Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Mindful Minute: on political humanism

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Greg Epstein.
Greg Epstein.
(c) The Washington Post Company


Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein is making the rounds promoting his new book, Good Without God. Recently he was interviewed by Sally Quinn of the Washington Post as part of their Divine Impulses series (see video). Epstein makes the point that Humanism “has always been just a little bit dangerous to the powers that be”. He says that when people have been upset about the failures of their leaders, the leaders could always promise something better in an afterlife. I presume he includes those societies in which leaders would need to conspire with the holy men/women of the society to keep people content. This reminds me of the Sid Mier computer game, Civilization. In that game of leading a nation, religion’s function is to keep people content – to keep them from rebelling. I’m not sure of Sid Mier’s beliefs, but the game seems to support the notion that, without some better life being promised to them beyond death, people would rebel continuously.

I think there’s something to be said for the notion that Humanism often may not be advantageous to “the powers that be”. However, I think: (a) the elements of Humanism most a threat to them would be its emphasis on freethought, questioning authority, and healthy skepticism, rather than the lack of belief in an afterlife directly, and (b) many faith traditions could list elements within their belief systems which are anathema to the powers that be. To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t seem to get along with those in charge, and Buddha renounced his own royal status (whether the stories are literally true in every detail, many of the values espoused by the characters would seem credible reasons for the disdain of leaders in any time). Whenever a philosophy, faith, or tradition is at its best – whenever it espouses individual autonomy and renounces the things leaders use to control us, like fear and hate – then it can be said to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be.

This is a very politically-oriented take on Humanism, and it’s one that has predominated the movement, perhaps since its modern incarnation in the 1930s. One thing I attempt to do with the notion of the Humanist Contemplative, is focus more on the personal aspects of Humanism. Likely paraphrasing the Humanist Manifesto III, Epstein also said that it is our ability and responsibility to lead “ethical lives of personal fulfillment…” Note how the term ‘ethical’ is tied to the notion of personal fulfillment. The link between an ethical life and a personally fulfilling one is a central part of the many ancient philosophies I like to explore. Yes, we need the second socially conscious part, which is “…lives that aspire to the greater good”, but it must begin with the person in the mirror. My hope is that more Humanists will come back to that point by exploring how Humanism can be practiced individually in our daily lives, and it seems to be happening.

Epstein publishes the online magazine The New Humanism for which I have recently written. The name is a response to “The New Atheism” – folks like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others who have a more confrontational tone focusing on religious criticism. Rather, the New Humanism is about focusing on the positive values we seek to promote, rather than bashing others or over-emphasis on what we don’t believe. The subtitle to Epistein’s book is, “What A Billion Non-religious People Do Believe” and I admire that approach.

Written by DT Strain

January 22, 2010 at 10:54 am

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Second earthquake hits Haiti as Humanist charities join in response

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Humanist relief supplies were the first to arrive in Jacmel.
Humanist relief supplies were the first to arrive in Jacmel.
(c) American Humanist Association.


Sadly, another magnitude-6.1 aftershock has struck, after a devastating quake shook Haiti last week. Humanist charities have joined the many other organizations, churches, governments, and faith-based non-profit organizations scrambling to bring direly needed relief to suffering Haitians.

A recent AP article reports the European Union Commission estimates the original magnitude-7.0 quake killed about 200,000 people, injured another 250,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. Heartbreaking stories of people literally dying in the streets have emerged from the region over the past week and while aid is coming fast in terms of logistics, the definition of “fast” for large-scale organizations and governments can be all too different from the definition of “fast” for a starving person in need of medical treatment.

Humanist Charities, a division of the American Humanist Association (AHA), quickly established a Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund and began working with Sebastian Velez. Velez is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who has been working to protect the rights and expand access to medical care and education for Haitian immigrants, with whom the AHA has worked before.

Mr. Velez went to Haiti to assess the situation and establish avenues through which support could be received. Donations from Humanists have so far provided food, medicine, water, and other supplies to Haitians in need. Humanist Charities is currently operating in the port city of Jacmel, which was also devastated by the quake, but which has received little media attention. The Miami Herald referred to the city as “shattered and forgotten“. The shipments from Humanist Charities were the first supplies to arrive there by land or sea. Beyond merely delivering supplies, Mr. Velez is currently playing a major role in assessment and logistics, providing reliable information that is being used by other charities in the area. Mr. Velez wrote a letter reporting on the situation and said:

“I want to stress the importance of the AHA’s membership response. Our shipment justified the first trip from the Dominican Navy. Now many more shipments coming from Santo Domingo, since logistics are solved. Our tools and medical supplies were the first to arrive (as per UN bluecaps) and put to use immediately. We were the only ones from that dock that went into the city and got first-hand information for those here at the DR/Haiti border. These International organizations are using our list of medicines starting at the top of the list we provided.”

[Read Mr. Velez’s full letter]

While Humanist organizations may not be of the size or have the history of some religious organizations, it seems Humanists are doing their part to use what funds they can in ways that have the biggest impact possible.

[See more pictures of Humanist relief efforts in Haiti]

If you would like to help make a difference for people in need, please consider giving to the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund now. Click here to help others in need.

Written by DT Strain

January 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Textbooks? Valentine Gifts? Buy from Amazon and Help the JREF

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Did you know you can buy many college textbooks through Amazon? Flowers? Chocolates? Power tools?

I know I appreciate a good table saw.

If you buy your Amazon purchases via the link, JREF gets a commission, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.

To participate, go to the James Randi Educational Foundation  home page and look for the JREF Amazon link, on the lower left hand side of the page. It will bring you up into the selection of skeptically-themed books; however it you do not wish to purchase any book listed here, click on the “powered by Amazon” icon in the upper left corner. Although it won’t show a JREF link or any mention of James Randi, anything you put into your cart at this point will earn the JREF a commission, with very few exceptions.

Privacy: Amazon does not report any identifiable information in its earnings reports to the JREF, so your purchases are private.

Written by Geek Goddess

January 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

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Godless billboard now in Houston

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Speculative simulation of new Houston Billboard. (c) DT Strain.

HOUSTON, December 7, 2009 – Many may have heard of the various Godless signs appearing on billboard and buses around the country. Starting today, they’ve come to Houston…

The Houston Freethought Alliance ( is an alliance of local secular organizations. These organizations include the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, the Humanist Association of Montgomery County, the Atheists Meetup, and the Secular Center. Together, with funding from the national organization United Coalition of Reason, the billboard appears prominently at I-45 and 1960, near Ella Blvd.

The sign features a blue sky with clouds, and the words “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” and includes the contact information for the Alliance.

This project is part of an active campaign to spread awareness of these organizations. Rather than criticizing others, the message here merely lets those who don’t believe in a God know that there are others like them, and gives them a way to make contact with like-minded people if they choose.  In a world where the majority are theists, there are many people who feel rather alone in their atheism or agnosticism.

I personally don’t find the God/no-God question all that important. I prefer Humanism not because of what I don’t believe, but rather because it is about what I do believe. Humanist values are what’s important to me, and that has to do with how we treat one another, being compassionate, and how we live our lives. I think we have a lot in common with our theist friends on those grounds. Having said that, it at least seems like the phrase “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” is not a bad one.

The groups mentioned exist here in Houston for several purposes. Among them:

  • Providing a fellowship of like-minded people
  • Providing social get-togethers and fun events
  • Hosting intellectually stimulating speaking events and presentations on a number of issues from a naturalistic or nontheistic point of view
  • Helping to give a community support system to those who may not find churches something to which they can relate
  • Helping to connect people with secular celebrants who can conduct weddings, funerals, and other secular ceremonies
  • Doing charitable work in the community
  • Working to further education about naturalism, science, and reason
  • Working to support church/state separation and the rights of non-believers

Of course, there are many theists who find even the billboards as worded offensive or confrontational. In some other cities, similar billboards have already been vandalized more than once. It seems nontheists, merely by making themselves known, are seen as evil or beligerent by some, which is unfortunate.  Some of the billboards around the country say things like, “Good without God” or “Good for Goodness’ Sake”. The general message of all of them has simply been (a) to nontheists: that you are not alone and please contact us, and (b) to everyone else: people who don’t believe in God can still be good people.

Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason said, “The point of our national billboard campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States… Nontheists sometimes don’t realize there’s a community out there for them because they’re inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren’t alone.”

But reaching out to nontheists isn’t the only goal of the campaign. “Our message is also to let people know that we are part of the larger community,” added Noelle George, coordinator of the Houston Freethought Alliance. “We’re your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members. We’re just like you except that we don’t believe in a supreme being. Now we’d like the same opportunity as everyone else to be open about our views.”

The United Coalition of Reason has launched a dozen advertising campaigns previously this year. Each involved billboards or public transit ads. They appeared in Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Morgantown, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon.

Written by DT Strain

December 7, 2009 at 4:24 pm

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Some basics on religious freedom

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170 ft. Cross at Sagemont Church, Houston, TX. (cc) Luna715,

According to a news article by AP, the Swiss seem to have just voted to affirm a policy of banning Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. The move comes as a right wing initiative in response to fears over the growing Muslim population in the area, and what is seen as possible unwanted cultural shifts in their society. The initiative’s co-president Ulrich Schlueer said, “Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure — we don’t have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it.”

This reminds me of France’s move to ban the Hijab head scarves in their public schools a few years ago. In both cases, I find these kinds of moves unfortunate and the result of fear – ironically, likely to only produce more fear, aggression, and isolation in the future.

Europe has a strong secular streak in its governmental system, and the United States, religious though it is, was remarkable specifically because of its secular constitution. Yet, there is definitely something different between the philosophies of American secularism and European secularism.

In Europe, the idea seems to be that the government is going to enforce secularism on the citizens to some extent. There are much more intrusive laws regarding so-called “cult” activities, laws against various symbols or forms of expression, and so on. Now, they’re telling people not only what styles of buildings they can build on their own property, but what they can wear on their bodies. Secularists in Europe would be wise to keep in mind that it is not religion that is a threat, but rather certain elements found in fundamentalist religion, such as: intolerance, dogmatism, domination, ideology, unfounded beliefs, fear, paranoia, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand these traits can find their way into any human institution, including government. There have been several instances where ‘political religions’ have arisen in Europe and beyond, and when wielded with the vigor of a religious movement, the ‘enforced secular state’ is just as much a threat as any traditional religion.

In the United States, a secular government is as equally valued and important as in Europe. The wall of separation between church and state has been a foundational principle of our government since its inception. But, here, the perspective has some important differences. With American secularism, the emphasis is on the state being restricted – rather than the state doing the restricting. In other words, American secularism is about reigning in the power of the government. It’s about telling the government that it cannot interfere in religious matters. Individuals are free to practice their religions, wear what they want, build the kinds of churches they want, and so on. This is all, provided they are not harming others. It is also provided assuming that religion does not try to infiltrate government, and thus use its power base as a way to extend the interests of any one faith. We have these sorts of legal issues come up all the time, where people will try to get their religious views mounted on court houses and so on. So, the wall is important, but my primary point here is that the main emphasis is on restricting the state.

For example, everyone knows the phrase “they took prayer out of schools” but what isn’t often appreciated is this: they didn’t tell students they couldn’t pray. What they did was tell their own employees (the teachers – agents of the government) they they were not allowed to lead other people’s children in prayer, because it was inappropriate for government employees to be doing that to free citizens. The same applied to the use of government property for the sake of evangelizing. The entire matter is about restricting the government from telling your children what religious practices they’re going to follow. Children themselves are perfectly free to pray, and many student prayer groups meet on school grounds in appropriate times (with the same facilities made available for other interests as well).

In another example, when I was President of the Humanists of Houston, I was interviewed over the matter of several gigantic white crosses that have been placed around various entry highways into the city of Houston. These crosses have been placed on church properties around the city, with the intent being to give the impression that one is entering a ‘Christian city’ as they enter.

I told the interviewer that we certainly don’t agree with the notion that this is exclusively a Christian city or that Christians should have some privileged position. We also didn’t find the suggestive nature of the large icons to be tasteful or respectful. But then I said – however, the crosses are placed on private church property, and were paid for privately. As far as was known, no other building code violations or signage regulations had been violated. No one is obligated to be tasteful or respectful, and I have no right not to be offended. Therefore, the crosses are perfectly within the rights of those putting them up. The interviewer kept trying to goad me into saying something like, “they need to be banned” or that we were going to try and get the government to force them down or something. But I stood my ground that (a) we didn’t care for the statement personally, but (b) it was within their rights.

There are a lot of places where I think the U.S. needs improvement, but when it comes to our take on secularism vs the European approach, I’m happy we seem to be on a better track. Europe is facing a lot of inter-cultural conflicts, fears, and other issues right now, and their reaction against religion will only stoke more. I hope instead they look more toward inclusion, but with a firm handle on foundational principles of religious freedom. There are some principles of individual liberty that should override raw numbers in a vote. If one maintains that, then one needn’t fear Islamic law making its way into the system. Let people wear, say, and build what they want, and that same stance on individual human rights will be there to hold the gate when the pressure swings the other way. But without that foundation of individual liberty, no one is safe. If the Swiss have the numbers to pass such laws today, simply on the basis of mob rule – then I fear for them when the demographic proportions have turned around.

Written by DT Strain

November 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Shopping with Amazon? Help the JREF!

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As you probably know, you can buy nearly ANYTHING on Amazon, and frequently they have the best price, even when you include the shipping costs. When you do your holiday shopping, consider Amazon and help out the JREF.

If you enter the Amazon site via the link on, nearly anything you order results in a small commission to the JREF. This means big ticket items, like cameras and TVs, and small ticket items like a pair of socks! You don’t have to buy anything specifically listed in the JREF Amazon Library to earn comissions. Personally, I’ve ordered electronics, most of my son’s college textbooks, kitchen appliances, and a Kindle, as well as way too many books.  The commission also applies to items that are shipped from third-party companies that sell from within Amazon. There are exceptions, but they are rare.
When you go to the James Randi Educational Foundation website, you will see an advertising banner above the latest SWIFT blog post.  These rotate through several different subjects, so it you don’t see «JREF Amazon Library», refresh your page until it appears.  You can browse through the books, DVDS, and other items listed there, or you can proceed to Amazon to search and select for what you are buying, and log into your own account.  It’s that easy.

As far as privacy concerns: The JREF receives a general report of items ordered with the estimated revenue, but Amazon does not send any personally identifiable information, only quantities ordered under the JREF icon.

It costs you nothing extra, and really helps out the JREF!

Thank for your support. Your JREF Librarian….

Written by Geek Goddess

November 28, 2009 at 10:12 am

Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup report

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The Humanist Contemplative emblem. Groups exist in Houston and at Harvard.

Last night (11/25/09) a few of us came together at Borders Books & Music on Kirby, to discuss the contemplative life, the overlapping lessons and practices available from many different ancient philosophies, and make plans for a program of topics in the next year.

The program for the Humanist Contemplative Houston Meetup will begin at the ground level and build up from there. This means our first focus will be on the nature of reality. In this we will begin with a look at modern complex systems theory. Moving on from there, we will explore both the Taoist views of Nature and those expressed by Heraclitus. In this, we will look for the common threads to see what profound insights they can tell us about how the universe unfolds and how we can build productive perspectives around that reality, which will be conducive to a life of happiness.

The next step in our program will then be to move on to the connection between “what is”, and how we approach life, or how best to live in the light of those realities. This will begin with exploring the mindsets, priorities, and perspectives of the Buddhists, the Stoics, and others. We’ll look at how these perspectives, once deeply understood and intuitively grasped (beyond mere intellectual knowledge) can have a profound impact on our attitudes and approaches. Lastly, we’ll look at the lifestyle implications of those approaches, namely ethics and practices.

This is a long-term plan for us, but it will give us a skeletal structure of concepts. What we want to do is bring everything to the table that humanity has to offer. So, rather than planning to study a specific philosophy, our skeleton is an outline of certain concepts (on the natural universe, its implications to value, how that effects lifestyle, and the pursuit of the flourishing life). It will then be open to us and all who attend to bring whatever philosophic takes on those concepts they can for comparison and contrast. One of us will be bringing in Native American views at some point for example.

We then looked at format and decided that the best structure for our monthly meetup (our “discourse”) would be in three parts. The first part would be teaching-based, or the intellectual. Here we will share concepts from whatever sources we like. We don’t want there to be ‘homework’ or required reading for this group, but we will have a heads-up on what will be discussed, some suggested reading, and so on. The idea is that we’ll all have things to say and questions to offer from our own experiences of things we’re already reading or have read, or that we hope to learn more about.  In other words, this exploration is to be done at the event itself, with others.  The second part of our discourse, will leave the academic and focus on the practical. In other words, we’ll look each time at solid practices and behaviors which can either help us to instill these lessons on a deeper level, build habits, or have direct effects on our happiness and wellbeing. The third and last part of our discourses will be more personal in nature. Here we will move beyond hypothetical talk of either teachings or practices and speak with one another about our own personal lives. We’ll share our challenges and plans in our path, giving and receiving encouragement or advice as needed.

For now, our entire program outline is very basic, but here is a flavor of the kinds of things we’ll be looking at:

Humanist Contemplatives Discourse Schedule

I. Complexity
An layman’s conceptual overview of complex systems theory. Traits of complex systems such as self-emergence, bifurcation, autopoeisis, emergent properties, and more will be covered. The application and relevance of complexity to the many aspects of our world will also be examined.

II. Taoism & Heraclitus (East & West on Nature)
The writings of Heraclitus as he observed the changing flux of Nature are compared with Taoist conceptions of Nature, which recalls what we know about complex systems.

III. Chuang-Tzu & Stoic Ethics (Living with Complexity)
With an integrated modern-ancient conception of a complexity-based Nature in mind, we look at what implications that has for how we live our lives. In doing so, we compare the Taoist Chuang-Tsu’s understanding of the implications, with the Stoic’s understanding of ‘living in accordance with Nature’.

IV. Stoic Physics
Moving beyond Heraclitus to full Stoicism. A more focused look at the universe as it exists in the traditional Stoic model. The nature of the passive and active, the Logos (Divine Fire), Stoic determinism and materialism, and more will be examined.

V. Buddhist Physics
We will look at what is really meant by the descriptions of reality given by core Buddhism in a naturalistic context. Some comparison will be made with Taoist descriptions.

VI. Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, & the Natural Universe
Bringing together the Stoic, Buddhist, and modern complexity-based physics – we will attempt to reach an understanding of the overlap and consistency between them.

VII. Value & Ethics, the Stoic/Buddhist good life
How different modes of description are possible, important, and equally valid depending on the communicative function needed. Overlap and contrast in the approach to life between different traditions is examined.

VIII. Humanism & ancient philosophy
With a grasp of ancient/modern physics/ethics as a whole, we will tie this back into Humanism, and explore its place in the Humanist worldview.

IX. Synthophy – the synthesis of global wisdom, modern science, and humanistic concern
The Five Synthophic Realms and the 20 Synthophic Precepts will be presented as a complete basis of natural spirituality, will be presented and discussed.

After planning these things, we also did a great deal of sharing and discussion of these ideas themselves. As such the evening was not merely planning but we seemed to get a lot out of it. The value of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT, heavily influenced by Stoicism) was shared, and we talked about anger issues, self judgment, and more. All in all, a very satisfying discourse.

Right now our group is very small in terms of actual attendance, and it will likely always be so, but if you would like to join us – you are certainly welcome. Our normal discourses will take place on the second Wednesday of each month, so that puts the next one on December 9, 2009 at 7:00pm. For location, details, and to sign up to receive ongoing information on this group, please visit sign up, and RSVP today!

Written by DT Strain

November 26, 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized