May 06 - 12, 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.

My home state of Texas takes top honors for this week's news wrap up, as the legislature is pushing for more and more religious display and verbiage in the state's schools and also in the state's pledge, which would include the words "one state under God" if Texas Senate approves the bill already passed by the House. As one blogger said, " Whew! Just when I thought that there wasn't enough God in Texas." Both stories come from The Dallas Morning News:

The Texas pledge of allegiance would change to include the words "one state under God" under legislation overwhelmingly approved Friday by the House. The bill by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, was sent to the Senate on a 124-12 vote.

Read the rest of the first News story here...

The House embraced legislation Monday that seeks to clarify the rights of Texas public school students to offer public prayers at football games or graduation, hand out religious messages or hold religious meetings during the school day if they want.

Supporters said the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act, which passed on a 110-33 vote, would protect districts from lawsuits by setting guidelines for students' religious expression while protecting students from being admonished, for example, if they talk about Jesus in an assignment about Easter.

"Freedom of religion should not be taken as freedom from religion," Gov. Rick Perry said. "This was a vote for tolerance of diverse views in our education system so that students are not admonished for wishing a soldier overseas a 'Merry Christmas' or for any other harmless forms of expression."

But opponents who failed to derail the bill said it raises more legal problems than it solves and opens the door to school-sanctioned evangelizing to a captive audience of young people.

...and the rest of the second story here...

Meanwhile, according to the Boston Globe, the Roman Catholic Diocese just can't get its act together when it comes to protecting children from abuse by clergy:

CONCORD, N.H. -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester still doesn't meet abuse- prevention requirements negotiated with the attorney general's office more than four years ago, and its leaders flout court- approved standards, according to an independent audit released yesterday.

The audit noted there are "critical gaps" in programs to protect children from sexual abuse and said church leaders have been reticent in complying. The 117- parish diocese relies too heavily on self-reporting and self-policing, the audit said . Auditors criticized the "tone at the top," particularly in regard to the Rev. Edward Arsenault, who heads efforts to prevent and report sexual abuse.

Read the rest of the article here...

Despite the continued problems with religion in America, according to the New York Times, major educational institutions, including Harvard, find that students increasingly interested in religion and religious study:

Peter J. Gomes has been at Harvard University for 37 years, and says he remembers when religious people on campus felt under siege. To be seen as religious often meant being dismissed as not very bright, he said.

No longer. At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, “There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.”

Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember.

Read the rest of the Times article here...

The Los Angeles Times reports that the internecine struggle between conservatives and moderates/liberals within the Episcopal Church has become more intense in recent weeks, and now the language being exchanged between the factions is downright hostile:

Tensions between the Episcopal Church and its critics in the worldwide Anglican Communion have escalated with an exchange of strongly worded letters between the church's presiding bishop and the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria.

The letters involve a planned visit by Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola to the United States this weekend, in which he is expected to install a bishop to lead congregations that have broken away from the Episcopal Church.

The 2.3-million-member church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion and is at odds with much of the rest of the denomination over the U.S. church's more liberal views on homosexuality and other issues.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, wrote to Akinola on Tuesday, urging him to reconsider his plans to install Martyn Minns, the rector of an Episcopal church in Fairfax, Va., as bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America at a ceremony Saturday. The network is an offshoot of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. [...]

Akinola's letter is on his church's website, Jefferts Schori's letter is available at the Episcopal Church's website, .

Read the rest of the story here...

Two new books that turn a critical eye on religion are now available, one by Chris Hedges and the other by Christopher Hitchens (there must be something about the name Chris that stirs up these authors.) Below are two reviews of these books, which are critical of both authors. Are Hedges and Hitchens stepping on toes as they stomp through pews, or is their analysis of religion off? First, Anthony B. Robinson of the Seattle Post Intelligencer reviews Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and the war on America:

Hedges is correct in sounding an alarm about the ways religion and nationalism, when intertwined, spell danger. Religion does better as a critic of political power than as its handmaid. Hedges is also right that what he calls "the open society," or pluralism, is a key point of contention in contemporary America. Is a society of many different religions, cultures, language groups and world views acceptable to Americans? Is it workable? Are there limits to a pluralism that has a darker side, which is that anything goes so long as it makes a profit?

But Hedges seems to me wrong on several other important matters. He overestimates the organizational unity and discipline of "Dominionism" and underestimates countervailing forces in American society. Even if the Dobsons, LeHayes and Robertsons were coordinating their operations in a grand totalitarian scheme, there is significant strength in American democratic institutions and in the associational life of Americans. The United States, flawed in so many ways, is not Weimar Germany, nor post-Tito Yugoslavia.

Read the rest of this review here...

Second, Stephen Prothero reviews God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens, who once described Mother Teresa as "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud," is notorious for making mincemeat out of sacred cows, but in this book it is the sacred itself that is skewered. Religion, Hitchens writes, is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Channeling the anti-supernatural spirits of other acolytes of the "new atheism," Hitchens argues that religion is "man-made" and murderous, originating in fear and sustained by brute force. Like Richard Dawkins, he denounces the religious education of young people as child abuse. Like Sam Harris, he fires away at the Koran as well as the Bible. And like Daniel Dennett, he views faith as wish-fulfillment. [...]

Hitchens says a lot of true things in this wrongheaded book. He is right that you can be moral without being religious. He is right to track contemporary sexism and sexual repression to ancient religious beliefs. And his attack on "intelligent design" is not only convincing but comical, coursing as it does through the crude architecture of the appendix and our inconvenient "urinogenital arrangements."

What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself.

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer.

Read the rest of this review here...

From the perspective of humanism, I find this story fascinating. Should we extend a notion of personhood to apes? Apparently this is being considered in Europe, according to an AP story published in the Kansas City Star:

VIENNA, Austria | In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Vienna resident: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV.

But he doesn’t care for coffee, and he isn’t actually a person — at least, not yet.

In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal-rights advocates are seeking to get the 26-year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a “person.”

Hiasl’s supporters argue that he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests. [...]

Austria is not the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain’s Parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend “fundamental moral and legal protections” to apes.

If Hiasl gets a guardian, “it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal ‘personhood,’ ” said Jan Creamer, the chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.

Read the rest of the Star story here...

Lastly, a tragi-comedy involving a rabbi, known for his political courage, caught shoplifting ties in Palm Beach. The story comes from the Miami Herald:

The recent Palm Beach vacation of Brazil's most prominent Jewish leader ended abruptly when police arrested him on charges he shoplifted neckties at swanky stores on Worth Avenue.

Rabbi Henry Sobel blames pills to treat his insomnia and depression for behavior unbecoming a rabbi.

The stunning fall from public grace of Sobel -- the charismatic leader who faced down Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s and has become a key player for interfaith work in Latin America -- threatens his leadership in that country's largest synagogue.

Sobel was arrested after a Louis Vuitton shopkeeper said he took a $170 red tie without paying. Police found four more ties in his car from other stores.

After his release on a $3,000 bond, Sobel checked himself into a Sao Paulo hospital. His doctors later said he was taking unidentified but powerful insomnia and antidepressant medications before his March 23 arrest.

Read the rest of the article here...

The Talk of Lawrence