Secular Right | Reality & Reason

As many readers know, there’s a legal and P.R. battle going on for control of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank in Washington where I’m a fellow. The key issues in the dispute, both philosophical and personality-oriented, have been widely aired already. But one sidelight of the controversy, I think, may open a little window into the rapidly changing nature of the policy-oriented think tank world, a topic written about by Tevi Troy and others. In particular, I think it’s notable that the founder/donors who’ve filed the lawsuit aren’t just asking a court to decide who gets to vote in board elections; they’re also claiming that Cato as it stands now is not well managed.

This took me aback. I thought I’d heard every possible charge against Cato – that it’s the “intellectual lobby of capitalism-in-the-raw” (James Wolcott); that it’s a “neo-con riddled haven” (someone at Daily Paul); and so on. But “not well run” was something new. Cato’s reputation as one of the most strongly managed think tanks was an attraction when I joined two years ago, and nothing I’ve seen since joining inclines me to think otherwise. In the practical functions of a think tank – events, travel, press relations, publications, and so forth – Cato hums with efficiency. Fund-raising? The place is finishing up a $50 million capital campaign. Substance? Cato connects with a broad policy audience in dozens of subject areas. It even manages to cultivate among its scholars a recognizable Cato “style.”

The specifics, when I had a chance to examine them, seemed awfully thin. In a public statement, one of the eminent businessman/ philanthropists pursuing the legal complaint charged that Cato lacks “a system to ensure that all programs are effective and continuously improved.” He added that in its efforts to sway the public policy debate, the institute “could become much more effective in translating esoteric concepts into concrete deliverables.”

I’m sorry, but … concrete deliverables?

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Miscellany, April 5

  • More from Bradlaugh on his health issues [NRO, earlier]
  • Saudi Arabia: “Defense Lawyer Objects to Testimony of Genie Expert” [Lowering the Bar]
  • Monkeys taught by scientists to use money; gambling and prostitution soon appear [ZME Science]
  • Adam Smith prefigures Charles Murray on class and morality [Tyler Cowen]
  • “There was even an Inquisition trial in Los Angeles in 1820” [Chris Caldwell book review in Literary Review] And in the 1950s, not 1550s: “Dutch Roman Catholic Church ‘castrated at least 10 boys'” [Telegraph]

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[cross-posted from Overlawyered]

Age of accommodation, cont’d: “in Reedy v. Schneider National, Inc. (E.D. Pa. filed Oct. 15, 2010). Vasant Reddy says that he has ‘a sincerely held religious belief that he cannot consume, possess, or transport alcohol or tobacco,’ and that he informed Schneider National of this. …Nonetheless, he says, he was ordered to transport a load with alcohol, and was fired because he refused to transport it.” [Eugene Volokh]

P.S. In the original post, I purposely did not mention the complainant’s religion (Muslim, per the report.) One may surmise that some other devout persons might also sincerely object to transporting alcohol, and the law’s response should be consistent regardless of which system of religious belief undergirds the objection. Right?

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Miscellany, August 1

  • Following objections from Roman Catholic and other churches, official panel backtracks from assertion that New Zealand is “secular state” [NZ Herald]
  • “Preachers who are not believers,” paper by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola [Evolutionary Psychology, PDF, via Alex Tabarrok]
  • Australia: “Followers sue religious group after doomsday fails to occur as promised” [Overlawyered]
  • A WorldNetDaily writer named Chrissy Satterfield applauds vandalizing atheist billboards, and boy, does Ken at Popehat ever have her number.
  • Tyler Cowen outlines his “portfolio model of dogmatism“:

    most people have an internal psychological need to fulfill a “quota of dogmatism.”  If you’re very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others.  I’ve also met people — I won’t name names — who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics.  The ethical dogmatism frees them up to follow the evidence on the empirics, as they don’t feel their overall beliefs are threatened by the empirical results.

    Some people, if they feel they must always follow the evidence, respond by skewing their interpretation of that evidence.

    There’s a lesson here.  If you wish to be a more open-minded thinker, adhere to some extreme and perhaps unreasonable fandoms, the more firmly believed the better and the more obscure the area the better.  This will help fulfill your dogmatism quota, yet without much skewing your more important beliefs.

  • “Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form”: Chris Hitchens on the Ten Commandments [Vanity Fair]

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Head of St. John Chrysostom to visit NYC

The great thing about being in New York City is that if you wait long enough, every celebrity will come visit, even in this case one who’s been dead for 1,603 years. From the website of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia:

With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, on February 6, 2010, the honorable head of the great teacher and hierarch St John Chrysostom, which is kept at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, will be brought to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York. Here the holy relic will be displayed for veneration by the faithful until February 11, when it will be taken to St Nicholas Cathedral in New York. The delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate accompanying the relic will depart for Moscow on February 12.

Chrysostom’s Wikipedia page hints at some of the highlights of his career as Church Father: his role leading a mob in the destruction of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, his railing against the theater and other worldly entertainments, his frank advocacy of the subjection of women, and his comprehensively ghastly views on the topic of Christian relations with the Jews. Gibbon treats him relatively gently in this passage from volume 2 of Decline and Fall. Wikipedia on his relics:

John’s relics were looted from Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 and taken to Rome, but were returned to the Orthodox on 27 November 2004 by Pope John Paul II. His silver and jewel-encrusted skull is now kept in the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece, and is credited by Christians with miraculous healings. His right hand is preserved on Mount Athos, and numerous smaller relics are scattered throughout the world.

H.L. Mencken’s words come to mind: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

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Miscellany, January 18

More bits and oddments expanded and adapted from Secular Right’s Twitter account:

  • NYC’s Met Museum to rename Islamic Galleries, may yank art depicting Mohammed [NY Post] “Motoons republished throughout Europe” — why not here? [MWW]
  • “My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.” [CNN via Amy Alkon]
  • “Anti blasphemy law campaign begins in Ireland” [MWW, Times Online, Ilya Somin/Volokh]
  • In a nutshell, the three varieties of Straussians [Mike Rappaport, Right Coast]
  • “Atheism leads to brutality”: GOP Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels comes off badly in interview [Legal Satyricon]
  • How religious is your state? [Pew Forum]
  • Hitchens on Gore Vidal [Vanity Fair] And on our leaders’ absurd reaction to the attempted plane bombing [Slate]
  • “Spark of the divine” within each of us: Obama Nobel speech last month slighted unbelievers [Ann Althouse]
  • Spokesman for Prof. Robert George’s American Principles Project moves in circles quite different from those of this website [Michael Sean Winters, America]
  • Funny: Satan sends a letter responding to Pat Robertson on Haiti [Star-Tribune, scroll to second item]

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Miscellany, December 2

Yes, it’s true, I’ve been absent from the site for half a year (unless you count Secular Right’s Twitter account) and I’ll be scarce for yet a while longer because of the book manuscript I need to finish. But there’s still time to round up some short items from the past month that might otherwise pass without note:

  • “Few people are motivated by purely secular considerations to become …better people.” Really? [PrawfsBlawg]
  • Trail of proposed Uganda death-for-gays law leads back to U.S. [Box Turtle Bulletin]
  • “Why he stopped believing: confessions of a former missionary” [Amy Alkon]
  • “Coma man” tale: “CNN and MSNBC duped by ‘facilitated communication’” [Michael Rosch/Examiner, Orac/Respectful Insolence]
  • “War on Christmas” grievance-collectors really should lighten up [Ken at Popehat]
  • Successful “libel-in-fiction” claim against author of bestselling “Red Hat Club” novel included allegations that plaintiff had been depicted as atheist and “right-wing reactionary” [Fulton County Daily Report, Overlawyered]
  • “Hard Evidence: Seven salient facts about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan” [Christopher Hitchens]
  • “How many Bibles must there be in the jury room to aid in the deliberations?” Four in this Texas capital case [Scott Greenfield]
  • “Man sacked for belief in psychics backed by judge” [U.K. Independent]
  • Heh: “Efforts to reach Christ for comment were unsuccessful.” [USA Today; Alabama woman who changed her name to “Jesus Christ”]

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Newt Gingrich, in Virginia Beach, certainly seems to have learned to talk the talk.

More: Allahpundit. And Ken Silber has a few “pagan” quotes to recommend to Gingrich, including this from Cicero: “Orators are most vehement when their cause is weak.”



Miscellany, April 22

  • For those who liked the earlier item on pareidolia (the tendency of observers to see religious or other significant images in random patterns) here’s a photo gallery with more such apparitions, including a “hand of God” in an image of a star’s energy field, a crimson flower resembling the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, and many sightings of the Virgin Mary, including one in a crispy snack of the onion-flavored sort known as Funyuns, for which $609 was offered on eBay.
  • Authorité: Hillary launches intimidating new fragrance line [The Onion] In all seriousness, evidence has been piling up that women’s ability to detect scent is different from and probably more discerning than men’s.
  • A cell of Iraqi children allegedly trained by al Qaeda as suicide bombers were given the name “birds of paradise”, said to be derived “from the Islamic belief that when children die they become birds of paradise”.
  • The “Durban II” U.N. anti-racism, anti-U.S. conference is the perfect arena in which to push those noxious resolutions encouraging countries to criminalize the “defamation of religion” (earlier here, here, and here). More: Jonathan Turley.
  • “Couldn’t possibly be a coincidence!” Or maybe it could; this video explains why seemingly uncanny events can in fact be probable.



Miscellany, March 20

  • Pareidolia is “that phenomenon wherein people see things that aren’t there because human brains are wired for pattern recognition”. Children see animals in the clouds or letters in a pile of sticks; adults are likely to see images fraught with special meaning, especially (though not only) religious images such as the Virgin Mary, the cross or the face of Jesus. Via Orac comes an irresistible six-minute video of the highlights of Christian pareidolia stories for 2008.

    Orac hazards the view — though I’m not sure what the evidence is in either direction — that in societies with a different religious foundation or none at all, people would see something else in grilled cheese sandwiches, tree bark, cinnamon bun residues, dirty windows, and other objects presenting random visual patterns. (Compare the 2005 story in which Burger King redesigned the swirl on an ice cream lid after a Muslim man objected that it was too reminiscent of the Arabic inscription for Allah).
  • From the same blog, but on an entirely different subject, a study of medicine and religion finds that (to quote the blog, not the study) “Faith in a higher power can often lead to more aggressive treatment than is medically warranted”. In cases of incurable cancer, strong religious conviction on the part of patients is apparently more likely to correlate with the use of ventilators, death while in intensive care, and other heroic/invasive measures, as opposed to hospice. Orac (who is a medical doctor specializing in cancer) has an extended and interesting discussion.
  • Finally, a Missouri library has agreed to settle “Deborah Smith’s claim that she lost her job as a librarian assistant in Poplar Bluff, Mo., because she refused to attend a ‘Harry Potter Night’ promoting the publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ in July 2007.” Smith believed the Potter books dabble in the occult and was not mollified at the library director’s offer to let her participate behind the scenes where her fellow church members would not have to realize she was involved.

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