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Sleeping Through Disaster

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May 9, 2018

Hi Blue

When George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, we knew there would be trouble. It doesn't take a political science scholar to to know that when the executive branch gives its “blessing” to a program for bolstering religious organizations through public funds, constitutional principles are going to get violated pretty quickly. Even under President Obama, the initiative allowed for federal funding of religious organizations that were free to discriminate in hiring. Now President Trump is taking his turn, and as we’ll find out this week, he’s needlessly made things even more problematic, while pleasing his political benefactors in the religious Right.

It’s a good thing, then, that a small number of courageous lawmakers are planting a flag for secularism. This week, we’ll meet the historic new Congressional Freethought Caucus, made up of believers and nonbelievers alike who agree that science and reason must form the bedrock of public policy.

Old problems have a way of reasserting themselves, as we’ll see this week with the arrest of atheist blogger Sherif Gaber in Egypt, a target of the government’s persecution since as far back as his first arrest and conviction for blasphemy in 2013. Even a TV snake oil salesman like Dr. Oz has managed to crawl back from the public drubbing he received when he was exposed for hawking false health treatments. He has not only survived, but has just been elevated by the president himself.

What’s a person to do, with so much going so very, very wrong? Well, maybe we can learn a lesson from some rapidly evolving plant species who have found a way to weather the changing climate, which involves very long naps.

Finally, we present a delightful and unscripted conversation between Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman from CSICon 2017. It’s no coincidence that we show you this as we’re all getting set for CSICon 2018 and for Richard’s appearances with Carolyn Porco this October.

Robyn E. Blumner

President & CEO, Center for Inquiry

Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science

Trump’s Bad Faith Initiative A Caucus for the Reality-Based Community Egyptian Atheist Blogger Arrested … Again
As his latest gift to the religious Right, President Trump used the National Day of Prayer to sign an executive order establishing his own version of a “faith-based initiatives” office. Trump’s “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative” not only takes the words “community” and “neighborhood” out of the name as it existed under President Obama, but more importantly clears the way for religious groups getting federal funds to proselytize to those receiving services. Groups are also no longer required to refer someone who prefers secular services to alternative, nonreligious providers. See CFI’s formal statement condemning the administration’s “contempt for the separation of church and state.” As recently as 2013, there were no avowed nonbelievers in Congress. Last week, history was made as four members of the U.S. House announced the founding of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, “to promote public policy based on reason and science, to protect the secular character of our government, and to champion the value of freedom of thought worldwide.” The caucus is by no means atheist-only, currently made up of Reps. Jared Huffman (a self-described humanist), Jamie Raskin (Jewish and “humanist with a small h”), Jerry McNerney, and Dan Kildee (both Catholic), and the members state that they hope to provide a “forum for Members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” Twenty-five–year-old atheist blogger Sherif Gaber was arrested by Egyptian authorities last week for the crime of promoting atheism, for which he was originally detained back in 2013. In 2015, he was convicted of “contempt of religion” for posts on Facebook and sentenced to a year in prison but made bail and began hiding out while continuing his activism. Last month, a blasphemy charge was filed against Gaber, and as he himself predicted, he was arrested under that charge, questioned by police, and remains in custody.
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Video of the Week: Dawkins and Wiseman in Conversation at CSICon 2017

CSICon is already one of the planet’s premier skeptics conferences, where hundreds of critical thinkers come to Las Vegas, the city of illusions, to hear from the leading lights of science and skepticism. CSICon 2018 will be bigger than ever with a bigger stars, a bigger venue, and bigger ideas. Speakers will include Steven Pinker, James Randi, Yvette d’Entremont, Kavin Senapathy, and so many more.

Perhaps most exciting will be when our own Richard Dawkins takes the stage for an unscripted conversation with the brilliant and hilarious actor and writer Stephen Fry. It’s not to be missed.

Also not to be missed is Richard’s appearance at CSICon 2017 with another brilliant and hilarious skeptic, Richard Wiseman. Their full conversation, which is filled with insight and humor, is now available for all to enjoy as part of CFI’s video series Reasonable Talk.

And don’t forget to register right now for CSICon 2018!


Oz the Not-So-Great, Yet Powerful

Never underestimate the power of celebrity and magical thinking. For though it may have appeared that one Dr. Mehmet Oz had been humbled and humiliated for his peddling of pseudoscientific claptrap, particularly after a brutal public grilling by Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2014, Dr. Oz has returned to his old, snake oil-selling self. And rather than suffer further damage to his previous reputation as a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon, Oz has been elevated to new heights. Last week, President Trump appointed Oz to his Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, bestowing upon the physician-turned-huckster the legitimacy of the presidency itself and placing Oz in a new position of influence over Americans’ health. As our own Robyn Blumner said in CFI’s official statement, “This is an abysmal appointment.”

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Napping Through Global Warming

Climate change poses a wide variety of daunting challenges and life-threatening dangers for all manner of species on Earth, such as extreme drought. Some species of plant, however, seem to have found a clever way to survive these dry times, by becoming uncommonly resourceful (for a plant, anyway) and playing a long game: they go to sleep.

Researchers have discovered over 100 species of “Rip Van Winkle” plants, those that live dormant under the soil, and being unable to get their energy from the Sun, they have evolved means of taking advantage of nutrients from things like soil-based fungus. While dormancy in plants is nothing new, what’s remarkable is how quickly this adaptation has evolved in so many species. This won’t be much of a solution if temperatures continue to rise out of control, but for now, these plants are making their way through climate change by, in a sense, burying their head in the sand. Alas, we do not have that luxury.

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Question of the Week

This past Sunday was Earth Day. (Maybe there is also a Proxima b Day?) If you did anything to mark the occasion, what was it? What do you think is the best way for all of us to celebrate Earth Day?

Congratulations, Emily! A copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins is on its way.

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? Email submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

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