Religious TV on cold medicine

February 27, 2007

I apologize for not writing recently.  I’ve had a bad cold, which meant a lot of lying on the couch watching TV.  We don’t have cable, so we get about 8 channels, and at least 4 of them usually seem to be broadcasting Protestant sermons.  It’s been interesting watching them.  Based on my completely unscientific sample, there seemed to be two kinds of shows: megachurch meetings, in which a professional-looking woman or man explains how following the Bible will improve your everyday life.  The advice in these is usually helpful common sense: be positive, exercise self-control, be nice to people, support your kids’ self-esteem, pursue your interests with energy, etc.  They’re like Oprah with a much larger studio audience and a much much more limited book club.  They appeal to the average American’s desire to improve his or her life in concrete ways: get a better job, better relationships, feel happier and more purposeful. I don’t believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but I didn’t feel threatened by these shows.
The other kind of show I saw was frightening, at least to me: the us/them peddlers.  These shows attacked “unbelievers,” questioners, Catholics (which surprised me), and their preachers promised (vague) heaven to the obedient and (graphic) hell to everyone else. These shows feed the human tendency to pump ourselves up by scapegoating others–and they had much, much smaller audiences, at least the ones I saw.  So maybe it was all the cold medicine, but I was at least comforted by the thought that all the religious revival going on in America might not be fed so much by a rejection of science or fear of people who are different as by a lot of people needing more help than they’re getting in making their lives and relationships work out better.

Which isn’t to say that these non-hating average folks can’t also be led somewhere ugly if they have blind faith in their Oprahlike preachers.  But I think what we’re seeing in the across-the-board rejection of the war, the tentative acceptance of stem-cell research, etc., is that Americans are much more practical than theological.  If we could just show how the theory of evolution helps balance your checkbook, keep your kid off drugs, and build a faster, cheaper car, “intelligent design” would be dead in the water.

Intelligent Design in Missouri?

February 20, 2007

The legislation to which our Darwin Day speaker, Dr. George Johnson, referred recently is House Bill 1266, the “Missouri Science Education Act.”  The text of the bill is here, and you can listen to Dr. Johnson’s excellent talk here.

It’s hard to see at a first reading what could be controversial about the bill–it doesn’t have the words “creationism” or “intelligent design” anywhere in it. It just tells teachers to “separate” “verified empirical data” from that which only appears to be.  Dr. Johnson explained how recent DNA evidence is verified empirical data that proves the theory of evolution. But I’m doubtful that will end the threat of such bills. I’ve heard some creationists say that evolution can never be considered a fact, because we can’t see humans evolve from lower forms of life with our own eyes–because it happened in the past.  I know Missouri is the “Show Me” state, but it is taking the thing too far to undermine the teaching of empirically verified theories because no one alive today actually witnessed them in action.  If we follow that logic, teachers should also feel free to present “alternatives” to anything that happens too far away or too small to see with the naked eye: astronomy, cosmology, quantum physics, molecular biology. Perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster is responsible for more than we thought. . . .

I don’t know the current state of HB 1266, but it’s not dead.  Let me know if you have current information on the bill, and if you have an opinion on it one way or another, let your MO representative know.  It can be easy for bills without the words “intelligent design” to fly below the radar.

If you're reading this, you're probably rich

February 14, 2007

An article on reports on a UN study of global wealth:  “The research indicates that assets of just $2,200 per adult place a household in the top half of the world’s wealthiest. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world, just $61,000 in assets is needed. If you have more than $500,000, you’re part of the richest 1%.”

I read a lot of these kinds of statistics, but this brought me up short.  It also mentions that the three richest people in the world have more money than the poorest 48 countries combined.  But don’t let that distract you from the fact that most of us reading this are rich compared to the rest of humanity.  How does that make you feel?  Guilty? Weird? Generous? Protective?  Another rich person wants to know.

Kansas welcomes back Darwin

February 14, 2007

First, I know many who attended our first Darwin Sunday this week are looking forward to follow-up information from our speaker, Dr. George Johnson, on the recent breakthroughs in gene sequencing and the stealth legislation that would allow the teaching of “intelligent design” in Missouri schools.  I’ll post that information ASAP.

Second, Darwin got a birthday present this week, in the form of the Kansas school board rejecting “intelligent design” in their schools.  However, in the cnn article on this change, there’s a disappointing quote from those who believe that evolution is incompatible with ethics.  As I’ve said in several of my Sunday platforms, this view is not only not true, but the understanding of evolution can inspire a more ethical future, if we accept that human development is now in our own hands and that our choices will determine how we evolve, socially, physically, ethically.  Sticking our heads in the sand or the clouds is false comfort and ethically dangerous.

Apparently I'm not paranoid enough

February 6, 2007

In my January address on the First Amendment and the religious right, I worried that a secular government and a society based on separation of church and state is incompatible with the belief that you must proselytize at every opportunity in order to save souls from eternal torment.

Now Julia L. sends me this link.  Take a moment to read it.

State Representative Brian L. Baker (and I actually don’t know that he wrote this—standard Internet disclaimer—but I have no reason to think he did not) proves that my worries are well-founded, unfortunately.  Particularly when he writes this:

“The groups that sponsored this event will tell you that they do not support the mixture of religion and politics — claiming a separation of church and state, but they do more to limit speech and have testified in committee against the posting of the ten-commandments. They further have spoken against teaching founding documents. While I agree that government should not endorse religion, I do believe that we should allow people of all faith to express their freedom and share their beliefs in our Democrat-Republic. These groups would tell you they agree, but then would oppose a ban on gay marriage.”

This paragraph shows that even lawmakers are confused about fundamental Constitutional issues.  First, a private individual has the right to post the ten commandments on private property; a government employee (such as a judge or public-school teacher) does not have the right to post the ten commandments on government property (courthouses and schools) in a way that implies government sanction for one particular interpretation of one particular religious tradition (even within Judeo-Christianity, different groups support different versions of the ten commandments).

Second . . . well, the idea that banning gay marriage=free expression of religion is just frightening.  If the state wants to limit marriage (by age and number of people, etc.), it can certainly do so, on secular grounds.  But Baker seems to believe that his freedom of religion can only be exercised by disallowing others’.  It’s not enough that his church can refuse to sanctify whatever unions it chooses—other religions (such as Ethical Culture) should not be allowed to sanctify unions that Baker’s church doesn’t like.  This is freedom of religion . . . according to Orwell, or according to those who truly believe that their beliefs trump law, social science, and civil and human rights.

That belief is incompatible with democracy.

Thank you Trailnet

February 5, 2007

Those of you in the St. Louis area who would like to do your part to fight global warming (and help your health) should check out  I wrote their website to ask for advice on commuting by bicycle, and I got quick and comprehensive help–they even came up with a safer route and made a map for me.  They also have a Bike Mentor Program in which a seasoned rider will help you get up to speed.
Not that I’m up to riding in 11 degree weather yet.

Simplicity resources

January 29, 2007

Here as promised are some of the books I mentioned in my talk this past Sunday (plus a few more).  Most should be available at your local library, or through inter-library loan.

Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.  The now-classic how-and-why-to on achieving Financial Independence.  The related website is

The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist.  Anecdotes, facts, and inspiration on using your money to bring out the best in others and thereby yourself.  Twist is very honest about the damage that charity can do, versus partnership and investment in small businesses, etc.

Graceful Simplicity: The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream, by Jerome Segal. A civic-minded book that looks at the philosophy of simple living starting with Aristotle, and that emphasizes social and political changes needed to allow more people in America to choose less-job-and-stuff-oriented lives.

Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World, by Linda Breen Pierce.  Stories of folks young and old, rich and poor, who are working toward or have achieved a simpler life.  Tends to emphasize the individualistic “personal growth” aspect of simple living.

The Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing.  The Nearings are icons of the back-to-the-land movement, and their philosophy encompasses food, health, house-building, homesteading, community, and peace-directed politics.

A Reasonable Life, by Ferenc Mate.  A tirade by a guy who thinks we are all idiots for living the way we do.  He falls into the trap of false nostalgia for the primitive life (when we were happy, free, and dead of yet-another-childbirth by the age of 25), but I found the book mostly funny and motivating.

And don’t forget the classics: The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith and Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Now, what books or other materials do you know of?  I’m especially interested in reading more by Buckminster Fuller, but all recommendations in the area of simple living are welcome.  I’m also on the look-out for websites and blogs that are about ethical simplicity—meaning more than just spending less and making good investments, but how people are using their freed-up money, time, and energy to improve their communities.

I love Isa

January 24, 2007

If you eat food, check out this article (and recipes!) in today’s New York Times. Then visit for more recipes, cookbooks, and information by my favorite vegan baker and cook. Yes you can do good by eating well. And please don’t fall into that “Oh I could never give up ____ [so I’m not going to make any changes at all]” trap. Just buy, cook, eat, and share more vegan food.

Kicking the Carbon Habit video

January 23, 2007

William Sweet, author of Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy, gave a half-hour talk in November at the NY Society for Ethical Culture.  You can see a (partly jumpy) video of his talk on Google Video. The second half of the talk focuses on the psychological and political problems of trying to convince people to believe in and respond to the crisis.  Sweet supports an expansion of  nuclear energy as part of the solution (along with wind and carbon/gasoline taxes).  This may be jumping into the fire in an attempt to save us from the frying pan, or it may be true that we’re simply not smart enough yet to make the changes and sacrifices that will be sustainable for the long haul. What’s the greater ethical madness?—to dodge the bullet of global warming using nuclear power, and just hope that we’ll also dodge the next bullet of a planet full of nuclear waste—or to believe that average people in the developed world can be re-taught what it means to live “the good life”?  Do you support nuclear power? Do you hate it but think it’s better than global warming? Do you think conservation and sustainable energy alone are “realistic” solutions?

I wasn’t around during War War II, but I understand that life was very different for a time: most civilians thoughtfully sacrificed everyday to help with the war effort, and politicians weren’t afraid to ask for sacrifices.  Maybe that’s just the rosy view in hindsight. Why are commentators so convinced that substantial conservation could never happen now?

Rebecca Armstrong

January 22, 2007

Some have asked for more information from and about Rebecca, who gave a passionate and provocative platform address yesterday.  (It should be up on our Audio Library page in a few days.)  On her website,, you can read her views on the modern ritual of weddings, the creation of the ideal of romantic love (in the West), and why the high divorce rate may not be a sign of the Apocalypse after all.

AMAAM and recent podcasts

January 17, 2007

Last Sunday’s platform speaker, Martin Rafanan of NCCJSTL (National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis) has donated his honorarium to the African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri, whose mission is to help African refugees and other legal immigrants become productive members of society and to provide citizenship education to new African Americans. You can find out more about this wonderful organization at their website,

You can hear Rafanan’s talk and my recent address on the First Amendment online on our website.

. . . which can only be good

January 11, 2007

Stephen Colbert is worried about Missouri.  (If the link doesn’t work, you can find it through the Comedy Central site, the Stephen Colbert clip titled “Worry.”)

You break it, he buys it

January 11, 2007

The problem with Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” theory on Iraq—we broke it, so we have to buy/fix it (besides that that’s not Pottery Barn’s policy)—is that the people who “broke” Iraq by choosing to invade it and doing such a poor job of planning and implementation are not the same people who get maimed and killed trying to “fix” Iraq. Back in the pre-democratic days of kings and lords, the common people complained that during all the wars for resources and “honor” those who started the wars and who stood to gain by them were usually relatively safe on their horses far behind the front lines. At least the kings and lords were usually there. Today, looking at the casualty lists, not even generals seem to be in any danger (or they’re amazingly lucky). The real decision-makers aren’t even on the same continent as the fighting they pontificate about. And this is considered the more rational, civilized way to fight wars—by proxy.

So the next time I break something in a store, I guess I should find the person with the least ability to protest and say, “Send him the bill.”

Perfectionism and purpose

January 8, 2007

On my walk to work today (How can I give it up—it’s where I do my best thinking!) I re-thought my chronic guilt that my platform addresses are not as good as they should be.  Hang on–I’m not fishing for compliments, so please don’t send me any; I’ve heard and appreciate all the positive feedback I’ve received over the past year.  I’m not saying my platforms aren’t good.  I just know that they aren’t as good as they would be were I to spend even more time on them.  This is true probably of most of the things that most of us do, and if you’ve felt this way about aspects of your life I hope you’ve already realized what I didn’t until this morning:  that how you feel about your work (however you define work) should depend on your overall goals.

Sure, if I spent even more time on my platform addresses, they would be better.  But my purpose in life is not to give the best platform addresses I’m ideally capable of giving. . . . I don’t actually know my purpose in life, or at least how to articulate it.  But I do have many goals for my life, and they include balancing work, family and friends, leisure, and community; enjoying the arts and nature; staying informed about the world; spending a lot of quality time with my partner; being available to people who need me; keeping a healthy body and a relatively calm mind; having time to imagine, dream, and remember; taking the time to lead a life of voluntary simplicity.  There are more goals along those lines.  The point is that working a little bit toward all these goals whenever I can takes time and energy and thought, and moving a little closer to all of them means choosing not to focus on any one.  So I can feel guilty about not achieving one goal, or I can recognize that I’ve chosen a life in which I work toward a lot of goals that are important to me, which means probably not perfecting any.  But that’s the life I choose.

Ethical resolutions for 2007

January 2, 2007

Greetings and Happy New Year, everyone; I hope your holidays were warm and loving. Billy and I enjoyed seeing family and friends in New York City and Connecticut.

And now here we are in 2007. Resolution time. Yes, it’s cheesy, but any excuse to examine our lives and try to make them a little more ethical is a worthy idea. The key to resolutions seems to be to make them concrete and not too difficult. We can always build on our successes, whereas although we can also build on our failures (“No place to go but up”), we’re usually too depressed.

With that in mind, my first resolution is small indeed. To buy compact fluorescent bulbs. It’s embarrassing to be less environmental than Wal-Mart (see Compact fluorescents are a good example of the small but difficult-to-make adjustments that more ethical living requires. I’ve known for many years that I should be buying these things. But when I’m at the store facing the higher prices, my mind fills with rationalizations and memories of poor light quality that are now years out of date. So I write this resolution in public, in the hopes that shame may succeed where good intention has not.

What ethical resolutions have you made to try to be kinder to others, yourself, the planet . . . ?

Matthew LaClair, student Ethical Culture hero

December 21, 2006

Matthew LaClair was raised in the Ethical Society of Essex, New Jersey. He’s in the news right now for tape-recording his eleventh-grade history teacher proselytizing in his public school classroom, and for using those tapes to stop it. You can hear an interview with Matthew and his dad, Paul, on the Brian Lehrer show. Matthew is an impressively articulate young man trying to live his Ethical Culture values; it’s sad to hear that he and his family are being attacked in their community for sticking up for religious freedom. If you’d like to write a message of support for Matthew in the comments, I’ll make sure he gets it.

"In this season of giving . . . " (not an ad for more stuff we don't need)

December 19, 2006

Sunday’s New York Times had an article by Peter Singer titled “What Should a Billionaire Give–and What Should You?” It’s a fascinating analysis of private philanthropy and demolishes several common rationalizations people give for not being more generous. It also describes a remarkable altruist I had never heard of, and it breaks down how the UN’s Millennium Goals for the developing world could be achieved through relatively modest investment by the richest 10% of Americans. I don’t agree with Singer that only the richest 10% should feel responsible for achieving the Millennium Goals–as I explained in my “Infinite Interrelatedness” platform (which you can hear here), my ethics says that we are all responsible for caring for each other–but otherwise I strongly recommend the article. And please let me know what you think.

Clicking for good

December 19, 2006

I was reminded the other day of all the web sites I used to visit regularly where you could click on an ad to donate money to famine victims or breast cancer research or a dozen other things.  Such an easy way to help good causes—yet I stopped going and clicking long ago.  Has this been your experience too, ethical readers?  They still exist—or at least does.  Why don’t we all go to them everyday?  What’s the lesson in this?

Some of the reasons I stopped going and clicking are that the more of these sites there were, the less I went to them, because I didn’t have time to go to all of them, and I somehow felt less guilty going to none than choosing breast cancer over famine or famine over animal shelters, etc.  The other thing I remember is that after a while the sites began to beg you also to click on one of their sponsors’ ads—which took more time, but more important, since I wasn’t going to buy anything from the sponsor anyway, this felt useless at best and like cheating at worst.  Finally, I had no feedback that my little clicks were making a difference—it seemed that the only way they would is if I also convinced a lot of other people to click as well, and I figured everyone I knew was becoming as disillusioned with all these clicking-for-good sites as I was, so I didn’t want to spam them with any more.

The breast cancer site says it’s helped 2500 women this year, which is 2500 times better than none, but considering the millions of people who use the web, it doesn’t represent much clicking.  If the power of the Net is going to be harnessed to raise money for good causes, clearly a new way needs to be found.  MoveOn and similar organizations raise money by sending pleas directly into people’s inboxes, but the more organizations that do that, the less effective that tactic will become as well.  I wonder what will be next.

Anyway, I clicked for breast cancer research, and I’m going to make one of these sites my homepage so that I remember everyday.  I’m just going to pick one out of a hat and tell myself that one is not just better than none; it’s much much better.

Religious wars imagined and real

December 14, 2006

A few years ago it was discovered that some retailers choose to hawk their wares with the phrase Happy Holidays, in acknowledgement that several holidays are celebrated at this time of year (including New Years, which I think we all agree on).  This was clearly an affront to the ongoing secularization and commercialization of Christmas, and therefore denounced by people whose jobs require that they create controversies in order to report on them.  This year many retailers have “learned their lesson,” as a Wal-Mart spokesperson said, and they are wishing shoppers a “Merry Christmas.” (What “lesson” is that, exactly?)  But the nefarious phrase “Happy Holidays” is still out there, and so the “controversy” continues.

Meanwhile and much more important, the government of Iran has just hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers and their anti-Semitic hangers-on—to much worldwide criticism and disgust, I’m glad to see.  This is what an actual war on a religion looks like, people—a state-sponsored attempt to erase the deliberate cold-blooded murder of millions of people, and the demonization of those who survive.

In an ethical world, Holocaust denial would be vigorously fought with ongoing education and outrage, and the decisions of private companies to be inclusive would be applauded.  Yet I suspect that the “controversy” of “Happy Holidays Shoppers!” will receive many times the news coverage of Iran’s conference and its ilk, at least in America.  If your winter tradition includes wishes for the coming year, may I suggest one for getting our priorities straight?

Water water everywhere

December 11, 2006

This short article by the Earth Policy Institute points out the health, environmental, and ethical problems with bottled water.  In short, bottled water is less regulated than tap water; plastic bottles take petroleum to create and most are not recycled; and money wasted on bottled water could be spent instead getting clean water to people who really need it.  Even if tap water adds a little extra chlorine to your system, it’s better than the toxins that the manufacturing and transportation of all that bottled water adds to your lungs.

Not to mention that we’re being fooled into buying something that’s free!  Yet the fad continues to spread.  I’ve been feeling guilty and low-class lately for offering guests tap water or (gasp) asking for tap water when I’m eating out, but no longer.  Take a minute to read this and drink your tap water proudly.