April News and Notes

By George Kane

Michael Newdow lost the first round of his suit to end the practice appending, in violation of the constitutionally prescribed script, the words ‘so help me God' to the presidential oath of office. But he asserted that the loss is actually a good thing:

It may sound disingenuous, but I have always advocated for losing in the District Court if possible. Basically - except for findings of fact (which rarely exist in constitutional cases such as this) - it is advantageous to lose. As the loser, you are the Appellant in the next round. That allows you to frame the issues, since you go first during the briefing. The Appellant starts with a maximum 14,000 word Opening Brief. The ‘winners' then have a 14,000 word limit to respond with their Respondent Briefs. Then the loser gets to speak last, with a 7,000 word Reply Brief.

During the oral argument, the advantage persists. The Appellant goes first, and then can reserve time for rebuttal, so that [the appellant] goes last as well.

So pop the Champagne, and get ready for the round that really counts. Of course, we may lose again there, in which case the litigation will essentially be over (since the Supreme Court will never accept the case for certiorari if we lose in the Court of Appeals). But we have a very strong case, with that little detail called the Constitution of the United States on our side. So, in my opinion, at least, we're in very good shape.

The new President and congress dominated church/state separation news at the beginning of the year, but now the focus has returned to the courts and state legislatures. I have a personal interest in one court case that the religious right is appealing, from my native California and my alma mater University of California. The conservative Christian plaintiffs claim that the University of California is discriminating against the students from religious high schools when they reject classes for meeting admissions requirements. UC requires incoming freshmen to have taken 15 specific classes in high school, in math, science, English, foreign language, and social studies. In the case Association of Christian Schools International v. Stearns, plaintiffs claim that ‘UC has targeted courses that emphasize disfavored religious viewpoints, such as the idea that God has influenced human history and provides a universal, unchanging standard of truth and morality.' All incoming freshmen must have passed in high school a class in World History. Their complaint is that UC has refused to recognize for this requirement such courses as the Holocaust, Jewish Leadership, Jewish Philosophy, Women in Scripture, Moral Theology, History of Christianity, and Catholic Traditions. I'm sorry, but how broad is the knowledge of World History that a student receives in any of these classes? The only point of the suit seems to be to foster a sense of victimhood among conservative Christians.

In East Brunswick New Jersey, high school football coach Marcus Borden's fight for the right to lead his team in prayer before games has come to a legal dead end. When the school ordered him to desist, Borden originally won in federal court. How in the world can that possibly happen? With pro bono assistance from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the school district had that ruling reversed on appeal. The final word on the story is that SCOTUS has refused to hear the case, exhausting Coach Borden's appeals.

Late last year, Louisiana enacted a Science Education Act to promote ‘open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.' Drafted by the conservative Christian Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), the bill promises support for teachers who ‘use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories,' providing cover for teachers to promote Intelligent Design as science.

National science organizations are responding by boycotting Louisiana. The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, with more than 2300 members, has moved its 2011 convention from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. The boycott has been joined by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Losing these large conventions will add to Louisiana's financial crisis.

In Mississippi, Representatives Chism and Espy have introduced House Bill No. 25. Can you read it without breaking out in laughter?

The State Board of Education shall require every textbook that includes the teaching of evolution in its contents to include the following language on the inside front cover of the textbook: "The word ‘theory' has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations. This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory.

Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of 24 the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record; the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record; and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things. Study hard and keep an open mind."

Nearly identical language is written into a bill just introduced in the Texas House of Representatives. The bill would additionally restore language requiring the teaching of the ‘strengths and weaknesses' of scientific theories. That language had been previously removed at the insistence of Texas' leading scientific societies and over 1400 scientists in Texas, because its intent was to baldly introduce Intelligent Design into science classrooms as an alternative to evolution. The bill additionally stipulates that ‘no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses.' In other words, any explanation is just as good as any other.

Another new bill in the Texas legislature would exempt private, nonprofit educational institutions that do not accept state funding and state-administered federal funding from approval by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to award academic degrees. This is because the Board unanimously refused to permit the Creation Research Institute to offer an online master's degree in science education. If the bill passes, Texas will surely become a magnet for fraudulent organizations offering advanced degrees for sale.


March Meeting Review "The Humanism of Star Trek"

hum_of_st.jpgBy James Zimmerman

At the March 15th meetings, attendees were treated to Scott Lohman's presentation of "The Humanism of Star Trek". As both the President of the Humanists of Minnesota and a life-long Star Trek fan, Scott was certainly qualified to deliver such a presentation. And he didn't just talk Trek: he delivered his presentation while in Starfleet uniform and came equipped with Trek gadgetry.

Scott's talk began in the nineteenth century, wherein Scott detailed the origins of science fiction. He noted that creators of science fiction soon discovered that they could tell stories that pushed the edge of cultural norms and comment on social issue in a safe setting - where such heavy topics were disguised in science fiction.

Scott gave a mostly chronological overview of the Star Trek universe. He related the beginnings of Star Trek: how atheist Gene Roddenberry created and then pushed for the show to be produced. He then discussed the original series, the animated series, the motion pictures, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. In each case, Scott drew attention to episodes that took on matters of faith and the supernatural, such as "Who Mourns for Adonis", from the original series, in which the characters refuse to worship a god they've discovered, and "Death Wish" from Voyager, in which an omnipotent being fights for his right to die (as eternity is a long, long time). Scott also cited episodes which dismissed gods as merely more advanced (but non-supernatural) beings, such as the original series' "The Return of the Archons", in which the ‘god', Landru, turns out to be a computer, and the Next Generation's "Devil's Due" in which the being portraying herself as the devil is simply a powerful charlatan.

Scott reminded everyone that, should they want more Star Trek, they need only wait until May 8th. The eleventh Star Trek motion picture is scheduled for release on that day.

Scott quickly noted the top-rated episodes of each series. For those who missed it, here they is the top rated episode from each series:

  • Star Trek: The Original Series - "The City on the Edge of Forever"
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation - "Yesterday's Enterprise"
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Duet"
  • Star Trek: Voyager - "Scorpion"
  • Star Trek: Enterprise - "In a Mirror Darkly"

April Radio Report

april_radio.jpgBy Mike Haubrich

Atheists Talk continues to be an important outreach, but the expense of paying for the show is rather high. We have tried an experiment at the request of KTNF, to see if a dialog between an atheist and a theist would generate a larger audience. The first show in that format didn't work out as we hoped, and so we are going to try another approach. We don't have anything definite to report on that, yet.

However, we do have some very exciting news. Brent Michael David tipped us off that there will be an opening at KFAI, Community Radio! I sent in the application, and if that works out we would save considerable money, plus the time slot is more conducive to gathering a larger audience. If we are able to land the show with KFAI we will not need to run a separate podcast and we will not renew our contract with KTNF.

In March our guests included Massimo Pigliucci, Greg Laden, Sean Carroll, Scott Lohman, Robert Price Peter Lipson, and Robert Dull. The show with Peter Lipson struck some deep chords with listeners, and I appreciate that Stephanie Zvan was able to arrange that interview.

I would like to emphasize that any member is welcome to make suggestions for guests, and if you are able to arrange a guest you are welcome to do the interview (no radio experience required.) I appreciate the support of the Minnesota Atheists in producing this show. Thank you!


Movie Review: Watchmen

james_head.jpgBy James Zimmerman

Don't arrive late for Watchmen. The first ten minutes, featuring a gasp-inducing fight sequence that doesn't flinch which segues into a back-story montage set perfectly to Dylan's Times They are A-Changing, are the best ten minutes of the film. But Zack Snyder's longawaited screen adaptation of the classic graphic novel Watchmen certainly gives the viewers plenty else to take in during the remaining 152 minutes. Dark, dreary shots of a city in perpetual nighttime, choreographed violence that blurs the line between fighting and dancing, nonlinear story-telling, cultural commentaries, a superb soundtrack, and buff characters - some in barelythere superhero costumes (and sometimes not even that) - running around saving the world, saving themselves, and saving the world from themselves, all adds up to a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it adventure.

Snyder's movie is ambitious, and that's appropriate, considering the source material. Based on arguably the most popular graphic novel of all time, it's tough to judge the picture without comparing it to its predecessor. In some ways, it succeeds: it handily depicts half a dozen main characters and provides enough backdrops for us to care about them in the present. The non-linear storytelling is in keeping with the novel, though in film format small snippets of the story, so valuable in the novel and to the tale itself, are lost in the quick flash of the screen. Viewers who come into the theater with no working knowledge of Watchmen might find themselves confused: Where did Rorschach get that disguise, and how does it work? Why does Dr. Manhattan walk around naked for most of his screen time? What's with Bubastis, the lynx/slug hybrid always skulking around Ozymandias? If you've read the comics, these tidbits not only make sense, but actually enhance the characters. If you haven't read them, no amount of repeated viewing of the film will bring any clarity.

You've probably deduced by now that this is an extremely detailed story, hinging on equally detailed back story. There's so much comic book mythology kicking and jumping around in Watchmen that, for many years, it was considered unfilmable. Snyder gets kudos for, at the very least, transferring the epic into a viewable, comprehensible spectacle. He makes some compromises (the loss of Black Freighter, the story-within-a-story, is a travesty made only marginally better by its promise to appear as an extra on the DVD), but he also manages to improve on the original in a few limited areas (the antagonist's blame-placing is more logical here than in the novel).

Atheists will be pleased to discover that, during its entire run time, there are no appeals to the supernatural. None of the heroes (or villains) labors under the delusion that a god is going to step in and fix their problems. As the masked crusader Rorschach (played faultlessly by Jackie Earle Haley) noted: "God doesn't make the world this way. We do." And, in answering questions about his omnipotence, Dr. Manhattan, the anti-Superman responded: "I don't think there is a god, and if there is I'm nothing like him." His observation is spot on, as we never see him inflicting punishment upon grandchildren for the errors of their grandparents (see Numbers 14:18), causing famine (see Genesis 41:31, 32), displaying a fetish for foreskins (see Exodus 4:23-25), or forcing parents to eat the corpses of their children (see Jeremiah 19:9).

  • Depiction, where explicit or implicit, of deities: 5/5
  • Depiction, whether explicit or implicit, of religion: 4/5
  • View of valuing this life as opposed to an afterlife: 4/5
  • Positive view of self-reliance: 3/5
  • Championship of reason: 4/5
  • Bottom line: 4/5

Professor Dawkins Visits the Twin Cities

ryan_sutter.jpgBy Ryan Sutter

On Wednesday, March 4th, Richard Dawkins delivered a lecture at the Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis. The title of his lecture was The Purpose of Purpose. The main questions he addressed were:

- Why Darwinian natural selection would create a mind that sees purpose and goals everywhere, and

- What it is about our minds that cause us to subvert our basic biological gene-survival purpose?

The concepts are actually pretty deep if you think about it. If we exist because evolution has shaped us to be this way, and evolution only truly rewards the survival of genes, what possible explanation could there be for using birth control, for example. The answer was interesting. His illustration was a goalseeking missile. A selfguided missile flexibly adapts its behavior in pursuit of the goal of striking a moving target. This ability to flexibly adapt to goals is a strength that allows it to do its job. However, flexibility and adaptation is a double-edged sword. If the missile falls into the wrong hands, it can be given a new goal and, its strengths intact, be used to attack the one who made it in the first place.

Now, our minds are not created artifacts in quite the same way that the missile is, but they have been shaped by million of years of evolution to be flexible in the pursuit of goals, altering course intelligently, creating sub-goals, etc. Those are the very strengths that allowed us to survive and pass on our genes. However, the invention of advanced language and civilization changes our environment allowing other people (and sometimes ourselves) to subvert those evolved goals for other reasons that are actually contrary to our evolved goals.

Sex gets subverted, filial devotion gets subverted, tribal and family allegiances get subverted. We take a perfectly valid genetic goal and redirect it into religions, raising pets, all sorts of things that make no sense in light of the evolutionary imperative to propagate our own genes. Our very power and flexibility make us susceptible to goal subversion quite unlike that which happens in nature.

Dawkins concluded with a Q&A period during which he handily responded to inquiries both interesting and bizarre.



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