Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mayor de Blasio Bulldozes Separation of Church and State for his Signature Pre-K Initiative

NYC's Mayor de Blasio
While New York City is considered one of the secular movement’s capitals, a sad turn of events coming from its new Mayor seems to allow the seeping hand of religion to play an increasing role in the lives of the City's most vulnerable – its children. The politicking behind early childhood education, in this case focused squarely on the Mayor’s universal Pre-K initiative, not only violates the separation clause of the Constitution but it also violates labor and tax laws as well.

In 2014, the New York Times, ran a story highlighting that exceptions to anti-discrimination hiring practices had been approved by the Mayor's office. Anti-discrimination laws have brought diversity to the workplace and could never be instituted in public education, corporate or government hiring practices. But for the sake of the de Blasio Pre-K initiative these regulations are being swept aside. Essentially, the compromise allows parochial and other religious schools that use their facility for the Mayor's Pre-K program the right to exclusively hire teachers who are of the same faith found in the house of worship where the program is housed.  

Now if the schools were not receiving City tax dollars they could perhaps make the case that as private religious institutions they have the right to hire only those of the same faith. But this is YOUR money going to fund these schools and it is allowing them to bolster their staff while at the same time they are free and unaccountable to anti-discrimination laws. 

This of course is a deal with the devil. For the Mayor and his team, and for anyone whose ever tried to appease a faith-based organization should understand, once you make a concession based on "faith-rights" all other concessions become easier to make. Essentially as you lower the bar for secular fairness in hiring you also close the door further on other Constitutional guarantees and protections.

In yet another compromise, the New York Times is reporting that the Mayor is allowing religious prayer during secular hours of instruction during and not AFTER the school day. This ensures religious groups can indoctrinate the children in their care while manipulating the City’s mandate on non-religious instruction. What if the child has no faith or is a different faith than the one being taught? This immediately makes the most vulnerable feel like an outsider and which is why Constitutional guarantees against a state religion exist in the first place.

While the Mayor and his team wish to throw a huge blanket around the City’s children and afford them the opportunity to begin learning and socializing early in life, they are also putting secular education into the hands of those who both abhor and want nothing to do with secular education. All of these concessions are meant to meet a self-imposed mandate of 70,000 pre-k students drafted into the Mayor’s program.

There are many legal, financial and ethical issues swirling around the decomposition of the Mayor's pre-K program as it relates to separation of church and state. For instance, what if you’re a secular, atheist or humanist parent and wish to raise your child without religious faith. At the same time you also want to send your child to the Mayor’s program?

If the only schools around your neighborhood are religious ones you can't enjoin the program or you're forced to send your child and have them illegally bombarded with religious doctrine. Your third choice is to hope to find a less conveniently located center. But all three options limit one’s choices and negates the fairness of the program as I imagine it was originally intended.

To put it bluntly your secular earned tax dollars are now funding religious school education. A violation of the Constitution if there ever was one.  If you’re a nonbeliever that means any funding that goes to these pre-k schools should be considered an unfair use of your tax dollars.  And if let’s say you’re religious and are paying City taxes, your tax dollars are going to fund parochial education of children who are not of your faith. So I’m sure Jews, Christians and Muslims would agree that educating your child in a faith not practiced in one's home is unnerving and unfair as well.

There is so much ethnic, social, economic, racial, secular and religious diversity in New York City. The Mayor’s pre-k initiative as it relates to religious violations of the Constitution doesn’t stir the melting pot it burns its contents. It forces secular parents to make hard choices, it puts blind taxpayer dollars which are meant to fund all the people’s needs and redirects them towards religious indoctrination. It allows for violations of fair labor practices - many of which came out of the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s.

Ironically, as a child growing up in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to go to free head start as part of LBJ’s Great Society programs. But I went to a secular school in Coney Island and met wonderful people of many faiths. There was no unfairness then and so we have the right to ask why allow for such unfairness now?

And I am in favor of the Mayor’s initiative and support the program. But not at the risk of violating Constitutional and civil rights or the elimination of labor and fair hiring protections.

Of course we can look upon this shift as a road already paved by allowing Good News Clubs in public schools after teaching hours. And on the federal level, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was started under President Bush and had its funds increased by President Obama, to me are equally poor decisions which also violate the Constitution. OFNP and other government agencies should not be directing our hard earned tax dollars into the hands of religious organizations that should not be receiving a penny of federal, state or local tax dollars in the first place.

In any case, if you are secular parent or even if you are a religious parent and wish to send your child to the Mayor's program beware! Your child may come home with ideas that are not traditional to your family or community's values, ideas or wishes.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Review: The Expanding Circle

“Focus on what constitutes family – the wider the circle the more peaceful we become.”
-Peter Singer

Sometimes ideas are like flowers. Under the right conditions they grow and as they mature they will often blossom. But as everyone who understands the life cycle knows, every flower over time will diminish and fall asunder.  For instance, ideas like a 6,000-year-old Earth-centered solar system, or phrenology, or a flat Earth, or astrology, or even organized religions have perished as we have come to understand false ways of knowing and thus can choose better knowledge concerning how we and the universe naturally operate.

But some ideas are so strong that they escape the natural cycle of birth, life and decay. That’s because they are true, testable and verifiable. Naturalistic and proven ideas like gravity, natural selection and germ theory are pillars of the scientific world in which we live. They exist as laws outside of our acknowledgment and remain proven scientific discoveries (uncovery?) that have value because of their strong efficacy and because they do not rely on personal bias, mythology or pseudo-science to be considered true.

Peter Singer’s book, the Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress (I read the 2011 edition) is one of those books whose ideas, because they’re firmly centered on sociobiology, see sunlight and can be highlighted or dimmed with every proof or challenge to the thesis that all human behavior exists primarily deep within our genes.

To a sociobiologist genes make us who we are and this realm of science theory concludes that individuals are fully dependent on their DNA for the creation of their behavior. Culture exists as an outside and external force modifying but not impinging on our genetic-based behaviors and actions.

Those who reject sociobiology (like the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould) conclude that individual behavior and culture are a shapeable contrivance not dependent on our genes. Our behavior then is malleable and we become who we are based on learned cultural expectations which are based on our family's worldview and our community’s values, ethics, morals and accepted or rejected opinions.

This biology vs. culture debate isn’t new. Its modern form began in the 19th Century with the coining of the phrase “nature v. nurture” and the arguments for both sides have since been primarily and steadily defended by scientists and the legal profession. Of course we all have an opinion on this issue, so a strong dose of the general public often weighs in to take up one side or the other as well.

Singer does have many insights into the human condition, however, as a philosopher rather than a scientist his advocacy for sociobiology lacks a certain scientific authority. Singer relies often on direct quotation and examples borrowed heavily from E.O. Wilson. Wilson of course wrote the seminal Sociolbiology: The New Synthesisin 1975. This lauding of Wilson makes Singer's work appear like a shadow rather than wholly owned new telling of the sociobiology story.

That doesn't mean Singer doesn’t make fresh points about genetic determinism. Nor does it mean the author has little to say about how best we can make a peaceful world. His musing are detailed, filled with examples (when not focused on Wilson) and at times the reader could feel like they are in an elliptical orbit. At some point the author's arguments will come full circle and reach you again in a different part of the book.

The author has a deep respect for science and for its ability to unbiasedly uncover insights into our human condition. Singer equally declares that organized religion should not in the present nor in our future play a central role in defining or determining our ethics, empathy or morality.

For Singer, the essential tenet of the book is to secure lasting peace between humans, other animals on the planet and the universe itself. To do this, the author suggests that we have to constantly redefine “family” since the wider we make our circle the more readily we are to accept rather than dehumanize others.

Since religion enforces tribalism, organized faith as both doctrine and practice serves only to be antithetical to local or global peace. Pick up a newspaper or check the web and see which group of true believers have murdered, raped, politically stifled or harmed others in the name of their god.

Then you'll get Singer’s point. The more violent we are as a species the easier it is for whole communities and nations to collapse and die. Like a tower or a fading rose.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Terror at the Museum

It’s getting really monotonous writing about and commenting on the religious terrorism occurring around the world. This fundamentalist violence is no longer in the shadows. It is not accidental. It is a deliberate and daily occurrence that exists to destabilize and destroy democracy, end the growth of secularism, and fundamentally remove human and civil rights in favor of religious doctrine and religious law. It remains a threat to peace and global harmony.

Apologists will claim the violent acts are a reprisal by a minority for decades of Western Imperialism or they will attempt to justify the violence as normative because it is part of a culture with differing values. But recognizing and defining organized terrorism done by and against others is about respecting modernity. It is purely about calling out evildoers regardless of their faith and political aspirations. It is about putting safeguards in place through diplomacy and military intervention to arrest and remove the perpetrators of violence that appears to have no geographic, philosophic or emotional boundaries.

Since 9/11, terrorist violence has spread across Asia, Europe, Africa and across the Middle East. Now, because of social media, people who grew up secular but detached from their society, have chosen to take up arms and injure those who are their fellow citizens. This recruitment has been too easy and social media has given lone wolves and small cells the impetus to take bold violent action against innocents. Not caring about the age, religious faith, gender or social standing of those maimed or murdered for the sake of religious vendetta.

So now Tunis, with its fledgling secular democracy can now join the nations of the world that have seen senseless violence. ISIS, ISIL, Boko Haram and other religious-based terrorist organizations have declared war against every person on the planet that does not accept the religious teachings and doctrines of one of the most seriously flawed faiths next to and historically allied with both Judaism and Christianity. Each of these major faiths having their fair share of anti-humanistic and anti-secular laws, governance and religious ideals. Each has a history that details their own brand of ethnic violence, violence against women and children and imperialism of thought.

Today terrorists violently and without warning attacked foreign tourists visiting a Tunis museum. More that 20 killed and many more injured on the steps of the Bardo Museum. Those killed were all civilians, people on vacation or local people engaged with just simply and kindly living their lives freely.

Boston, Paris, Libya, London, Jakarta, New York, Mosul, Denmark, and in countless war zones and in countless places where terror reigns free, those who wish to go about their lives unencumbered by religious terrorist violence are forced, if not physically, then certainly mentally to take stock of their day. Or need to double-check their routine wondering if they’ll be next. In this way, organized religious terrorism, the kind that is internationalized by deeds and actions of the organized and violent few are in essence causing great harm to the peaceful many.

The best and most succinct way to deal with the violence is to meet it head on though as many portals as possible. But this takes willpower and collective understanding of the need to eradicate this terrorist menace. What did Churchill say about confronting the Nazis’?  

"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

This is the political, diplomatic, economic and military will we need now to do the job.  Not through appeasement or some form of liberal acceptance. But though the might of better ideas about the human future and the use of every tool at our disposal to eliminate the enemy for the sake of freedom, secularism and democracy.

I thought the next great human rights challenge was going to focus on secular civil rights and the humanist movement’s access to the political machine. Perhaps this is true but before we can ramp up this endeavor, even as secularism and atheism grows around the world, we must perhaps first put a period at the end of the sentence begun on September 11, 2001.

Never again. Never again. Never again. We are all Charlie. We are all Jews. We are Christians. We are all Muslims. We are all Hindus. We are all Buddhists. We are all atheists and humanists.

We are all of these things and we are none of those things. Because before we are any of them we are all human and we all deserve the right to self-determination and peace.

Any religious faith doctrine or political philosophy which does not guarantee the freedom of the individual to choose their future is a blight on humanity.