The Brights' Bulletin

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Issue #141

(Note that links in archived Bulletin issues may no longer be valid.)


One Openly Optimistic Bright

Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward truth, justice, and freedom?

Michael Shermer surely thinks so, and he credits science and reason (and the values they represent) for the long-term trend that he sees. This trend has been moving humankind away from the terrible irrational beliefs and practices of the past.

Dr. Shermer's latest book, The Moral Arc (published in January) is definitely upbeat about life in our times. In it, he claims that humanity is living in the most moral period in the history of our species and sets about to document that contention. “You just can’t go by the headlines,” he asserts.

While admitting that “we are by no means at the apex,” Dr. Shermer gives science the nod for having shown the way toward the natural rights and civil liberties we have today, and he sees no reason for a downward turn. Causality, and rational persons having set aside supernaturalism and superstition, will keep the world getting better and better.

Does the noted skeptic make his case?
(Read the book to decide.)


A Cheery Morality Message

Last month’s bulletin reported the conclusion of the contest for “Crowdsourcing the Ten Commandments for the 21st Century,” Ten winners were sharing a $10,000 award for the resulting set of 10 secular guidelines.

Only one of “The New Ten Commandments” (#5) appears to deal directly with the issue of morality. The statement’s rationale, seemingly expressed by its contributor, John Roso, is this:

When one does a good deed it isn’t because God tells one to do a good deed but because one simply wants to be a good person. As Human beings we are capable of defining our own, different meanings for our lives, with or without a god.

One simply wants? Or simply is?
(Food for thought and discussion.)


Morality Project Interview

Mark Sloan, with The Evolution Institute and its “This View of Life” website, recently contacted Ruban, who coordinates the Brights’ Morality Project Team, to ask questions about the Brights’ project. When that interview is posted online, you will be sent the link.

Note: As many of you have reported to BC, the link to Sloan’s “First Impressions” article (a favorable review of the Brights’ Morality Portal) provided in the December bulletin was active only throughout December. (It did not carry over in the January 3 launch of the brand new TVoL website.)

The Morality Project has involved Brights across the globe in furthering public understanding of the natural foundation of human morality. A project overview (its purpose, rationale, products, etc.) is accessible from the home page of the Brights’ website.


Science and Civics  (USA)

Brights want to highlight and engage the public with naturalistic explanations. Doing so effectively, however, means accurately assessing public attitudes. Sociological studies can shed vital light on this subject.

A new study (published in the February 2015 issue of American Sociological Review) can be helpful. It uncovers a U.S. population segment not previously noted. According to the lead author, the study implies that it’s not necessarily scientific ignorance that underlies dissent from mainstream scientific accounts.

The ASR study looks at perspectives on religion and science in tandem. By departing from surveying those subjects separately, it uncovers scientifically literate citizens who are appreciative of science’s social uses, but who nonetheless disallow particular scientific theories in favor of religious explanations.

Ignorance of science and/or dislike of science is sometimes alleged to underlie rejection of modern science explanations, such as evolution. But, rather than a lack of knowledge or understanding of well-established modern science, for these knowledgeable citizens, it is the case that their religion simply trumps the science. 

In brief: The study’s co-authors identify three worldview segments and label the newly identified group, the “post-seculars” (citizens who view science favorably, but selectively reject certain scientific explanations). These folks actually do know a lot about science (e.g., radioactivity, genetics, planetary motion and geology). They also support many practical uses of science and technology in everyday life. However, they still reject scientific explanations of the origins of human life and the universe.


Such Missed Understandings

Two additional studies seem pertinent to promoting a naturalistic worldview via public policy. One’s focus is on how portions of the public don’t see eye to eye on science policy, and another focuses on how the media help to create public misperceptions.

Seeing Things So Differently.  

A report in Science (30 January 2015) notes that, when it comes to science and science-related policy, the public and the scientific community just see the world very differently. According to the abstract, “such disparity is alarming because it ultimately affects both science policy and scientific progress.”

How can this gap be bridged? Not with staged “town hall” meetings – studies show that they are not very effective. “What does work is respectful bidirectional communication, where scientists truly listen, as well as speak, to the public.” For an available article regarding the report, select the link.

Collaborating for Common Good. 

One study from last year informs from another angle. The "Religious Understandings of Science (RUS)" study reveals a misconception that stunts progress. It is the public's view that science and religion cannot work in collaboration. How the science-religion relationship is portrayed in the news media strongly influences the public’s misperception. There is enormous stereotyping and conflict portrayals with an absence of information about working together for the public good. For key findings of the report, select the link.


Secular Leaders Meet

Rice University, in Houston Texas, was the scene of a recent gathering hosted by the American Humanist Association at which principals of mostly secular national and international organizations shared information about key projects and strategy along with a brief leadership training. These organizers are strong supporters of separation of religion and government and generally supportive of naturalistic perspectives.

Two Brights Central staff (Mynga and Kelly) attended the Secular Leadership Conference on January 24 and had the opportunity to collaborate with others heads of organizations. Among the attendees were leaders of the Freethought Society, Atheist Alliance of America, American Atheists, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Evolution Institute, Secular Policy Institute, Black NonbelieversSociety for Humanistic Judaism, Ex-Muslims of North America, Recovering from Religion, and many others.

There were harmonious discussions on many exciting projects that are currently underway, including the Clergy Project, Openly Secular ProjectCamp Quest, and the Brights' Human Morality Portal, the topic that Mynga presented to the gathering. (The flyer she discussed and distributed is available to you from the website.)


At the International Forums

A new study finds that the United States is no longer a functioning democracy, according to reports cited by a Forum member posting from overseas. The nation has now “become a country led by a small dominant class comprised of powerful members who exert total control over the general population — an oligarchy”. And what controls the controllers? 

Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher, has announced that it will stop selling “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” by Alex Malarkey and his father, Kevin Malarkey. So begins another article quoted in the Forums. The so-called “heavenly tourism” genre has energized vast swaths of the public, but at least this one account turns out to be a deliberate fraud. This writer hopes its undoing will encourage appropriate skepticism regarding extraordinary claims.

If you’d like to comment on these or other matters, or post material of your own, just complete a quick and confidential registration.


Consciousness Research

If you have interest in aspects of this subject (brain, body, mind, awareness, etc.), you may want to peruse the OpenMind website, where you will find an eclectic collection of papers, many by young researchers and philosophers. Veterans are writing there, too, such as philosopher and Enthusiastic Bright Daniel Dennett, reexamining his prior thinking (theory of consciousness) in the light of present-day observations.

Site Overview & Review


Culture War Evolution (USA)

According to one noted columnist, there’s a new culture war. It asks the same question as the old culture war: “Who are we?” But whereas the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally, the latest question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically.

In other words, this “new war” is about national identity rather than religion and “transcendent authority. It focuses on which groups the United States will formally admit to residence and citizenship.

So what has happened to the “old” culture war? Is it really fading?


Atheist Governor’s “Outing”

Well, not exactly.

The former governor of California, Culbert Levy Olson, was never shy about his atheistic stance. In fact, when taking his oath of office (1939), his hand was firmly in his pocket, rather than on a Bible.

January 22, 2015, Mynga (from Brights Central) attended a presentation about Mr. Olson sponsored by the California State Library and California Archives. The presentation itself was by Olson’s granddaughter, Debra Deane Olson (who happens to be an Enthusiastic Bright). A next-day local news story on the event supplied a photo of the historic occasion of the governor’s distinctly secular swearing in ceremony.

One of Ms. Olson’s personal photos drew considerable audience laughter. Apparently the governor had responded to the public commentary of his day. He supplied the “hand-on-Bible” circumstance, but that photo clearly showed his uplifted crossed fingers!


Toward a Global Acknowledgment

There appears to be renewed efforts to promote February 12, the birth date of Charles Darwin, as a day for annually celebrating science and certain human values.

Intellectual bravery.  Perpetual curiosity.  Hunger for truth.

These are the special characteristics personified by Charles Darwin that welcome visitors to the recently launched “new website” urging that Darwin Day be celebrated annually in localities across the globe. The site urges action, too: “Together, we can create an officially recognized holiday that will inspire people throughout the world to reflect and act on the(se) principles.”


Celebrating Science (A Local Note)

Nearest Brights Central, community science enthusiasts are carrying forward with what has essentially become “established tradition” for a February weekend date.

Sacramento, California’s public event is “an educational gala” combining some serious science with musical entertainment and birthday cake. (The gala is now in its 18th year, which makes it a very early entry into the Darwin Day “celebration of science” game.) On the serious side, this year’s event features Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the musical fun is from “Scientific Jam.”

Mynga Futrell is serving her 14th year co-chairing the local Darwin Day festivities. For 2015’s gala, she shares the chair with a first-year high school biology teacher.  


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