Observations On Liberty And The Human Condition

April 14, 2012

Why I No Longer Support CFI

Filed under: Freethought — wolfrant @ 2:06 pm
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I stopped financially supporting the Center for Inquiry (CFI) a couple of years ago after years of doing so.  In addition to financially supporting CFI, I also went to CFI conferences and lobbied the Florida Legislature against the licensure of naturopathy on a CFI sponsored lobbying day (I am generally against licensure of professionals anyway so this was not a difficult position for me to advocate).  I was always aware of CFI’s liberal bias as this liberal bias is found all throughout freethought, but there was enough discussion of reason and skepticism that I ignored the bias.

My willingness to look the other way ended when CFI became more political with its Office of Public Policy.  When I started reading its advocacy positions, I realized that these positions were incompatible with my libertarian outlook.  It was one thing for me to be the odd man out at conferences when politics was discussed, but to financially support an organization that takes positions that inevitably lead to an increase in the size and breadth of government was no longer tenable for me.

Let’s consider a couple of recent advocacy positions by the CFI. First, there is a call for the rejection of the Blunt Amendment which was an attempt within the Senate to end the health insurance mandate on birth control for religious employers who object to providing this type of coverage for their employees.  The second advocacy position is to oppose a similar health insurance mandate for acupuncture.

Wait a minute.  So it is OK to force employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control, but not OK to do the same for acupuncture.  The arrogance of these positions is staggering.  I agree with CFI that there is more science behind birth control than acupuncture.  But why does CFI think that the government gets to make that decision?  People may not be as scientifically literate as I would like them to be, but that does not mean that the government has the right to force them to pay premiums for only the services that really smart people like those who work for CFI deem worthy for such heavyhanded government mandates.

CFI was better when it stuck to reason and skepticism of the supernatural, but its political advocacy activities have taken it into a direction with which a libertarian/conservative freethinker can no longer live.  This is a shame because there is a need to counter the religious ideas that permeate American society and CFI does that effectively with Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry so I would love to support its efforts.  But CFI and much of the freethought movement for that matter continues to conflate liberal politics with freethought and that continues to alienate people like me who want the freethought without the liberal political indoctrination.

March 3, 2012

Why do we fight unnecessary culture war battles?

Filed under: separation of church and state — wolfrant @ 3:54 pm

Sometimes, you have to wonder if politicians get stupid and underestimate the public reaction to government policies or maybe they just like to stir up the pot from time to time to entertain themselves. Well, stir up the pot President Obama did when the Department of Heath and Human Services (HHS) ruled that faith-based employers other than churches must pay for insurance coverage for birth control. Not surprisingly, Catholic bishops and Republican politicians angrily denounced the regulations as an infringement of First Amendment based religious liberties. The outcry by bishops and politicians soon led to a “compromise” that supposedly did not require the faith based employer to pay for the contraceptive coverage, but did require the insurance company to provide it for “free”. The reason that I put a couple of words in the previous sentence in quotes is that it is highly unlikely that the cost to the insurance company for the “free” contraceptive coverage will be effectively firewalled from the health insurance related costs paid by the employer. As much as I hate to take sides with the Catholic church since its policy on contraceptives is so absurd, I do believe that the church has a valid point here.

Let’s start by agreeing that the Catholic church’s stance on contraceptives is dumb. The use of contraceptives is a no-brainer. The arguments in support of couples having pleasurable sex without the risk of the bringing of a child into the world are so compelling that I have to shake my head in disbelief at the Catholic church stance.

Let’s continue by understanding how employer based health insurance got started in this country. During World War II, wage controls forced employers to look for alternative ways of competing for employees. Since these controls did not include fringe benefits, this led businesses to compete for new employees with health insurance among other benefits. It did not take long before the employer and employee contributions to the health insurance premium received tax preferences by Congress. Today, about sixty percent of people get their health insurance through their employers with the employer typically paying about eighty percent of the cost. Interestingly, these tax preferences do not apply to individuals and families buying health insurance on their own.
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June 5, 2011

Do Our Laws Even Apply To Obama?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wolfrant @ 1:04 pm

There is no better way to say this.  Obama is breaking the law.

It has been over sixty days since the start of the “kinetic military action” in Libya and so far there has been no authorization of force or declaration of war or anything that even remotely suggests that anyone other than President Obama has a role in the use of U.S. military force around the world.  Love it or hate it, the War Powers Resolution is the law and it very clearly states that the President must cease military operations within 60 days (or 90 days if “the President determines and certifies to the Congress in writing that unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces”) if he does not get Congressional approval (50 U.S.C. § 1544b). It is also clear from the law that there are three circumstances that allow the President to introduce military forces into hostile or imminently hostile situations as follows:

(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. (50 U.S.C. § 1541c)

Exactly which one of these three circumstances describe U.S. military actions within Libya? If you say none of them, you are smarter than the average U.S. Congressman who seems to be oblivious to the fact that the man who is supposed to enforce the laws feels no obligation to follow the one that restrains his use of military power.
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May 6, 2010

The J-Word

Filed under: separation of church and state — wolfrant @ 11:01 pm
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A recent column by Ron Littlepage leads me to reprint a short story that I wrote for the First Coast Freethinker many years ago. It is inspired by an actual event that took place at the Florida Legislature in 2004. The story illustrates the irrationality of public prayers in government meetings and why it is better for government officials to privately pray before these meetings.

The J-Word

The pastor sat quietly in his chair as Florida Senate President Jim King introduced him as the guest chaplain of the day. He stood up, walked over to the podium and hastily cleared his throat in preparation for his fifteen minutes of fame as prayer intermediary to God. His prayer was eloquent and forceful. He spoke about the greatness of God, religious freedom, public servants and the sacredness of human life. Naturally, it subtly covered all of his pet peeves – abortion, homosexuality and other anti-family ideas. One thing was missing so far. The J-word. So here we go …

“…the freedom for people to believe in Jesus Christ…”

His voice thundered these words as if he wanted the whole of heaven to hear them. There were a few furrowed brows, but no rebellion yet. That felt good! Let do it again!

“We pray these things in the wonderful, matchless name, the great name of our God and Savior. I pray them in the name of Jesus. ”

He looked up from his prepared text to see if he was going to get away with his violation of the Senate rules on opening prayers. No such luck…

“I must object. He said Jesus not just once, but twice. I am a Jew who believes in one God and his name is not Jesus. Actually, I am not sure what God’s name is since someone lost the vowels of His name a long time ago, but I am sure that it is not Jesus.” said Senator Wasserman Schultz.

President King rose to answer the senator’s objection, but never got the chance.

“One God? I am a Wiccan and I believe in two Gods!” said another senator.

“Wait a minute, can someone tell me again why we pray to God? I am a Buddhist and I do not believe in a Supreme God.” said another incensed senator.

The Senate chamber erupted into pandemonium. Jews argued with Christians. Hindus yelled at Pagans. Everyone looked suspiciously at the Unitarians because they could not figure out what the hell the Unitarians believed! President King was about to gavel the chamber quiet when a loud shriek behind him rose several decibels above the din.

“Jesus! Give me strength!” bellowed the pastor.

Arguments broke off in mid sentence as everyone turned and watched the pastor storm out of the chamber. They tried to remember if any other guest chaplain had ever done anything like this. No one could think of even one similar incident. The chamber stood quietly for a moment until a senator known for his freethinking tendencies rose up and spoke.

“It seems to me that public prayer leads to one of two possibilities. One possibility is that we pray to a generic God who is supposed to satisfy all religions. However, on the contrary, this vanilla God is not worshiped in any religion of which I know. The other possibility is that someone like our guest chaplain today imposes his God on the rest of us whether we worship this God or not. Maybe, we should try something different. Maybe, prior to the start of the daily session, each of us should pray to the God of one’s choice in the privacy of one’s office. This way, each of us can choose how to pray to God or not pray to God at all if one so chooses.”

President King recognized the freethinker’s wisdom and requested an immediate vote on the proposal. The ayes won in a landslide. The God of the First Amendment looked upon this decision and was well pleased.

April 16, 2010

The Great Recession: Did Greed Run Amok Lead To The Financial Crisis?

Filed under: government interventions — wolfrant @ 11:08 pm
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The article below recently appeared in the April issue of the First Coast Freethinker. It is in response to a First Coast Freethinker article by Hugo Borresen (See page 8).

I suppose that it is not surprising after the financial meltdown broke in 2008 that liberals would come out of the woodwork with a “I told you so!” on their lips. So it goes with Hugo Borresen’s article “What Happened in the Recent Economic Catastrophe?”. The main theme of his article is summarized in a line from his article “In a nutshell, materialism has overshadowed morality.” However, is materialism really such a bad thing?

First, let me make it clear that this article is not a line by line refutation of Borresen’s article. His article summarizes the January/February 2010 Mother Jones issue. It would take too big of an article and too much research time for me to respond to an entire magazine in depth. Instead, I will try to place the recent financial meltdown in perspective.

One of the best analyses that I have read concerning the financial meltdown was found in chapter six of From Poverty to Prosperity by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. In this chapter, the authors explain why our financial system is inherently fragile. Basically, financial intermediation is imperfectly transparent but this is necessary to maintain the liquidity of and therefore the proper functioning of asset markets. To understand this statement, let’s look at the modern mortgage market.

The mortgage originator gathers a lot of information concerning the borrower and property being bought before approving the mortgage. This includes credit scores, financial information and property appraisals. The mortgage is then sold into the secondary market to investment bankers who bundle up the loans and sell them to investors as mortgage backed securities (MBS) who rely on bond rating agencies to judge the riskiness of these investments.

So the mortgage market is multi-layered. The mortgage originator knows everything about the loan. The loan bundler knows only the credit score and the loan to value (LTV) ratio. The company that sells the slices of these bundles (if it is different from the loan bundler) as mortgage backed securities knows the range of credit scores and LTV ratios. The investor relies on the ratings of MBSes by bond rating agencies. Each layer knows less about the underlying mortgages than the layer below it and relies on the layer below it to do a good job of managing the riskiness of the underlying mortgages. While this appears to be problematic, it is necessary for the asset market to work since the investor can hardly be expected to inspect carefully every bundled loan associated with his MBS. This lack of transparency allows the MBSes to be bought and sold more easily thus allowing the market to become highly liquid. This ultimately results in lower mortgage interest rates and greater availability of mortgages due to spreading of risk from the mortgage originator to a large pool of investors.
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March 18, 2010

The Florida Legislature Is Coming To Town. Should We Worry?

Filed under: Freethought — wolfrant @ 9:50 pm
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This article originally appeared in the March issue of the First Coast Freethinker.

It is time for my fifth annual review of bills coming before the Florida Legislature that may interest or even terrify freethinkers who believe in separation of church and state and in using reason when judging government policy. The Florida Legislature will convene its regular session on March 2nd, 2010. I am using the same criteria for selecting the bills in this article that I have used in previous years:

Does the bill advance religion or religious ideas?

Does the bill cover an issue in which religious arguments are presented on one side of the issue?

Does the bill advance or discourage pseudoscience?

Homosexuality is considered by many Christians to be a sin and this often leads to discrimination against gays and lesbians. HB 3 repeals the statutory prohibition against adoptions by gays and lesbians. HB 391 prohibits discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender persons by restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, employers, etc.

Abortion remains a controversial issue mainly due to the belief by many Christians that life begins at conception and should not terminated prior to the birth of the child. HB 141 expands the vehicular homicide statute to include the death of an “unborn child”. The statute currently applies to the death of a fetus capable of living outside the womb as a consequence of the mother being injured in the accident, but would refer to a fetus at any stage of development if this bill is passed. HB 1063 requires that if a fetus is born alive subsequent to a failed abortion, it should be treated by the medical professional the same as a fetus born to a mother who was not seeking an abortion.

Certain contraceptives taken after sex are considered by many Christians to be the same as abortion. HB 517 requires licensed medical professionals to provide medically accurate information concerning emergency contraceptives to rape victims. It would also require pharmacies to provide prescribed emergency contraceptives without delay and without harassment to rape victims. Individual pharmacists may refuse to fill the prescription due to religious reasons, but the pharmacy would have to find someone to fill the prescription.
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January 19, 2010

Is Christianity Really Such A Great Deal?

Recently, Ann Coulter wrote a column defending Brit Hume’s assertion that Christianity offers the best way for golfer Tiger Woods to recover from his adulterous affairs.  In the column, she basically wrote a religious tract on behalf of Christianity describing it as the “best deal in the universe”.  After reading it in the Florida Times Union, I was wondering if I had stumbled onto the religion section of the paper.  But no, I was definitely reading the page reserved for news commentary and op-eds.

So does Coulter make a good case for Christianity as the “best deal in the universe”?  I think not.  Coulter argues that Christianity is about redemption and forgiveness.  Clearly, Woods betrayed his wife by having multiple affairs with other women.  However, if ever he needs forgiveness and redemption, he needs to get these from his wife.  It is difficult to see how Jesus dying on Woods’ behalf so that his sins are wiped clean leads to his taking personal responsibility for his mistakes.  If anything, it reduces the incentives for people like Woods to accept responsibility for their actions and reconcile with those people that they have wronged.  It is like saying that God wiped my sins clean so why shouldn’t you forgive me even when I have done nothing to deserve a change of heart from you?  Forgiveness must be earned, not given away freely.

Coulter argues that once you accept Jesus into your heart, you will have no choice but to give your life up to God and stop doing sinful things like adultery.   According to a 2005 Christianity Today article, that is not necessarily so.   Most of the “moral failings” mentioned in the article are not of much concern to your typical freethinker.  I personally don’t care if born again Christians are just as likely as non-Christians to divorce.  To me, if you are in a bad marriage, get out of it.  Nor am I concerned that cohabitation before marriage is practiced by 25 percent of born again Christians according to a 2001 poll.  I say good for them.  The article does points to behavior like racism that does have serious consequences.  In this case, twenty percent of Southern Baptists object to black neighbors according to a 1989 poll.  Overall, it is apparent from the article that the moral behavior of Christians often mirrors the society in which they live.
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January 6, 2010

Testing The Limits Of Free Speech

Filed under: Free Speech — wolfrant @ 12:09 am
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Two recent news articles demonstrate that free speech often faces a hostile world that has little tolerance for deviant opinions. The first article describes a terrifying attack upon Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard by an ax wielding Somali man who tried to break into his home.  The motivation for this attack was apparently related to Westergaard’s cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb with a lit fuse on his head like a turban. This cartoon created a uproar among Muslims in 2006 who thought that Westergaard was depicting Muhammad as a terrorist even though the point of his cartoon was that Muslim terrorists were using Islam as a justification for their evil acts.

In the second article, Irish atheists published on their website 25 quotations by Bjork, Mark Twain, Salman Rushdie and others that disparaged religion in an attempt to challenge Ireland’s new blasphemy law.  Amazingly enough, you can run afoul of this law by being “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” and it could cost you an insane amount of money, specifically $35,800.

What these two articles have in common is that religious ideas are considered by some to be above criticism.  One could certainly question if religion is on such a solid foundation why its adherents would try to squash any dissent towards their beliefs.  Is it possible that deep down in their psyches they realize how fragile the evidence is for their religious dogma?  Regardless of their motivation, they have no right to expect uncritical acceptance of their beliefs if they put them out in the public sphere.  I would not show up at someone’s house and berate him concerning his religious beliefs, but when that person promote his religion in print, on TV  or on a web page, it becomes fair game.

Ideas are only dangerous when we are prevented from questioning them.  When they are examined from every angle and forced to compete with other ideas, bad ideas often fade away.  Witness the demise of Marxism.  Marxism lost out to capitalism because far from impoverishing the masses capitalism brought prosperity to the proletariat. Indeed, taboo ideas are dangerous to humanity and should be challenged at every opportunity.

December 21, 2009

Some People Are Really Scary!

Filed under: Ethics — wolfrant @ 2:59 am
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Read Dana Pardee’s comments concerning medical testing on animals on page A-11 of the Sunday’s (Dec 20) Florida Times Union. Basically, instead of animal testing, she suggests that we do medical testing on criminals!

Wow! I may not think much of anyone who victimizes another person, but criminals are still human beings!

December 20, 2009

Freethought And Political Orthodoxy

Filed under: Freethought — wolfrant @ 9:23 pm
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It would seem strange to say that there is a nearly universal orthodoxy within the freethought movement.  Isn’t it the whole point of freethought to throw off the chains of dogmatic orthodoxy especially when it is of the religious kind?  The theory is that nothing is taboo to the freethinker as he considers all possibilities and reason guides his mind as he chooses among these possibilities.  On account of this, one would think that freethought would lead to a wide diversity of opinions on subject matters outside of the rejection of tradition and dogma based on authority.  What is the point of being a freethinker if every freethinker thinks alike?

Alas, that is not always the case.  Yes, I have encountered diverse points of views when I have met other freethinkers until you get to politics.  Then the conversation turns to Republican bashing, capitalism trashing, corporation hating, government loving and all sorts of liberal politics.  Actually, just about ever conversation that I have had with freethinkers inevitably leads in this direction.  You may be talking about music or philosophy one moment and then someone says something negative about George Bush and with a twinkle in his eye someone else is off and running bashing Bush. (For the record, I and many other libertarians are not fans of George Bush – father and son!)  That starts the whole avalanche of conversations that center around how swell it would be if the U.S.  were more like Europe.  Yes, I have met conservative and libertarian freethinkers but we are few and far between.

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