Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Trinity Lutheran v. Comer means we have work to do

Today I put on my hat as chair of the Boston Atheists steering committee. Here follows my ninety seconds of soapboxing on the subject of today's SCOTUS decision.

If the government can't be trusted to recognized and defend the separation of church and state, secular communities, organizations and individuals are going to have to focus and redouble our efforts to make that separation relevant. We have to make the case that such a separation is in the interest of all persons living in our society; and we have to show people that political secularism is the necessary counterpart to social pluralism. Roll up those sleeves, folks; there's work to do.

A good analogy can be made to the displays on the courthouse lawn. SOCAS indicates that the government either allows ALL organizations representing a worldview stance -- for whatsoever flavor of theism or nontheism you can imagine -- to plant their sectarian displays on the lawn, or it refers all of them to private land, leaving the public space open, uncluttered by the symbols of doctrinal vanity and competition.

If SCOTUS rules that SOCAS means "ALL are accommodated" (rather than "NONE" or "ALL or NONE"), then as secularists we better make damn sure that:

  1. The secular symbols we put on the lawn are the most awesome, vainglorious, stupendous and eye-catching possible; and that 
  2. Symbols of ALL sectarian positions, so that no worldview, by dint of its majority status or gamesmanship, chokes them out. That puts atheists on the side of all religious minorities in this fight.
In terms of inclusion, atheists have to be on the side of radical inclusiveness (until the government comes around to defending SOCAS in a robust fashion.) In terms of operation, however, atheists should be motivated to win.

While we work to legally neutralize these threats to SOCAS, we are going to have to try to outcompete theistic orgs in terms of operational prowess. 

If there's a government grant that a religious organization is eligible for, there's no excuse for secular people not to step up and make sure our orgs are not just eligible to receive that funding, but are by far the most qualified. 

We could even view this situation in a positive light. If we're called to step up and provide community and social services on par with those provided by theistic orgs, and we can out-compete those orgs for government funding, we'd be pulling off an interesting trick: for we'd be denying money to groups whose doctrines help to the dangerous ideas of supernaturalism, Hey, maybe we should thank Gorsuch for lighting a fire under our backsides!

Furthermore, we'd be directing money through channels that are welcoming of ALL -- no dogmatic requirements to receive help; no profession of faith needed; no litmus tests of belief. I've heard too many stories about soup-for-sermons at soup kitchens, of LGBTQ homeless persons turned away from religious shelters because of anti-gay prejudice, and so on.

To close out this post, let's go back quickly to the courthouse lawn. On the other hand, if SCOTUS rules that the preferred interpretation of SOCAS is "NONE" (or "ALL OR NONE"), then... great! Celebration time! We can enjoy our public spaces, without the cacophany of sectarian messaging, and keep our wits about us for some future time when religious privilege once more tries to claim an advantage for itself.

Given today's ruling, however, we'd be smart to begin gearing up for an ALL fight.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The difference between our banner, and their nativity scene

We've just learned that the Thomas More Society, a notorious anti-choice law firm supporting unconstitutional policies that privilege their preferred sectarian religious views, was successful in bullying the staff of the Massachusetts State House to go against their better judgment and allow the display of a nativity scene in the State House, for one day only. It does not seem a coincidence that their display is being blessed and unveiled on the same day that members of the Boston Atheists are putting their own holiday display up -- not on the secular grounds of the State House, but in the shared public space of Boston Common, beside the traditional seasonal displays of other faith traditions.

For background on this story, see this Boston Herald article.

Compare the Thomas More Society's grinch-ish actions, with their legal threats, to our own Boston Common banner, as described in this press release we put out earlier this week.

This is not the first time the leaders of Boston's secular community have shown a greater understanding of the spirit of the season than some of their theistic counterparts; but really, this is no crisis. Rep. Lyons of Andover, for whatever reason, decided 2016 was a good time to pander to voters who want to see their sectarian views privileged in the secular space of the State House. We don't believe this shows good judgement, but neither do we wish to see him pilloried for a bad call. (The Thomas More Society lawyers, on the other hand, can keep their anti-social and unconstitutional agenda out of our great Commonwealth, thank you.)

If the good Representative feels he must pursue a similar action next year, we'll not oppose him with anything so divisive as a lawsuit. Instead, we'll look to him to support our organization's efforts to place a celebratory statue of the Satanic Baphomet in the State House in the same week, if even for a single day. The values represented by Baphomet are ones we can ALL celebrate, whatever our philosophical views: the importance of pluralism; the importance of rationalism; and the ever-present need for there to be always in society persons with the courage to speak truth to power, including and perhaps especially in the form of blasphemy.

These are values truly in keeping with the spirit of the season... especially when compared to tactics like the threat of lawsuits. (We're looking at you, Thomas More Society. You darn Scrooges.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Wanted: a simple explanation of abiogenesis

On the right, science. On the left, incredulity.

On Sun, Nov 6, 2016, I awoke to find this email in my American Atheists mailbox, from a gentleman writing from India:

Dear Sir, 
Good day to you.
I would like to reintroduce myself as an independent researcher in philosophy and modern science. I gratefully acknowledge your previous evidence-based reply that helped me a lot to improve my critical thinking skills. 
Being an open-minded, unbiased researcher, it is my pleasure to share one of my concerns- as expressed below, hoping a satisfactory explanation: 
When we talk about consciousness, we all know that consciousness is the result of certain evolutionary arrangement of atoms. How can a specific 'collection of atoms' in the universe alone  'think', 'aware' and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence while all the sub-atomic particles in the universe are governed by the same laws of physics? 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects (obviously they are made up of atoms and atoms don't have any self-awareness and consciousness) , for example, a rock ( or any inorganic, non-living matter of choice ) of certain mass (Kg), when subjected to blind, unconscious, unplanned and unintelligent evolutionary forces of magnitude of certain Newtons (N) for trillion, trillion, trillions of years or even infinite time , the original rock will become 'self-aware' in such a way that now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?

Is there any logical fallacy in looking beyond the theory of abiogenesis?

Appreciate your kind feedback.
Please ignore and forgive me if this e-mail is an offence.

Thanks and regards,
F---- V----- P----------,
Electrical Engineer,
When I read his question -- 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects... when subjected to blind evolutionary forces... will become 'self-aware'?
-- I was tempted to write in reply, simply, "1.0", reflecting the 100% plausibility of the emergence of consciousness from non-living precursors, in light of the evidence of the physical world around us and the conscious being (myself) typing in response. I decided in the end to give him a less trivial reply. 

For your reading pleasure, here is my Sunday morning armchair musing on abiogenesis, and the emergence of thinky out of rocky, and all that jazz. 

Dear F----: 
Excellent to hear from you. I'll copy you from my personal email account, so our conversation doesn't clutter up my official inbox.  
Let me address out two points I see in your message that create a lot of confusion. 
The first objection I have has to do with your analogy likening the emergence of consciousness to a rock manifesting the ability to think. This is an error of analogy, akin to an error in understanding what is meant BY abiogenesis, and indeed, by consciousness.  
No theory of abiogenesis posits that a solid solitary object (such as: a rock!) would within its own geological lifetime undergo such physical changes that allow it eventually to think, while also retaining its identity AS a rock. 
Abiogeneis as it is currently conceived is not a local phenomenon that occurs WITHIN an ecology -- today you have no life, and tomorrow, there it is, there is life, isolated and localized within, and somehow separate from, the ecology. Rather, abiogeneis is a process that occurs over geological timescales, and in a manner distributed throughout systems that span an entire ecology. Further, it is conceived of as an incremental process, with manifold different simultaneous instantiations.  
The popular image of abiogenesis as having to do with a puddle of slime on a rocky shore, as isolated in its reaction space as a glass beaker in a lab, is wildly misleading. Although there needs to be a certain degree of concentration of reagents and stock materials, and a certain patterning to the encounters different chemical (and eventually, biological!) materials undergo, this does not bear comparison to the slime puddle image. Things are altogether more dynamic, and take place at scales that are at the same time much smaller (microscopic clay templating! RNA self-catalysis!) and much larger (ocean depth gradients of iron- and sulfur-bearing isoclines! or, according to a different model, iuron- and sulfur-bearing surface deposits such as those surrounding ocean floor vents).  
In other words, I fear that your metaphor of abiogenesis operates at the wrong levels of scale, and with the wrong impression of dynamism. 
The other point I'd wish to address briefly, in response to your kind invitation, has to do with your presentation of the concept of "consciousness." This, like abiogenesis, is a complicated subject which is sometimes disfavored by limiting metaphors. 
You write:  
now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?
This, on its surface, sounds like a plainly ludicrous proposition. But I'd never describe consciousness in this manner. Instead, I might translate your description this way:
the original rock may be subjected to the processes of weathering and erosion, such that it is reduced to sediment. The minerals and chemicals which constituted that rock are now available to circulate in the (aqueous, likely) ecosystem, where they may be involved in chemical reactions we believe to be preliminary to the abiotic formation of biological monomers, such as carbon fixation, chemical reduction, or (to give a more complex example), pyramidine formation.  
Over time, an ecology which has produced biological monomers, may enter into a state of conditions conducive to the formation of biological polymers, some of which are self-catalyzing. The abiogenesis really heats up then!
An ecology which features concentrations of self-catalyzing biological polymers may give rise to autocatalytic chemical networks and structures such as micelles and vesicles. These molecular-scale phenomena may interact and form more complex structures and systems, which we begin to recognize as rudimentary "proto-life."  
Over eons of chemical, and then biological, and then ecological, evolution, this proto-life may develop adaptive systems which "record" life experience, in the form of chemical changes in the cell, or taxic changes in behavior, or changes in genetic expression, or charge potential changes in nerve cells. As this system of record-keeping (memory, you could call it) becomes more sophisticated, the organism benefits from the ability to predict appropriate behavior for future conditions which resemble past conditions it has a record of. This is a significant part of what we call learning.   
The organism continues to become more sophisticated. But keep in mind, we aren't talking here about a single individual. We are speaking in evolutionary terms, so this change takes place over countless generations, across the somatic instances of countless individuals.  
Eventually, the learning/memory systems of the organism become so sophisticated, and recursive, and powerful, that the organism is able to model future potential behavior! This does bear comparison to the way that a computer program using patterns of charge distribution in an electronic system, to model the world of a computer game. We don't think there's anything magical about that, do we? Likewise, the pattern of charge distribution in the nervous system of the organism, are able to run a model of the world. And this model may contain sub-programs we can label as "thinking", "awareness", "reasoning about its own existence and its surroundings", "pondering the the laws of physics", "mulling over maths", "fiddling about with logical reasoning", "the drawing of conclusions", "the sense of justice", "a sense of purpose" , "a sense of existence", and "the experience of pain and sorrow."  
All of these thoughts and feelings are 1) simply patterns of charge distribution changing across the vastly complex representational network of a nervous system, and 2) amazing. 
Voila! From rock to mind. Now, I am kidding, of course. But I hope that my "translation" of your description of the origin of consciousness, even as briefly as I describe it, is enough to make the point I intend -- namely, that while there is so much that we have yet to measure, verify, and truly understand about the way life emerges from non-life, and how mind emerges from minerals, the nature of the mystery isn't, any longer, metaphysical, if we come to terms with the vast scales of complexity involved in a naturalistic explanation.  
Seen from a distance, the complexity of the naturalistic explanation may look supernatural. But we don't have to keep our distance. We can zoom in, get our hands and minds dirty, and engage with data, and models, and articles and animations and questions and answers, and so on, through the technology of information and communication which frees us from the backwaters of our ignorance as separate individuals. (That internet -- she's amazing.) 
Thank you for the stimulating questions; these were fun things to think about on a Sunday morning here in New England. 
With warm regards from Boston, 
Zachary "the Thinking Rock" Bos
Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists
To the extent that we atheists want to have our materialist apologetics in order, I think it would be useful to have a "best practices" way of responding to questions like, ah, but, rocks can't think, can they.

Do you have any suggestions for concise and accessible explanations of abiogenesis, of the sort we could share with persons like this Indian engineer when they have questions about the plausibility of that theory? I'd love to know what you recommend. (How great if there was a really brilliant YouTube animation going through this stuff... )

The graphic above, interestingly enough, comes from the blog of a Christian defending creationism as a plausible theory.

(Authored by Zachary Bos. Cross-posted from the Atheology blog.)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Priest defends priest, throws victim under the bus

(Boston Atheists Past President Zachary Bos, State Director of American Atheists, writes:)

So: I just found out that the priest who ran the parish my family was involved in when I was a teen, has been accused of the abuse of a male child at an archdiocese-run children's home. The abuse is alleged to have happened at just the time I was participating in teen programs at church: Bible study weekends, the Christmas passion play, youth group night, confirmation classes.*

Who is surprised? There have been many reports about child abuse in the Catholic church -- not to mention in Hare Krishna residential schools, and in the Orthodox Jewish community, and so on and so on. It's sad, and beyond sad it's maddening, that this kind of uncomfortable news comes as just more of the same.

Now: I have no personal knowledge of any abuse, and had no real rapport with the priest when I was involved in the church. The reason I thought to share this news item is not because of its (non-)connection with me, but because of what I found when I did a search for the church's response.

Here's an excerpt from yesterday's homily at the church I attended as a teen, and where the accused priest was stationed during the time is is alleged he abused a boy:
Father Jeremiah Murasso, Pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer Church from 1989-2003 has been accused of the abuse of a minor male child at Saint Francis Home in New Haven, CT. The abuse allegedly took place while Father Murasso was pastor here and was at the same time on the staff of Saint Francis Home. The alleged abuse would therefore have taken place during the mid-to-late 1990’s. According to established procedures he has been removed from all his duties as a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford. In short, right now he is in need of a friend. Former bookkeeper Barbara Mule has asked: If you were a parishioner of Saint Vincent Ferrer Parish during his years here and are in a position to attest to his good character, please take the time to write a letter to Archbishop Blair. The closer you were to Father Murasso the better. For instance, if you were in our parish during the late 1990’s and had a child who was in the CCD Program or was an Altar Server or was receiving the Sacraments, you are in an excellent position to comment on Father Murasso’s character. Please address your comments to: Archbishop Leonard P. Blair, 134 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT 06105.
That's the priest speaking to the congregation from the pulpit during Mass. Not with words of sympathy for the alleged victim and his family, or for all victims of childhood and sexual abuse; not with any commitment to transparency to see the process of investigation, stock-taking, and potential legal action through. Instead, he's focused only on helping the alleged abuser. Not a kind word for victims anywhere. Instead, he's asking for character endorsements for the accuser. Protect our own: that's his first priority. Is the child, potentially a victim of sexual abuse, not also a member of the community?

There's a real confusion of priorities here. But it doesn't stop there: the homily goes on cast doubt on the accuser's claims:
So what do I believe?  I believe this is about money.  Why?  Let me say this as nicely as I can.  People talk.  You are people; you talk.  In the past 12 years, many of you have spoken to me about this parish, its’ history and the priests who have served here.  You’ve told me what you’ve liked and what you haven’t liked.  . . . [But] in the 12 years I’ve served you, no one -- not one person -- has ever said anything bad about Fr. Murasso’s behavior around children.  No one -- not one person -- has ever said anything about having a suspicion about Fr. Murasso.  No one!  That’s why I believe this accusation is completely baseless and just about money.  This is what I will write to the Archbishop.  Let us pray that this one line from today’s Gospel spoken by Jesus enters Fr. Murasso’s ears and lands directly in his heart: "Do not be afraid; just have faith."
(Emphasis mine.) Lord knows that prayer is cheap -- but you couldn't spare even a little prayer for the boy? Even at the very end, after you'd prayed for your colleague, and asked your parishioners to write letters polishing his reputation? Shame on you, priest. You're supposed to do better than that: not because you are the special representation of a holy power, but because you're a congregational leader committed to the values of charity and community that define your role.

* * *
In the intellectual was one learns about such things, from the media and through second-hand sources, I was aware of how the Catholic Church closed ranks and defended its own when accused of misconduct. Now I have a more immediate connection to that detestable practice.

I sat through numerous homilies delivered by Murasso. My family's neighbors sat beside us. I am indignant, on their behalf, that the community leader tasked with ministering to their needs is defending his institution instead of his community. I hope that those community members don't stand for such hypocrisy. No community worth its salt would.

Some sources:

  1. "Priest who has served in New Haven, East Haven suspended over sex abuse claim at Waterbury school" (New Haven Register,  7/2/15)
  2. "Waterbury priest on leave after allegations of sex abuse" (, 7/2/15)
  3. "Priest accused of abuse" (Waterbury Republic-American, 7/2/15)

* Footnote: = Lest my atheist credentials be called into question, I'll share the unnecessary caveat that while I was eager for belonging and society during those years, at no point did I find myself experiencing anything corresponding to religious belief. It was only when I got to college that I encountered the word "atheist", and realized that I'd been harboring secret nonbelief! In the late 90s, though, there wasn't anything like the SSA for me to get involved with as a student, so I did the good Catholic thing, not knowing any better. I met a lot of good people there; and considered moral questions, and matters of myth, that were interesting, and which I wouldn't have had reason to grapple with otherwise; and there were opportunities for community service I couldn't find elsewhere. The theological education was worthless. Evidence: how else did I escape that training to become the ass-kicking atheist agitator I am today? Thanks for that, at least, Sister Susan, wherever you are.

Monday, June 01, 2015

On the feeling that life is meaningful

Time for Monday morning philosophizing!

Here's Sarah Perry (that is, the antinatalist* Sarah Perry, not the novelist Sarah Perry), writing in Every Cradle Is a Grave, making a point worth consideration about the role one's concept of "the meaning of life" plays in providing existential stability beyond the sum of its intellectual parts:
Subjectively, the feeling that life is meaningful - that there are ultimate values, that life has a purpose - tends to point to a source of meaning, something higher than and external to the mere feeling or intuition of meaning. While sources of meaning vary greatly (and often contradict each other), the sense and expectation of meaning itself is surprisingly universal - so universal that the intuition is almost never challenged. This very universality should motivate us to be cautious about taking meaning’s claims at face value. One should be suspicious of any claim that is defended for contradictory reasons, and most people who agree that life is meaningful disagree as to what makes it so. The belief that life is meaningful tends to take the form of a strong feeling rather than a reasoned conclusion; indeed, one of the functions of meaning is to shield a person from the harmful effects of reasoning by providing a value that is justified for its own sake, a foundational rock for cognition below which no “whys” need be answered. (p.31)

* * *

I rather appreciate that she begins with the acknowledgment that the feeling there is a meaning to life waiting to be discovered or articulated is just that: a feeling, rather than an empirically observable fact about the universe. It's a widespread feeling, to be sure, but even so I suspect no one here** or anywhere else has ever come across that big eff-off stone tablet, ten hundred feet tall, covered with big eff-off graven letters, spelling out the text of the cosmic meaning of life Mad Libs? "The meaning of life is __________ (insert noun) and to live one's life __________ (adverb). The best tips for this meaning of life can be found in __________ (book title)."

The publisher of Every Cradle Is a Grave has made a PDF of the entire book available for free download, here.
* * *

* The antinatalist is sometimes referred to as 'the wisdom of Silenus': "For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes."

** If you HAVE found such a tablet, feel free to spill the details. We may be skeptics, but in view of such evidence, I don't think we're so proud that we wouldn't revise our worldview as needed to admit the existence of some great eff-off cosmic Mad Libs publisher out there somewhere, leaving tablets around willy-nilly to remind us that there is a meaning to life waiting for us to fill in the right answer.

Monday, January 19, 2015

An atheist's thoughts about MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr, who preached nonviolence as an instrument to repudiate injustice, who helped initiate the civil rights movement in this country, who was assassinated in 1968, would have turned 86 this month. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Christian Science: Spiritual Stealing?

The Boston Atheists don't often 'shop up hoax photos, but when they do, they do it to put the screws to churches that kill kids:

(We're cross-posting this from Twitter; follow us there, why don't ya?)

To learn more about how the problematic history of Christian Science, religiously-motivated medical negligence, and lobbying efforts to preserve loopholes that permit such negligence, visit the site of CHILD: "Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty."