March 25 - 31, 2007

This column will provide links to, plus quotes and summaries of, on-line articles that might be of interest to the Infidel community. Because is concerned with educational issues, the articles selected will help to inform and enlighten readers as well as entertain them. In order to conform to "fair use practices," only small segments of the articles will be quoted. One caveat: to read the entire linked article, readers may have to subscribe to on-line versions of newspapers or magazines.

This week, there was more coverage of Pete Stark's admission that he is a nontheist. Some of the best commentary came from Ellen Goodman, whose syndicated column appeared in several newspapers, including the Boston Globe:

HE'S NOT EXACTLY a profile in courage. After all, Pete Stark is 75 and has represented his liberal district near San Francisco for more than 30 years. It's unlikely that he'll be tarred and feathered or sent packing for admitting that he's, well, a godless politician.

Nevertheless, last week Stark broke a political taboo. He became the first member of Congress to say publicly that he doesn't believe in "a supreme being." The next most powerful politician to identify himself as a "non-theist" in response to a question by the Secular Coalition for America was a school board president in Berkeley.
Some described Stark's admission as "coming out of the closet." Others rued the fact that God was not on his side. A spokesman for the Concerned Women for America unabashedly bashed him, saying that "a Christian worldview is proper for a politician to have."

Read Goodman's complete article here...

On the other hand, Stephen Prothero, chairman of the Religion Dept. at Boston University, argues for courses studying the Bible to be taught in public schools. His op ed appeared in The Christian Science Monitor:

But barren of the Bible is just what our public school curricula are. According to a study by the Bible Literacy Project, which publishes a Bible textbook for secondary schools, only 8 percent of US high school students have access to an elective Bible course. As a result, an entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely unable to understand the 1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare or the scriptural oratory of President Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Some have argued against Bible courses in public schools on the theory that they would unconstitutionally "establish" Judeo-Christianity. For Scripture courses to be lawful, this argument goes, teachers must give equal time to all the world's scriptures. But the Bible is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, Scientology's "Dianetics" makes no educational sense.

What makes sense is one Bible course for every public high school student in the US. This is not a Christian proposal. It does not serve the political left or the political right. It serves our young people and our public life.

Read Prothero's complete story here...

According to an article in the Florida Sun-Sentinel, a jury found that the theology department of Broward Community College is so biased toward Christianity that it is in "gross" violation of the "public trust":

A Fort Lauderdale jury ruling in a federal discrimination case lashed out at Broward Community College on Thursday in a scathing letter citing evidence of religious bias in the college's theology department.

The letter came after a 2 1/2 day trial on allegations that Winston Thompson, the department chair, favored teaching candidates and textbooks promoting Christian fundamentalism.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that publicly funded schools may teach about religion but may not advocate particular religious beliefs.

Accusing the college of a "gross betrayal of the public trust," jurors said the board of directors should take immediate steps to "correct a religious bias that clearly is infecting some of its courses."

Read the full story here...

Another opinion piece of interest in the Christian Science Monitor concerned "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," and the right to "free speech" in public schools:

NEW YORK - Can a high school student display a banner that says "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"? That's the question the Supreme Court debated this week in a case pitting the free-speech rights of the student against the duty of his school to warn against the dangers of drugs.

But in this case, both sides are wrong. The banner was a foolish vulgarity, unworthy of court-affirmed protection for politically meaningful speech. Under the school's theory, meanwhile, educators could censor any speech that contradicted their goals or ideas. And that might be the scariest idea of all. [...]

Bong Hits 4 Jesus? I have a better idea: Schools 4 Free Thinkers. Now there's a slogan we should all display.

Find the complete Moniter article here...

Continuing with news about schools, Britain may soon outlaw the wearing of the niqab by Muslim girls while they are in school. One reason given is that these girls suffer isolation and separation from the other students, as the garment covers all but the girls' eyes. From a blog by Edward Gomez (former diplomat and reporter for Time magazine) in the San Francisco Chronicle:

New guidelines issued by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's education secretary, Alan Johnson, will allow "head teachers" (senior-ranking teachers) "to decide what pupils should and should not be allowed to wear in class." A spokesman for the United Kingdom's Department for Education and Skills (DFES), which Johnson heads, explained: "If they feel any garment imposes on a child's ability to learn or is a safety or security issue, they could be banned."
One of the main items of clothing the government's public-education authorities have in mind: the niqab that is worn by some Muslim girls, a veil-scarf that covers almost all of the face, exposing only the eyes. The new DEFS guidelines "will also outlaw the wearing of badges, insignia or other features linked to gang membership." (Sun)

The new clothing rules have emerged amidst an ongoing debate in Britain about freedom of expression in clothing choices, tolerance of different cultural-religious customs and the appropriateness - or not - in broader British society of Muslim women wearing certain traditional garments associated with their religion. Last year, a British-Muslim girl, Shabina Begum, "lost a legal be allowed to wear full Islamic dress in school," senior government minister Jack Straw said the wearing of the veil made everyday community relations "more difficult," and Blair himself "described the full-face niqab as a 'mark of separation.'" As a result, some Muslim groups in the U.K. said the government was fostering a climate of "Islamophobia." (Reuters in the Age)

Read the full story here...

From the New York Times, an article about the underpinnings of human morality, based in a biological predisposition:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.

The original call to battle was sounded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson more than 30 years ago, when he suggested in his 1975 book “Sociobiology” that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” He may have jumped the gun about the time having come, but in the intervening decades biologists have made considerable progress.

Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

Read the complete Times article here...

Finally, an intriguing AP story which I read in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, about magician and spiritualist-debunker Harry Houdini, who may have been poisoned, at least according to his great-nephew, who wants the magician's body exhumed and tested:

NEW YORK (AP) -- The circumstances surrounding Harry Houdini's sudden death were as murky as the rivers where he often performed death-defying stunts. Despite a medical explanation, rumors that the escape artist was murdered have persisted for decades.

Eighty-one years after Houdini died on Halloween 1926, his great-nephew wants to exhume the magician's body to determine if enemies poisoned him for debunking their bogus claims of contact with the dead. [...]

The likeliest suspects were members of a group known as the Spiritualists. The magician devoted large portions of his stage show to exposing the group's fraudulent seances.

Read the whole story here...

The Talk of Lawrence