What we're about

"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall." —Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American revolutionary, pamphleteer, and atheist, "The Age of Reason"

Had enough of astrologers, psychics, homeopaths, and spirit channelers? Yearning to talk with someone rational for awhile? Meet up with other local skeptics for some refreshing and sane conversation.

If you've got some kind of event or opportunity that's commensurate with what we're about (as described below), we'd love to hear about it and publicize it to our 1000+ members. E-mail your idea to RichardSRussell@tds.net and we'll either schedule it or explain why not.

What is a skeptic, anyway? It's someone who lives by the Missouri state motto: "Show me!". Does some claim seem too good (or amazing) to be true? Well, that's because it's probably not. Having an open mind isn't the same as having holes in your head.

OTOH, doubting everything makes you a cynic, and suspecting everybody makes you a conspiracy theorist. Skeptics who ARE shown something are willing to accept it. A couple of cases in point:

(1) Even little kids notice that the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa look like jigsaw-puzzle pieces that should fit together. DID they, at one time? In the early 20th Century, skeptics scoffed at the idea. "Just coincidence", they said. And rightly so. There was no known mechanism for how anything that big could be moved. Then Alfred Wegener showed evidence that continental drift had definitely happened, and later Arthur Holmes explained how plate tectonics was the mechanism behind it. With those in hand, skeptics were convinced.

(2) For most of human existence, people believed the Earth was only a few tens of thousands of years old. Skeptics concurred. If the Sun were made of wood or coal or petroleum, it couldn't possibly keep burning for much longer than that. But there was all this other geological evidence that indicated the planet was millions, if not billions of years old. What to believe? Skeptics openly admitted they didn't have the answers. But as soon as we discovered the amazing amounts of energy that could be produced by nuclear fusion, the source of the Sun's longevity was revealed, and skeptics settled in on the proper scientific answer.

We skeptics take our cues from people like the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who pointed out: "I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It IS possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not, but whether it's going on or not."

In other words, "show me".

Upcoming events (4+)

Voodoo Science

Online event

THIS WILL BE A VIRTUAL MEETING CONDUCTED OVER ZOOM!!! A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to everyone who has RSVPed before then.

The March / April edition of Skeptical Inquirer (skepticalinquirer.org) delivered the sad news of the passing, on 2020 April 29, of Robert L. Park at the age of 89. Dr. Park was for many years the public-information director of the American Physical Society in Washington DC. As the magazine noted, “Park was best known and respected in scientific and skeptical circles for the well-informed and often pungent critiques of all manner of pseudoscience. His main forum for years was his popular ‘What’s New’ weekly email newsletters [which] carried short items of timely scientific news and succinct critiques and pithily written personal comments on various pseudoscientific fads, claims, and beliefs.” Each edition ended with the disclaimer “Opinions are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the APS, but they should be.”

In 2000, Park published Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, in which he cast the umbrella term “voodoo science” over all of the 4 flavors of it he identified: pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and fraudulent science.

For this month’s session, we’ll review what each of those categories covers and look at some salient examples of each, some drawn from Dr. Park’s book but others that have sprung up in the 20 years since it was published. It wouldn’t hurt to read the book before the discussion, but it’s not necessary.

“The greatest discoveries of science have always been those that forced us to rethink our beliefs about the universe and our place in it.” —Prof. Robert L. Park [masked]) American physicist and science educator

Let’s Get Organized!

Online event

THIS WILL BE AN ON-LINE EVENT VIA ZOOM. A link will be sent out at noon on Oct. 28 to all who have RSVPed their attendance.

“I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” —Will Rogers, American humorist, (1935)

And getting Democrats (or, indeed, liberals in general) organized has been likened to herding cats.

But that’s just a patch on what it takes to get atheists organized. Notoriously independent thinkers, often defensive because they’ve been so often castigated and marginalized by mainstream society, prone to analyze almost everything to death, wildly varying in their opinions on almost anything other than religion, and perfectly eager to expound at length upon their favorite topics whenever they find themselves in a room that doesn’t have a ton of people telling them to sit down and shut up, atheists can be downright cantankerous when somebody tries to round ’em all up and point ’em in the same direction.

This became apparent with the first big national organization, American Atheists, whose founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, alienated or purged so many members that bunches of them went off and formed local stand-alone atheist organizations. A number of these, like scattered beads of mercury, eventually coalesced into the Atheist Alliance International (90% of which comprised American groups), and another sub-group of which, under Anne Nicol Gaylor, formed the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF has subsequently had its own share of apostasies and purges as well.

All 3 organizations are still chugging along, however, and have joined forces with 16 others under the umbrella of the Secular Coalition for America, founded in 2002 by long-time atheist activist (also college math professor and really funny guy) Herb Silverman. The other groups are American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, Black Non-Believers, Atheist Alliance of America (the American chapters of AAI), Camp Quest, Center for Inquiry (a project of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), Cultural and Secular Jewish Organization, Ex-Muslims of North America, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freethought Society, Hispanic American Freethinkers, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, Recovering from Religion, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (also a branch of CSI), Secular Student Alliance, Secular Woman, Society of Humanistic Judaism, and UU Humanist Association.

In addition to these overtly irreligious organizations, there are others which promote secularism as an important legal principle. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, American Constitution Society, American Jewish Committee, Americans for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and People for the American Way.

Beyond this, there are any number of small local groups, particularly on college campuses, and a growing number of on-line virtual groups, such as our own Meetup group, Madison Skeptics.

So organization is certainly possible. The big question is whether it’s effective. While regular church attendance in the US has declined below half the population, with young people being even less likely to be religiously active, the power structure is still heavily tilted toward religiosity. Only one US senator and one US representative identify as “religiously unaffiliated”, altho 18 representatives (out of the 435) declined to answer.

So is this just because we’re so poorly organized? Or is something else going on?

One Nation under God

Online event

THIS WILL BE AN ON-LINE EVENT VIA ZOOM. A link will be sent out to all who have RSVPed their attendance at noon on Nov. 18 (one week earlier than usual to dodge around Thanksgiving).

Look at your money. Coinage or currency, doesn’t matter. See where it says “In God We Trust”? It all does, but it didn’t used to. It was adopted as the USA’s national motto in 1956, during the McCarthy Era of the Cold War, as an “up yours” to the officially atheistic Soviet Union, and Congress used a joint resolution to require that it appear on all American money. (It had originally been placed on US coins during the Civil War, but it was an informal arrangement and not uniformly applied to everything, nor required to be.)

Francis Scott Key, witnessing the American defense of Fort McHenry in 1814, composed the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner”, recognized as the national anthem in 1931. Its 4th verse contains the line “And this be our motto — ‘In God is our trust!’”, even tho that was not the country’s motto at the time. (The unofficial motto was what appeared on the Great Seal of the United States since 1782: E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one”.)

In 1892, the socialist schoolteacher Francis Bellamy drafted a pledge of allegiance to the American flag, intended to emphasize to the legions of recent immigrants that their allegiance was now to their new country, not the one from the Old World where they’d been born. There were a few subsequent tweaks to Bellamy’s wording, and the version Congress officially adopted in 1942, during World War 2, read “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But in 1954, at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, Congress changed the object of devotion to “one Nation under God, indivisible ...”, ironically dividing the nation from its indivisibility.

You’ve probably heard witnesses in court proceedings swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Those last 4 words aren’t required, they’re simply a tradition. Likewise, the US Constitution contains the official wording of the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”(Article 2 Section 1 Clause 8), also with no requirement that God be invoked, and evidently any number of the earliest presidents did not do so.

These are all examples of what Eugene Rostow, dean of the Yale Law School, referred to in 1962 as “ceremonial deism” — notably a harking back to a common belief system of many of America’s founders but conspicuously without any references to Christianity in particular.

The history of ceremonial deism has been traced by Princeton History Prof. Kevin M. Kruse in his book One Nation under God, and that’s what we’ll be talking about during tonight’s Atheist Lounge, notably including the incredible convolutions various courts have gone thru to rationalize the notion that all this blatantly professed devotion to God is not somehow in conflict with either the Constitution’s stipulation that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article 6 Clause 3) or the 1st Amendment’s insistence that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Dueling Clauses

Online event

THIS WILL BE AN ON-LINE EVENT VIA ZOOM. A link will be sent out at noon on Dec. 30 to all who have RSVPed their attendance.

You might think that, this close to Christmas, the dueling clauses we’re talking about would be from the movies The Santa Clause or Bad Santa or even “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. But no, those aren’t the clauses we’re referring to.

The US Constitution’s 1st Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, starts out forthrightly stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ....” These have come to be known as the Establishment Clause (religion should stay out of government) and the Free Exercise Clause (government should stay out of religion).

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, explaining why he had no intention of calling for national days of fasting and prayer, because his reading of the 1st Amendment was that it had established “a wall of separation between Church & State”.

Of course, that actual phrase itself doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, and Christian nationalists have taken that to mean that it was just a colorful idiom invented by Jefferson with no legal standing. But whatever standing it may have lacked in the literal words of the Constitution were pretty well put to rest by the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947, which stated that “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups or vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”

The fundamentalists then turned to the Free Exercise Clause for the justifications, rationalizations, and excuses for their evangelism and bigotry, continuing the pattern of tension between those dueling clauses which have been tidally washing back and forth for our entire history. They’ve taken to citing “religious freedom” as the basis for all sorts of things which basically boil down to “We should be able to do anything we want if we claim our religion tells us to do it.”

Examples: The owner of a Colorado bakery claimed the right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Churches ignored state orders for social distancing and no large gatherings during a pandemic. A private adoption agency run by evangelicals, and receiving federal funding, declined to provide adoption services to a Catholic woman. Notre Dame University refused to provide contraceptive services to its students despite the mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

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Past events (570)

The Ethics of Euthanasia

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