History in 500 Words

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Father Fred. Queens. Rental housing. Department of Justice. Housing discrimination settlement. Manhattan envy. Loan. Trump Organization. Trump brand. Casinos. Hotels. Trump Tower. Trump Princess (yacht). Junk bonds. Bankruptcies (x6). Over-leveraged. Central Park. Rape. Murder. Central Park 5 (Black youth).  NY Times full-page ad. Trump :restore death penalty. Convictions overturned. Trump Shuttle. Trump Place. Trump Steaks. Trump Wine. Trump University. Trump ego. The Apprentice. WWE. Don King. New Jersey Generals. Dennis Rodman. Miss Universe. Dressing rooms. Celebrity Trump. Trump lawsuits: 3500 (plaintiff/defendant combined). Stiffing workers. Short-paying suppliers. Trump resorts. Trump golf courses and clubs. Trump hair. Mar-a-Lago compound. Lawsuit. Municipal tax credits manipulator. Twenty-five million dollar Trump University settlement. Billion dollar business loss. Unknown IRS tax credit. Non-disclosure of Federal Income Tax filings. Audit in progress. Reform Party. Birtherism. Long-form birth certificate. Investigators to Hawaii. Make America Great Again. Mexico. Rapists. Crime. Drugs. The Wall. NAFTA. TPP. Paying for shipping jobs out. Tweets.Terrorism. Ban Muslims. Register Muslims. Monitor mosques. Deportation force. Bomb ISIS. Torture. Muslims in New Jersey seen celebrating 9/11 attacks. Waterboard. Take out the families. Populist. Right wing. Rallies. Hooliganism. Doctor: healthiest President ever. Obamacare repeal. Great plan to replace. Executive order cancellations. Climate change denial. Exit Paris Climate Agreement. Brexit booster. Trade wars. Border taxes. America First. Lower taxes on corporations. Increase military spending. Spend more. Tax less. Reduce deficit. Dismantle Iran nuclear agreement. Nuclear Triad. Supports West Bank settlement. Tough on crime. Blue lives matter. Urban blacks. What’s to lose? Second Amendment and 2 Corinthians buff. No birthright citizenship. Pro-life. Women should pay. Megyn Kelly. Bias. Blood. Eyes. Wherever. Victim of press. Snowflake. Lying Press. Blacklisted news outlets. Washington Post . Buzzfeed. Huffington Post. Politico. Loose cannon. Lyin’ Ted. Little Marco. Low-energy Jeb. Small hands, big…Loosen libel laws. Mock disabled reporters. Deny. Bully. Paul Manifort, campaign director. Russia. Melania plagiarism. Mitt Romney’s malleable  conscience. Crooked Hillary. Emails. Benghazi. Find emails, Russia! Russian finds emails. Clinton Foundation. Play-to-pay. Bernie Sanders. Socialist. Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton victims. Sexual harassment. Locker room talk. Groping. More accusations. Late night Tweets. Attack pageant contestant. Lawsuits. Trump narcissism. Trump abuses. Election rigged if he loses. FBI announces looking at Weiner’s emails. Hillary emails. Trump wins. Margin: -2.8 million votes. More tweets. Unhinged. Election rigged. Campaigned for electoral swing state vote. Ben Carson. Mock knife/belt buckle story. Nominated for HUD Secretary. Chris Christie. Bridgegate. First selection for VP. Prosecuted Jared Kushner’s father. Pushed out of transition team. Rudy Giuliani played for sucker duh. Rick Perry, Dept. of Energy (yikes nukes). Betsy DeVoss, Public Ed enemy No.1 and grizzly-shootin’ head school marm. Steve Bannon. Breitbart. Rabble-rousing possible supremacist. Mike Flynn. Islamaphobe. Mnuchin, empathy-free mortgage buzzard. Secretary of Treasury. Rex Tillerson, Exxon Texan. Putin podnah. Sarah Palin who? Saving 800≠2000 Carrier jobs.  CIA, FBI, others reveal Russian hacking of DNC. Election not rigged. Someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. Dangling participle or fat-shaming. Or the Chinese. Putin denies. Shawn Spicer. Latino-free cabinet is no problem. Buzzfeed reports Russian dossier on Trump activities. Russian hotel. Trump. Peeing prostitutes. Fake news. Disgrace. CNN denied questions in press conference. Star-studless inaugural fête. Women’s March possible larger draw. Lowest-ever approval rating. Highest ever IQ presidential cabinet. Many positions still unfilled. Hit the ground running. Monday.
You are now entering the Trumpocene.

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Take the Fork in the Road, Please

from Life in the Trumpocene

After the occurrence of some significant event—in this case, the election of a megalomaniacal and unpredictable billionaire celebrity to the U. S. Presidency—it is human nature to look back in time to see how it could have been predicted and prevented; or at least discover that someone or something else had foretold it (which is much simpler—there always are signposts to the future pointing the way to the present, signposts the time traveler had forgotten reading along the way, or missed entirely—and made sure those oversights should be avoided the next go-round. Or signs that were just ignored, pooh-poohed as “that’s just crazy,” or, “that couldn’t happen here.” Keep in mind, there could be hundreds or thousand of such examples, some more specific like direct, pre-election polling; others more general, like explanations of the social psyche or political-economics as explained by academicians, literary sages, or cultural critics. Either way (and to cliche´-up this point) hindsight is 20-20, and simple—and fun! As a Big Picture person myself, I like the following warning signs (billboards maybe?) of the climate that led to election of DJT.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, in his 1998 Achieving Our Country (Harvard Press, first paperback edition, 1999), writes

The point of his book The Endangered American Dream [Edward N. Luttwak] is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized– are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen…

Or this keenly descriptive state of the political and economic state of affairs that had made the state of Kansas look like a microcosm of the rest of America (or the Arab states) and an easy touch for demagoguery. From Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004) five years later:

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay about a place “where hatred trumps bread,” where a manipulative ruling class has for decades exploited an impoverished people while simultaneously fostering in them a culture of victimization that steers this people’s fury back persistently toward a shadowy, cosmopolitan Other. In this tragic land unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.  

The essay was supposed to be a description of the Arab states in their conflict with Israel, but when I read it I thought immediately of dear old Kansas and the role that locales like Shawnee play in conservatism’s populist myth. 

Using the backlighting of the past, the present has come more into focus. But viewing forms from that perspective can be as illusory as the figures in Plato’s cave, however; so for the future we to know as completely as possible the present as the condition of the past, and then direct an LED-brilliant flashlight beam toward—what?

Be Careful of What You Wait For

It’s a symptom of the Age of Information and light-speed accessibility to answers for just about any question one may have: the letdown, the frustration, that feeling of empty anxiety when the question involves more that a one word or short and tidy synopsis quickly consumed and easily digested. But  knowledge is more than a set of factoids without context, and  cannot be shared or absorbed and made meaningful so quickly. Answers to complex problems with amorphous concepts and  ambiguous definitions that must be moved in and about and fit into a jigsaw puzzle of a  picture that we may have never before seen are furtive and unwilling captives in the game of epistemological hide-and-seek.  True knowledge is not reducible to daylong trivia surfing or discoverable by wagging Diogenes’ lantern toward every distraction that shows itself while skittering around in the rabbit hole.

pollack-puzzle

Right now, there is a need to know that outweighs our aversion to the symptoms of the failure to be instantly gratified with a simple truth.  What is needed—sooner rather than later—is knowing whether President-elect Donald Trump is who he said he is, or has presented himself to be in his campaign leading to his election: the nativist white nationalist, the unstable vindictive bully; the crass, loose potty mouth  that shows little of a conscience or empathy; the woefully incurious and uninformed world statesman wannabe; the misogynist and sexual abuser; the high roller businessman with a fondness for stiffing contractors and suppliers, and for his proclivity for civil litigation to skip out on debts and vengefully force adversaries into punitive settlements. And for the secular, the “none”, the atheist and non-Christian (Muslim) communities, knowing whether his pandering to the evangelical and religious right interests is a sincere and personal belief or just a play for that segment of the base of support. The citizenry needs to know because knowledge is a power unto itself, and power is ultimately what it will need if he is what his made-for-media persona has portrayed, strobing from our televisions and tablets for the last 18 months. It will need first the power to resist, and then the power to overcome. The answer may indeed be somewhere between the binary yes, he is that man/no, he is not, deep down, that man, and may be only discoverable by assembling clues about those whom he surrounds himself with. 

That need and desire for this knowledge is not limited to the citizens of the United States. The whole world, of which the U.S. has been the geopolitical leader by default since the end of World War II,  is watching,  as relations in international trade and immigration and his lack of understanding in matters of international military defense and strategy—and eventually war and peace itself— could be at stake. Global leaders are watching to see if he is what he seems to be;  and if he does what he said he would do.

Once, he was a Democrat, a liberal-leaner in the earlier days of the cultural wars. We didn’t know much about him then, but now know his father and he (as his father’s young apprentice) were involved in cvil rights litigation for housing discrimination. We know that he took a serious personal interest in the Central Park Five case in which five youthful Blacks were wrongfully convicted (through forced confessions) of the rape and murder of a 30 year-old jogger. Trump took out  full page ads in several NYC newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, presumably with the five to be first in line for the sentence. This is but one instance of refusing to admit a mistake , but rather use the revelation as a chance to double down with the myth to burnish his law and order image for his constituency. An October 8, 2016 report in the Washington Post reported “This week, when confronted again with just how wrong he was about the Central Park Five, Trump not only refused to acknowledge widely reported and well-known facts or the court’s official actions in the case. He did not simply refuse to apologize: he maintained their guilt.” We know that his current political self-promotion began with the “birther” charge against the newly-elected Obama not long after his inauguration in 2009, and he did not dismiss the idea until only a few months ago, unapologetically. We know that he claimed he could not get a fair trial from a judge of Mexican descent. We know that a proposal for a southern border wall was the kick starter for his campaign , a wall that would keep out Mexican rapists, criminals, and drugs. We know that he proposed a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the country…”. That’s Trump, the racist, intolerant, and mean-spirited  Trump we have grown to know and despise, but…

In the early-morning hours after the evening of his election, he took a very low-keyed and conciliatory approach is his victory speech. He proclaimed it to be a time for unification. A day later, we saw a humble and deferential Trump commenting on his Oval Office sit down meeting with President Obama. He has spoken up for provisions in Obamacare that are worthy of surviving onto the next government health insurance program, such  young adults  staying on parents’ coverage, and no pre-existing exclusions. A spokesperson doubted the implementation of a “deportation force” he called for early in the campaign to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants. It may even be possible  that he is truly appreciative and respectful of the enormous job he has been chosen for and may be, at least temporarily, awe-stricken at the potential for good that could come from it.

But given his record, his reckless abandonment of truth and propensity to fictionalize history, do we have cause for hope that he will be a unifier instead of divider, accepting and forwarding the value inherent in a pluralism of interest groups, races, and secular and religious concerns, all functioning successfully in one nation?  On issues of global import, such as climate change and the preservation of natural resources, will he follow the slash and burn policies of corporate greed that have bequeathed ours and the next generation a thoroughly polluted planet? On the marginalization of public education—the greater the move toward privatization and its phony voucher/choice system, at the expense of the  commons  and assumed duty of the state for public education, the nearer we approach a neo-feudal state where only those who can afford education will pass their money, privilege, technological training, and good paying jobs down to their heirs. Judging from his selection of one of the most trenchant theocratic governors and homophobe sui generis in the country as his running mate, Mike Pence, the answer to one of those questions is no. Judging from a list of prospective cabinet appointees, the answer to the other hypotheticals is, again, no. Hardliners on international relations like John Bolton and Newt Gingrich are on the list for possible Secretary of State; religious right mainstays like Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Scott are on the list as leaders of the Department of Health and Humans Services (think Planned Parenthood, AIDS funding, universal healthcare); and tough guys Rudy Guiliani and Chris Christie are in line for Attorney General to  run the well-oiled and privacy crushing surveillance network which has been expanded logarithmically during the Bush and Obama administrations. A skeptical eye needs to stay focused on his choice for the vacancy on the Supreme Court, but many more eyes need to be kept on lower court appointees. Currently there are 103 judicial vacancies with 59 nominations pending. District and Federal Appeals courts can be just as important the the Supreme Court much of the time, since many rulings go no further than these bodies. On the Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex ruling, Trump recently said “it’s settled law…”, meaning—what? On Roe v. Wade, he continues to reiterate his pro-life position, earlier calling for punishment of women exercising choice (which he later recanted), but here, too, the court has made its decision. It may be something he needs to avoid altogether, but looking at his associates….

And then there was the opinion of a television commentator that Trump is not an ideologue, that he is experienced in the art of the deal, that he is a pragmatist, a git-er-done type guy. Pollyanna, I think, was her name.  

And then there is the appointment of his campaign strategist, executive chairman of  Breitbart News, and a white nationalist and anti-semite look-alike (if not the real thing) Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor; and Republican National Committee Chairman and yes man Reince Priebus  as his White House Chief of Staff. The Donald is reportedly requesting security clearances for his sons and daughter, who will also be running his large, global business woven with wide-ranging and mostly unknown foreign entanglements, which stinks of nepotism and conflicts of interest.

And all of this within six days after his election. Can we really know with certainty  who the real Donald Trump is this soon? From the rapid assembly of his inner circle and narrowing pool of cabinet selections, and a list of potential successors to Scalia’s seat on the SCOTUS bench compiled months ago, probability may be just close enough to certainty to presume that we need not wait much longer to know enough to begin planning the resistance—and hope this knowledge comes with the power to survive, and eventually overcome.

Yes, It Can

When is a theatrical production not a play? When it is a reading, with  script readers  taking the place of actors, reading—while either seated or standing—the dialogue of a play written for actors by the playwright and without a designed set or choreographed movement and action across a stage. It is still a theatrical production, but one stripped to the bare bones of voice.

Five of the 13 players sitting in a closely packed row of chairs in front of the conference room-turned-theater at Jefferson Parish Library in Metairie were members and directors of NOSHA in what was a special invitation to participate in a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ play It Can’t Happen Here. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of its release; the play was adapted and distributed by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Berkeley Rep, a non-profit community theater established in 1968 is currently running the complete theatrical version of the play at its home base in California through November 6.  It was a special invitation for JPL and our own secular humanist group to participate, as it was one of the fewer that 50 venues in the country that hosted and produced the event.

The story was a preview into what America could look like if democracy succumbed to a political solution lead by a nationalist demagogue. Getting his gloomy inspiration from the election of Hitler in Germany and the rising influence of Louisiana’s populist Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, Lewis followed the career of small town Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup, who, though deeply motivated by the ideals of truth and justice, delayed getting involved in the growing movement that elevated a folksy charmer, a fictionalized authoritarian Long named Buzz Windrip. Windrip ends up winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, and is set to run for (and win) the Presidency against the Republican Trowbridge and Franklin Roosevelt (who ended up running on a third party ticket after losing the Democratic nomination).

Library program director Chris Smith introduced the program and narrated the settings between acts and scenes of the play. Curiously the readers were never introduced to the audience individually; time constraints may have been the reason: the reading took a full two hours, pushing the ending right up against library closing time. The readers seemed well-rehearsed—they spoke with just the right amount of dramatic inflection and were on cue most of the program, though the vocal projection waxed and waned at times. There were more characters in the script that performers, so some were required to do multiple parts. It could be a bit confusing if the observer wasn’t familiar with the storyline, especially with no action across a stage to help visually associate the different characters.

Probably a more significant motivation than the 80th anniversary for Berkeley Rep’s staff to re-release the program was the current Presidential election campaign and to confirm that, yes, it could happen here. The rise of Donald Trump has uncovered an undertow of a new and septic populism— a populism founded on nationalism and some degrees of xenophobia and racism—and has found in Trump, warts and all, a bona fide advocate. Lewis’ story includes Windrip’s paramilitary Minute Men to deal with dissidents; Trump’s deportation force will be assigned to sort out the rapists and drug dealing illegals and place them on the right side of his Mexican-funded, beautiful wall. A probable adaptation by the Berkeley writers has Windrip reveling at a rally about how protesters were handled in the good old days. The historical Father Coughlin’s and his incendiary anti-semitic radio rhetoric becoming an ally of Long-Windrip parallels the evangelical Grahams’, Falwells’, and Robertsons’ current romance with strongman Trump. The boorish everfacsism_comes_to_americayday Donald we see is merely a simulacrum of the master wheeler-dealer of foreign trade, the ultimate job creator, and the genuine Isis-slayer Generalisimo Trump that he has cultivated and grown bigly (tee-hee) with assistance from a ratings-driven media. The power of the media in shaping pseudo-leaders was a major factor in the rise of yokel Lonesome Rhodes, portrayed by Andy Griffith in the 1958 film A Face in the Crowd, who also had a bad mouth/hot microphone problem.

The program of It Can’t Happen Here on the Berkeley Repertory Theater website has the following advisory:

It Can’t Happen Here includes the use of herbal cigarettes, haze, and gunshot sound effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.

For those having seen enough of the similarities already, a trigger warning might have been welcomed. Or at least, please, a caution about a possible circuit overload. But to those who are just about done at this point, and are happy to just plug their ears and hum along with with this 50 year-old ditty from The Mothers of Invention, this advisory: Don’t do it. 

popper-meme


And now, please, introducing our troupe and congratulations to:

Beth Deitch, Jim Dugan, William Gautreaux, Charlotte Klasson, and Anne McKinley

Goodwill vs. God’s Will

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

August, 2016

The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes there traveled in separate cars with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project were the Thomases, Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, MartyBankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used  smartphone GPS  to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most  all had to park and locate a mailbox somewhere on the street to find the house number, or call a contact already on the job if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were lost at the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, rolls of ragged-edged carpeting, teevees, fridges, and picture frames with water-stained photos of family memories . A small hill of ruined doors, millwork,  cabinetry and sinks would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.

 

The Thomas’ acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”–though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a  500-year flood.  Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood  got  6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The maths and elevations didn’t work out. Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.

 

Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were forced to relocate when their space inside a wall was uncovered.

 

The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something–anything–left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become  special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried those things she found. A pop-up summer shower was about to do what the floodwaters didn’t, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.

 

About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t  go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, though Cecelia had an overheating episode but seemed recovered enough to be able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that plagued New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in that disaster was evident as they chipped away through the day’s work, like, “¡No problema!”.

 

This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it will be remembered as most edifying when thinking  of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us as, one by one, we headed home. And when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her– and for us.

 

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON: NOLA SKEPTICS ON REASON RALLY 2016

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON:reflecting pool NOLA SKEPTICS ON REASON RALLY 2016

Four years ago, Reason Rally 2012 was promoted as the “largest secular event in world history,” a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics. Organized and produced by David Silverman, President of American Atheists, Inc., it was a momentous coming out part for 30,000 non-believers on the Mall in Washington, D. C. A long lineup of speakers from the scientific and entertainment fields were the main event.

Reason Rally 2016, held last month, and again in Washington, “had a greater variety of activities over the weekend, which reflects the happy fact that the secular movement has progressed beyond the need to merely show we exist,” said Beth Deitch, one of several NOSHA members from New Orleans who went. “The number of groups was so much larger than four years before. So many demographics and perspectives were represented.” To be sure, over 30 groups were represented—from FFRF to Secular Media Network to Mythicists Milwaukee to Lady Parts Justice—almost all of them tabling in tents set up along the outer edge of the mall.

The organizers set a decidedly more political slant to the speaking subjects and activities this year, probably in part due to it being an election year, and partly because so much legislative wrangling  and a plethora of court opinions have been handed down over the last year. LGBTQ and other social justice issues were a recurring theme. “The Reason Rally is absolutely a political event,” said executive director Lyz Liddell. “That’s the reason we’re holding this in an election year. We want to see reason taking precedence over religious-driven ideology.”

Traveling with Deitch was William Gautreaux; John and Donna Williams and John’s sister, Darlene Reaves were in the crowd while also visiting their daughter during their trip to the city. Former NOSHA members Douglas and Yvette Parfait came, said Doug, with one purpose:  “I didn’t go this time to listen to speakers, and I didn’t. Not one.  I went to mingle, to find as many people I’ve only known on Facebook as I could.” Taking pictures was another thing he managed to do, and do quite well—thanks to him for the photos included in this story.

THE VENUE. THE CROWD.  A noticeably  lower turnout from the 2012 event has been the topic of discussion for just about everyone associated with the event. Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist blogger, came up with several reasons for the low turnout, including: the late cancellation of Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins; the novelty had worn off; it took place in the summer; etc., etc. A few observations, estimates, and a few explanations by our NOLA contingent:

Douglas P.

“In 2012, the number was 30K-ish, I haven’t heard of any official estimate for 2016, however I would say 4K (but that’s just my estimation).

The white chairs in front of the stage were VIP seating, and those chairs were never filled, sparse as well. I found that a little embarrassing.”

Beth D.

“I do think the physical layout of the event made the crowd look somewhat smaller than it actually was. The stage was in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the space in front of the stage taken up by the VIP seating. We had VIP seats, which was nice, for sure, but it kept the bulk of the crowd from being close to the stage — behind the chairs was the reflecting pool, so the crowd had to be split off on either side of the pool were still around 10,000 atheists gathered in one place for RR2016, which was exhilarating!  I believe that growth may have contributed to the lower  attendance in 2016 than in 2012: There are now atheist conventions and events and communities all over the country, all throughout the year….”

John W. 

“I haven’t seen an official after-the-fact estimate of the turnout but I’m guessing it didn’t reach the 30+K that was projected. [George] Whitfield was routinely delivering numbers like this throughout the colonies over 270 years ago, during the Great Awakening [the original American religious revival event], before there were planes or cars. So for me the turnout was disappointing…

We sat under a tree, in the shade, near the spot where, in the movie, Jenny spilled into the Reflecting Pool yelling for Forrest [Gump]. A few ducks with ducklings swam in the green water of the pond, shoveling algae up with their bills like a BP oil skimmer. A large egret flew overhead several times, and on each occasion was promptly mobbed by two crows. One of us sat in doggy doo. My impression is that DC is behind the times when it comes to curbing your dog. We even ran across it on our way out, in the airport, on the terminal floor.”

OBSERVATIONS IN THE PSEUDO-TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS. Public restrooms: almost every anti-theocrat and social justice advocate’s favorite issue this spring; and the management at the hotel where (ironically) the comedy program was presented was happy to accommodate; transforming, with a quick paper-over, the usually gender-specific WCs into New Age community  toities. 

Beth

“Friday night we went to a Reason Rally comedy show, which was so much fun! The emcee for the show was David Smalley, who is the host of the Dogma Debate radio show/podcast, and founder/president of the Secular Media Group. He has been a strong ally for trans people in this ridiculous focus on their right to pee in peace. So I was not at all surprised to find that the signs for the restrooms at the show venue had been covered with new paper signs reading “gender-neutral restroom.” And guess what? Not one person fainted away, or was overcome with a sudden desire to sexually assault someone! However, one of the comedians did comment on one behavioral change he noticed: with women being around, ALL of the men were actually washing their hands! William leaned over to me and said ‘yeah, that’s not usually the case.’”

John

“We all attended the Friday night comedy show. The comics were Leighann Lord, Ian Harris, Keith Jensen, and they were all very funny, as good as any New York comedy show I’ve been to. After the comedy show, off of the hotel’s lobby, I used my first gender-neutral public toilet. I’m not sure it was sanctioned by the hotel. There were several women waiting for stalls in the bathroom; and I’ve never seen men belly-up so close to the urinals, which is actually a good thing. The guys also all washed their hands when they left, just like one of the comics had just joked about. There is a lot of truth in good comedy.”

ON THE PROSELYTIZERS. No gathering of heretics, secular activists, or misguided souls debauching on Bourbon Street escapes their notice and compulsion to share God’s word. No one expected a reversal of this trend at the Reason Rally.

Beth

There were a few bothersome protesters and proselytizers about, but the occasional individual ranter was easy to ignore, and any protesting groups were small and on the periphery.  (I know Ray Comfort had wished to bring a large contingent of harassers, but was informed that any sizable protest would require a permit and a designated location).”

William

The Christian protesters were not allowed to organize within our rally to harass us, but they were sometimes alone or in groups of two or three within the rally proselytizing. Of course, we completely ignored them.

However, there was one guy handing out little cards with the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), symbol on them. It has a dark blue background with a yellow equal sign. Since I was a volunteer with HRC for 10 years, I wanted to support them, so Beth and I each took a card. We flipped the card over, and there were Bible verses denouncing gay people. We went to give the cards back to the guy and told him that this was dishonest and intentionally deceptive. I asked him why Christians needed to use lies and deception to get people to listen to their message. He did not have an answer. It’s just like when Christians go into schools and bribe kids with pizza and other kinds of treats in exchange for listening to the Christian message.”

Feels True

John

“…A little further down, at 17th and Constitution, my sister and I ran into an aggressive preacher with a bullhorn. I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage him, but again, like many times before, I did anyway. In an amplified voice he told us that we were going to live in Hell for eternity. We said we would be amongst friends and started dancing like it was Mardi Gras. With this he became unhinged. As we danced away the bullhorn quoted bible verses and called us fools. We were fools for reason.”

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Signs, Trans, and the Times

I just became familiar with the journal First Things. The same people that published it have a Facebook page by the same name. I ended up on their mailing list and got a steeply discounted offer to subscribe. The mailer introducing the publication said First Things “is the home of today’s greatest religious thinkers and writers…with…lively ideas, debate, and commentary by noted…scholars and public intellectuals.”
The price was right: the $60 newsstand price for 12 issues was only $19.95; and knowing thine enemy, especially what thine enemies’ “scholars and intellectuals” are up to is, in my book, always a good strategy. So I poked around on their site a found a cache of blogs, essays, and links. The editors were obviously quite proud of a recent short essay “The Semiotics of Transgender Bathroom Signage” by Jordan Zajak, O.P.,  as it got prominent billing on their webpage and on Facebook. The author-priest-scholar responsible for it did his best to give his best hipness-by-association slant by using semiotics (theory of signs) as the thread to drive toward this crash of postmodern confusion: the half-skirted, half-trousered graphic signing a trans-friendly restroom “neither corresponds to nor captures lived reality…but the empty signifier…is an efficacious sign of thdownloade inefficacy and incoherence of the gender ideology it is trying to represent.”
Now, let me say that I know the principle of charity requires one to appreciate that someone advancing an argument is sincere in his belief and should assume that the argument follows a modicum of rationality and may have points well taken. This argument, however, seems absurd on the face of it: their are many trans folks that could verify the sign does indeed corresponds to a “live reality”–their own. Add to this “the inefficacy and incoherence of gender ideology [sic] “, and the only charitable thing I muster would be that the poor fellow got his St. Jerome and Augustine confused with his Saussure and Barthes. Maybe his weakness at  reading signs of the times, is probably no fault of his own. For now though,  I may wait to subscribe.

Being Judged by the Company You Keep

20140714_182249_resizedYou have to give credit to Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee for either sticking by his principles, or at least for properly interpreting the handwriting on the imaginary wall that separates his state from  neighboring North Carolina, and doing something about it.

North Carolina just passed and signed into law the ballyhooed “bathroom” bill; a bill designed to keep transsexuals  out of their preferred bathrooms and banished to the bushes or back alleys to do their business; and the bill that was to become the most recent rallying point against the discriminatory root at the foundation of similar legislation in several states around the country dealing with sexuality, gender identification, women’s health, and legal interpretations of marriage. North Carolina was immediately shown lots of anti-love by corporate headquarters and performing artists with cancellations of business and concert appearances.

The fact that all of these bills are based on moral concepts based on religious scripture—usually of the Abrahamic variety, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— and favor dogmatic, two-thousand year-old  mores over the modern understanding of a liberal and open government of laws and a pluralistic method for making those laws. The Founding Fathers saw how the effects of doctrinal adherence of religion, or the favoring of one religion over another, or efforts to incorporate any  of it into the law of the land could upset the concept of an open government. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relation at the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said “ Politics by its very nature is an institution of compromise; the church by its nature holds to that fact there are certain absolutes. There is, and must always be, a natural divide between them.” 

Let’s assume Governor Haslam was sticking by these principles—the separation of church and state, written into the first of the Bill of Rights—when he vetoed legislation passed by representatives in the statehouse resolving that the Holy Bible was to be the official state book. Let’s assume the governor was not looking at the immediately negative economic impact the bathroom bill had had on North Carolina. And let’s further assume he was not looking and the legal costs the state would pay defending this law from challenges to its constitutionality.

The ultimate decision seemed to have been based on a rarely-cited insight of the wisdom of the separation of church and state expressed by some of the most devout followers of the faith: that maintaining the strict divide between matters of religion and matters of state prevents, or at least reduces, the debasing effect of the association of the purity of religion with the rude machinations and corrupting influences of governmental affairs. As Jimi Jobin, a Nevada pastor so eloquently wrote in an open letter  admonishing a pastor in South Dakota for endorsing a certain gubernatorial candidate, “It desecrates our pulpit to yield it to politics. We are called to something higher than to meddle in the affairs of ambitious men. We are not so Holy that we can merely baptize a candidate, and never drink the poison of his words. We do not stump for senators, we do not campaign for congressman, we do not preach for presidents, because the name of Christ is too precious to risk on a common election, no matter how important the issues at stake may seem.” Running a government is a dirty, rough-and-tumble enterprise, so why risk sullying the simple goodness of the logos, or invite bureaucratic tinkering and probing of your day-to-day operations (least of all your financial statements)?

This abstract notion was brought to a real world perspective by the governor. He showed that the newly anointed state book would assume its place in a list of other state official favorites, where to be found are some rather average critters, vegetation, and other unremarkably common things found in everyday life; none nearly what would be readily assumed to be the materials or life forms of the heavenly realm.

Some examples of the Volunteer State’s favorite and official things, with the governor’s possible objection to the Bible’s insertion into a list with them:

The Official State…

Amphibian—the Tennessee Cave Salamander. Too snake-like. And the snake was the single most catastrophic agent in the Bible. An obviously bad choice.

Fish (1 of 2)—Channel Catfish. The filth associated with bottom-feeders just doesn’t work in this morality.

Beverage—Milk. This is bearing false witness: everyone knows it is Jack Daniels.

Rock—Limestone. Not a strong, solid rock that one could expect to build an eternal church upon.  Try igneous— granite, marble, etc.

Reptile—Eastern Box Turtle. At least they got away from their snake and salamander fetish; but, no.

Horse—Tennessee Walking Horse. The male Tennessee Stud, popularized in a 1950s song could be suggestive of the fantasies of sisters Ahola and Aholibah in the Book of Ezekiel.

Whether Governor Haslam was authentically sticking to principles when he vetoed this bill would be hard to say for sure; mainly because we don’t know that he even held a strong opinion on this matter before the case presented itself. But we should recognize that he was clever enough to learn from the backlash now swamping North Carolina; and that he was, if not principled, at least crafty enough to play this seldom-used defense of the Wall of Separation by using a political legerdemain which (temporarily) stopped the bill, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of a good shepherd of biblical morality by shielding the Good Book from the debasing results of close contact with the vulgar, or just the average and the earthly.

An Hour or Two with Harry

Born Free in Okeechobee

When the first question came up dAndy Rooneyuring my discussion with Harry Greenberger, a quotation came to mind: “Everyone starts out being an atheist.”  It turns out to be the words of the sage but sardonic curmudgeon-commentator Andy Rooney, who appeared regularly on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Harry has earned the “sage” moniker , stating that he was always an atheist; in but contrast to Rooney’s crabby presentation of wisdom, the octogenarian Greenberger’s bonhomie and easy demeanor is as smooth as the Southern gentry of days past.

Humanist Advocate

You related to me earlier that you were Jewish. Can you tell me a little about your childhood. e. g.—did you grow up in a strict religious home, or were your parents secular? Did you ever experience any overt or covert acts of prejudice because of your Jewish origins?

Harry Greenberger

I lived in Okeechobee, Florida, which is a very small town in south Florida with my two older brothers, a sister, and parents, who had moved there from New York City, by way of Amarillo, Texas. There were from time to time maybe three Jewish families, but there was never a temple nor synagogue where I grew up. My father had become a Christian Scientist, and the town was so small there was no Christian Science Church either. I’m convinced my mother was an atheist, but the subject never came up. We didn’t even talk about it. So I didn’t get any indoctrination as a Jew or Christian Scientist. There were four children, and my parents didn’t try to force things, except by example. And by example I mean, as people in the South, they treated Blacks very well and were very liberal. My mother and father ran a little store in Okeechobee, and the children were raised by a black maid. I had no idea there were  any problems between the races, except that the Blacks lived in one part of town and we lived in another. You asked earlier if I ever experienced any prejudice for being Jewish and we did not. No one was aware of those religious differences—we were just accepted as a part of the community. In school, we would recite the Lord’s Prayer every day, did readings from the New Testament, but I didn’t see anything to it, and we just did it. I was in a Christmas pageant play, and played the role of one of the wise men. But I didn’t know I shouldn’t have been doing that as a Jew.

Okeechobee High School, Class of ‘44 Valedictorian Harry then received a BA degree, with Honors, from the University of Florida, passed the Florida CPA  examination and moved on to Florida State University, where he was an Accounting teacher’s assistant and earned a Master’s Degree in Psychology. Soon after, he and a friend decided to move to New Orleans. After a career in accounting and a partner in the ownership of a French Quarter art gallery, Harry was ready to get involved with a group that had like-minded secular, non-theistic opinions.

Getting Started

“So the man sitting next to me said ,’How about this man?,’ pointing to me.”

HA

Did you consider your self a little courageous or at least  adventurous for getting involved with an atheist organization given the preponderance of Catholic influence in the city?

HG

When  the small group started NOSHA (New Orleans Secular Humanist Association), I was retired by then. If not, I might not have been able to go public because it could influence people I worked with and also customers of our business. I was retired so I didn’t have that restriction. When the article appeared [about the new group]  in the Times-Picayune, which was a lengthy article, about me and our atheism, I had friends who said “You’re going to be in trouble. People are going to break windows in your house and spray paint your car”.  I had no problem, not a single instance, ugly phone calls, any problem. I think maybe people of New Orleans have enough of a varied background that they can accept people that are different.

HA

Tell me something about the early days, some of the background of getting started up.

HG

Many years ago I got a notice that a group was forming an American Atheists group. It was kind of a small, ragtag group and I decided it was going nowhere; and it didn’t. Some years later, there was a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church, and in this case there were two people who came in from the Council for Secular Humanism—I think that’s where they were from—and talked about setting up a group. I had the feeling at the time that that group was not going to develop either. And it hung around a little while and went by the wayside. My third invitation to become a part of a secular group was the one at which NOSHA was formed. There was a meeting of about a dozen people at a bookstore in Metairie and I was impressed that these people were of good background and this would be a successful group. None of us knew each other. The woman who had arranged for this had contacted the Council for Secular Humanism to ask if there was a local branch, and they told her there was not, but that she could start one. She said she did not want to be the president; but she wanted a place where her young children could go because they wouldn’t be going to church or Sunday School; but she had to keep a low profile to avoid professional or social repercussions.  She had all the material that showed how you set up an organization, and she said “this is how you set up an organization—the first thing you do is elect a President.” So the man sitting next to me said “How about this man?,” pointing to me. And I said to them “If anyone else would like to do it, please take it; if not, I’ll do it”    

“I felt like this group really had a chance for survival, because of what I perceived as the quality of the members. Three of those on the Board of Directors were college professors, Dave Schultz being one that is still with us on the boad. I was never one of those in-your-face atheists, and I think we had a refined group on the board of directors.

Organization Man; City Council Opens Up; Humanism Televised

“….and Harry Greenberger should be President.”

HA

Had you any experience setting up a non-profit organization or was your career work helpful?

HG

Absolutely. At that meeting, we talked about getting organized, and I told them that I was a CPA, and had some experience in organization. As one of the owners of Nahan Art Galleries on Royal Street, I had called for a meeting of the Royal Street merchants to set up an organization to be called the Royal Street Association, because we had top quality art galleries, antiques stores, first class restaurants on the street that I thought we would benefit from being an organized entity. I called for a meeting to start the association. We had another store on Chartres Street, and when the Chartres Street people saw what we were doing they formed the Chartres Street Association and I served on their Board of Directors. I was the President of the Royal Street organization as well.

Come World’s Fair time, streets were under construction and killing business. Royal, Chartres, and Bourbon Street groups met with the Mayor and his aides to discuss problems, and a woman said “what we need is a French Quarter Business Association and Harry Greenberger should be the president.”  I became the President of another new organization. It was because of my presidencies  that I got to know everybody on the City Council because we would go there with problems and complaints. At that point, I knew everybody on the city council and they all knew me. Also, I represented our company at the Chamber of Commerce, and I was really pissed off because they just ignored the French Quarter. I arranged to talk at the meeting of their board and made the point that needed to pay more attention to the FQ. because of the tourist business it brought. So they set up a French Quarter committee and made me the chairman, so that’s another one that I had to put together.

HA

You have given a secular invocation to start 8 City Council meetings. Was your familiarity with the council members that helped you to get your foot in door to do this?

HG

Councilman Marlin Gusman, and I do not remember what brought it on,  approached me with the proposal that if I wished to give a secular invocation at a meeting, he would set it up for me. And I did. That is how I got to know the city council’s chaplain, who usually gave the invocation. After a few months or year passed and I called him and said I would like to do another one. Since he found out I was not insulting religious people, I was just doing my thing, and any time I wanted to do one, I would just call him and he would fit me into the agenda.

HA

You also write the material and host a variety of guests from many walks of life on “The Humanist Perspective” a locally produced cable TV program. How long have you done that, and did the idea for that come after NOSHA got off and running?

HG

My guess is that I have hosted the show for about 15 years. The tapes made prior to Katrina were lost in the flood. I’m doing two shows a month; at one time I was doing more than two shows a month.

The way I got involved in the program was the American Atheist Association was looking for people who would deliver their tapes to  public access TV stations and sponsor them locally. I didn’t even know there was a public TV access station, but said I would do it. They would deliver the tapes to me and I would take them to the station to air them. When I went to do that the first time, I found out you had to be a resident of the parish or a member of a non-profit based within it. I also found out they were producing shows there, and I asked what you had to do to have a show. They gave me an application, and for a fee of $100 a year, you could do a show. That was part of the deal Cox Cable agreed to be awarded the monopoly cable TV provider in Orleans Parish—they had to put up a million dollars a year for public access programming between 4 and 6 channels in their lineup.

HA

Did you experience much frustration finding people to interview or scheduling appearances and keeping on schedule?

Generally, this whole thing over the years has operated very smoothly. Sometimes I get a little anxious that I don’t have commitments from two people, because I do two interviews at the same session. But I always end up with two guests, and I cannot remember a time when someone did’t show up. I rarely have a problem with thinking we will run out of things to say to fill the time. It usually goes so smoothly…I don’t know how many times I said to my guests “A half hour goes by fast, doesn’t it?”

HA

You recently retired as President of NOSHA. Given your age, Is the end in sight for your work on this TV production?

Let me put it this way…I stepped down from the presidency of NOSHA because I decided it was time for some new blood. I was a little tired of that. I did not give up the show because I still got some pleasure out of it. Do I see an end to it? Yes, because I am getting very old. I haven’t lost my mental capacity but I can’t remember anything. But when I gave up the presidency, there was more than one person who was qualified to step into that position. But I don’t know anyone in NOSHA now who  would take over that show if I said I was ready to give it up, and of course I’ll have to give it up because of age. But I won’t have to give it up for lack of guests to interview. Early on, I got most of my guests from my contacts having been in public life, but that can’t go on forever. Now I get most of my guests from stories I read in the paper. But in fact, if I knew someone in NOSHA whom I thought would really like to do the show and was capable, I might be ready to turn it over, but I don’t see anyone who has shown any interest.

HA

But it needs to continue…

When it came on, it appeared twice a week, at 2:30 pm and 2:30 am on the weekends. And originally, that’s all that I thought it was. But I knew we had someone who was converting our tapes to go on YouTube. I’m not much of a tech or a computer person , but found out when you go to YouTube to our spot, it also shows how many people have watched.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who had watched. For instance, the professor of economics at Loyola who was an Ayn Rand  fan…I can’t remember…I think it was 4,000..I couldn’t believe how many people were watching my shows on YouTube….they can also been seen on Vimeo; and on our website.

Harry the Humanist

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”—a Quotation from Margaret Mead—and all that was printed on a letter-size sheet of paper Harry handed me.

HA

Strictly considered, atheism, or other brands of skepticism would not seem to be necessarily linked to any political ideology or viewpoint. In Humanism, from which NOSHA takes its name, that point is not quite so clear; and that some humanist principles are better represented in certain political parties than others. What is your thinking on this?

HG

First, on the Wall of Separation. There are some conservatives who say that say those words never appear in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of it, made it very clear that the First Amendment intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state. I think that is going to stand, no matter what. I still say we [non-theists] are the most maligned minority in this country. Polls show that we are the least likely out of any groups to be elected for office. I heard some commentator refer to Bernie Sanders as an atheist. Wouldn’t it be something if an atheist Jew was elected President? I tell you what concerns the hell out of me: the Supreme Court. The ultra-conservatives are not going to let Obama get a new member in there. We’re okay if the Democrats win the Presidency, but if the Republicans win, we are gone forever because not only this spot will be filled, but in another 4 years another one is going to die. Ginsburg would probably like to retire, but she doesn’t want the wrong person put in there.

But going back to humanism: humanism, with the lower case “h”, is not specific as upper-case Humanism, which is the philosophy of humanism, and that philosophy says we are concerned with the welfare and the living of full lives for ourselves and others without any reliance on the supernatural. People ask me all the time about secular humanism—what it is. I tell them “secular” means we are non-religious, but that just says what we are not, rather than what we are. Humanism says what we are, and says that since we are not going to have an afterlife and that this is the only life we are going to have we should live it fully and rewardingly, getting the most out of it we can and allowing others to do the same thing.

What I just told you has a lot to do with guests I’ve asked to be on the TV show. I couldn’t have just spent all these years talking about non-religion; how many guests can you have on that subject? Secular humanism says live life fully, get out of it what you can. That enables us to do things that are worth taking a part in or observing—it contributes to the fullness of our lives which is why I talk to people who are in theater and all manner of things, so long that this is a subject that can give some joy and pleasure and satisfaction in our lives.

HA

Do you think the usefulness of organizations which are founded on the principle of non-theism has past its prime?

HG

No way. I think we are only in the beginning of it and see nothing but expansion in the future. This country is becoming a whole lot less religious. The young people…they don’t even talk about it…I was wondering why we didn’t have more secular organizations at UNO, Delgado, Tulane…and I was told that young people don’t even think about religion. That’s why the numbers are going to change, because of the young people. For us older people, we are trying to overcome the old discriminations and trying to make secularism more acceptable. The young people don’t have that same outlook.

________________________________________

In addition to scheduling  hundreds of speakers for monthly NOSHA meetings during his time as President of NOSHA, interviewing hundreds more on “The Humanist Perspective” television program, some other noteworthy events, publications, and awards Harry has had a hand in:

2002—Interviewed by Elizabeth Mullener for the Times-Picayune

2005—Acknowledgement and photograph of Mayoral Proclamation of “Day of Reason” in New Orleans requested by members of NOSHA published in Freedom from Religion Foundation publication Freethought Today

2009Recognition of New Orleans City Council Proclamation of Day of Reason in Free Mind. Both proclamations were proposed as alternatives to the National Day of Prayer.

2012—Interviewed by Eric Nguyen of the Humanist News Network, the weekly online publication of the American Humanist Association.

2012—Recipient of The Humanist Award of NOSHA. The award was later given his name.

2013—Designated as President Emeritus of NOSHA

2014—Named to the Honor Roll of the Humanist Foundation, a subsidiary of the American Humanist Association.

2014—Published an essay in Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council of Secular Humanism, addressing the theme “The Faith I Left Behind”. His essay, “Why I am Not a Believer,” was one of several, out of the hundreds submitted,  to be selected for publication in the book The Faith I Left Behind .

An Evening with Bart, Bird, and the Baptists

Persecutors Pay the Price

February , 2016

Getting comfortable in the nearly straight-backed, hardwood benches with a minimum of padding involved  a continual re-alignment of posture for the dozen disciples of New Orleans’ club for Christian persecutors unaccustomed to sitting in church. The benches—pews in churchspeak– were in the voluminous Leavell Chapel, located on the grounds of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The Persecutors made a rare appearance in church and suffered the punishing seating arrangements as a penance to hear one of their own: Biblical scholar, UNC professor, prolific author and fellow non-believer Bart Ehrman debate with theological lecturer and author Michael Bird, who made the trip from his native Australian. Ehrman could have been from the other, not-Australian place Down Under judging from the awkward introduction and reception he was given prior to his lead-off address. The forum director, Robert Stewart’s introduction of him to the audience of about 1200 seminarians, instructors, old Baptist preachers, and the dozen Persecutors was worded awkwardly enough not to invite applause. 

The title of the dialogue was “How Did Jesus Become God,” named from Ehrman’s most recent book, and was the the theme of the larger Greer-Heard Point-Counter Forum held annually at the seminary for the last 11 years. The Friday night dialogue is followed Saturday morning and early afternoon with more lectures from other distinguished presenters followed up with responses from the key speakers Ehrman and Bird. The idea of the for the forum was initially proposed by seminary donors– and husband and wife –Greer and Heard, said President Chuck Kelley during his general introduction. Besides the unstated purpose of getting their names attached to something of interest related to the seminary operations, their published  motivation was to get divergent viewpoints on matters religious for the goal of “teaching preachers to think.” Anyone would see what a novel concept that was, and its potential for successful outcomes, though not guaranteed, remain in the realm of possibility. In theory.

Dr. Ehrman kicked off by setting out the “terms” of the discussion, though “limits” may have been a better choice. The purpose would be to present a credible explanation of how the historical person Jesus, described at length in the New Testament addition to the Bible, came to be also known, called, pronounced, exalted as, or proclaimed to be… God.  Ehrman emphasized that the discussion was limited to the historical possibilities of the question and not its theological ramifications. Whether Jesus truly was the same as, or the son of the God was not part of the debate. Ehrman does agree with  other skeptics and agnostics, and believes that the personhood of Jesus is affirmed (that the historical person of Jesus existed); and that position of mythicism—that a historical Jesus did not really exist, but was rather a mythical figure, a composite other such deities of the area, such as (among others) Dionysus and Osiris of Greek and Egyptian lore, was false.

The short answer, said Ehrman, is that Jesus officially became God at the Council of Nicea in 325 C. E. Roman Emperor Constantine, who may have made his first mistake by legalizing Christianity in the Empire, and second, really big error making it the official state religion, called for a meeting of about 300 bishops to smooth out some of the details of the newly established religion in an effort to patch up the social structure of an empire that was falling apart and was in need of a unifying….something. In a truy democratic process, the motion to proclaim Jesus to be the co-eternal, co-equal,  begotten, and of the same essence as the real god received a majority vote of those in favor. And so came to be the Nicean Creed. It can only be speculated how things may have turned out had voter fraud later be uncovered.

So to be fair, Ehrman painted a little historical perspective of the official coronation done by the Council. A study of the New Testament scriptures shows that Jesus’ disciples did not believe at the time of their association with him he was divine, but only came to that belief after the Resurrection. The empty tomb was a trigger for a group with high expectations and an even loftier imagination to surmise no explanation existed for their leader’s disappearance other than that he had been exalted to Heaven—a transformation which happens only to truly godly beings, they thought.  Ehrman quoted and referred frequently and breezily from Biblical verse and chapter, evaluating nuances in the semantics and aphorisms of the scripture to validate his position that the Jesus-God unification was of a Christology called adoptionism; that Jesus was really born as a mortal man and was later “adopted” to be the son, and, curiously enough, at the same time, the same being as God. This theory conflicts with the final edicts of the Council of Nicea, which ended up with a god of not two, but three agents, all three almighty, all three, one; each one, three. And they understandably called it the Doctrine of the Trinity. It is difficult, using logicians’ standard  laws of thought, specifically the law of the excluded middle; or Leibniz’ catchy Identity of Indiscernables, to get one’s head around all this, a problem church theoreticians recognized soon enough, and called it a mystery—euphemizing the problem temporarily away, kicking it down the line for future generations to figure out.

Dr. Bird is along with this idea, too. The diminutive but plucky redhead is an informed and entertaining presenter, and kept a light-hearted attitude and non-apocalyptic tone throughout (even if the irony in the overused icebreaker Australian speakers often employ, associating his homeland, Crocodile Dundee, and Outback Steakhouse resonated as bit Trinitarian itself). Bird tried to show that the theory of adoptionism didn’t emerge until about 190 C. E. from a group following the works of Theodotus, which had itself carried the tradition of the mortal beginnings of the Christ fellow from the earlier thought of Bishop Arius, one of the participants of the Council of Nicea and the leading opponent to the doctrine that was eventually accepted. Dr. Bird patched together verses from the Gospels, mixed in references from Pauline Epistles, and tied them together with the “Word,” or “logos” notion from John the baptizer to fortify his theory of the making of Jesus-God as a version of the “possession” Christology. All this meaning that Jesus was of “the word”, was in possession of the same substance and eternal existence as the god and the divine spirit.

Thus,the Doctrine of the Trinity is reaffirmed by Bird, albeit with a few twists. Ehrman, getting the final rebutting remarks, said as much. Mr. Bird had not contributed an answer to discussion’s primary puzzle: How did Jesus become God? For Bird, and likely most of the seminarians, instructors and old Baptists preachers there, the proposition that Jesus is “of the Word” and just is, always was, just as the god Yahweh and the spirit are, is, when outfitted with enough Biblical cross references, the Truth (with a capital T) for the ages.

As for the Persecutors, some left wondering (and doubting) if the Greer and Heard goal of getting preachers to think came close to being accomplished. A few wondered if it was the mental gymnastics required to square the logical constraints of identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middles against Trinitarian mysticism that made them uncomfortable, keeping them out of church, or if it was bodily taxation caused by the stiff, straight-backed pews.  Catholic churches can be even more sadistic, it has been said, with those non-optional prayer kneelers.