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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Americans United Helps Texas 'Church Of Freethought' Win Tax-Exempt Status

Texas Officials End Crusade To Deny Exemption To Dallas-Area Group Americans United for Seperation of Church & State

Officials in the Texas Office of the Comptroller have agreed to extend tax-exempt status to a non-theistic church.

In a May 18 letter to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Comptroller’s Office confirmed that it has granted tax-exempt status to the Church of Freethought, a Dallas-area congregation.

“This is a victory for religious freedom,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Government must never play favorites when it comes to religion.”

Americans United intervened on behalf of the Church of Freethought after the Texas agency refused to grant it tax exemption.

The Church of Freethought (COF) is considered tax exempt under federal guidelines published by the Internal Revenue Service, but Texas officials had refused to follow suit. The Office of the Comptroller insisted that the church “appears to be a discussion or social group rather than a religious organization.”

Church members countered that they offer services similar to other congregations. Notes the church’s Web site, “The COF is and does everything that any other church does but without supernaturalism and without imposing doctrines and dogmas on its members.”

In December, Americans United formally requested that the Church of Freethought be recognized as a tax-exempt body under Texas law. AU attorneys cited a state appeals court ruling granting tax-exempt status to the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin.

In the Ethical Culture case, the Comptroller’s Office had insisted that the group does not qualify as a religion unless it recognizes a Supreme Being. In a press statement, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn insisted that giving tax-exempt status to non-theistic groups would prod “any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween” to apply.

But the Comptroller’s Office has now recognized that its position was not in compliance with the law.

In the recent letter to Americans United, Bryant K. Lomax, manager of the Tax Policy Division, wrote, “We have thoroughly reviewed your application in light of the Court’s opinion, and though we disagree with the Court’s interpretation in material respects, we believe that we are compelled under the Court’s opinion to grant the application.”

AU’s Lynn said he is pleased that the matter has been resolved without litigation.

“Given past rulings, we obviously would have won this case had it gone to court,” Lynn said. “I’m glad we didn’t have to take that step. Texas officials seem to understand there is no point in spending taxpayer money on a quixotic quest to make all religious groups conform to popular assumptions about what is and isn’t a religion.”

Update, August 3, 2006: Oops! I (DT Strain) just happen to be looking over my blog and realized that I've given the impression I simply wrote the above since I didn't have an intro. The above article was a news release written by someone else. Unfortunately I don't know exactly who wrote this, but I suspect it can be found at the links below. Sorry for any confusion.

The Church of Freethought currently has two branches; one in Dallas and the other in Houston:

The North Texas Church of Freethought (NTCOF) website
The Houston Church of Freethought (HCOF) website
Americans United for Separation of Church and State website

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Introducing Humāinism

Update - July 20, 2006: Unfortunately, Rick has had to remove his site for the time being, so the links below will probably not function. I'll update readers if this ever changes.

Rick Bamford is a fellow Humanist I met online through the International Stoics Forum, and with whom I have been collaborating and exchanging ideas and thoughts about ways of expressing and living Humanism in a more personal, positive, and spiritual sense.

Rick has come up with a nice collection of ideas he has termed Humāinism. Rick's concept is fairly precise and he has accepted that it is a more narrow focus than some Humanists would identify with. Even I do not hold the same views on vegetarianism, for instance, but agree with Rick on the vast majority of other ideas. For example, his three components of Humāinism is very much in agreement with my Primary Virtues, and his use of concepts from Buddhism and Stoicism is excellent. Humāinism is packed full of wonderful ideas and concepts, inspired from a variety of traditions and philosophies - certainly a noble take on the same general direction we'd both like to see Humanism head.

I highly recommend a reading of the site in which he has outlined his concepts. It can be found here:

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Happy World Humanist Day

Today is World Humanist Day as well as the summer solstice. World Humanist Day is, of course, celebrated by Humanists and we folks being a minority, a lot of people aren't aware of it. The day exists mainly as a day of fellowship for Humanists and to increase awareness of Humanist values. It developed slowly over the 1980s between several groups celebrating on various significant dates. Finally the American Humanist Association and the International Humanist & Ethical Union agreed on a unified date, June 21st (to reflect reverence for the natural universe on the summer solstice). Even among Humanist groups, it's still a growing holiday, but it's starting to be celebrated more frequently by them over time. The winter solstice has already been celebrated by Humanists for a long time, around the same holiday season as others are celebrating.

In that spirit, let me provide some quotes on Humanism, thanks to

Ethical Humanism is primarily an attitude about human beings, their worth, and the significance of their lives. It is concerned with the nature and quality of living; the character and creativity of our relationships. Because of this concern, humanism spontaneously flowers into a spiritual movement in its own right.
-- Edward Ericson

In my view, humanism relies on reason and compassion. Reason guides our attempt to understand the world about us. Both reason and compassion guide our efforts to apply that knowledge ethically, to understand other people, and have ethical relationships with other people.
-- Molleen Matsumura

A Humanist Code of Ethics:
Do no harm to the earth, she is your mother.
Being is more important than having.
Never promote yourself at another's expense.
Hold life sacred; treat it with reverence.
Allow each person the dignity of his or her labor.
Open your home to the wayfarer.
Be ready to receive your deepest dreams;
sometimes they are the speech of unblighted conscience.
Always make restitutions to the ones you have harmed.
Never think less of yourself than you are.
Never think that you are more than another.
-- Arthur Dorbin

IHEU page on World Humanist Day
Secular Seasons page on World Humanist Day
Wikipedia article on World Humanist Day
Wikipedia article on the Summer Solstice

Monday, June 19, 2006

More Thoughts on Meditation

I was thinking recently about the workings and purposes of meditation (at least samatha meditation) and I thought of an interesting way to explain some of what it’s about.

As most people know, during meditating one attempts to achieve a still mind; that is, a mind that is not wandering onto various topics and is simply conscious without active thought. Why do this? It’s not that there is anything intrinsically valuable about having a still mind. Frogs probably have a still mind, and I will have a very still mind when I’m dead. Thinking is a good thing. But a still mind is a symptom, or an effect that is an indicator of something else.

Imagine yourself and a small child in knee-high water. Now imagine that you are trying to discipline yourself to be still. As you can imagine, the small child will have a more difficult time of this. He lacks the ability to be still and this means he also lacks self control. The water about the two of you will have many ripples or waves in it. Once you learn to control your body and remain still, the water’s surface will be smooth.

Likewise, one seeks a still mind during meditation because it is an indicator that one has achieved greater control over one’s thoughts. The natural inclination of the mind is to wander about various topics. Because the brain has a neural network sort of architecture, activity in one cluster of neurons will easily stimulate others. In this way, one thought reminds you of another, and so on – a sort of mental rambling.

By practicing the clearing of our minds and reaching stillness for extended periods, we train our brains to be capable of directing thought and attention as we decide it is to be directed. If we can achieve this still mind at will and often in meditation, we find that we are also more capable of concentrating on the activities and thoughts we choose to focus on without being scatterbrained or constantly consumed with a worrisome influx of thoughts.

Those who have practiced meditation, even for a short time, have noticed this increase in concentration, focus of attention, and control (I am one of them). Is it placebo, or an improvement of reasoning ability, or a neural restructuring? There are a lot of unanswered questions about the physiological nature behind this experience. I look forward to hearing the results of continuing neurological studies on meditation. But, in any case, it definitely seems to be a fascinating and promising activity, as millions of other people for thousands of years have found.

I have not been consistent in my meditation practice, but hope to improve it. Right now I’m still on 'training wheels'.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Humanist Contemplatives

I've been thinking for some time about starting up a small very informal club within my local Humanist group called the "Humanist Contemplatives Club". After talking over some of the details with the president, I have just placed a website online describing what the club is about, and announced it to my fellow Humanists.

The Humanist Contemplatives Club would be a local gathering of Humanists and other freethinkers with a focus on personal development and self improvement. It would be very inward looking and introspective. The tone of these gatherings would be more 'spiritual' than usual Humanist meetings. It might involve meditation, visits to thought provoking places, and sharing of ideas on what human spirituality means in a purely naturalistic context. It would also be more interpersonal than usual; with members sharing their challenges and giving one another moral support and ideas on meeting them. As such, debate, talk of politics, and criticism of religion would be avoided, as would be overly boisterous and off-topic discussion. A demeanor of solemnity, patience, and nonjudgmentalism would be encouraged.

Inspirations for our activities and philosophy will likely involve many secular philosophies, as well as Buddhism, Stoicism, and other spiritual traditions. Being a Humanist activity, all content is expected to be fully compatible with an empirical and naturalistic worldview.

To learn more about what the Humanist Contemplatives are about, please see the website at Thanks!

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Google Reconsidering?

Note: This post refers to Google's cooperation with communist China's cencorship and oppression of its people, as I posted on earlier in: Don't Be Evil... Unless You Can Make A Buck and Google Alternatives.

In a recent report, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, meeting with reporters near Capitol Hill, has said that their move to cooperate with China was a compromise of their principles and wondered if 'perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense'.

Can it be that the noble efforts of folks such as Reporters Without Borders and other human rights groups and individuals has caused Google to reconsider its actions? If (big if) these statements are sincere, my guess is that a wallet is being affected. That means either:

1) Google's projections of potential profits in China are not as great as previously thought,

2) Google's projections of negative impact (people using alternatives over outrage) is now higher than previously thought,

3) or some combination of the two.

While we have little control over (1), we concerned people can at least contribute to (2). In any case, if what Google co-founder Sergey Brin says is true - it is welcome news. Hopefully it wasn't merely corporate double-speak to get past a difficult question on the Hill. We'll see.

Monday, June 5, 2006

The Obsession Continues

The power of ideology to cause people to waste huge sums of time and money on the irrelevant never ceases to amaze me. When it results in the needless oppression of other people it is particularly unfortunate.

I recently caught some of a Booknotes presentation on C-SPAN, from Glenn T. Stanton on his new book, Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage.1 Stanton has written before about the importance of marriage. In fact, I myself have written of the importance of strong, committed marriages (see 2.15 Sex, Relationships, & Marriage, paragraphs 2.15.13 to 2.15.17).2 That's why I would advocate them for homosexuals too, unlike Stanton.

When it came to gay marriage, Stanton brought up the typical points about redefining marriage and it being a social experiment, and it being harmful to children, unnatural, so on and so on. I’ll not go into them all here, as it would be tedious and pointless. For more specific refutations of these assertions, there are plenty of online sources I’ve found to be sound and reasonable, including HERE.3 Every single argument for restricting marriage solely to heterosexuals is plainly nonsensical and flawed - obviously the mere result of a carefully-masked psychological and cultural distaste of the concept. Such farces of argument are undeserving of serious response.

What is serious is the threat to personal liberty and the effects on real people’s lives that is at stake. Allow gay marriage and some conservative’s life with his or her spouse is entirely unaffected, other than being irritated needlessly about other people’s business. But ban it and real individuals seeking to enjoy the status and legal benefits of their personal relationships and families are affected – the quality of their lives directly impacted.

According to a recent Associated Press article,4 the Senate will be considering a gay marriage ban. The measure has little chance of passing since all but one Democrat and even a few Republicans are against it. But it isn’t as if enough legal harm hasn’t been done already. As Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del) said, “We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. ... Nobody has violated that law. There's been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment?” I think it is interesting to note that in most cases amendments to the constitution have been to expand personal liberty, not shrink them. Here, after more than two centuries we have only seen it necessary to amend our constitution 27 times - and this is what they are thinking would make a good 28th?

In the online summary of the C-SPAN presentation5, Stanton claims that the debate on same-sex marriage has been “poisoned in a negative way” that casts opponents as “hateful, homophobic, bigots.” Perhaps that’s because it is difficult to imagine other examples of someone legitimately seeking to tell other people how they can live, even through legislation, where they themselves aren’t affected in any way. Perhaps it is because its difficult to imagine any other motivation for such outrageous behavior other than hate, ignorance, or unfounded bias.

1) Amazon page: Marriage on Trial: LINK
2) 2.15 Sex, Relationships, & Marriage: LINK
3) Human Rights Campaign: LINK
4) Senate to Tackle Gay Marriage Ban: LINK
5) C-SPAN Booknotes summary: Marriage on Trial: LINK