, blood transfusions or immunizations in favor of ineffective pseudoscientific or prayer-based modalities. Further, children too are often victims of dangerous and sometimes deadly attempts to exorcise non-existent demons or devils.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, U.S. Sen. James Imhofe, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, does not see a need to intervene to halt escalating greenhouse gas emissions because of one of his favorite Bible verses, Genesis 8:22.

Earlier this year, an 18-year-old man and his 6-month-old daughter were killed when they were rear-ended by a car and thrown from their horse-drawn buggy. Because his religious beliefs left him and his daughter unrestrained by a seat belt or infant car seat, what would have been a minor traffic crash became a tragedy.

As of this writing, more than 800 Muslims have died in Pakistan amid a major heat wave. The fact that Ramadan is currently being observed is compounding the danger of the heat, as millions of Muslims forgo all food and drink during the daylight hours in observance of the month-long religious ritual.

Beliefs are not inconsequential. What we believe is important because our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions have consequences. It’s rare that our beliefs and our actions do not have effects on those around us. We, individually and as a society, live much happier and healthier lives when our beliefs mirror reality to the greatest extent possible.

For example, the person who believes that drinking battery acid is good for them will not lead as happy and healthy of a life as a person who has beliefs regarding battery acid ingestion that more closely reflect reality, all other variables being equal.

Faith in the supernatural is not a good way to arrive at a reality-based understanding of the natural world. People from all over the world have arrived at vastly different conclusions when using their faith or scripture as a basis for their beliefs. However, when people base their beliefs on what the evidence shows and what is revealed using the scientific method, people from many different cultures converge on same beliefs and conclusions.

As Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” has stated, there is a reason we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra.” People from all cultures and religions will arrive at the same conclusions when they use the scientific method, make testable claims, experiment to confirm or reject them, and have peers review and verify their results. Try saying the same thing for conclusions derived by using a faith-based, or non-evidence-based, system.

Lastly, there is the claim that one cannot change people’s beliefs. It’s true that beliefs can be entrenched and resistant to change; however, I, like many voices in the secular community, am proof that this adage is untrue. I don’t expect any one article or conversation to cause someone to change a strongly held conviction, but I know firsthand that sometimes all it takes is exposure to a different way of thinking about things to begin considering one’s own beliefs more critically.

If having beliefs that accurately reflect reality is important, then honest, critical evaluation of one’s beliefs, especially those one takes for granted, is essential.

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Confirming existence of God proves elusive

By Matt Runde, June 07, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Confirming existence of God proves elusive

For centuries, believers have sought to provide logical proof that God exists.

Due to the many contradictions in the holy books, it has always been difficult to convince skeptical people to believe based purely on the written word. Several philosophical arguments for the existence of God have led to spirited debate, but they all ultimately fail the test of reason and have been refuted time and again by critical thinkers.

Probably the most popular argument is called the Cosmological Argument, sometimes also called the First Cause Argument. It is based on the notion that every event we can witness appears to have been caused by a prior event.

It rains today because clouds rolled in on air currents carrying humid air, which resulted from evaporation from surrounding bodies of water, which filled due to groundwater, which accumulated from past rains, and so forth ad infinitum. If one carries that thinking back to the beginning of time, there is a point where nothing existed, and therefore the idea is that the very first cause was uncaused itself, and the name believers give that first cause is God.

Originally proposed by Aristotle and venerated by Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas among others, it carried serious weight and stimulated centuries of debate, but it can be dispelled by a simple insight. If one requires all effects to have a cause, what caused God? It is just as logically valid to assume the universe always existed. David Hume and Immanuel Kant also proposed more complex refutations of this argument, but the common-sense concept is the simplest.

Originally proposed by Socrates, a second widely known argument is called the Teleological Argument, or the Design Argument. Teleology suggests inherent purpose to things — the reason we have fingers is so we can send text messages. It’s based on the idea that the universe and all of its creations are simply too complex to have arisen by processes such as evolution and gravitational attraction. An analogy often used is that a watch must have a watchmaker, because the watch cannot assemble itself.

Proponents of this argument will point to “irreducibly complex” biological organs such as the eye, arguing that this organ would be useless in a transitional form so it must have been constructed in its present form by design.

Evolutionary biologists, however, can demonstrate many transitional forms of eyes, from crude light-sensitive patches of tissue all the way to the human eye. All forms confer a selective advantage to the organism, and therefore are perpetuated by evolution. Aside from the demonstrable fallacy of the argument, it’s difficult to believe an omniscient designer would create a world with such obvious flaws, such as parasitic disease, geological disaster and the like.

A third argument, conceived by St. Anselm in the 11th century is quite abstruse but held sway among many prominent thinkers, including Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. It’s called the Ontological Argument. Its premise is that anyone who can understand what is meant by the word “God” can see that such a being must exist. God is that being “than which none greater can be conceived.”

Because I can understand that, I can conceive of God. Anselm claimed that, because it’s greater to exist in reality than only as an idea in the mind, God therefore must exist in reality.

Even Aquinas believed this argument to be false, as he thought God must first exist before we can make any claim about his nature. The monk Gaunilo pointed out that the argument can be extended to ridiculous analogy, such as claiming that there exists a perfect island: the perfect island must exist, for if it did not then it would be possible to conceive of an island greater than that island than which no greater can be conceived, which is absurd.
The most powerful refutation, generally taken as the final word, came from Immanuel Kant. He argued that the claim that existence is greater than non-existence is logically indefensible, and that our concept of a thing is as complete whether or not it exists in reality. The details require much study to truly grasp but have stood the test of time.

Despite the best efforts of many generations of human minds, we have yet to produce an empirical argument for the existence of God. That, of course, does not mean we can state definitively that there is no God, but it means we cannot make any claim to knowledge one way or the other.

Because no holy book offers any insight, we are left where we started thousands of years ago — choosing to believe on faith or withholding judgment until the evidence improves.

Matt Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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‘Sacred’ writings often legitimize vile acts

By Mary Leuther, May 10, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

‘Sacred’ writings often legitimize vile acts

Very few people follow the more odious dictates of the Bible or Quran.
For example, Christians do not kill others for working on the Sabbath, as the Bible commands, “whoever works on the Sabbath shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2); “by stoning” (Numbers 15:32-41). Most Muslims do not condone murdering non-believers as the Quran orders: “when ye meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads” (47:4); “… kill them wherever you find them” (2:191).

Both of these books have “do not kill” passages that conflict with the passages referred to above, and the majority of members tend to follow these.
Most people treat others with respect, and the few believers who actually know what is in their respective books preferentially choose to abide by the compassionate passages. This predisposition toward nonviolence suggests the existence of an innate cooperativeness that prevents most people from acting out the crueler aspects of their religions, prejudices, political mandates and even their own selfishness.
Innate morality was believed by theists like Thomas Aquinas to have its origin in a god, while secularists such as David Hume supported a verifiable natural source — human experience.

Most biologists, including myself, believe most people are hardwired to be kind and to cooperate with each other. We all agree that certain acts (murder, for example) are not moral; however, violent acts were considered acceptable, praised, mandated or even carried out by most gods from Allah to Zeus.
In his book “Drunk with Blood,” Steven Wells outlines the millions of murders committed or directed by the Old Testament god Yahweh — yes, the god claimed by Christians to be Jesus. Some of these acts are so horrific that we would not knowingly expose our children to such stories without censoring them. Yet many religious practitioners consider these writings, filled with reprehensible acts of violence, too sacred to criticize.

Custom and sometimes even legal mandates not only prohibit ridicule of these writings, but they often encourage their unscrupulous use for social control or as props in supposedly secular governmental activities.

Human behavior, like physical characteristics, can be expressed in normal distribution patterns, or bell curves. But it is not always easy to identify human behaviors that threaten our survival.
Examples of such behaviors are the propensity for violence or the restriction of free thought, but they are common enough to be considered within the range of normal. The very nature of these behavioral aberrations intimidates, and often terminates, those who are nonviolent or think differently. The longer violence or suppression of skeptics is considered within the boundaries of normal, the further populations will move toward aggression and intimidation. Unchecked, this can push the entire population in an unsustainable direction toward a norm of superstition and non-innovation, as is common in some current theocracies.

Fanciful tales sold under the heading “religion” are not required to be supported by facts, and manipulative people, as well as ardent believers, can justify their violent actions by cherry picking their religious writings. If these people also have wealth or charisma, the cloak of religion allows them to recruit more people who already are primed by faith to not think logically, to not examine facts and to not expect verifiable results.
A current example is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who uses Islam to procure jihadi. Charismatic manipulators can just as easily recruit Christian youths who are taught that faith is more important than critical thought. Jim Jones, who convinced his followers to commit mass suicide and murder leaving 909 dead, is an example from the Christian world.

In some countries, specific religious faiths are protected by law and have not been identified for what they are — a series of unsubstantiated stories directed by entrenched power structures and maintained by subterfuge and intimidation. The camaraderie, charity, art, music and kindness that some religions claim credit for exist because of human talent and decency and would still continue even if critical thinking replaced superstition.
It appears that much of current formal religious ideology trails behind the evolution of human compassion and intellect. Mainstream theologians have not figured out how to excuse the violent passages in their religious writings and still maintain the writings were divinely inspired. Significant numbers of believers, including religious professionals, do not critically evaluate their religion. Many refrain from this evaluation because they consider it a “matter of faith” requiring no further justification.

Avijit Roy, who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering and an American author of “The Virus of Faith,” was hacked to death by religious primitives while visiting Bangladesh on Feb. 26. The use of “sacred” writings as guides for behavior legitimizes the vilest behavior. These writings should be considered sociological artifacts, not guides to a better future.

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Create the meaning in your own life

By Dan Barker, April 12, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Create the meaning in your own life

As an atheist, I’m often told that life is meaningless without God. If everything ends in the eventual death of a cold and uncaring universe, there is no ultimate purpose. Without a creator, I hear, there can be no absolute justice or morality. If life is not eternal, our accidental fleeting existence is an absurd joke, leading inexorably to nihilism and hopeless despair.
I used to preach the “good news” of the Gospel, so I completely understand why believers crave purpose-driven lives. They want to feel loved and guided by a wise parent. They want to be told what their role is. They don’t want existence to be random and insignificant. They need life to “make sense” in a big way, in the cosmic picture.

But it doesn’t. And we shouldn’t want it to. Reality is not determined by our wants, needs or fears.

Ironically, it is we atheists who offer the truly good news that there is no purpose of life. If there were, that would cheapen us, making us second-class citizens, turning us into servants, like the biblical writers boasted they had become, pretending there is purpose in glorifying a lord.

Asking “If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?” is like asking “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”

Unshackled from the demands of a dictator, we are truly free to live.

But notice that saying there is no purpose of life does not mean there is no purpose in life. As long as there are challenges, as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life.

Who would dare claim that Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a meaningless life? She was an atheist who worked for a half century for gender equality, including the radical notion that women should participate in their own democracy, resulting in the 19th Amendment.

Nonbelievers have worked to combat hunger, illness, natural disasters, war (often religiously motivated), poverty, racism, child abuse (often by clergy), oppression, ignorance, crime, cruelty to animals, pollution, environmental degradation (often by dominionist believers), species decimation, political corruption, corporate greed, unsafe working conditions, exploitation and overpopulation (often caused by religious pronatalist policies).
Confronting these challenges gives life meaning.
Problem solving can also be positive: There are real challenges to parenting, education, science, history, creating beauty, art, music, literature, poetry, theater, architecture, entertainment, cooking, gardening — and you can think of more. Meeting these challenges enriches our lives.
Those who believe in God also do these things, of course — they are good people, too — and this shows that we all ultimately care about this world, the real world. Whatever the challenges are, they are natural, not supernatural. The decisions are made by us, not by a deity.

So it is about you, contrary to what the Rev. Rick Warren preaches in “Purpose Driven Life,” a book of repackaged old-fashioned Christian fundamentalism. Because there is no purpose of life, you get to choose. If you don’t, you are living someone else’s life.

The preachers have it backward. If life is eternal, then life is cheap. Value does not come from surplus; it comes from rarity. Prices rise as supply drops.
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,” poet Emily Dickinson wrote. The reality that our lives are brief is what makes them precious. “Ultimate purpose” is the surrender of real purpose. The only purpose that matters is immediate.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

Suppose you are looking forward to a vacation in a few weeks. Perhaps you are planning to ski, swim, hike, explore, travel, visit friends or relatives. But then you realize, “Oh! When it’s over I’ll have to come back to work!” Would you cancel your vacation? If it has no “ultimate meaning,” is it worthless?
Of course not. Life is its own reward. As the nonbelieving songwriter Jerome Kern said, “Life is to be enjoyed.”

Do you want purpose in life? Then find a problem to solve and start working on it. Often you don’t have to find it — it finds you.
Perhaps a sibling or parent dies of a rare disease and you dedicate your life to curing it. Perhaps you are disturbed by inequality in society, so you strive to eliminate it. Whatever the problem is, you are the one who chooses to act. It is your purpose, and yours alone.

Do you want meaning in life? Then create it. You be the creator.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is the author of “Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning.”

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Monotheism Often Sows Seeds of Intolerance

By Mike Dishnow, March 15, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Monotheism often sows seeds of intolerance

My reason in writing is to examine the propensity toward violence and intolerance in each of the three world views — monotheism, polytheism and non-theistic philosophies — and to speculate on the future of religious belief.
I begin with the thesis that monotheism, more so than the other worldviews, plants the seeds of violence and intolerance toward those outside the fold.

I reject the thesis that the communist nations — because they embraced atheism and mistreated and killed so many of their own citizens — did so because of atheism. They did so because they treated communism as the one and only way. If one considers it to be communism as a world view, not atheism, this way of arguing is logical.
“ … In its exclusive devotion to the worship of one God, monotheism has inspired much ferocity and fanaticism … Polytheism in contrast is open-ended and easy-going. Many roads lead to the mountaintop. A person may choose any path. Violence among polytheists is not unknown, but it pales in comparison.” (“God against the Gods: Monotheism versus Polytheism,” by M. Lal Goel)

My second thesis is that Islam has been given a pass in the Western media and that this is neither healthy nor productive. Why are we shielding Islam from the criticisms rightly earned by some of its followers? Why is the Quran not subjected to historical criticism and critical methods?

Why does a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech and expression self-censor the cartoons of Mohammad? A free democratic people should not “shake in fear” of offending people with cultures mired in the past who often treat women as chattel and are intolerant of all who beg to differ. We overlook the very practices we abhor in our own populace because it has been deemed politically incorrect to criticize Islam.

To argue that it is poverty and a lack of economic opportunity that is responsible for terrorism is to bury one’s head in the sand. Modern terrorists have more often been led by middle-class, even wealthy, highly educated people, some with engineering and medical degrees. Terrorism historically has shown no abhorrence for wealth and privilege.

The Christian Crusades were not led by poor, unemployed, under-educated people. They had the blessings of those of wealth and privilege and were led by the same. The reality is that religious writings and beliefs can, and often do, lead to violence and mayhem against those outside the fold.

My third thesis is that religious beliefs and/or other world views are evolutionary in nature and change as we learn more about the world in which we live and the nature and aspects of being human and living in social settings. This thesis accepts the idea that values and laws are relative to the historical period being examined, and that change is normal and desirable.

The contemporary world witnesses knowledge amassed and used in ways unthinkable a generation ago. The technological revolution has made the world smaller and allowed cultures to blend and mix daily, for better and for worse.
We live in an increasingly secular world. This is as one would expect, as our knowledge of the natural world expands in the ever-increasing information explosion. Less and less is left without credible theories to describe what we once found inexplicable.

The current ascendant interest in secular meditation and mindfulness practices in the western world is testament to this continuing philosophical swing.

The numbers of religiously unattached — the “nones” — especially among young people in the United States, are rapidly rising. About 16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any faith, and among those ages 18 to 29, this increases to 25 percent. Polls have shown between 41 and 47 percent of Americans as “unchurched” in recent decades.
Religious beliefs, like all other world views and philosophies, tend to evolve over time. Nations are more dependent on each other, and our tolerance and understanding of other cultures rising. The religions of the future will be more akin to the ways of the East, while becoming increasingly secular in nature. God will cease to be an exclusive concept and will simply be a metaphor for living together on this small planet.

This is not unlike the thoughts of those who perceive nature or the god of nature as worthy of our embrace today. As has been often stated, I will quote writer Leo Tolstoy, “The Kingdom of God is within us.” It is here in this world, not elsewhere; now, not later.

Mike Dishnow is member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Evolution backed up by solid science

By Ed Neumann, February 15, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Evolution backed up by solid science

Charles Darwin was born 206 years ago this month, and each February we reflect on his theory of evolution by natural selection — the central idea about which the biological sciences revolve.

Yet, sadly, despite overwhelming evidence supporting the model, more than a third of Americans still doubt the reality of evolution. Time and again, the same objections are raised. But these criticisms can be shown to be fallacious, based on a flawed understanding of the subject.

Here’s my attempt to address a few of the more common misconceptions:

Macro-evolution has never been observed:
Biologists define evolution as a change in the gene pool of a population over time. Only rapidly reproducing organisms can be observed in the act of such a change. An example might be microbes developing a resistance to antibiotics, or insects becoming pesticide-proof. Even most creationists recognize that evolution at this level is a fact — they call it “micro-evolution.” This is a red herring, however, for macro-evolution is just the sum of these micro-evolutionary changes over a long span of time. Furthermore, evidence isn’t limited to seeing changes occur before our eyes. One need only consider the fossil record, comparative anatomy, genetic sequences and geographical distributions of species. The number of observations supporting “macro-evolution” is overwhelming.

Why are there no transitional fossils?
Though the fossil record is spotty, as conditions have to be just right for fossilization to occur at all, we nevertheless have found many instances of intermediary organisms. Tiktaalik — a transition between fish and amphibian, Ambulocetus — between a land mammal and the modern whale, and Archaeopteryx — a creature bearing the characteristics of both reptiles and birds are but a few examples of transitional forms. The evolution of the horse is also well-documented with a wealth of transitional fossils.

The complexity of life couldn’t occur by random chance:
While chance mutations certainly play a role, there is nothing random about natural selection. The constant culling of the less well-adapted (or less mate-attractive) from the gene pool is a rather severe filtering mechanism, the very opposite of chance.

If man came from chimps, why are there still chimps?
This is akin to asking, “If we came from our parents, why do we still have living cousins?” Humans did not descend from modern chimps. Rather, we share a common ancestor. The stumbling block here is the mistaken idea that evolution occurs in a straight line, where entire populations change into new species at the same time, as though on a ladder of ascent. A better analogy is a continually branching tree. Evolutionary theory never states a source population must go extinct in order for a new species to evolve.

Information cannot be created by genetic mutation:
Mutations can occur during the copying of DNA, and these can take the form of additions, deletions or changes to the genetic code, or duplication of entire sections or genes. Color vision is a great example of this. While most mammals have two types of retinal cones, corresponding to red-green color blindness, most primates, including humans, have three types of cones. The study of the DNA reveals that the evolution of primate color vision was due to a gene duplication coding for one of the kinds of cones. Information is created, and that small difference in the gene allows primates to distinguish red from green, conferring an obvious selective advantage.

Evolution is only a theory, it hasn’t been proven:
The misunderstanding here lies in the definition of “theory” itself. Unfortunately, in common usage the term theory can mean hypothesis or best guess; however, evolution is a scientific theory — an explanatory model which makes testable predictions and has been substantiated with corroborating evidence. The theory of evolution has been supported with vast amounts of incontrovertible evidence, and no better explanatory model has ever come along.
A good theory makes both verifiable and falsifiable predictions about the natural world, and Darwin clearly demonstrated this. When he saw that the Star Orchids of Madagascar have 11½-inch nectaries, with the bottom 1½ inches filled with nectar, Darwin expected that, like all other smaller orchids of this variety, a moth would be required to pollinate it. Not just any moth, but a very large one with a never before seen 10-inch proboscis to extract the pollinia floating within the nectar. Decades later, the giant moth Xanthopan morgani praedicta was found and documented with a 10-inch snout, confirming the prediction.

Evolution also predicts a relatively well-ordered fossil record, with earlier organisms located in deeper strata of the rock. This is exactly what is found, rather than the haphazard record you’d expect if fossils were strewn about all at once in a worldwide flood. In other words, if rabbit bones were ever found in Precambrian strata, evolution would be falsified. This hasn’t happened.

Darwin arrived at the truth of evolution by natural selection without the benefit of the science of genetics, and for that he deserves credit.

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Freethought Society.

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We all benefit from quieting our mind

By Matt Runde, November 23, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

We all benefit from quieting our mind

The odds that intercessory prayer will actually affect the external world are no better than chance. Why then do the faithful tenaciously cling to the practice, finding great personal satisfaction regardless of the outcome?

The answer is that prayer focuses and calms the mind, offering a respite from the incessantly chattering “monkey mind” that torments us all. Buddhists, being atheists, do not pray to a deity, but they engage in an analogous practice of meditation. Prayer uplifts Jews, Muslims and Christians for exactly the same reason that meditation rejuvenates Buddhists and nonreligious people.

Both practices offer temporary separation from the ego, the source of most of our suffering. Whether there is a God is irrelevant with regard to the benefit of prayer. Quieting the mind works.

The mind is almost never truly quiet. Each of us can attest to its endless advice and ruthlessly critical commentary on every action or thought. No doubt this tendency has become exaggerated as a result of modern civilization and the need for constant multitasking. Whatever the reason, it is clearly the source of much suffering.

Many have discovered through prayer, contemplation and meditation that if we can quiet this endless yammering, it can produce a lasting sense of well being.

To be truly transformative, these practices need to be applied in a rigorous fashion and require sufficient dedication of time and effort. Usually, the idea of prayer refers to a brief thanks offered in anticipation of a meal, a plea for an ill relative or friend, or a short report offered before retiring to bed. Used in this fashion, prayer is not likely to alter the habits of the mind enough to achieve significant long-term benefit.

However, prayer can be applied with much greater effect than the trifling exercises described above. Contemplative prayer is a more intense and extended practice; Catholic nuns (especially Carmelites) and priests devote a substantial portion of their day to contemplative prayer, averaging three to four hours daily, often much more. Generally, the goal is to completely occupy the mind in the act, pushing aside all distractions. It involves intense concentration on a single object.

Contemplative prayer has a long history. In 1974, Father William Meninger, a Trappist monk and retreat master at St. Josephs Abbey in Spencer, Mass., found a book in the abbey library, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” He discovered that this 14th century book presented contemplative prayer as a teachable, spiritual process enabling the layperson to enter and receive a direct experience of union with God, and he called it “centering prayer.”

The key features of the technique are, for about 30 minutes twice a day, to sit in silent prayer, eyes closed, focused on a “sacred word.” Each time the mind wanders to some thought, one is to return gently and non-judgmentally to the sacred word.

Compare this with the Buddhist technique of insight meditation — vipassana. One sits in silent meditation, with a primary goal of attending completely to the present moment. The initial focus is on the act of breathing, and gradually one expands the awareness to all physical sensations present in consciousness. Each time the mind wanders to some thought, one is to return gently and non-judgmentally to the breath.

Consider also Muslim prayer. Devout Muslims pray five times daily, often totaling an hour or more in daily prayer. Each session is similar in content, and after months or years of practice, the physical part becomes automatic. The mind is free to focus entirely on the present moment. It is the effect on the mind, not communion with God, which produces the undeniable benefit.

Visible, structural changes are recognized to result from meditation. It’s clear the mind has the ability to alter its own structure through intense concentration. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar in a 2005 publication compared 20 Buddhist who practiced meditation for an average time of nine years to a matched group of non-meditators. The meditators had significantly increased cortical thickness in right middle and superior frontal cortex and the insula, suggesting that meditation can generate structural change in the brain.

There have been similar findings in studies of Western meditators, who typically practice only about six hours a week. It would not be surprising to see similar structural changes in the brains of those practicing intense, regular prayer.

It is easy to see the strong parallels among these practices. In each of these techniques, the essential ingredient is that the mind is concentrated on the present moment. All extraneous thoughts are temporarily cast aside. Often, one must endure physical discomfort, boredom and restlessness to properly participate in such rituals, through which one learns the ephemeral nature of experience.

It’s not surprising that people of all faiths and people of no faith find great comfort in these practices. We are all human, more similar than not, and we all benefit immeasurably from understanding our own minds.

Matt Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Holiday season offers plenty to celebrate

By Jeremy Fejfar, December 21, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Holiday season offers plenty to celebrate

I’ll admit it, I enjoy Christmastime. Like everyone, I enjoy taking time to be with my family, great food, giving gifts, seeing the anticipation in my children as the big day approaches and watching their faces light up when they open that special gift. I’ve even been known to belt out Christmas songs, much to the misfortune of family members who find themselves within earshot.

Almost every person celebrates something this time of year. In addition to Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated by Christians and Jews, Muslims celebrate Id al-Adha during the 12th lunar month of the Islamic year, and many different pagan and Native American religious practices recognize and have traditions surrounding the winter solstice.

The winter solstice is truly the “reason for the season,” as this is the day each year with the fewest number of daylight hours, Dec. 22. It marks the point at which days begin to get longer, “the return of the sun.” This event was very significant to ancient people for obvious reasons, and many rituals and traditions were organized around this astronomical phenomenon.

Growing up as a Christian, my memories are full of Christmas traditions — traditions I wanted to share with my own children. However, I did not care to incorporate any of the religious trappings. So we simply enjoyed all of the things most people do this time of year — stories about Santa and reindeer, decorating an evergreen in our living room, giving gifts, singing songs, building snowmen and gingerbread houses, and all of the other wonderful activities that have nothing to with mangers and wise men.

It’s also a great way to keep the peace in a house where the husband and wife may not see eye-to-eye on the subject of religion, as is the case in my own home.

Apparently there are many others out there who enjoy the holiday in this secular way, and some have even taken to dubbing this celebration “Krismas,” quite literally “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” Personally, I feel no more need to remove the name Christ from Christmas than I do to remove the name Thor from Thursday. In fact, most of the days of our week and many of our months received their names from earlier pagan, Greek or Roman gods. Like most people today, I don’t believe in these gods either, yet the names of our weekdays do not bother me in the slightest.

The practice of borrowing traditions from different religions is nothing new. In fact, many elements of the Christmas tradition were borrowed from earlier pagan solstice celebrations. Decorating an evergreen tree, the Yule log and mistletoe are among many borrowed practices.

It seems more people are favoring a secularized Christmas. A 2013 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 1 in 4 Americans viewed Dec. 25 as a cultural holiday, not a religious holy day, and 51 percent of those who celebrated the day did not believe that many elements in the traditional narrative — the virgin birth, that shepherds seeing a star over Bethlehem and that three wise men visiting a baby Jesus in a manger — were historically accurate.

This poll also found that half of those polled preferred a generic greeting such as “happy holidays” out of respect for people of all faiths.

This kind of secularized holiday greeting certainly does bother one self-appointed defender of Christmas, the American Family Association. Each year about this time, this organization publishes its “Naughty and Nice” list. The group encourage its members to call, email and boycott the stores who make its naughty list, composed of retailers who don’t use the word “Christmas” enough in their advertising. Nationwide, retailers in home improvement to pet food have to deal with this group’s ire annually for choosing to keep their advertisements free of references to other people’s religious observances.

Of course, the AFA is only interested in making sure Christian holidays get top billing in businesses’ flyers and displays, with no regard to the religion of the business owner. I can only imagine the response from the AFA if a Muslim group demanded that Christian business owners recognize the observance of Ramadan in their advertising.

Despite the claims of the “War on Christmas” promoted by groups such as the AFA and some in the media, I have no personal experience with anyone trying to restrict the ability of Christians to practice their religious holiday however they see fit, as long as they are not imposing it on others around them.

As for myself, I will enjoy the tradition of Christmas this year, though not the religion of Christmas. I wish everyone a joyous holiday season and a healthy and happy new year.

Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Secularism promotes a virtuous life

By Michael Dishnow, October 26, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Secularism promotes a virtuous life

Virtue has its roots in the contemplation of what is good and in accord with the laws of nature. As plants respond to the sun’s rays and raindrops falling from the sky, virtue blossoms individually, as in community, when love for oneself and others is the compost.

What is good for me is good for another. What is harmful for me is harmful for another.

I would argue that atheism is a surer path to leading a virtuous life than the paths followed by those following traditional religious dogmas. There is a natural freedom in not being bound to required beliefs. Understanding is the source of all morality. It’s our actions, not our beliefs, which matter.

Common sense and our experiences have long held that we should note what one does, not what one says, to understand the man.

The distractions of bias and discrimination toward those who did not accept their particular beliefs and dogmas have historically bound religious believers. Minus the distractions of having to defend and proclaim a particular set of beliefs, a person is truly free to study, observe and make decisions based on an objective examination of nature’s ways. This freedom is universal in that it allows for changing and modifying one’s conclusions as the state of science and learning advances before us.

I would be remiss to paint with too wide a brush. Not all believers in a God react toward those who see the world differently in a negative way. There are those who have a universal mindset and see belief to be the province of the believer or nonbeliever. This said, our history suggests that this form of liberal religiosity has more often than not, been absent.

The conservative Christians who proclaim our nation’s founders established a government based on Christian values is an obvious contemporary example. The leading men in our fight for our independence from Great Britain were not Christians, but rather products of the historical period known as the enlightenment. They were deists or atheists — believers in nature and nature’s god — and, to them, nature and God were synonymous.

The majority of our founders rejected the Protestant doctrines of the virgin birth, original sin, miracles of Scripture, and the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Their disdain for the priesthood and the shadow it cast over the common citizen is obvious throughout the primary sources available to the current historian. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others of significance in our founding documents were not Christians.

Reason is essential in learning and knowledge and, as such, is the basis of morality. The opposite of reason is faith. When faced with reason disagreeing with faith, the person of faith is bound to his faith. This self-delusion is the foundation of all religion in its popular manifestations. Theocracy is the opposite of democracy.

Jefferson argued that secularism spreads as the natural consequence of freedom of thought in a free society. Secularism is inevitable in the modern free world. Our social, moral and political experiences bring deeper understanding and this knowledge, along with the advances of science, foreshadows increasing secularism.

Secularism is spreading throughout the world. Europe, the cradle of Christianity, is largely a secular society today. The grand cathedrals and remnants of a time when Christianity ruled are now merely works of art considered through the window of history.

The United States has been an outlier in the overwhelming move toward secularism. This is rapidly changing, and the younger generations are less and less religious in any traditional sense. More than two-thirds of the those younger than 30 are non-churchgoers, and their number are ever increasing.

Education and the increase in scientific advances will be the death knell of traditional religious practices and beliefs. They are simply not compatible with an educated and knowledgeable populace.

The virtuous atheist is a free agent, free to find meaning and purpose in life, free to understand the deepest meanings of the golden rule, and free from the myths and superstitions that often enslave the mind.
The virtuous atheist, liberated from all forms of tyranny over the human mind, is arguably the freest in the land of the free.

Mike Dishnow is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Ancient Jewish Scriptures were Messianic Blueprints

By Ed Neumann, September 28, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Ancient Jewish Scriptures were Messianic Blueprints

Of the many scrolls recovered from Nag Hammadi, Egypt, two shed light on the creative writing strategies of the early Christians. The first one, an ancient, possibly pre-Christian epistle called Eugnostos the Blessed, outlines a doctrine of obscure Jewish theology concerning the firstborn celestial Son of God, aka Savior and Son of Man. The second, a later Christian Gospel called the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, lifts direct quotations from Eugnostos and places them on the lips of their Lord to fabricate a post-resurrection dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.

Here we have clear evidence of early Christians inventing and pirating to create their tales, and we have no reason to assume this isn’t how it was always done.

Nearly every detail of the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels relates back to some prior scripture, mostly from sacred writings in what we now call the Old Testament. Christian clergy have traditionally explained the parallels between the story of Jesus and Hebrew scripture by claiming Jesus “fulfilled” various prophecies. But there are serious problems with this claim.

First, the Gospel authors knew exactly what to write in order to satisfy the prophecies, and we have nothing independent of the Gospels to prove the events they describe weren’t just a literary fulfillment of scripture.
Second, many of the parallels don’t relate back to prophecies at all, but instead refer to stories about different people, or simply to songs and poems. Verses from Psalms, for example, informed much of the Jesus tale.

* Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee. — Psalm 2:7

* I will open my mouth in parable, I will utter dark sayings of old. — Psalms 78:2-4

* A pack of villains encircles me, they pierce my hands and my feet…They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments. — Psalm 22:16-18

* All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. — Psalm 22:7

* …and for my thirst they gave me vinegar. — Psalm 69:21

* My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? — Psalm 22:1

* He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken. — Psalm 34:20

In his newly published book, On the Historicity of Jesus, historian Richard Carrier writes: “The entire crucifixion scene is a fabrication, a patchwork assembled from the verses in the Psalms in order to depict Jesus as a standard Jewish mythotype of ‘the just man afflicted and put to death by evildoers, but vindicated and raised up by God’.”

Moved by their messianic fever, some pre-Christian Jewish sects wrote apocalyptic peshers—documents attempting to discover hidden messages in scriptures by searching for secret connections among disparate, previously unrelated passages. One such pesher, a Dead Sea Scroll called the Melchizedek Scroll, appears to link the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 52-53 with the coming Anointed One of Daniel 9: 24-27, who they expected to die to atone for sins shortly before the end of the world. These Isaiah passages, as well as some from Zechariah, were favorites among apocalyptic Jews.

* …despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…wounded by our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities…he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors. — Isaiah 53:4-32

* They look upon me who they have pierced. — Zechariah 12:10

* …make a crown and set it on the head of Joshua ben Jehozidak (literally Jesus, son of Jehovah the Righteous). — Zechariah 6:11

The Wisdom of Solomon, another important pre-Christian scripture, also presented a son of God who was killed, resurrected, and crowned in heaven. The concept wasn’t new.

Finding hidden messages in scripture was a common pastime. In fact, the Apostle Paul was adamant that the Christ he preached was known to him not by hearsay or tradition, but only from Hebrew scripture (1 Corinthians 15: 3-4) and his own revelatory visions (Galatians 1: 11-12).

Matthew claims multiple times in his Gospel, “All this was done to fulfill scripture.” And he insisted on a literal interpretation, as evidenced by his treatment of Zechariah 9:9 — Lo, your king comes to you riding on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey. Matthew decides to change Mark’s rendition (Mk 11:7) and has Jesus ride into Jerusalem upon two donkeys simultaneously! (Mt 21:7)

To some it is evident that the Gospels were deliberately designed to give the impression these scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even the renowned theologian John Dominic Crossan sees through the artifice: “Hide the prophecy, tell the narrative, invent the history.”

The Gospel tale almost writes itself. So do these recombined, out of context scriptures constitute a prediction of a Jewish messiah, or is it more logical to assume they were used as blueprints in the literary creation of their long-awaited Christos?

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Skeptical hero challenges credulity

By Jeremy Fejfar, August 3, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Skeptical hero challenges credulity

Belief in Tantric power is common in India. Common to Hinduism and Buddhism, Tantra is an ancient, esoteric Indian spiritual practice. It is believed that it can cause nefarious acts and could be described as “black magic.”
Belief in the power of Tantra is powerful enough that in 2008, a local politician named Uma Bharati claimed her political opponents were trying to use it to harm her. After this accusation, a major TV network had the discussion, “Tantric Power Versus Science.” Widely known Tantric Pandit Surinder Sharma and the president of Rationalist International, Sanal Edamaruku, were invited.
At one point during the program, the Tantric claimed he could use his power to kill people in fewer than 3 minutes, to which Sanal replied in the most sublime way, “Prove it. Kill me right here and now.”

The Tantric took up the challenge and took to chanting, attempting to kill this skeptic on live television. Over the course of the rest of the program, the Tantric continued his chanting, seeming to have no effect on the confidently smiling skeptic.

The program should have ended there, but it overran as “breaking news,” and the great Tantra challenge preempted all program schedules. After two hours of this ceremony involving chanting, sprinkling water, pressing on Edamaruku’s temples and the waving of a knife, he concluded that Edamaruku must be under the protection of a very strong god, to which Edamaruku replied, “No, I am an atheist.”

With hundreds of millions of Indians glued to their televisions, this lone skeptic stood stalwart against this charlatan who had everything to lose by failing. That night, one of the most widespread superstitions in India suffered a major blow.

This was when I first became aware of Sanal. I saw the courage it must have taken to back a fraud into a corner and invite him to end your life. All Edamaruku had to gain was to decrease the credulity of his countrymen and women by a small measure, and I admired his drive to promote skepticism.

Edamaruku again made international headlines in March 2012 when he was asked to investigate a crucifix statue at Our Lady of Velankanni church in Mumbai that was dripping water “miraculously” from the feet. This statue was visited by more than a thousand people daily, and many were offered this water by the church, which the people drank, hoping for some kind of divine healing.

Upon a brief investigation, Edamaruku noticed a wall behind this statue was wet. When he investigated the source of the water, he found there was a toilet that was leaking, and the drainage system ran beneath the stone base of the statue. The toilet water from this clogged drain was drawn up by capillary action into the wooden cross, and dripped down the nail through the feet of statue, where it met clergy all too willing to dispense to the masses.

Contaminated water is nothing unique to this statue. A 2013 study found fecal bacteria in a majority of church fonts tested. This should give believers pause as they dip into this church-supplied microbe soup.

Needless to say, the local Catholic bishop was not happy with Sanal exposing this “miracle,” as attendance to the church promptly plummeted. They used a part of the Indian penal code which prohibits “deliberately hurting religious feelings,” and sought to have him arrested. Because of these threats, Sanal has been forced to leave his country. He has since moved to Finland to avoid arrest.

In 2013, Sanal’s fellow skeptical campaigner, Narendra Dabholkar, was assassinated, and Edamarukunow fears that returning to India could put his life in danger. When asked whether he regretted his decision to intervene in this case, Edamaruku replied, “Why would one not intervene when somebody gives gullible people sewage to drink? But my reason is broader. The promotion of superstition and belief in paranormal phenomena dulls people’s minds and establishes dangerous misconceptions about reality in our society. Such efforts have to be countered.”

Edamaruku has my respect as an individual who has the courage to stamp out credulity and charlatanism wherever it exists. Whether it is the Hindu astrologers or “Godmen” of India, or the local Catholic priest and archbishop, Edamaruku has helped many to pierce the veil of superstition and to wrest power from the unscrupulous. For this he deserves the respect of not just those in the skeptical community, but truly all people who value truth and honest inquiry.

Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Respect the Placebo Effect

By Matt Runde, July 6, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Respect the Placebo Effect

The patient was anxious. Four holes would be drilled through his skull, possibly into his brain. Though a willing participant, he did not know if he would have embryonic stem cells implanted into his brain or only the drill holes.

As the 2004 research study would ultimately show, it did not matter, as both “treatments” were equally effective in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The study was a formidable demonstration of the placebo effect, a result of the strong interaction between the mind and the body. All attempts at healing, whether through science or faith, are susceptible to this influence, and without a scientific approach we cannot know whether they are effective or safe.

The word placebo comes from Latin, meaning “I shall please.” It refers to a sham medical treatment (sugar pill, saline injection, etc.), which is not expected to directly produce a biologic effect. The placebo effect is not simply the patient imagining she is better. One’s mental state can produce a measurable biologic effect, either positive or negative. Until fairly recently, the placebo effect was really all the physician had to offer. Snake oil salesmen took advantage of this, selling panacea-in-a-bottle to desperate people. Regrettably, we can still see this today when Dr. Mehmet Oz hawks his magical fat-burning garcinia cambogia on television, despite the fact that studies do not show any effect greater than placebo. Psychologists Sapirstein and Kirsch published an analysis of 19 clinical studies on depression and concluded that 75% of the effect of the antidepressants could be attributed to placebo effect. Surgeon J. Bruce Moseley performed “sham” knee arthroplasty, making only a small incision in the knee and sewing it up without any operation. All of the patients reported improvement in function and pain level, despite the fact that they did not have any actual surgery in the knee joint. This and other research has led to the idea that the placebo effect is not just “in the head,” but is an actual, measurable biologic effect mediated through the mind.

Faith healing is the belief that disease can be cured through intercessory prayer. When the healer and patient honestly believe the practice can work, the placebo effect can produce real benefit to the patient. The type of disorder that responds best to this approach is typically one that has a strong subjective component, such as pain or depression, and in these cases one can conclude the healing was real, since the patient’s perception is really all that matters. Knowing that the placebo effect can cause the release of morphine-like chemicals in the brain, it is easy to believe there could be a real effect on pain from faith healing. Bethel Church in Redding, CA has a website with numerous testimonials to miraculous results in their Bethel Healing Room, and they are one of many such sites. Is this placebo effect or real effect?

A well-designed scientific study will always include a treatment group and a placebo group. Since our perception of illness can have as strong an impact as the disease itself, we must be able to separate that from actual clinical effect. Quality studies are double-blinded, meaning neither patient nor physician know whether the patient is receiving a placebo. Most modern medical studies are rigorously controlled for all variables and potential biases. Furthermore, research must be reproducible, and only when the results are consistent are the data felt to be reliable. However, faith healing leaves us unable to sort out the placebo effect from true divine intervention, as there is never a control group. If a faith healer could reproducibly bring about the regrowth of a missing limb, there would be no skeptics as this would be incontrovertible and far beyond the scope of modern medicine. Short of this type of miracle, a reasonable option would be to compare a large group of people closely matched for degree and type of illness separated into two groups, one of which would receive faith healing by clergy and another group receiving sham faith healing by non-clergy. The patients would be told all healers were genuine, thus revealing any placebo effect.

Too many cases of serious injury or death have resulted from attempting to treat children suffering from cancer, diabetes, or pneumonia with prayer rather than medication, and these cases are heartbreaking. Asser and Swan reported on 172 children who died as a result of using faith healing rather than traditional medicine and surgery.

Western medicine has made laudable progress since the days of leeches and bloodletting. Well-designed, reproducible clinical studies allow us to make informed decisions as to the safety and effectiveness of treatments. Unfortunately, faith-based healing has not had a similar evolution, and therefore we must be very skeptical of any claims involving it. Until it can be shown that faith healing works better than placebo, we should choose traditional medicine for our children and ourselves.

Matt Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Silence Can Speak Louder Than Words

By Ed Neumann, June 8, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Silence Can Speak Louder Than Words

According to the Gospels, Jesus was famous. His renowned ministry and high-profile healings drew huge crowds from Syria to the southern Decapolis. He miraculously fed 5000 people at one sitting and 4000 at another. He even purportedly raised the dead. During his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he was followed by multitudes throwing palm fronds and shouting, “Hosannah!”
At his death, according to Matthew who had a flair for the dramatic, a three-hour supernatural darkness fell across the land. There were earthquakes, a torn temple veil, and long dead “saints” milling about. Luke, who by his own admission was not an eyewitness, claims Jesus ascended to heaven before crowds, his fame spreading rapidly to Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
First century Judea was a relatively well-documented time and place. Yet, curiously, known writers around the region failed to chronicle these momentous events. Many discuss far less interesting would-be messiahs but ignore the Jesus who really performed the magic.
In his book “Nailed,” David Fitzgerald explains the ‘argument from silence’ and briefly discusses a few of the most prominent writers of the first centuries CE who would have mentioned Jesus, had they known of him.
Nicolaus of Damascus (d. early first century) – Court historian to Herod the Great, he wrote a history of the world up to the end of Herod’s reign. Though his works do not survive, Josephus discusses them at length but neglects to mention the Star or Nativity in Bethlehem.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) – From a wealthy and prominent family intimately connected to the royal house of Judea, Philo created Hellenistic Judaism—a synthesis of Greek and Jewish philosophy—and expounded upon the Greek idea of Logos, the Word made flesh. So one would expect an actual flesh and blood Logos might invite comment by Philo. He even specifically documented fringe Jewish cults like the Essenes and Therapeutae, yet penned not a word about the Biblical Jesus.
Seneca the Younger (3BCE – 65 CE) – Stoic philosopher, playwright, and tutor of the emperor Nero, Seneca spills much ink on the topic of superstition, lambasting every religious cult of the time—except Christianity. It was as though he’d never heard of it. A few centuries later, Augustine, in his City of God, tried unconvincingly to explain away this glaring omission.
Gallio (d. 65 CE) – Seneca’s older brother, mentioned in Acts as the magistrate who threw the Apostle Paul’s case out of court. According to Acts, Gallio never heard of Jesus before Paul’s story, and he apparently didn’t share the tale of the amazing miracle-worker with his brother.
Justus of Tiberias (d. 101 CE) – A native of Galilee, he was the personal secretary to Herod Agrippa II (who allegedly met Paul). Justus wrote a history of the kingdom of Judah during the purported life of Jesus, yet says nary a word about him. We know this because the 9th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, reported his displeasure upon finding no Christ in Justus’ chronology.
Flavius Josephus (94 CE) – In his Antiquities of the Jews, a brief, disputed paragraph about Jesus exists. However, the vast majority of scholars agree it’s a later insertion. The only debate is how much is forgery. About the year 250, Church Father Origen complained that all that was known of Jesus came from the Gospels. He was frustrated by the scarcity of corroborating evidence and criticized Josephus for not having mentioned Jesus in his Antiquities. Had the disputed passage been in the original writing, it would have been seized upon by Christians like Origen who were hungry for this kind of confirmation.
Pausanias (2nd century) – A Greek travel writer, he stopped in Antioch, Joppa, and Jerusalem to chronicle gods, holy relics, and legends; yet not a whisper of Christ.
Other 2nd century chroniclers in the region, such as Maximus of Tyre and Aelius Aristides, also failed to cite Jesus or his teachings.
Some try to hang their hats on the scraps that do exist, like the 2nd century chronicler Tacitus who briefly reported on the rising Christian cult. However, he also documented the widespread Isis cult, yet few would argue this lends credibility to the goddess’ historical reality.
So when is absence of evidence, evidence of absence? Contemporary writers should have known what Jesus said and did, and they certainly had reason to discuss it. Considering the multitudes who supposedly witnessed the miraculous events, the lack of non-biblical corroboration for the Gospels and Acts is a serious problem. The silence is deafening.
Believers defend the silence by claiming Jesus was not well-known until much later. But you can’t have it both ways. In the end we’re left with two choices: Either Jesus was just another wandering preacher with a meager following and the Gospels grossly exaggerated his life events, or, like Osiris and Romulus before him, he was a mythical character historicized.

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Morality Is Better Off Without Religion

By Raysa Everett, April 12, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Morality Is Better Off Without Religion

Religion and morality do not depend on one another, and our society has ethical values that do not depend on religion. For example, nobody needs a deity to tell us stealing and murder are wrong. Most human and animal social groups consider it wrong to take things that belong to other members or harm other members of the same social group, and many societies from various religious backgrounds have included laws against stealing and murder in their code of laws long before the advent of the modern major religions. Furthermore, religion has had plentiful opportunities to demonstrate higher, more ethical values during historical periods in which religions had absolute authority.

Rather than prove itself an important source of enlightened ethical values in an unenlightened and unethical world, religions have instead largely proven themselves to be full of prejudice and despicable values.

Christianity, for example, had nearly a millennium of almost absolute power in which it could have demonstrated that Christian values are more ethical and better for humanity than other religions or no religion, but that period of time in Europe is known as the Dark Ages and gave rise to unparalleled levels of ignorance, a decrease in education and scientific knowledge, religious inquisitions, holy wars, violence, and poverty.

One could argue these negative effects were the result of institutionalized religion rather than religious values; however, if the values espoused by these religions are not even sufficient to improve the institutions that claim to follow them, how can they improve society as a whole? Furthermore, the unethical influences of religion on society are not only due to the inability of religious people or their leaders to follow their own values, but also are the result of unethical, detrimental values that religions promote as good. Among these values are divisiveness, sectarianism, sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Our innate values allow us to have a society that can live in harmony despite all the differences we have. The Pirahã, an indigenous tribe from Brazil, does not believe in any deities and it is still able to maintain a harmonious society.

We can live good, harmonious lives without gods and religions, but not without moral values. If our values depended only on religion or the bible, for instance, how can we draw the line and pick and choose which religious values should guide our lives? Can we really trust in a book filled with contradictions and divinely inspired genocides and atrocities written millennia ago? The answer is a short and simple “no, we can’t!”

Christians will say God exists; that he is a loving God who created us to worship him; that his word, the Bible, is true; and that his teachings are the only true teachings. Christians will also attempt to say that the values we have in our society are the result of the values taught in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments. They argue that we must follow the perfect values given to us by the creator or our societies will collapse and violence will reign supreme.

None of these arguments is supported by evidence. No one has ever provided proof of the existence of any of the many thousands of deities people have imagined since the dawn of time.

Science has proven the universe does not require supernatural explanations for its existence. Scientific evidence of natural phenomena has consistently replaced the claims of supernatural religious phenomena. If these religions are wrong about the nature of reality, how could their imaginary deities correctly determine proper ethical values within that framework? If God is such an amazing being that teaches the highest of ethics, should society follow the Bible and once again allow slavery?

Perhaps we should abhor homosexuals and kill them as the Bible says in Leviticus 20:13, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Perhaps women should submit to their husbands as the Bible says in Ephesians 5:24, “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should be submissive to their husbands in everything.” Maybe we can all have slaves, as long as they are from neighboring nations as the Bible says in Leviticus 25:44, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” Perhaps we should follow the examples of patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity and practice polygamy again.

The values religion teaches people are often despicable and should not be considered a guide. Societies definitely do not depend on religion to be moral; on the contrary, we are better off progressing beyond the unethical values espoused by the Bible or any other holy book that encapsulates the outdated and harsh cultural norms of millennia-old societies.

Raysa Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Death — Our Final Destination

By Maria Runde, March 16, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

No one likes to discuss death, much less their own. The concept makes most of us extremely uncomfortable, and the discussion (in America at least) is taboo to the degree that even discussing one’s advanced directives for end of life care is unsettling. This needs to change. The Greek word for death is thanatos, from which is derived the word “euthanasia.” A literal translation for euthanasia would be “good death,” and who among us wouldn’t want that? But what qualifies as “a good death?”

There are various nuances to euthanasia or, in effect, mercy killing; the words are not interchangeable even though the intent and the outcome would be the same. Mercy killing implies ending someone’s life to “put them out of their misery” without that person’s consent. On the other hand, the term euthanasia encompasses a spectrum of merciful deaths that revolve around the concept of consent. Cases can be classified as voluntary (where the person decides his/her fate, therefore giving their consent), non-voluntary (where the fate is chosen for a person incapable of giving consent), or involuntary (where the decision is against the will of the individual, thereby ignoring the individual’s autonomy to give consent).

To further delineate these cases, there are active and passive classifications. An active form of euthanasia would involve introducing an agent (chemical, weapon, or other) to cause death, as opposed to the passive form, which withholds agents that promote living such as food, water, or medical treatment. Passive euthanasia is widely practiced in America, e.g. when life support machinery is turned off, comfort measures but not sustenance is provided, or pain medications are given even though they have the potential to hasten death. The remainder of this article deals with active, voluntary euthanasia.

Several European countries and a few American states (Montana, Oregon, Washington, and most recently, Vermont) have legalized euthanasia and/or physician-assisted suicide. The difference in terms refers to which person administers the lethal drug: the doctor (euthanasia) or the patient (physician-assisted suicide/death). The most extensive research and experience come from the Netherlands, where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide were legalized in 2002. For more than twenty years before that time though, there had been political, medical, and social debate and research into the frequency and characteristics of these procedures, which had been widely practiced but under fear of prosecution.

Since the passage of the law, the Dutch medical community is protected from prosecution when the following criteria are met. The patient’s suffering must be unbearable with no hope for its diminishment; their request must be voluntary, be repetitive, and not be under the influence of drugs, psychoses, or pressure from others. The individual must be aware of the alternatives. At least one outside doctor must verify that the conditions above have been met. The death must be carried out in a medically appropriate way either by the doctor or the individual (but with the doctor present). Finally, a multidisciplinary review board ensures after the fact that the due care criteria were met and it refers the case for legal action if not.

Since 2002, the Netherlands has not seen an increase in life-ending procedures. In effect, the law merely legalized what was already taking place. Cases that were referred to the public prosecutor by the review committees most often sited lack of a consultation with an independent physician; however, upon further investigation none of the physicians involved have been prosecuted.

Opposition to euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide takes many forms. The often-raised argument of slippery slope has not been borne out by Dutch studies where adhering to strict protocol has been followed in the vast majority of cases. There has been no evidence for increased euthanasia among vulnerable groups, e.g. those with lower economic or education status, among others.

One may ask what the effect of causing death has upon the medical doctor, who swore to do no harm? While it is agreed that performing euthanasia is not part of “normal medical practice,” physicians are not obligated to perform the procedure. Most foreign physicians studied view “minimizing suffering” as a higher goal than “doing no harm,” because most patients are terminal and the patient/physician relationship extends over many years (unlike our American system where health insurance dictates with whom one may doctor). Furthermore, non-American cultures have different values than our religious and political framework permits.

Some may argue that the practice of euthanasia devalues life, but I disagree. A 2005 Dutch study sited “pointless suffering” and “loss of dignity” as the most frequent reasons euthanasia was sought. When other alternatives are unavailable, why should we prolong someone else’s agony at their expense? We should respect a person’s autonomy to end life when certain criteria have been met. This decision is too critical and irreversible; it needs to be handled on the personal level, with care and counsel. In addition to advanced directives, it is time for our country to do its own studies, lead discussions, and document the debate on dying well.

Maria Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Truth of Evolution Is Not Up for Debate

By Jeremy Fejfar, January 19, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

This month, Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, debated Bill Nye, best known by his TV persona, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” The topic was whether “creation” is a viable model of origins.

It surprised many that Nye agreed to this debate. Generally scientists don’t agree to debate evolution with creationists. One reason is that having 2 individuals on stage gives the impression that both sides have valid stances, which is simply not the case on the subject of evolution. It is akin to having a geologist debate a flat-earther, or a historian debate a holocaust-denier.

Over 97% of scientists accept the truth of evolution, and an even higher percentage among scientists in life or earth sciences. The only substantial disagreement is among the general population. In 2006, a poll of 34 countries showed that the US embarrassingly ranked second to the bottom with only 40% acceptance of evolution. I find it interesting that people naturally defer to the expertise of physicists when dealing with the behavior of neutrinos and quarks, geologists when dealing with plate tectonics, or virologists when deciding which immunizations they should get, yet many think they know better than biologists and geneticists when the topic of evolution comes up. Suddenly arm-chair biologists believe they are more qualified to have an opinion on these matters than those who have spent decades steeped in the relevant science.

What is biological evolution? Simply put, it is change over time. During DNA replication, sometimes mistakes are made. This is often referred to as mutation. These can take the form of additions, deletions, or duplications to the DNA. These mutations can be neutral, disadvantageous, or advantageous to the procreation of the organism. This is called natural selection, a natural process which acts as a sieve, whereby the organisms most fit to reproduce will propagate those beneficial genes to a greater extent, and over long spans of time, these incremental changes accumulate leading to sometimes drastic changes. It’s an incredibly simple process which yields wondrous complexity.

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” There are many videos available for free online that explain why it is certain that evolution occurs, and more specifically, that humans and other primates evolved from a common ancestor. Comparative anatomy, embryology, geological distribution of species, fossil record, radiometric dating, and genetics are just a few of the disciplines that use independent lines of evidence to converge on the same conclusion – that all life on this planet is interrelated, and that the variety of life observed in the biome is due to evolution over hundreds of millions of years.

All of the justifiable doubt that may have been present around the time of Darwin has now been displaced by the science of genetics. The process of mutation and natural selection leaves behind a trail in the DNA of every organism as to its lineage. In much the same way that geneticists can confirm the parentage of a child with essentially 100% certainty, so too can we do the same thing with different species. By looking at the genetic code, we know without any doubt that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor around 6 million years ago. Genetic evidence such as the fusion of Chromosome 2, the broken vitamin C gene, shared Endogenous Retroviruses, etc., all point to the truth of our lineage.

During the debate, Ken Ham frequently argued that since nobody observed it, science cannot prove evolution or the age of the earth. It’s a good thing that police detectives don’t have the same opinion; otherwise, no murderer would ever be prosecuted in the absence of witnesses. In fact, almost every investigator you ask will tell you they would rather have genetic evidence linking a suspect to a crime than a witness.

When we look at the genetics between related species, the presence of the genetic evidence only has 2 possible explanations – either evolution is true, or some being created all organisms to look exactly like they had evolved over millions of years. These are the only two possibilities. It is not possible that the wealth of genetic markers attesting to the truth of evolution could be present by chance alone.

As prominent biologist Ken Miller, who also happens to be Catholic, wrote, “In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, [creationists] have had to make Him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan. Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues…To embrace that God, we must reject science and worship deception itself.”

While it is unlikely that Nye changed the minds of anyone in the audience during the debate, I do long for the day where the scientific literacy of our country is no longer the source of international embarrassment.

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Do Unto Others

By Hank Zumach, January 19, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

It will not surprise the regular readers of these columns that I have serious theological disagreements with the major religions. It may surprise, even shock, readers that I do agree with the teachings of Jesus Christ on basic social issues and what Catholic Pope Francis has recently advocated. If you are wondering how that can be, please consider that every functional society has the same basic social values of not allowing its citizens to starve to death, or to die from lack of shelter, or suffer from lack of medical treatment for common illnesses or injury. Some readers may need to be reminded that Freethinkers have a wide range of viewpoints on economics and politics and their economic status varies from poor to very wealthy. I know the same is true of religious believers. I recognize that some non-theist readers will strongly disagree with some of my following comments but this is one Freethinker’s Perspective on the political scene in today’s America.

I am writing about this because it should be obvious to everyone that, while some denominations maintain important assistance programs, the large majority of religious denominations pay little more than lip service to using their extensive financial resources to help the poor. Because our Constitution requires the separation of church and state, religions do not have to disclose financial information to the government. This makes it impossible to gather uncontested data on how much money religions take in and how it is spent. However, the generally accepted research that has been done shows that 70% to 75% of the income to religions goes to such things as building and maintaining churches, ministers’ salaries and housing, Sunday schools, full time schools, the occasional shrine, and various support staff such as assistant ministers, office staff, etc. None of those expenses are required to meet the teachings of Jesus Christ.

In fact, here in the United States in recent years some Christian leaders have encouraged their denomination’s members to support political organizations and candidates who advocate policies that will cause more people to be homeless, poorly fed, and unable to get basic medical care. This process began years ago when a few very wealthy people (the most well known are the Koch brothers) came together and outlined a plan to significantly increase their political influence. Recognizing the need to get politicians elected to office who would support their goals, they realized that they could most easily garner the necessary votes of people whose primary focus is on single contrived issues such as “attacking family values,” “killing babies,” “the War on Christmas,” “restoring America to a Christian nation,” and “the government attacking Christianity.” This long running campaign promotes the idea of “keeping the government out of our lives.” What this means to some of the economic elite is that they should be free to do whatever it takes to make even more money and have more control over the political process. By their values, laws about minimum wage, industrial pollution and other environmental damages, the right of workers to unionize, gender discrimination, and workplace safety, should be eliminated.

The Catholic Church, and some of its members, is morally opposed to any form of birth control. But how is it possible that its leaders oppose the entire Affordable Care Act since the enactment of the law will help treat the illnesses of many who will otherwise suffer or die? Why don’t the leaders of the various other Christian denominations take strong public positions supporting the Affordable Care Act? Why are the religious leaders silent about efforts to cut off unemployment benefits and greatly reduce the food stamp program? Why don’t they advocate for publicly financed shelters for our homeless population?

Shouldn’t the various denominations come together to pool their resources to develop and start actual, effective programs for the poor? If they did, there would be much less need for government run programs. Apparently their often arcane theological differences are more important than meeting the simple social teachings of the man they claim is the Son of God.

It seems appropriate to remind everyone that religious denominations are subsidized by the general society. Donations to churches are tax deductible. Churches are exempt from property and sale taxes. Churches receive free government services such as police and fire protection, street and sidewalk maintenance. These free services are justified by the argument that religions help the needy. If that is true, I suggest that religions that want to receive these free services should open their financial records to the public. If they are following the basic social commandments of Jesus there should be no reason to object.

If the leader of a group of Freethinkers, and perhaps the majority of non-theists, can support values of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Pope, can’t we all just agree to treat the unfortunate the way we would want to be treated?

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Has This Debate Run Its Course?

By Mike Dishnow, November 24, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

A learned and respected community member opined to me that the continuing debate between the atheists and theists in the tribune is perplexing. The members of his mainstream Christian congregation were so very different from those portrayed in this column. There are many who accept modern science and medicine, are comfortable with the theory of evolution, and are tolerant and accepting of individuals who differ. This individual felt that many find solace and value in the rituals and community of their respective churches. The parishioners seek a higher calling or standard to guide and add meaning to their lives.

Perhaps, it is time to look at the similarities between mainstream Christians and mainstream Atheists. Are we more alike than different, as I proposed in an earlier column? I think the answer is a resounding YES.

How do we believe we should treat other human beings? Is there a difference in the teachings of Jesus Christ of the Christian Bible and the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama? I chose this simple comparison because the followers of Jesus consider him a deity while the followers of the Buddha consider him a teacher. Whether I love my neighbor as myself or I practice compassion and offer a helping hand to all sentient beings, it is the “Golden Rule” I am following.

In expanding this thought to Secular Humanism, I will find another version of the Golden Rule. Indeed, all the major theisms (religions) of the world and the major philosophical schools, both east and west, place the Golden Rule at the base of an ethical pyramid.

In Confucianism, order and harmony are the key values. In the United States, we long for a lawful and ordered society in which to raise our families and live out our lives. If you talk to a traditional follower of Islam, you will hear the same desire for a fulfilling life based on the same key values.

It is likely that the attitudes and worldviews within the local Christian community, and within the local Freethinker community, vary more than those between the two communities do. A holistic approach would reveal the same desire for a meaningful life in each community: family, good health, education for the children, good job opportunities for the adults, safety on the streets, and a clean environment. Humans have the same basic needs. Spirituality, when defined as a worldview or philosophy, is common to all as well.

I would advance the thesis, offered by the community member mentioned at the beginning of this essay, that the real difference between people is attitudinal: How they treat other people. It is not the worldview, theistic or non-theistic, that precipitates the behavior of a person towards others. Their basic temperament is a factor, but their free will allows them to choose their attitudes.

A legitimate question to ask an atheist or agnostic is this: what does your worldview have to offer others? Do not allow answers that compare them to those holding different worldviews. Simply, what do you have to offer? Ask the same question to the professing Christian, Buddhist or Muslim.

When the discussion is on a positive path, ask how the person’s answers fit into the larger community. How do we work together for the greater good? Discussion is good, issues are real, conflict is sometimes inevitable – cooperation and understanding are essential to moving forward.

We should be talking to one another. The goal should be mutual understanding and respect with an eye to improving the community in which we co-exist. But I may be a dreamer. As John Lennon sang:

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one”

There are numerous ways we can work together to help our community. The food pantries are always in need of volunteers and donations. In August, I saw TV ads calling for donations for school supplies. The list is open-ended.

I would love to see a joint column, co-authored by a local atheist and local theist, of a collaborative benefit to aid the needy in our midst. Maybe it would be a call to end bullying in our schools. Our children badly need role models, especially those of differing views working together.

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Was There Really a Christmas Star?

By Ed Neumann, December 22, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Although the Star of Bethlehem looks good on a Christmas card, what was this portentous luminary and how did it direct wise men to the little Judean hamlet?

One might suppose the birth of the Jewish Messiah had been recorded in all four canonical gospels, but this is not the case. Mark, the earliest gospel, is strangely silent on the subject, as is John. And though Luke mentions certain early events, he says nothing about the Star, Magi, Jesus’ Nativity, Herod’s slaughter of infants, or a flight to Egypt. It turns out the anonymously penned gospel we call Matthew is the only source we have for these events.

In fact, Luke and Matthew don’t agree on much. Not only do they list completely different ancestral lineages for their savior, their disagreement as to the year of his birth is irreconcilable. Luke claims he was born during the census of Quirinius (6 – 7 AD), whereas Matthew has it during King Herod’s reign (37 – 4 BC). This is a discrepancy of at least nine years.

However, if we want to explore the origins of Matthew’s Star of Bethlehem, we’ll stick with his timeline — sometime just before 4BC.

Early on, most believers were content to call the Star a miracle. But over the last few centuries, rationalists sought to identify the Star with an actual stellar phenomenon — something natural rather than supernatural. In his book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, physicist Aaron Adair outlines and evaluates the various hypotheses put forward.

Among the explanations were meteors, ball lightning, and even UFOs. But three phenomena stand out as most likely to rise in the east and be interpreted by Persian Magi (Zoroastrian priests) as astrologically significant. Fortunately, the Chinese, among others, kept meticulous records of stellar events during the period.

Nova: The Chinese recorded none of these exploding stars during Matthew’s time window.

Comet: The Chinese witnessed a particularly long-tailed “broom star” in 5BC. Even so, comets were almost universally interpreted as bad omens, more apt to portend the death of a king than the birth of one.

Planetary conjunction: Much ado has been made of the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC. But the Babylonians thought such a conjunction signified war and hostility, and the Magi’s Avesta literature doesn’t mention them at all.

In agreement with Matthew, these stellar phenomena rise in the east. But so far, there is no compelling argument for an astronomical or meteorological phenomenon that would induce eastern sages to travel to Judea seeking a Jewish king. And that’s not the only problem.

According to Matthew, after the Magi spoke to Herod in Jerusalem, the Star led them south to Bethlehem where, and the Greek is abundantly clear here, it “stood over” where the child was. Matthew employs the word epano, which implies not just above, but hovering directly over in close proximity. As Augustine interpreted it, the Star left the sky and came down to the newborn! Real astral events don’t do this.

Another problem is that Matthew’s Nativity narrative is not independently attested by any contemporary writer. Even Herod’s court historian, Nicolas of Damascus, who wrote a history of the world right up to Herod’s death, neglected to record these events. In fact, there are exactly zero corroborating reports about the Star or a slaughter of innocents.

So if not actual events, what could have influenced the details of Matthew’s story?

We know Greco-Roman writers invented similar yarns with prophecies of coming rulers, miraculous signs, and attempts on an infant savior’s life by the reigning king. Such tales were told of Perseus, Hercules, Zoroaster, Romulus, Alexander and Augustus.

A massacre of infants occurred in the legends of Sargon, Nimrod, Krishna and Moses. And versions exist in which a star heralded the births of both Abraham and Moses. By the time Matthew wrote, these motifs were cliché.

But the Old Testament may have been his biggest influence. Matthew often cites Scripture to show how his narrative “fulfills prophecy.” Consider Numbers 24:17, “A star shall rise out of Jacob, a scepter out of Israel.” Isaiah 60 speaks of eastern kings coming to the rising light of Israel bringing gold and frankincense! Matthew also blends Micah 5:2 (a promised ruler from Bethlehem) and 2 Samuel 5:2 into a contrived quotation to arrive at the connection he wants.

Moreover, we read details only an omniscient narrator could know — the mental state and agitation of Herod, the private conversation between Herod and the Magi, and the Magi’s dream.

In the end, the only record we have of the Star comes from an anonymous figure reworking scriptural passages perhaps a century after the purported events, relating a tale that reads like myth, not history. Rather than a miracle or stellar event, the Star of Bethlehem is best explained as a literary creation. Not only is it historically untenable, but it bears all the earmarks of fiction.

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The Lives of Saviors Conform to a Hero Narrative

By Ed Neumann, October 27, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

People have always held deep convictions about “bigger-than-life-heroes,” saviors who would appear at their darkest hour and, wielding supernatural powers, right what is wrong. These beliefs are ubiquitous and cross-cultural. Unfortunately, they are rarely based on reality.

Today, such superheroes are largely found in comic books. However, there are the occasional real people who, over time, accumulate legends of their exploits — certain Catholic saints, for example; leaders like Kim Jon Il, who scored eleven holes-in-one the first time he played golf; or former vice president Al Gore, who invented the internet singlehandedly!

Despite being rated the second most admired woman in America in a 1945 national survey, Betty Crocker never actually existed. The same goes for Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Ronald MacDonald. These corporate mascots were invented as part of modern business marketing. Like the legend of King Arthur, a life story was often fabricated making them seem all the more real.

Saviors in the ancient world, however, tended to conform to a hero narrative. One such narrative is known as the Rank-Raglan hero mythotype. Named for Otto Rank and Lord Raglan, the two scholars who first described it, the mythotype is a list of 22 traits or incidents which occur with regularity in hero myths of most western cultures:

1) Mother is a virgin
2) Father is king or rightful heir
3) Hero’s parents are related
4) Circumstances of conception are unusual
5) Hero is reputed to be the son of a god
6) An attempt is made to kill him as an infant
7) He is spirited away from assassins
8) Reared in a foreign land by foster parent(s)
9) Little is reported about his childhood
10) Upon reaching adulthood, he returns to future kingdom
11) Before taking throne, he battles and defeats a great adversary
12) Crowned or hailed as king
13) Marries princess, queen, or relative of his predecessor
14) Reigns uneventfully for a time
15) Promulgates laws
16) Loses favor of gods or subjects
17) Driven from throne / land
18) Mysterious events occasion his death
19) Dies at top of hill
20) Body goes missing
21) No children succeed him
22) He has one or more holy sepulchers

In his 1936 book, The Hero, Raglan notes that historical figures rarely achieved more than six of these traits. Even Alexander, Caesar Augustus, and Mohammed with all their legendary accretions couldn’t manage half.

For those heroes who meet more than half of the Rank-Raglan criteria, a special category exists. Historian Richard Carrier, who refers to the hero narrative as “the fable of the divine king,” finds fifteen ancient figures who make the grade, fulfilling twelve or more of the elements. They are listed below with their R-R score:

Oedipus (21)
Theseus (20)
Moses (20)
Jesus (20)
Dionysus (19)
Romulus (18)
Perseus (18)
Hercules (17)
Bellerophon (16)
Jason (15)
Zeus (15)
Osiris (14)
Pelops (13)
Asclepius (12)
Joseph, son of Jacob (12)

Many pre-Christian heroes, who may or may not have made the above list, were considered savior gods, preexistent beings who incarnated as miracle-workers. Some even “fulfilled prophecy” as Buddha, Krishna and Zoroaster were thought to have done. The death and resurrection of the Thracian god Zalmoxis assured followers of eternal life. And those baptized into the Osiris cult were saved in the afterlife.

Notably, every one of the fifteen was at one time regarded as a historical person. That is, each had been placed in a historical context and was believed to have been an actual divine or semi-divine being who lived on earth. Each would have had followers willing to kill and die for them.

Yet, it would be exceedingly improbable for any living person to have made the list. None of the Egyptian, Greek, or Roman demigods listed are now thought to have existed. And, according to Dr. Carrier, most mainstream scholars think Joseph and Moses were purely legendary characters as well.

That leaves only Jesus, who, when the Gospel of Matthew is taken into account, scores 20. However, if we use only Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ score falls to 14, on par with Osiris. In other words, Matthew, who is known to have copied 90% of Mark’s Gospel nearly verbatim, further “legendized” Jesus’ narrative, making him appear even more of an archetypal hero.

So, like modern corporate mascots, ancient god-men were often invented and embellished for religious marketing.

“People sought to create unity by fabricating ‘historical’ founders and rallying around their sayings and deeds,” says Carrier in his upcoming book, On the Historicity of Jesus. “Their actual existence was not a requirement, and indeed might have been more of a detriment. But belief in their existence was a must for the story to have a powerful authoritative impact.”

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