Is a National Park violating the First Amendment?

July 4, 2019 • 9:00 am

Today, after snorkeling at the nearby Honaunu Bay, I visited the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a small but historic abode of Hawaiian royalty and a “place of refuge”.  As the Wikipedia entry notes,

The historical park preserves the site where, up until the early 19th century, Hawaiians who broke a kapu (one of the ancient laws) could avoid certain death by fleeing to this place of refuge or puʻuhonua. The offender would be absolved by a priest and freed to leave. Defeated warriors and non-combatants could also find refuge here during times of battle. The grounds just outside the Great Wall that encloses the puʻuhonua were home to several generations of powerful chiefs.

It was quite intriguing, and among the smallest of America’s national parks. As I was driving away, however, I noticed this in the parking lot within the Park boundaries:

Yes, you got it: two Jehovah’s Witnesses in full proselytizing mode, complete with help-yourself leaflets.

I couldn’t help myself: I went up to the two men in the photo and asked them if they had permission to set up shop within a National Park. They said “yes”, and when I asked them who gave them permission, they replied, “the park rangers” and pointed to the ranger station just across the road.

I could not do otherwise: I went into the ranger station to try to verify what the Witnesses had told me. I encountered two young rangers and asked them if the proselytizers did indeed have permission to set up religious shop within park boundaries. They were a bit confused, but said that there was some “First Amendment” rule that parks could indeed set aside space for this.

That confused me even more, for although it’s possible that one could demonstrate within Park boundaries and express free speech, the First Amendment also prohibits government entanglement with religion. And if anything represents government entanglement with religion, the JW literature stand does. But the two young rangers said they’d get someone higher up to answer my question.

An older woman ranger, whose name I can’t recall, came out to answer my question. When I told her what I wanted, she said that I should step outside the station and she would answer me. I found that very odd: why couldn’t she answer my question inside the ranger station, and in the presence of her subordinates? Not only that, but she then locked the station from the outside with a key.

She then explained to me what the younger rangers had told me: that there was a provision, determined by each park separately, to set aside part of National Park space for people to exercise their First Amendment rights. When I explained to her that the First Amendment prohibited entanglement of religion and government, and that the JW stand sure looked like such entanglement, she just repeated herself. (This ranger, for purposes of identification, was on duty at about 11:30 a.m on July 3.)

I asked if any religion other than Jehovah’s Witnesses had ever had a station for proselytizing in this park. She said that, as far as she could remember, no.

She told me that she would email me the information about why proselytizing was allowed on Park property, and so I gave her my name and email address. I also told her I was on the Honorary Board of Directors of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), and didn’t think what was happening was constitutional.

Of course it may be legal, and I await the material the ranger promised send me. But even if it is legal, it’s still palpably unconstitutional. No religion should have the right to set up shop in a National Park and distribute its literature to the visitors. That is clearly excessive involvement of government (which runs the National Parks system) with religion.

Stay tuned. I have of course reported this to the FFRF and await the ranger’s email. But I sure didn’t think I’d get involved in a First Amendment kerfuffle on my vacation!

Ben Carson’s shameful and willful scientific ignorance

November 6, 2015 • 10:00 am

Ben Carson, former neurosurgeon, Seventh-Day Adventist, and overall ignoramus about science, is now the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination. I’m hoping he wins that nomination because he’s a born loser, and Hillary (or whoever) would defeat him handily. But I doubt he’ll be the candidate, for although my opinion of Americans’ political acumen is pretty low, I simply can’t believe that we’d elect a man so retrograde, so right-wing, and so totally ignorant of science to run the country. It’s even more shameful because his career was based on science.

And yet he’s a Biblical, straight-up Genesis-six-day creationist. He’s downplaying it now, but if you have the time and will, listen to this speech he made in 2011 at a conference called “Celebrating Creation” (original talk here, my takedown here). That was before he knew he’d be a candidate, and so he pulls out all the stops espousing his crazy views—not just on creationism, but on cosmology.

As I wrote last week, Carson’s now downplaying his creationism, sensing that it somehow turns people off, but it’s now clear what he believes. The video below is annotated by VoysovReason to show where and why Carson is wrong. The subtitles are sometimes off (“Vestigial pelvis of Wales”? Is that a royal title?), and I don’t agree completely with every word of the narrator (humans are apes), but my disagreements with the science are trivial: by and large, it’s accurate, and shows Carson to be way off the rails:

Yep, there you hear every creationist trope, all of them long ago debunked: the great worldwide flood, a literal six-day creation, the canard of “circularity”—dating rocks with fossils and then the fossils with rocks—and so on. He even floats the Gish-ian idea that A. afarensis skeleton of “Lucy” (not just a skull, according to Carson’s lie, but a largely complete skeleton) was simply a modern human who had a “deformed head”! There’s no mention that we now have dozens of skulls and bones from A. afarensis, all of them are “deformed”!

Carson goes on: there’s an absence of transitional fossils (nope; read my book); an allusion to how complex organs like the eye couldn’t evolve because all the parts would have to be present simultaneously (“irreducible complexity”: the discredited basis of intelligent design); and even the idea that we couldn’t get order in the universe after the Big Bang because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Nor can science explain altruism and empathy: those, implies Carson, must have come from God.

My favorite bit is at  18:30, when Carson mixes up Darwin’s finch collection on the Galápagos with Peter and Rosemary Grant’s work in the late 1970s on selection on beak shape in Geospiza fortis following a drought on the island of Daphne Major. Darwin didn’t see any drought-induced evolution in the Galápagos: he wasn’t there long enough!

There are many LOLs in this film, and most but not all are debunked. What a shameful display of willful ignorance!

But wait! There’s more! I wasn’t going to put this up, as it took place in 1998, but Carson has revived his 17-year-old claim that the Pyramids were built by the Biblical Joseph to store grain (Uncle Ben’s rice?), and that many scientists think that “alien beings” built the Pyramids. (What??) “Well,” I thought, “We have plenty of evidence of Carson’s ignorance now, so why go back so far to chastise him?” But he’s still maintaining that theory! The video below shows his original claim, and his defense of that claim just yesterday:

“Some people believe in the Bible like I do and don’t find that to be silly at all, and believe that God created the Earth and don’t find that to be silly at all,” Carson said. “The secular progressives try to ridicule it every time it comes up and they’re welcome to do that.”

As the Associated Press reports, the experts are taking Carson apart on his Pyramid hypothesis:

Neither Carson’s church nor any other major Jewish or Christian sect shares his belief about the pyramids’ origins. Jodi Magness, a specialist in biblical archaeology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said she knows of no scholar or archaeologist who questions that the pyramids were used as royal tombs.

“This is not an academic topic of debate,” Magness said in an email. “The use of the pyramids as tombs is verified by both written (literary) sources and archaeological evidence.”

The pyramids were built with narrow, secret passages intended to foil grave-robbers, making the structures unsuitable for grain storage, Magness said. And the design of the pyramids, with associated temples, “reflects the ancient Egyptian concept of the cosmos, according to which the king or pharaoh was at the center of a unified kingdom, serving as a god, a political ruler and a divine mediator.”

Even Carson’s own Church refuses to defend his lunacy:

Daniel Weber, a spokesman for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said Carson’s belief about the pyramids are “his own interpretation.”

“Of course, we believe in the biblical account of Joseph and the famine,” Weber said. “But I’ve never heard the idea that pyramids were storehouses of grain.”

But does any of this matter? I doubt it. Anybody who defends Carson already knows of his creationism, and this Pyramid stuff won’t bother them a bit. For, as mushbrained as Carson is, his defenders are even more so, for they want the man to be President!

h/t: Randy Schenck, Hempenstein

Australian Jehovah’s Witness (and her fetus) die after mother refuses blood transfusion

April 7, 2015 • 9:29 am

Now here’s a conundrum: at what stage of life does a fetus acquire the “right” to be free from having its health controlled by the religious beliefs of its parents? According to yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, a 28-year-old woman in Australia was discovered to have leukemia when she was seven months pregnant. She was also a Jehovah’s Witness, which means that it was against her religion to get blood transfusions. Because there were complications of the pregnancy (probably related to the leukemia), the doctors needed to do a Caesarian section, but couldn’t because the mother would bleed to death since she wouldn’t accept blood.

The baby died, and the mother died shortly thereafter from a stroke—a common cause of death in untreated leukemia, as with the Canadian First Nations girl Makayla Sault. In all likelihood the doctors could have saved the baby, but it would have involved killing the mother, although the mother would have died anyway from the disease.

Seven months pregnant is beyond the time when the fetus is considered viable, and beyond the time abortion is legal in the U.S.

The question is this: did the doctors do the ethical thing by letting both die? Their action was legal, as they abided by the mother’s wishes, and couldn’t at any rate kill her, though a bill has been drawn up in Australia that would criminalize harming a fetus in utero). But should the doctors have forcibly transfused her, saved the baby via Caesarian, and then let the mother have her wish and die from leukemia? What we have here is the equivalent of a parent choosing death, but in the process choosing to abort a 7-months-old fetus. In the U.S., I suspect, doctors would have done the same thing, for to save the baby they’d have to kill the mother.

My own view is that nothing could be done, for I am one of those extremists who isn’t opposed to late-term abortions, and don’t feel that the fetus had any “right” to live at the mother’s expense. Nor do I think that in such a case the mother should have been forced to have a transfusion, which violates her religion—even though I think that those religious views are particularly stupid and harmful. She was, according to law, old enough to have “decided” what she did, though, as a determinist, I recognize that she, probably brainwashed as a child, had no more choice in the matter as did her fetus.

Still, the baby was not unwanted, and both it and the mother could have lived with a transfusion. Perhaps the mother would have eventually died of leukemia, for I don’t think one can survive that without transfusions, but I’m not sure. What bothers me immensely is that both deaths were completely needless, based as they were on the two Bible verses that Jehovah’s Witnesses use to justify refusing whole-blood transfusions.  (Curiously, they will accept some components of blood, like serum.) It’s yet another example of two lives martyred for an ancient work of fiction.

As for the legal aspects, the paper quotes a bioethicist:

Sascha Callaghan, an expert in ethics and law at the University of Sydney, said the law as it stands allowed the mother to make decisions that would affect the fetus, even if it probably would have been able to survive outside her body.

“This isn’t to say it isn’t a tragic event … but we live in a society where, within reason, we let citizens be the authors of their own lives,” she said. “If you are going to grant women full rights as citizens, are you going to dilute those rights for women who are carrying fetuses?”

Dr Callaghan said Jehovah’s Witnesses were often unfairly criticised for their religious stance against blood transfusion despite it being a thoughtfully and strongly held belief.

“This woman had a long-held commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and that’s how she chose to die. We are all entitled to die with dignity,” she said. “When your fetus is in utero, it is inextricably tied to your life.”

This gives unwarranted respect to a horrible, execrable belief. It is not “unfair” to criticize a belief based on Bronze Age mythology, even if it is “thoughtfully and strongly held.”  First of all, it’s hardly “thoughtful”, as it’s based on two Bible verses about eating blood, which certainly can have other interpretations. Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t allowed to deliberate on the issue, and they get it from indoctrination. Further, there are many “strongly held beliefs” that deserve no respect by virtue of the strength of adherence: denial of rights for gays is such a view.  So while I agree with Callaghan’s view that what doctors did in this case was proper, I don’t afford an iota of respect to the religious views of a woman who decided to die and take her unborn child with her. Yes, by all means apprise her of the risk, and treat her with the dignity afforded all humans who choose to die, but do not insult rationality by saying that criticism of her choice is “unfair.” On the contrary, criticism of such choices is almost mandatory, for they are both irrational and murderous.

h/t: Pyers

Jehovah’s Witnesses to kids: Pay attention in church or you might die

February 17, 2015 • 9:45 am

From the New York News, via reader Barry, here’s a cartoon produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that very gently tells kids (these ones named Caleb and Sophia) that they might die (or not go to heaven?) if they fail to pay attention at the church meeting:

And so we see the form of terror that religion must instill in children to make them believe. It’s no less harmful because it comes in the form of a cute cartoon.


Jehovah’s Witnesses forced by British judge to allow their child a transfusion

December 9, 2014 • 2:33 pm

It’s been a long day, what with preparing to leave and all, but there’s some good news at the end of it. A short article in the Guardian reports that a British judge has ordered that the child of two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a child suffering from bad burns, undergo a transfusion. As you may know, the Witnesses refuse transfusions because of two Biblical verses abjuring the “eating of blood.” (They will allow transfusion of some components of blood, like hemoglobin, which of course means they’re cherry-picking even those verses.)

What struck me is how polite the judge was. I’m not sure I’d have been able to restrain myself in the face of such religiously-inspired stupidity:

[Mr. Justice] Moylan said he hoped that the boy’s parents would understand.

“I am extremely grateful to [the boy’s] father for so clearly and calmly explaining to me the position held by himself and [the boy’s] mother,” said the judge.

“I have no doubt at all that they love their son dearly. I also have no doubt that they object to the receipt by [their son] of a blood transfusion because of their devout beliefs. I hope they will understand why I have reached the decision which I have, governed as it is [their son’s] welfare.”

I talk about this issue in detail in The Albatross, and, after reading about many such cases in the U.S. in which children, enduring or abiding by their parents’ religious beliefs, died, I am struck by two things. The first is that the parents usually either get off scot-free or are given a legal slap on the wrist, although if they withheld medical care on other than religious grounds they’d be punished severely for child abuse, mistreatment, or neglect.

The second is that although these parents insist that they are good parents, they show a striking lack of affect concerning the death of their child. Time after time I’ve read about parents martyring their child for their faith, and then showing no remorse at all about it—often ascribing the child’s death to “God’s will”. There are often no tears and no second-guessing.

Such are the dangers of faith. The parents say they loved their children, but they love their imaginary god more.

Here’s a slide I use in my talk about science vs. faith; the pictures, portraying dead children (who refused blood) as glorious martyrs, “Youths Who Put God First”, comes from an issue of the church’s Awake! magazine from 1994. Every child pictured died from refusing transfusions.This is about the sickest religious propaganda I’ve seen:



A Jehovah’s Witness criticizes me for criticizing their policy on blood transfusions

September 1, 2014 • 9:52 am

In my talk on the incompatibility of science and religion, I gave a “worst-case” scenarios of the harm inflicted by choosing religion over science. I’ve written about this before, so won’t belabor it here, but it involves the denial of medical care to sick or injured children on religious grounds.  In most (48/50) U.S., states, parents get a legal break (even exculpation) if their children are harmed or die because medical care is withheld on religious grounds. Christian Scientists and Pentecostal Christians are the biggest offenders, and if you want to read all about this, read When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law by Shawn Francis Peters or  God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church by Caroline Fraser (the former is more legally oriented, the latter a history of the Christian Science Church which is a great book and a real eye-opener.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are also guilty, for their religion, based on two Bible verses prohibiting “eating blood,” does not allow blood transfusions. While some blood fractions are permitted, like hemoglobin itself or clotting factors, the transfusion of whole blood, plasma, red or white cells, and platelets are all prohibited. Also prohibited is the transfusion of “self-donated” blood, whereby you give blood in advance of an operation, giving you time to make new blood, and then you have a reserve should you need it. But you can’t do that—Bible says no.

As a result, many, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have died from refusing blood. Not only that, but they brainwash their children into refusing blood, too. Below is a cover and a picture taken from a 1994 issue of Awake! magazine: an official publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every child shown died from refusing blood.

How are they characterized?  As “Youths Who Put God First”! When I showed this picture during my talk, there was an audible shudder in the audience.  The children are seen as martyrs for their faith’s delusions.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 6.26.12 AM

But don’t forget that even those parents who refused blood were once children, too, and most of them were probably brainwashed as well, so to say that they had the “choice” to take a transfusion ignores their own upbringing.

I won’t go into Christian Science, but read Carolyn Fraser’s book if you want to see the children killed in the name of Christian Science. What is curious in these stories—and I’ve read many—is the lack of affect the parents show after having killed their children by refusing medical care (often simple procedures like insulin injections or antibiotics).  It is as if they see their kids in the hands of God, and it’s His decision, not theirs. Most maintain that they were good parents, even though their neglect killed their children. And virtually all of those parents get off legally, or are given a slap on the wrist. (In contrast, if you neglect medical care on nonreligious grounds, there is no protection: you are guilty of child abuse or even manslaughter. This is one of the unconscionable privileges that religion gets in our country.)

At any rate, a Jehovah’s Witness came up to me at the meeting (I am curious why they want to attend an atheist/humanist meeting!) and tried to argue with me. Fortunately, I had another appointment, and couldn’t talk. But later that day I got an email from a JW, which I reproduce here without divulging names or identifying information. Note that techniques of “bloodless surgery” have been developed by doctors who deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people who don’t want blood transfusions, though it’s always better to have the option of full transfusion. At any rate, here’s what I received. I have no idea how this person knew I talked about the JWs and blood transfusion (my emphasis below):

I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who takes exception to your opinion regarding blood transfusions.  On [date redacted], our [age redacted] year old daughter was pronounced DOA after a car accident in which  she sustained an aortic tear.  Long story short, she is alive today because she did not receive a blood transfusion. The physician who operated on her is convinced she survived because she did not receive blood. According to  [name redacted] the loss of blood served to lower her blood pressure and  other bodily functions compensating for the loss of blood. It gave him the opportunity to repair the damaged aorta and she survived an operation with an 85% death rate-W/O blood!  Her hemoglobin count at one point while in an induced coma was 2.9.  She survived the very same accident from which Princess Diana died two weeks prior.  Princess Diana according to published reports was transfused right in the ambulance.  Is it possible that the added pressure on the aortic tear made the opening larger and put her body under even more stress?  As a result of this surgery, Dr. [name redacted] was asked to a Bloodless Convention to explain his findings in our daughters case. I don’t consider myself a religious fanatic nor am I easily persuaded.  I like to do objective research and am convinced that the Bible is inspired of God. His mandate re. the taking of blood is due to his knowledge of his creation.  Many doctors and scientist are revisiting their position on bloodless surgery. I would like to suggest you look at our website JW.ORG, if you are not to biased against us on general principle.

Well, even if you believe a transfusion would have killed the daughter, and I am not sure I believe it, there are many more kids who died because they didn’t get transfusions. They are the Children Who Put God First.  All doctors would like to have the option of transfusion, but they can’t use if if the patient (even a child) refuses.

The bit in bold shows the true irrationality of this stand, one that is not a simple academic dispute between science and religion, but costs people their lives. And yet this writer claims that he/she is not a religious fanatic, and makes decisions based on “objective research.” This person is wrong on both counts.

I wish there were some way to eliminate religious exemptions from medical care for children. Yet those exemptions were put in place by our own lawmakers—not because they are JWs or Christian Scientists or faith-healing Pentecostal Christians, but because they give the usual unwarranted American deference to religion. They are our laws, and we must be held to account for them. It’s time to change them. Every child should have the chance to live, and that includes getting medical care based on science rather than ambiguous passages in a fictional Iron Age document.