Jessica Ahlquist - A Youthful Profile in Courage in Defense of the Constitution's Establishment Clause

by Don on January 14th, 2012
in Religion

Can you recall a time in your youth when you stood up to a bully,  objected to a convention that seemed unfair or took an unpopular position - and persisted in what you viewed as a quest for justice despite strong opposition from peers and adults? If so, good on you. Doing such a thing was never easy or comfortable growing up - and it remains challenging today, as an adult. It takes courage to defend what you believe is right, to stand on principle, when the majority is overwhelmingly against you.

In his book "Sincerely," the recently late Andy Rooney wrote, I'd be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn't believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don't think it does.

Religious people are sometimes very unnice when they seek to promote their beliefs in the public square. Yet, the bad behavior of some Christians often reveals the presence of a few admirable cases of heroic behavior. All who support the Constitution's protection against compulsory religion can find inspiration in instances of courageous resistance to public piety.

One case where the Christian religion utterly failed the Andy Rooney acceptance test occurred recently in Rhode Island. A 16 year-old  high school sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist took exception to a prayer banner in a public school auditorium. Unfortunately, the no-so-nice Christian defenders of the prayer banner subjected Miss Ahlquist to a flood of hatred, harassment and violent threats. They were outraged by the young woman's support of the Constitutional principle of church/state separation.

You can read a full account of the case and the vitriol associated with Christian behavior at the website Friendly Atheist. You might also want to watch a video interview about the incident and/or read the judge's ruling on the case (a resounding victory for Miss Ahlquist and the Constitution) here.

While the behavior of Miss Ahlquist's peers raised to be good Christians was lamentable, bad behavior by teens is not so shocking. What percentage of young people can be expected to exbibit common decency or to resist established customs? Moral courage is not the norm with insecure, conformist adolescents. But adults? We expect more. Consider what Adam Lee of Daylight Activism wrote about the Rhode Island teachers, parents, school officials and the Christian community that lashed out, threatened and ostracized the banner-protesting student: Their obnoxious public displays of religious beliefs did not improve their moral sentiments, it only multiplied their viciousness toward those who don't wear expected marks of tribal conformity ... What the religious bullies want is to force conformity - to make everyone think and behave like they do.

Let's draw at least two lessons from this situation: 1) Celebrate moral courage at every opportunity. A few freethinking organizations are doing exactly that in support of Miss Ahlquist and a few other young people who have taken stands against Christian assaults on the establishment clause; and 2) consider that you are never too old to do the right thing. You may not get a college scholarship (or want or need one) but, win or lose in the near term, you will almost surely feel good about doing the right thing.

Stay well.

Senator Bernie Sanders, American Hero, Offers A Constitutional Amendment

by Don on January 3rd, 2012
in Politics

The U.S. Congress is one of the sorriest institutions in America, with an approval rating that rivals al-Qaeda. Yet, it does contain a few members who embody the best qualities we have any right or reason to wish for in politicians. One such senator stands above the rest - Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont.

Sanders served four terms as Burlington?s mayor beginning in 1981 when he was first elected in a landslide - no less than ten votes more than his opponent. He has shown a particular interest in the widening wealth gap in America, now greater than at any time since the Great Depression. His other priorities include reversing global warming, universal health care, fair trade policies, supporting veterans and preserving family farms. He serves on five Senate committees: Budget; Veterans; Energy; Environment; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

I almost got to have dinner with the Senator last August at the home of a wealthy donor while visiting Vermont, but the person invited who was planning to bring me along as his guest (I was staying at his home during the national championship triathlon) declined the invitation at the last minute. He was concerned that the event and after-dinner speeches might interfere with his sleep and other preparations for the big race, scheduled for early the next morning.  C?est dommage.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court?s infamous Citizens United decision. His Saving American Democracy Amendment would undo the damage caused by that grotesque 5 to 4 ruling by the Right Wing element of the Court by setting forth the following self-evident but not presently recognized principles:

  • Corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people.
  • Corporations are subject to regulation by the people.
  • Corporations may not make campaign contributions or any election expenditures.
  • Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign finances.

The Supreme Court decision that necessitated this initiative by Senator Sanders is supported by other sensible politicians, as evidenced by the following statements:

  • President Barack Obama:

 "... the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."
  • Justice John Paul Stevens: "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Courtıs disposition of this case. In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The majorityıs approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress has placed special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907. The Court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution."
  • Justice Elena Kagan (then Solicitor General): "When corporations use other people's money to electioneer, that is a harm not just to the shareholders themselves but a sort of a broader harm to the public that comes from distortion of the electioneering that is done by corporations."
  • Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield:

 "I'm Ben, I'm a person. I'm Jerry, I'm a person. Ben & Jerry's ice cream? Not a person."
  • Russ Feingold: 

"Citizens United was so extreme that unless we take action to stop it, America will return to the Gilded Age -- on steroids."
  • Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.):

 "We are not going to let this decision to go unchallenged...At a time when Americans are worried about special interests having too much influence, this decision opens up the floodgates and allows special interest money to overflow elections and undermine our democracy."

"If there's one thing that Americans from the left, right and center can all agree on, it's that they don't want more special interests in our politics."
  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) 

"This decision enables larger financial interests to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens, allows foreign corporations to spend money through their domestic subsidiaries, and permits major recipients of taxpayer dollars to funnel these funds into political activities."

Three cheers for Bernie Sanders, American hero. Let?s do what we can to support this needed Constitutional reform. Start by signing the petition in support of this amendment at the senator's website. Over 121,000 have done so at this writing.

How the 2012 Candidates for President Rate from a REAL Wellness Perspective

by Don on December 22nd, 2011
in Politics

Visitors to the Wellness Center and especially to Don?s Blog have a special interest in a candidate's positions on matters that affect their philosophy and lifestyle passions. They want to help elect a president, for instance, who will work for a society that makes it more likely that they and other citizens can pursue and sustain high quality lifestyles. REAL wellness enthusiasts all value freedom, reason, science and respect for and cultivation of clean, safe environments that promote sustainability of resources. Like most progressive Americans, wellness seekers favor fiscal responsibility, common decencies, separation of church and state, support for fairness and opportunities  for all.

REAL wellness supporters are not organized enough to sponsor presidential debates or to send interviewers to probe the views of presidential contenders. There is not a single REAL wellness PAC, unless you suspect that Stephen Colbert might be a secret agent or Trojan Horse for Wellness Nation. Thus, it is not so easy to see how candidates measure up relative to each other on vital matters of concern.

However, sometimes we get lucky. And guess what? We just got lucky.

Actually, it?s not so much luck as it is common cause that has given REAL wellness enthusiasts a golden opportunity to discover just how the 2012 presidential candidates rate on a good number of vital concerns shared by REAL wellness advocates.

The Secular Coalition for America has unveiled its 2012 Presidential Candidate Scorecard. The scorecard is also a valuable guide for REAL wellness-oriented citizens to understand where those who seek to lead the nation stand on key issues. 

The scorecard assesses the Republican Party candidates for president and Democratic president Barack Obama on nine issues. All were assigned grades of "A", "B", "C" or "F" based on their public statements and actions on these nine subjects, which are as follows:

  • Attitude toward non-theists.
  • Church and state separation.
  • Taxpayer funding of religion.
  • God, faith and governance.
  • Endorsements and associations.
  • Acceptance of evolution.
  • Scientifically-based regulations and legislation.
  • Religious discrimination and civil rights.
  • Religious refusal laws.

Not surprisingly, U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry were rated ?F? in every category; U.S. Senator Rick Santorum also received ?F? grades in all categories save one. (On attitude toward non-theists, he got a ?C.?) Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and U.S. Representative Ron Paul received mostly negative scores, while former U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich received ?F? grades in almost every category. Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and President Barack Obama received mixed positives.

To read a wide variety of comments that earned the candidates these ratings, visit the Center for Free Inquiry?s Presidential Scorecard.

God may or may not save the Queen but only reason and an informed electorate holds out much hope for the leadership of the not-so-united United States of America after the next presidential elections in 2012.

Reflections on Christopher Hitchens, Existence, Space, Time and Voyager 1

by Don on December 16th, 2011
in General Wellness

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is dead? long live our memory of the man and his works. A freethinker, he was a champion of reason and a debunker of frauds, among them the sainted but truly dreadful Mother Theresa. Rather than being a friend of the poor, as admirers of her charities believed, she was, wrote Hitchens, a friend of poverty who saw suffering as a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

Hitchens considered himself an antitheist. He viewed organized religion as the main source of hatred and tyranny in the world. Faith is a virus, he asserted. Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It's our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.

In Hitchens honor, I think I will reread his masterwork God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was only 62. His death, as with any death, reminds us of our own mortality. We're here and gone in the blink of an eye in a cosmic sense, so welcome every breath. As we reflect on the death of this man, ponder for a moment the end of all men, women and earth itself - and tip your hat to a spacecraft called Voyager 1, which might outlast everything we've ever known.

About five billion years from now, when our life-giving sun begins to die, that great star will enlarge and engulf the Earth. Everything will be annihilated. Not a trace of anything of this planet, save for Voyager 1 and its companion Voyager 2, will exist.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 (and 2) have explored Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's moon Titan, Uranus and Neptune. Now Voyager 1 is exiting the solar system, embarked on an interstellar mission, the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. Voyager is leaving the heliosphere, the region of our galaxy ruled by the sun, our ultimate energy source. We'll get signals from Voyager until 2025, when the craft will need a battery change - no chance of that.

Voyager 2In an essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Voyager Heads for the Stars (Opinion, December 10, 2011), Lawrence Krauss puts space - time in perspective: In 40,000 years, Voyager will travel within 1.6 light years of another star...In about 300,000 years, it will pass within four light years or so of Sirius, the brightest star that can be seen from could continue to travel for billions of years, circling the galaxy much as our sun does on its 200-million-year orbit around the galactic center.

Hitchens is gone, we're all lined behind him lining up for the exits and, in distant but certain time, this good earth and the solar system it inhabits will be gone, too. Voyager, however, will still be out there, silent in the vast unknowable realm of wonder. It will last for many billions of additional years, easily.

Perhaps, before Voyager eventually decomposes at some time-era unimaginable to us, the visual images, music and data packed into it by humans on a planet from a solar system long evaporated will be discovered by intelligent life forms. Perhaps Voyager's contents will inform such beings about the Earth that was inhabited for a spell by Christopher Hitchens and you and I, and those we love who loved us. Perhaps, as Krauss muses, these artifacts will give a sense that we knew we were lucky to exist for a brief time on a cosmic speck, instead of suffering under the solipsistic notion that we somehow reigned supreme in a universe created for us.

Thank you Christopher Hitchens. Thank you engineers, poets and all who had the vision, wisdom, eloquence and determination to design, load and send the Voyagers on their way to eternity, of a sort.

The Number One Cause of Illness Is That So Many People Choose Badly

by Don on December 7th, 2011
in General Wellness

The wellness movement has been going full tilt for half a century. If there is one single message that everyone associated with it would agree upon and would almost surely have communicated in every speech or article written, it is this: lifestyle matters. The choices we make concerning habit patterns, such as how often and how vigorously to exercise, what kinds of foods to eat, what practices to follow or avoid re drinking and so on, affect quality of life as much as or more than any of the other key determinants, namely genetics, environment and medical care.

Now comes a headline story at the BBC Health News website (December 7, 2011) by reporter Michelle Roberts entitled, "healthy habits reduce risk of cancer."

Wow. What a revelation. Notice that the emphasis is on cancer suffered from bad behavior, not optimal well-being enjoyed due to healthy lifestyle choices.

In the BBC article, reporter Roberts notes that about half of the UK's cancer cases are related to ill-chosen lifestyles, specifically, unwise health-destroying choices of a behavioral nature. These erroneous ways include but are not limited to smoking, excessive drinking and food choices that increase the incidence of illness and disease. Tobacco use, too little consumption of fruits and vegetables and excess weight are the leading agents of dysfunction. In addition to the BBC piece, this news was also seen as newsworthy enough to be included in the British Journal of Cancer.

How, you may wonder, did the BBC or study organizers decide that this obvious fact, long acknowledged by those familiar with health issues, was headline worthy? The answer is simple: While all the experts know that lifestyle choices, if ill-made, cause illness (and, if wisely made, promote positive well-being), the masses still don't get it. Or at least it can be asserted that the public is assumed not to realize this self-evident fact, based upon the way most people live - and suffer. The top scientist who led the study that proved the obvious said as much in an interview with the BBC reporter:
"Many people believe cancer is down to fate or 'in the genes' and that it is the luck of the draw whether they get it. Looking at all the evidence, it's clear that around 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change."

Don't you want to shake these people? I do, but I can't. There are too many of them.

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