Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Absurdities of Christmas

I'm hardly the first free thinker, and I certainly won't be the last to note how gullible religious believers are in America, especially during the Christmas season. Yet it just never ceases to astound me how even intelligent people can give credence or even lip-service acknowledgment to such notions as virgin birth (a de-evolution to asexual reproduction) and the star of Bethlehem (the reduction of a sun, one of nature's true wonders and incomprehensibly large and intricate bodies) to the size and function of a super-trooper spotlight. Then of course there's the main character of this myth, a "savior" who would redeem mankind from "original sin" (another crackpot perspective about humanity which itself has done incredible harm to the progress of rational Western thinking, but that's a topic for another blog) who would later die and rise from the dead like a human phoenix. (BTW, if Jesus was the son of God, wouldn't that make Joseph one of the most famous cuckolds of all time?)

Then there's the designation of Christmas as a federal holiday (and I daresay on the state, county and municipal levels throughout America), which not only violates the separation of church and state but in doing so gives preference to a particular religion. Some might argue that with the popularization of such symbols and widespread customs as yule trees, parties, and Santa Claus, that this is now a secular holiday in America as well. But, folks, it's still Christmas ("Christ mass"), and here I would agree with the fundies that "Jesus is the reason for the season".

So I suggest that we make this a truly nonsectarian celebration by changing the date to December 21, the first day of winter, and renaming the holiday "Solstice". That way, come December 25, those who want to observe Christmas can do so privately in their own homes and churches and not impose their beliefs and rituals on others. Speaking of 12/25 as the birthday of Christ, was Jesus a “born-again Christian”? Western Christians celebrate his birthday on that date, but the Eastern Orthodox Church claims it was Jan. 6. How can that be? If he did perform miracles, popping out of Mary’s womb twice has to be the biggest one of all.

May there come a time when there truly is peace on Earth, good will and critical, rational thinking to men and women, the sooner the better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Remembrance of President Kennedy

It's hard to believe that 45 years have passed since President Kennedy was assasinated. November 22 (which was November 23 here in the Philippines) is a day that those of us who were at least old enough to understand the world around them will not forget.

It seems that in the last several years, much of what we have heard is the dark side of his personal life. But his flaws do not change the fact that Kennedy inspired a generation of Americans to become socially and politically involved. One such example was the Peace Corps, which was his creation. Another was the battle for integration and voting rights in the South, in which many students, white as well as black, who felt encouraged to become active by JFK's exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country".

So I can't help but wonder what would have happened if JFK had carried out his term (or terms). I like to think that he would have been rational enough to eventually see the folly of further involvement by America in Vietnam and would have reversed course. I don't think that he would have implemented the failed "guns and butter" policies of his VP successor, Lyndon Johnson, which is what led to the radicalization of the anti-war and the civil rights movements.

Today we have a president-elect whose youth, charisma, and ability to inspire others are similar to that of JFK. I only hope that Obama can deliver the goods. If he does, America will prosper in more ways than one, just as the country very possibly might have done under the uniterrupted presidency of John Kennedy.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Step Forward For American Atheists?

To put it mildly, I am over the moon that Barack Obama will be our next president and Joseph Biden our next vice-president, not only because their progressive positions defeated that angry old man McCain and his looney-tunes running mate Palin, but in doing so Obama has also placed the rabid Republicans in disarray—at least for the time being.

Moreover, Obama's win as a black man represents a giant step forward for American minority groups. As many others during the course of the campaign have pointed out, when Obama was born in 1961, African Americans were still struggling for the right to vote in many states. What a difference forty-seven years have made.

While the situation for atheists in America is not as dire as that of blacks in the segregation era, we are still not accepted as equals in society. For instance can you imagine what would happen if a professed non-believer ran for president?

But who has to imagine how even being labeled an atheist can hurt someone who is running for political office in America? A concrete example of such anti-atheist bigotry is an incident that occurred in and may have determined the outcome of the senate race in North Carolina. Candidate Kay Hagan sued the incumbent Elizabeth Dole for picturing Hagan as "Godless".

It wasn't enough for Hagan to just say that Dole was wrong (which she was) or to even challenge Dole to prove her assertion. Hagan was so insulted (or perhaps just pragmatically concerned that simply denying the label would cost her votes) that she filed a court action over the matter. In the end, Dole's "accusation" appears to have backfired because voters didn't believe her, and if that wasn't the sole reason that she lost the election, it certainly contributed to her defeat. Yet Dole apparently felt that given the negative image of atheism, this campaign tactic was a chance worth taking.

The point of this digression is that in America, especially in the South (no surprise) belief or non-belief in God is a obviously a major issue and being "accused" of atheism can be the kiss of death for a politician. Yet, although Obama is a religionist, I would like to think that the atmosphere for non-believers, secularists, and other advocates of rational thinking in America will be less toxic than what we have had to breathe through now, especially under the faith-based, theocon- dominated Bush administration. One basis for my cautious optimism is Obama's speech in 2006 , "Call to Renewal". Although this speech address deals with his belief about the importance of religion in the public sphere, at the same time Obama addresses pluralism as a fact of life in American society and the dangers of sectarianism.

In short, maybe—just maybe—Obama's victory has opened the door so that one day it will become possible for an atheist in turn to be elected president. However, that may still be several decades away. According Your Friendly Neighbourhood Atheist, a Newsweek article published in 2007 shows that 62% of registered voters said that they would not vote for an atheist.

But if and when a non-believer achieves that office, America will have matured to the point that it can truly call itself the land of equal opportunity.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Other Culprits Behind the American Economic Meltdown

The 7 hundred billion-dollar Wall Street bailout has riled many Americans, and rightfully so. If there had been genuine benefits in that agreement for the middle and working classes to equal those for the wealthy and businesses that greedily fed at the hog trough of deregulation, it might be easier for us to swallow the bitter pill that President Bush is ramming down our throats. But as usual, what we have is a case of state socialism for the rich and social Darwinism for everybody else.

But think about it, even though many of the GOP Congress initially voted against the bailout before doing a 180 on the second presentation, it was Bush and other rabid Republicans such as Phil Gramm that through the years--beginning with the Reaganomics of the 1980's--who have pushed for the removal of many necessary government controls and regulations. This led to the collapse of the S&L's in that decade and eventually to the train wreck of the present financial system. And in many instances it's not that the regulations were not there, they just weren't enforced. For example, as discussed in the Yahoo! News Article of "Battered financial industry faces more oversight" why was the mortgage industry allowed to get away with making high risk loans in which the borrower's income was not even verified?

It's likely that none of this would have happened if the rabid Republicans had not been elected. It's true that President Clinton made mistakes, such as signing North American Free Trade Agreement, but the federal budget ran a surplus under his watch, and his appointees such as Robert Rubin and Madeleine Albright were qualified for their positions, unlike the incompetent hacks that Bush appointed based solely on loyalty.

In turn, this leads to the question: Who voted for Regan and Bush? And aren't those voters who did so just as responsible for the present crisis as the incompetent and greedy executives and politicians along with home buyers who speculated that the bubble would never burst and bit off more mortgage than they could chew?

It wasn't as though the Reagan and Bush Father and Son, deceived the electorate on about their positions on finance and the economy. They painted government as the enemy and untrammeled free enterprise as salvation. And millions of naive Americans fell for it. If you were one of the ones gullible enough to elect these clowns and are now facing foreclosure or loss of your job, investments, 401(k), etc. as a result of their policies, then ultimately you have no one to blame but yourself. If Al Gore had not been cheated out of the presidency in 2000 or if John Kerry had not allowed himself to be "swiftboated" in 2004, we would likely have a more enlightened and prosperous America.

I make no apologies if I'm coming across as a self-righteous s.o.b. Obviously I can't stand the rabid Republicans and what they've done to our country. But more to the point, their policies have had a very negative impact on my life beginning in 1984 (see my post "Real Estate Meltdown--When Bad Loans Happen to Good People") . Along with the S & L fiasco of that era, there was leveraged buyout craze, which ultimately led to the loss of my job at a company where I had worked for several years. In turn the company that bought out my employer later filed for bankruptcy because the assets that they leveraged were worth less than what they paid for the deal. Perhaps the executives who engineered this takeover had considered that eventuality, but it's doubtful that they lost a minute of sleep over it. In a worst case scenario for the company and employees, they would still rake in millions in golden parachutes.

In this decade, as part of the mismanagement of the government, we saw Bush cut taxes for the wealthy and create the largest federal budget deficit ever. We saw ignorance promoted in the rabid Republicans' and religious fundamentalists' attempt to abolish the Enlightenment and turn this country into a theocracy. We saw the U.S. start a war in Iraq that was built on a lie.

So when you cast your vote in November, ask yourself if America has become a better place in this decade, and consider what the future holds for America and yourself if the rabid Republicans are allowed to stay in power.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Existence—What a Concept!

With the imminent activation of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland which will try to replicate conditions of the universe immediately following the Big Bang, we stand on the threshold of a breakthrough in our understanding of the universe. This new knowledge will likely lead to an enhanced perspective—possibly even a rewriting of the laws of physics as science now understands them.

Yet even if the LHC experiments reveal how the universe came into being, it can't tell us why. Perhaps this is something man will never know. Yet by rephrasing the issue, it's fascinating to speculate on the words of the Seventeenth Century philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz : "Why is there something instead of nothing?" In other words, why does the universe exist?

This question is tackled by Adolf Grunbaum in his article "Why Is There a Universe at All Rather than Just Nothing (Part 1)" which appears in the June /July issue of "Free Inquiry". He states that according to Leibniz and Christian philosophy, everything exists only contingently, and the default state of the universe is non-existence. What brings the universe out of the void and into existence is an entity that is a necessary being whose reason for existence is self-contained and is eternal. Obviously, this entity is God. Furthermore, the universe could not continue to exist without God's perpetual intervention. It would lapse into nothingness.

Grunbaum turns this supposition around and challenges the logic that the de facto state of the universe is nothingness. He asks why can't existence— "something" rather than "nothing" be the default state? Further, why is God necessary and not contingent? By the way, this last question indirectly touches on the issue of first cause, for if God is a contingent entity , that renders moot that age-old riddle: If God created the universe, who created God?. And besides, the concept of a "manufactured" world is not universal. Many cultures past and present view the universe itself as eternal without having been brought about by an outside force.

I agree with Grunbaum, and as for the notion that the Universe requires constant support of a supreme being in order to stay in existence, I am reminded of the Deist philosophy of the Enlightenment. The great thinkers of that era who were not out-and-out atheists or agnostics believed in the existence of God, but only as a "watchmaker" who created the universe and then left it to run on its own. Carrying this line of line of thought further this implies that even if God exists, he has "retired" and is irrelevant in the affairs of humankind.

One one hand, cosmologists no longer accepts the "steady state" theory that the universe has existed forever. Instead, there is good evidence that the Big Bang occurred about 14,000,000,000 years ago. There is no evidence that this was the act of a supreme being. Perhaps this beginning was the result of something that occurred in a larger metaverse. Or perhaps our universe is one of an infinite number of parallel universes, each in a different dimension. Or possibly every instant in time is a point of departure that itself creates an infinite number of alternate worlds.

On the other hand, in several billion years there may be a "Big Crunch" in which creation will stop its present course of expansion and collapse back in on itself, only to start the cycle of a Big Bang, expansion, and eventual collapse again. So maybe our current universe is one in an infinite number of cycles that have happened and will continue to do so forever. To that extent maybe it is these universes as successive events that are eternal after all.

But just because we don't know all the answers to these questions and perhaps never will is no reason to continue clutching to the belief of a "big daddy in the sky" no matter how emotionally comforting such a myth might be.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

There's Something Happening Here

Some events that have unfolded recently have made it possible for even an old skeptical curmudgeon like me to feel some hope for our country's future and to consider the possibility that the grip on American culture by the rabid Republicans and their ilk may be weakening.

For example, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, slightly more than 50% of Americans do not want to mix religion and politics. What's significant is that the for the first time in 12 years those favoring this split were in the majority. Even more notable is that the biggest shift was among conservatives themselves. For more on this fascinating study, see "More Americans want church and politics separate: poll".

Another encouraging development is that American organized labor has put aside its differences and has joined together as a solid front to rally for the Democrats in the November election. (See "Organized Labor Reunites to Vote for Obama"). Apparently the previously antagonistic factions realized that the dire situation of the American worker called for burying the hatchet and for working together. This is not to say that the American labor is blameless for their erosion of power. Could the likes of Reagan and George Bush been elected without the vote of union members?

Then there is the speech delivered by Obama's wife Michelle at the opening of the Democratic National Convention. Her address was unmistakably populist in content—not a word in praise of Capitalism or the free economy. And there was the stirring address by Rep. Dennis Kunich which was strongly progressive. Finally, there was Hillary Clinton throwing her full support to Obama and Bill Clinton's speech likewise also endorsing him. It was gratifying to see the Clintons−as galling as it might have been for them− taking the high road for the sake of party unity.

But we are not yet out of the woods as long as President Bush is in office. He will likely continue such Rabid Republican policies to the bitter end of his term, such as making hash of the concept of Americas' privacy (See A New Rush to Spy. )

Further, there is a socially reactionary development in California. As reported in "Gay marriage foes mobilize for ban in California", religious religious fundies there are working to overturn the State Supreme Court Decision's legalizing gay marriage by placing a proposition on the November ballot, which would outlaw such unions in California by means of a constitutional amendment.

So the November election will be pivotal on many levels. I really believe that we are at a crossroads. If McCain wins, he will finish the job that Bush started, and with the rest of the rabid Republicans he will put America on the road to hell from which only the wealthy and the well connected will be protected. If Obama wins, he may not live up to all his promises, but I think that he will set America on a new direction of political and economic redemption that will give all Americans an opportunity for a decent future.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What's God Got To Do With It? Fallacies of Theistic Belief

Last night, I happened to watch an episode of "Crossing Jordan" in which Jordan encounters what appears to be the resurrection of a man who Jordan, as a medical examiner, knew for certain had died. As the plot unfolds, Jordan gives the impression that she is an atheist or at least a skeptic, believing instead in the power of science to explain the apparently inexplicable. Using her forensic skills she solves the mystery of the "revived" corpse --up to a point, and she agrees with a priest friend that the unanswered portion of the riddle is indeed a miracle. It turns out that Jordan is not really an atheist after all. She's just angry at God for taking her mother from her when Jordan was just a child. With counseling from the priest, Jordan forgives God, accepts his will, and returns to the fold.

This theme is similar to a TV-movie that I saw a few nights before called "The Christmas Visitor". The story is about a family who loses interest in attending church, at least on Christmas after the son, a soldier, is killed in battle around the time of that holiday. Their acceptance of God's will is restored one December when a young hitch hiker who enters their life has uncanny knowledge about their son and may in fact be their son's spirit who has come back to help them get past their grief and regain their faith.

The common thread of these two shows that drives me ape-shit is not so much the "miracle" that revives the characters' religious sentiments (after all, this is American commercial television fare, folks). Rather it's how the characters, just like people in real life, have no problem believing in a supreme being, usually a benevolent one, until something tragic happens to them or a loved one. This line of "thinking"(?) conscious or otherwise can best be summarized: "As long as a disaster, no matter how horrible, happens to Joe Shmoe down the block or to his family and not to me or my people, God exists and is good." Is this failure to question God's grace or existence when misfortune strikes outside a believer's immediate circle (the "other") a form of narcissism or just the built-in weakness of theism itself?

The flip side of this typical outlook of most God-believers who survive a calamity (e.g. a natural disaster or a plane crash) in which many other people died is "God saved me but not the others. Therefore, I must be special in His eyes". Instead, why do they not think "I'm alive but my neighbors (or fellow passengers) didn't make it. Why? Didn't they have just as much right to live as I do?" Or if they do ask that question, they likely do so in the form of "survivor's guilt" rather than as a tribute to the humanity that they shared with the deceased.

By removing the notion of a supreme being from the equation, bad events become understandable (although this is usually little comfort to the bereaved). These natural phenomena and their resulting casualties can be rationally explained as the result of physical laws and randomness (being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) For example a killer earthquake such as the one in China a few months ago is not an act of God, but simply the result of natural forces involving stressed tectonic plates many miles below the earth's surface, the shock waves from which radiated out and upwards and struck what happened to be a densely populated area of the planet. Similarly, illness is not a sign of a God's displeasure but simply the result of pathogens or a genetic flaw.

Then there are disasters that involve both nature and human responsibility, such as the shipwreck in the Philippines last month that took over 700 lives. Aside from the typhoon itself that overturned the vessel, there were man made errors as well, such as engine failure at the height of the storm, likely the result of poor mechanical maintenance. Added to this was the decision by the captain, along with possible malfeasance and incompetence by the company that owned the Ferry and by government authorities who allowed the ship to sail under such severe weather conditions in the first place (See "Philippines Ferry Sinking: Recurring Disaster").

And let us not forget those who carry "lucky charms" (not the cereal, but talismans which are just about as useless and without the flavor of the former) such as rosaries, believing that doing so will protect them from harm. A fat lot of good those amulets did for the shipwreck fatalities who were holding them and praying to God for deliverance as the ship sank (no doubt there were many, as approximately 85% of Philippines population are Roman Catholics, most of them hopelessly so.)

The category of tragedy that is probably the most difficult of all for someone to come to terms with is the loss of a loved one as the result of deliberate violence by others. To give an extreme example, I can't imagine a greater sorrow or horror than for parents to lose a child as the result of a willful act by another, such as a sexual predator. How much more is their grief compounded if they believe in a God who they question for "allowing this to happen", pray for an answer, and are met with stony silence. But A different perspective on this terrible occurance is that there was a chain of events that led up to the death of of their child, all of which were natural and / or man made, beginning perhaps with the molestation of the killer him/herself when (s)he was a child. None of these links are traceable to a supernatural being.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if we there is no supreme authority to appeal to or blame when things go wrong, then wouldn't it stand to reason that there is no such entity to praise or thank when things go right? Take for example the good fortune of winning a lottery. There is no more evidence of a God who favored or intervened for them any than of one who "cursed" or "turned his back" on their luckless counterparts in the aforementioned ferry disaster. In the case of a lottery winner it's simply the random luck of the draw. Assuming the contest wasn't rigged, some participant simply wound up with the ticket that had the right combination of numbers, no matter how many lottery players prayed to God to make him/her that individual.

As for those who experience good fortune as the result of their own merit and receive recognition awards for their achievements, these people earned it. There is no need for them to thank a God (think Oscar awards) when it was their own efforts that got them where they are. The same goes for success in a any venture in which a person put forth his or her best effort.

There is a popular clichè "let go, let God". But in his books Man for Himself and Psychoanalysis and Religion, the late Erich Fromm, a renown humanistic psychoanalyst discussed the powerlessness and helplessness that people undergo when they surrender their personal sovereignty to a "higher power". I wholeheartedly agree. Like the vast majority of Americans I also believed in the existence of a supreme being for most of my life, and during that time I found personal difficulties harder to bear than after I gave up that credence. In turn I discovered that it's easier to tolerate life's hardships when there's no supernatural entity to blame for them or fruitlessly pray to in order to make problems go away. I must deal with them realistically and solve them by myself or with the help of other people, here and now. And by the way, my skepticism about God's existence was not due to a sudden loss of faith over any particular incident. Rather it was a gradual awareness (thanks in part to Fromm's influence) that grew over a period of years.

Throughout the world, there are many societies comprised of millions of people who are not dependent on a belief in the God that our society envisions, and they get along just fine. In fact, they are just as civilized if not more so than theistic cultures. America and the Philippines are supposedly God-centered societies (notwithstanding their respective Constitutional separations of church and state). Yet both countries have an extremely high rate of violence. Further, the former has the world's highest rate of incarceration, and the latter is fraught with endemic and systematic corruption. On the other hand, Japan and Scandinavia are very peaceful regions, have a low crime rates, and are not chained to religious dogma. In fact, Danes who also have a very low rate of church attendance are very peaceful and according to a survey, extremely content with their lives (see "Denmark "world's happiest nation"). China, Taiwan, and South Korea are other examples of countries that are not god-dependent and have orderly and developed societies. Contrast these societies with devout Muslim countries which are very backward and from which so much terrorism has sprung. Central to the terrorists disregard for human life is their belief that God is on their side and they will be rewarded in heaven for furthering the cause of Allah against the "infidels". Yet, this is no more absurd than the notion of eternal rewards and damnation which prevails in many so-called "Judeo-Christian" countries.

There is no more proof of an afterlife than there is of a supreme being. Personally, the greatest reward when I die is to leave a good name, i.e. to be remembered as someone who made a positive contribution to the world or at least did what he could to try to make it a better place. I consider that as the true meaning of immortality. On the other hand, the greatest "eternal punishment" is to be forgotten as though I had never existed or to be remembered unfavorably. One doesn't have to believe in a supreme being to understand and follow the adage: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. " Virtue is truly its own reward. Perhaps in time, humans will evolve to a higher level of reasoning. At that stage, we will not be dependent on any power higher than our own minds and hearts, a power that will enable us to achieve universal justice and peace for no other reason than for the sake of advancing world civilization, its simply the right thing to do.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

President Bush, the Constitution, and a Lesson from Lee Iacocca

Countries with military commanders in chief who are not also the elected civilian heads of state are prone to coups and power grabs by army officers against the government. In the U.S., we are theoretically protected from from such takeovers. The President is elected by the voters as the head of the executive branch of our government and is the leader of our armed forces as well.

Yet since 9-11—and using that tragedy as a pretext—it is not the military but instead the executive branch of our government under President Bush and his administration that has grievously abused its authority. In doing so Bush and the Republicans have staged a protracted coup against the American people by undermining the Constitution and our civil rights.

The latest episode in this sad chapter of American History is Bush's gutting of the Fourth Amendment. I'm referring to the expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which the President had pushed for. Not surprisingly, this was carried out with the help of the feckless majority of the members of Congress, including Sen. Obama and other Democrats. This bill allows access by the executive division (federal law enforcement officials) access to private communications between two parties without a court order under certain circumstances. Heretofore, such monitoring was considered off limits unless approved by a FISA Court judge.

Fortunately, the ACLU has filed suit to halt implementation of this law pending judicial review, but if the courts allow this law to prosper, it will be another brick in the wall for our Constitutional liberties.

Despite this law and other forms of the madness that have been dreamed up and enacted as domestic and foreign policy by Bush and the rabid Republicans (along with craven Democrats) a voice of sanity has been heard from an unlikely source: A former CEO of a major U.S. corporation. Click here for an excerpt from Lee Iacocca's book Where have All the Leaders Gone? It's an astounding indictment by Iacocca against the lack of true leadership—a rudderlessness which our country has endured for far too long in both the public and private sectors. Iacocca, by the way is 82 years old, but his clarity of thought shows that he still has a strong mind and is not about to let his age get in the way of his activism. In doing so he sets an example for all of us that regardless of age, we have the right and the duty to stand up for what we believe.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Nontheistic Perspective on Independence Day

I happened to watch the coverage of the July 4 celebrations in the U.S. on CNN. For the first time in the almost-3 years that I've been residing in the Philippines, I found myself a bit nostalgic for these festivities. I guess that it's because I recently happened to read the full American Declaration of Independence and grasped what a truly magnificent document it is both in style and substance, and why it's worth celebrating .

As a reflection of the Enlightenment spirit of the day, in the matter of invoking a supreme being the Declaration of Independence cites the "Laws of Nature" first before including "Nature's God" in order to justify self-government and the dissolution of the Colonies' bond with England. Further on, while the Declaration refers rights of man as originating from a Creator, and uses such phrases as "Divine Providence", in no instance does this work reference Christianity in any way, shape, or form.

This is also true of the U.S. Constitution, which not only omits any mention of that religion, it does not allude to a supreme being, period, even in the Preamble. Not to mention, the first amendment itself of course provides for the separation of church and state. This is why it is patently ridiculous for anyone to call America a "Christian nation". (Attention, fundies: This means you!) America belongs to all of its citizens, regardless of our religious beliefs or non-belief.
Even the American pledge of allegiance which was written in 1892 originally did not reference a supreme being. The phrase "under God" was added in 1954 by Congress at the behest of Presidient Eisenhower, who was persuaded to so by Christian religious interests (see "Pledge of Allegiance").

One can only hope that the outcome of the presidential election will reverse the theocratic direction that the U.S. has taken. However, even if Obama wins, given his position on government aid to faith-based charities (see Obama Speech: "We Can Expand Faith-Based Charities And Separate Church From State") , which although not as aggressive as that of Bush in that Obama with his version of this program claims separation of church and state will be maintained, we may be lucky if we can just slow down the trend.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Take It Off

I support Barack Obama's progressive and populist positions. If he is elected President and follows through on the policies outlined in the speech that he gave in early June, Change That Works for You, then maybe America can be saved from the economic and social ruin that we are now heading for thanks to the Bush and the rabid Republicans.

However, as a Jew and a nontheist I am worried about other news regarding Obama's campaign: his meeting with "Christian Leaders"--mainly evangelicals who subjected him to a philosophical strip search to which he apparently willingly submitted (see Christian Leaders Meet Privately with Obama.) I know that office seekers are subject to ideological scrutiny by various interest groups, but the implications are frightening that a candidate for president of the United States had better "explain" him/herself and undergo cross (no pun intended)-examination by the religious fundies.

Here in the Philippines, which is ostensibly a democracy with a constitutional guarantee of separation of Church and State, there is a very strong religious lobby called the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines) through which the religious establishment exerts its political authority and power. No serious candidate for office can possibly hope to succeed without the stamp of approval of this very conservative group of Christian clergymen. Has it also come to this in the U.S. as well?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Maybe We Had It Coming

Americans have long held a misplaced sense of entitlement to cheap fossil fuels. Maybe $4-5 per gallon is a long overdue wake up call for us to get off our collective asses, start conserving, and investing in mass transit as well as in alternative energy sources.

What a sorry sight it was to see President Bush go begging hat in hand to the Saudis to give the U.S. a price break for crude (which, the Bush ties to the royal family notwithstanding, they refused anyway). That spectacle in itself should be enough to raise American consciousness in favor of energy independence.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Onward Christian Soldiers—To the Right, March.

I recently read of attempts by American soldiers stationed in Iraq to convert the Muslim locals to Christianity. Why am I not surprised at this turn of events. It was only a matter of time before this would happen. The U.S. military has already become a captive force of the American fundies, no doubt with the blessing of their Commander-in Chief, President Bush, who has dialogues with God and has said that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ.

An example of this religious zealotry is the takeover of the U.S. Air Force Academy by the Christian right as discussed by Michael Weinstein in his book With God on Our Side published in 2004. Mr. Weinstein found forced proselytizing Christian evangelicals to be rampant at the Academy and called for a stop to this practice. A subsequent report dated 2005 by Kate Randall states that the an investigation of this problem fell short of its job.

Then there is the recently retired Undersecretary of Defense General William Boykin. Boykin made a name for himself during his career by making inflammatory pro-evangelical Christian remarks, preaching in churches while dressed in uniform, which gave the impression that he was speaking for the entire U.S. military.

But it doesn't stop there. An American religious extremist movement called the Christian Embassy is recruiting military officers and civilian leaders to work in its behalf. To see the how these people have subordinated loyalty to America to their movement and the dangerous situation that this has created, click here.

Religious extremism in the military is something one might associate with places like Afghanistan or Pakistan. Who would think America now has its own homegrown counterpart to the Taliban and like the Taliban, hold no sense of duty to their country--just to their fanatical ideals.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Is the Secular Humanistic Movement Elitist?

Secular humanism is based on such concepts as rational inquiry and attempts to understand the human condition unfettered by a reliance on a supreme being. So it's no wonder that this philosophy would have it's largest following among members of academia and other highly educated professionals.

In turn, considering the correlation between education and income, it's no surprise that these individuals are predominantly found in the upper socioeconomic ranges of American society and that they interact mainly with each other. This demographic skewing presents a problem in that this affluent group does not seem to be interested or are even able to relate to those of us in the middle class who are also adherents of secular humanism.

Given the rise of obscurantism this country, it would behoove the more influential supporters of S.H. to reach out to the masses, even to the "small town guns and religion" sector as so aptly described by Barack Obama. To ignore the working people is to jeopardize the intellectual freedom and growth of all Americans.

Friday, April 25, 2008

More on Bush's War Against Science

The phrase "politically correct" was originally a label used by conservatives to derisively describe the euphemistic, "feel-good" terminology used by postmodernists who distort word and idea meanings in order to fit their relativistic ideology. But what if the shoe were on the other foot? In other words what if Republican government policy dictated that scientific findings must conform to right-wing ideals in order to be considered valid?

Well, that's exactly what has come to pass. In my original blog Bush and The Rabid Republicans: Menace to America I commented on how the Bush Administration interfered with and politicized government science research and findings in the FDA. It comes as no surprise that the Republicans' malicious mischief didn't stop there. A recent survey of scientists at the EPA reported pressure from the White House to cook their findings to favor private industry.

It's no secret that Bush and his team are anti-intellectual and have no use for the scientific method, especially when the results are not to their liking. But to see just how demoralizing and difficult it is for government researchers to work under these conditions and how prone their studies are to manipulation by Dubya and his people, see "Hundreds of Scientists Report Political Interference".

Friday, March 21, 2008

Real Estate Meltdown-When Bad Loans Happen to Good Borrowers

The collapse of the real estate market has generated a lot of discussion from various pundits about personal responsibility. It has been said that many stranded homeowners especially in the sub-prime category contributed to their own financial woes by taking on a larger mortgage than they could afford, or by reckless borrowing against their equity. There is a lot of truth to this. I know that from my years of experience in the credit industry how people do in fact borrow and spend irresponsibly (sort of like the fiscal policies of the Reagan and Bush Administrations).

But what about consumers who buy property, especially their first homes in good faith, not to take advantage of rising values but instead based on the recommendation of financial professionals who advise their clients to go for it, even if they lack the funds to pay at least 20% down, or simply because they want a piece of the American dream?

That is what happened to my wife and me. We bought our home in 1984. Doing so at that time was against my better judgment, but we were looking for tax relief, and our CPA trotted out the cliche about having nothing to show for renting an apartment but a drawer full of rent receipts, and how home ownership would furnish a tax deduction for the mortgage interest.

We had a solid credit record, no debts, and an excellent combined annual income, so my wife and I certainly did not fit the sub-prime profile . But because we had less than 20% to cover the down payment, we were steered into an ARM (adjustable rate mortgage) which included monthly PMI (private mortgage insurance premiums). Fortunately, we were later able to refinance our way out this loan into a conventional mortgage, but we were still stuck with the PMI premiums for years to come.

As for those who got in over their heads by purchasing more expensive homes than they could really afford, they couldn't have done so without being "enabled" (aided and abetted) by the lenders who financed their mistakes . In the tract that where we purchased our home, many of our neighbors could not keep up their payments or refinance their loans, and thus lost their homes. Just as is happening today in many of today's housing markets across the country, this wave of foreclosures created an instability in our area along with a lot of abandoned properties that the lenders had no incentive to maintain after their repossessions were vacated. Often they would then rent to anyone regardless of their background and qualifications. As a result, the neighborhood deteriorated. In our own case we had a succession of next door neighbors from hell who were financially and mentally unsound and almost drove us nuts as well.

In short what we experienced in the 1980's was a foreshadow for the events that are now taking place in the housing market. Being ahead of the times one's time is usually considered an advantage. Instead, for us and many other homeowners of that era it was a disaster. This was shortly after the deregulation of the savings and loan industry, the excesses of which would result in the Keating scandal later in that decade. Meantime, S & L's were going hog wild creating exotic mortgage loan packages to the detriment not only of themselves but of borrowers as well. Sound familiar?

Deregulation and subsequent irresponsible lending played a role in the decline and fall of our neighborhood. We stuck out the aftermath but as I previously mentioned, at great expense to our psychological and financial health. We were trapped there for 16 years before we were finally able to sell our home for an amount that just barely exceeded the original purchase price. But at least we managed to get out in one piece.

The shame and degradation of that fiasco lingers with us through this day, but how much more traumatic it must be for those who lost their homes in the 1980's and for those who are facing foreclosure now. Heartbreak is a timeless emotion.

So when I hear the Republicans' praise of the "free-market" and their insistence on deregulation and "self-policing", the picture that comes to mind especially for the finance industry is pigs regulating themselves at a trough. Yet the government agencies that feed the oinking investment banks with bailouts refuse to spare a scrap for distressed homeowners. This is nothing less than state socialism for the business sector and social Darwinism for the working people.

So it's a wonder how and why the public allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by the Republicans in this decade after the abuses of the 1980's. It's as though the relatively benign fiscal policies of the Clinton era in the 1990's never happened. Well, as the old saying goes: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. All things being equal and after what this country has experienced, if the Democrats lose the election this year, then Americans are a truly hopeless bunch.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bush and The Rabid Republicans: Menace to America

Hello and welcome to my blog.

My wife and I retired and relocated to the Philippines, her native land, in August, 2005, and from the looks of things we couldn't have picked a better time to do so. Within this short period, it seems that America's retreat from reason which began in the 1980's and has accelerated since 2000 has become even more pronounced in these few short years. President Bush (who, by the way, says that he gets his instructions from God) has continued to wreak economic and social havoc in America.

Never has one president caused so much harm in so many different ways.

The Iraq war which Bush started based on lies , such as Saddarm's possessing weapons of mass destruction, is out of control and has resulted in the deaths of thousands of American troops and Iraqi civilians along with the depletion of our national treasure. Yet he has nevertheless managed to conflate Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden in the minds of the American people and convinced them that we are in Iraq to "fight for our freedom" instead for oil. For a more gripping protest to this madness than I could ever express, please see
After Pats' Birthday. Another anatomy of Bush's deception is well documented in Exhaustive Review finds no link between Saddam, el Qaida

Meantime, the holier-than-thou Republican Administration has spun a web of corruption and greed. Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the company of which he is a former CEO, have profited immensely from past dealings with Iraq, and the war itself. See
Cheney's. Lies about Halliburton & Iraq and Dick Cheney: War Profiteer. Bush's practice of cronyism in appointing hacks to important offices has done serious harm to the country. Witness the Hurricane Katrina preparations and aftermath disaster which was mainly due to the incompetence of the then head of FEMA, Mike Brown, whose sole qualification for the position was his experience as a horse rancher.

Another example of cronyism run wild is Daniel Cooper, who resigned under fire after stating that his bible study was more important than his job as Undersecretary of Veterans affairs. He purportedly used his office as part of a network that proselytizes government workers and military personnel in behalf of Campus Crusade for Christ instead of fulfilling his work responsibilities. Meantime, veterans disabilities claims under his watch have been neglected and are now heavily backlogged. See
Embattled Veterans Official Resigns Post.

Bush and his appointees also politicized and undermined the functions of the Justice Department by appointing the unqualified Monica Goodling, who received her training from an poorly rated evangelical law school to a position of responsibility in the Justice Department (see
Another Hearing, Another Monica. Further there was the manipulation of the Attorney General's office by the former head of that department, Alberto Gonzales, and the politically motivated firing of 8 employees from the United States Attorney's offices through the offices of (now former) White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

I could go on with this laundry list of the Administration's missteps and examples of ineptitude, but all these fiascoes and more are much better articulated in the book, American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips. However, what I want to point out here is the danger to America posed by the viciousness of Bush and the Republicans and and their willingness to stop at nothing to advance their agenda, such as the politically motivated impeachment of President Clinton for what were really nothing more than sexual indiscretions that hypocritical Republian politicians were found to be even more guilty. See
Republican Sex Scandals Dwarf Those of Democrats.

The Republicans ruthlessness sabotaged the 2000 elections. The Florida Secretary of State in Florida, a Republican and co-Chairman of Bush's campaign there, refused to recuse herself in the disputed ballot count in that state, and the Supreme Court dominated by right-wing appointees of the Republicans, threw the Presidency to Bush.

According to a remarkable article "
Learning from the Cultural Conservatives" the Right's (and by extension the Republicans) plans to create a paradigm shift in American values began about 30 years ago, laying the groundwork with their message throughout the 1970's, and coming into power beginning with the Reagan era.

At that time, there was a shift in the economic structure away from recognizing the value of the American working people in the production of goods and services. This change was brought about throughout the implementation in the 1980's of supply side economics-- a system which basically steals from the poor and middle class and gives to the wealthy, a sort of income redistribution in reverse that continues through this day. An example of this rip-off is the federal tax structure, under which investment income is assessed at a lower rate than wages. Then there is the federal minimum wage, for which there was no increase from 1997 to 2007. Yet CEO compensation as a ratio to the minimum wage increased from 78 in 1978 to 207 by 1989 (most of the increase took place during the 1980's, the Reagan Era). By 2005, about midway through the Dubya Administration, the multiple had increased to 821. See
CEO Pay-to minimum-wage ratio soars. Talk all you want about the free market, this disparity is nothing short of obscene..

As previously noted, it was also about this same time that the trend of "new age" irrationalism and religious fundamentalism began manifesting itself in the U.S, even into the reaches of the government executive branch. For example, President Reagan (along with his wife Nancy), was a believer in astrology and said that he followed his horoscope daily. Further, he had the street number of his California residential address changed from 666 because he believed that set of numerals to be the (biblical) "mark of the beast". Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt said that there was no need to protect the environment because the end of the world was at hand and Jesus was coming soon.

This was also the era of the of the Moral Majority which supported Reagan in his first election, and the Christian Coalition which was founded in 1989. During the 1980's the Fundamentalist Christians moved in on the Republican right and consolidate their power with a vengeance during the 1990's. See
The Rise of the Religious Right in The Republican Party.

In a combination of shortsightedness and a kind of fanaticism that caused Reagan to see the Soviet Union as the "evil empire", the Republican Administration sent aid and weapons to mujahedeen guerrillas in Afghanistan--whom Reagan praised as "freedom fighters"--to battle the Russians when they invaded that country. The mujahideen gave rise to the the Taliban who eventually turned against America. In turn, their hatred towards the U.S culminated in 9-11.

Ironically, the waste of resources in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, not U.S.foreign policy, was likely the cause of the collapse of communism in the USSR. America did not need to get involved in that war. The USSR probably did itself in, as the Soviet invasion turned in to a Vietnam type quagmire.

Likewise, Reagan's and President Bush Sr.'s support of Saddam Hussein in the war between Iraq and Iran has come back to haunt us with a vengeance. The events in Afghanistan and the Middle East are the the consequences of America's adopting the flawed policy "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". Directly or indirectly, it was this kind of thinking that made America responsible for the rise of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attack on America. See
How the CIA created Osama bin Laden. American military forces have been tied up in Afghanistan since then and according to the Wikipedia article Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan, as of February 13, 2008, the casualty count for American troops stands at 414. Perhaps things might have turned out differently if more troops were available there and not tied down in Iraq. But considering the Soviet experience, the outcome may not have been that different after all.

Religious fundamentalism right here at home which has advanced in the U.S. in direct proportion to the decline of rationalism, has been so heartily sponsored by the Bush administration. For this reason, the Republicans scare me. The President and his party have formulated and /or supported such policies as so called faith-based initiatives and the war on science, especially the campaign to eliminate from public schools the teaching of the Theory of Evolution or require so called equal time for teaching the doctrine of religion based creationism as an alternate explanation to the existence of humans. A prime example of Bush's war on rationality is his administration's policy of interference in FDA's scientific research. See
Oversight and Government Reform. Yet another example is Bush's blocking America's participation in the Kyoto accords, despite strong evidence of global warming. For a complete list of international treaties that Bush has violated or opposed, see Bush's Crimes.

But the end of Bush's term in office in November will not be the end of right-wing fundamentalism in the Republican Party. Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee who has been considered a "moderate" declared that only a Christian is fit to be the President of the United States. I find this remark offenseive to non-Christian Americans and disrespectful to the Consitutional guarantee of separation of Church and State. But what is alarming is that there has not been a storm of outrage against this comments. Imagine what would have happened if McCain had said that only a male or a white person should be President.

It used to be said that there's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and that they are basically two sides of the same coin. At one time I would have agreed. Yet over the past 15 years or so, the GOP politics of hate and venom have gone beyond the pale of acceptable partisan politics. But you can't have a bully without a victim, and the Democrats have jumped in to fill that role by allowing their party be steamrolled and led by the nose by the Republican jack booted thugs. Bush shamelessly exploited 9-11 by pushing for the Patriot Act and intimidating the Democrats into voting for the Iraq War by impugning the patriotism of dissenters.

A contemptible (but typical) breach of ethics conducted by the Republicans was during the 2004 presidential election campaign. Here we had the hawkish party who pushed for the Iraq War not only supporting Bush--the Vietnam War draft dodger who hid out from combat by cutting in line to enlist in the National Guard (from which he was frequently absent)--but the GOP also managed to trash the Vietnam War honorable service record of Bush's Democratic opponent, John Kerry. Yet Kerry still rose above the Swift Boat Veterans Campaign calumny and for the first part of the race managed to build a lead over Bush. But true to form for the Democrats, Kerry blew it .

Isn't it just incredible how they Dems manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? It turns out there was even a cloud over the balloting in Ohio in the 2004 election, which if Kerry had challenged may have redirected enough votes in his favor for him to win the election See "
Kerry Suspects 2004 election Was Stolen". It is due to his failure to aggressively go toe to toe with the Republicans that I lost respect for Kerry.

But another factor contributing to Bush's win over Kerry in 2004, was the release the by the Al-Jazeera Network of a speech by Bin Laden shortly before the U.S. elections condemning Bush. However, this broadcast instead and instead provoked or scared Americans into voting for Bush. So don't worry about the Bush Administration pulling a surprise capture of Bin Laden this year to win points for the election. He's too valuable to them where he is--wherever that may be.

Then there is the state of economy. At one time it was the Democrats who were labeled as the "tax and spend" party. Yet under President Clinton, America ran a budget surplus, which in the year 2000 was $230 billion. Under President Bush and the Republicans "borrow and spend" policies, that surplus has vanished and has been replaced by a deficit which in 2007 amounted to $163 billion in 2007 and is expected to reach $400 billion by the end of 2008. The budget for this year includes a reduction of Medicare spending and increase in military spending. See
President’s Spending Plan Would Rival 2004 Deficit. Programs that Bush wants to eliminate include a federal literacy program (This from the "No child left behind" President.)

On top of everything else is the collapse of the housing market, no longer just confined to the sub- prime set. At this writing, for the first time in U.S. history, American homeowners as a whole, owe more on their homes then their properties are worth. The unrealistic increase in home prices over the past couple years was a speculative bubble just waiting to burst, and there's no excuse for the Administration not to have taken preventive measures. I'm not an economics expert. Frankly, I'm not even a college graduate, but I worked long enough in the credit business and had enough personal experiences to realize years ago where this runaway train was heading. American Theocracy which by the way was copyrighted in 2006 also predicted this disaster. So for Bush and company to pretend that there was no warning for this disaster is utter bullshit. Another interesting read that discusses the warning signs which Dubya ignored is
American Politik .

Republicans claim to champion so called traditional family values but had no problem with Bush's history of abuse of alcohol and other drugs such as cocaine, plus a drunk driving conviction while already an adult. In fact Bush has the distinction of being the only U.S. President with a criminal record. Yet the Republicans pilloried President Clinton for using of marijuana while a college student. Interestingly, note the way the children of these two men turned out. Compare the behavior of the daughters of George W. and Bill Clinton and tell me who among them these three offspring is truly the class act in terms of intellect and decorum. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, nor the berries from the Bush.

Along the line of line of "family values" is the the so called "right to life" movement championed by the Republican right. Senator Bill Frist and Congressman Tom DeLay politicized the Terri Schiavo case in trying to invoke federal power and legislation to prevent removal of the feeding tube of this woman who was in a persistent vegetative state. This action was taken despite her purported wishes that she not be allowed to kept in this state, according to her husband.. Even Bush intervened in the matter. It turns out, however, that when DeLay's own father was in a similar comatose position in 1988, no heroic measures were taken to extend his life, in accordance with the wishes of the family. Bush's position in the Schiavo case also contrasted his actions as Governor of Texas when in 1999, he signed a bill permitting doctors to remove life support from patients whose conditions were hopeless.

It's nothing less than sadistic how the conservatives support the "right to life" but not the relief of suffering while being kept alive. Witness for example "states rights" Republicans invoking federal power against states that have decriminalized the use of medical marijuana for sufferers of the side effects of chemotherapy and for victims of glaucoma.

And speaking of drugs, for all the right-wingers' ranting against narcotics, America's alliance with Colombia is another tribute to Republican hypocrisy. The President of that nation, Avaro Uribe, along with his family, is apparently tied to drug trafficking and smuggling, and may well have connections with the Medlin Cartel. See
Bush, Colombia, and Narco Poliitics. Yet this hasn't stopped Bush and Uribe from forming a mutual admiration society, and from the U.S extending aid to the Colombian military. Further, Bush has turned a blind(?) eye towards Colombia's right-wing death squads which operate with Uribe's blessings. These organizations are of course also deeply involved in the narcotics trade.

The savaging to which American ideals have been subjected over the past three decades is tragic but not hopeless. Earlier I mentioned the article "Learning from the Cultural Conservatives" which documents the rise of the Republican party and the extremist conservative takeover of the U.S. This essay goes on to discuss how we progressives can take back our country. But frankly, I question whether the left has the will and the grit to engage in the social-political-economic street fighting against the right wing bullies that, as the author states, is necessary to rescue this country from the clutches of intellectual tyranny and obscurantism that the right-wing has imposed on this nation. It's going to take a huge effort, but keeping in mind the goal of a new Enlightenment, it will be well worth the battle.