Monday, November 22, 2010

MP ‘not convinced’ by government plans to prevent extremism in religious ‘free schools’

You are your brand label

Posted: 18 Nov 2010 08:49 AM PST

My last post, on how people find secular alternatives to fill one particular emotional need traditionally fulfilled by religion (the need to feel in control), set me to thinking about another study that was published earlier this year.

The study looked at brands, which are a powerful form of self expression. People use brands to send signals about personality and wealth. Many people are, in a very real sense, defined by their brands.

Religion, too, provides a powerful sense of identity. When someone says they are a Catholic, or a Buddhist, they are saying a lot more about themselves than simply their other-worldly beliefs.

Maybe the two are interchangeable? It's a fairly old idea � the Branding Strategy blog put together an amusing (if pretty tenuous) list of parallels back in 2007. But now a team from the Fuqua Business School at Duke University have put some evidential meat on the bones.

First they showed that US States with a high number of branded stores (Macy's, Gap and Banana Republic) versus  discount stores (Costco, K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Sam's) also have a low number of religious congregations. About half of this is explained by differences in average wealth. They dug around a bit more and found that education explains some more of it (educated States are suckers for branded goods), as did urbanization. But even after taking these into account the link persisted. It wasn't either that people in less religious states consumed less.

On its own that's not terribly convincing. But then they headed to the lab, and found that students who were primed to think about religion (by writing a short essay) were less likely to choose branded goods in a subsequent exercise.

In another study, they found that priming people to think about how religious beliefs and activities 'provide you with a sense of self�worth' made them less interested in brands than those primed to think about how religious beliefs 'provide you with a sense of safety and security.'

They also polled individuals on their preference for branded goods � apparently they got their participants from some database of people who are into taking these sorts of surveys, but who are selected to be representative of the US populace at large. The least religious people were most likely to favour branded goods, and this was was particularly the case for goods that are important for self-expression (e.g. Ralph Lauren versus Target brand sunglasses) rather than more functional (e.g. Pepperidge Farm versus Kroger brand bread). [And no, I've never even heard of most of the brands they had to choose between!].

Now, none of this is particularly surprising. We know that people use brands as a badge of identity, and we know that, in this regard, religion is a particularly powerful brand. However, I don't agree with the pundits who try to take it further, and argue that brand identity is a kind of surrogate religion. For example, take a look a this, which is pulled from Schachar's Working Paper that he published back in 2007:

… Belk and Tumbat (2005) found that the Macintosh community is equivalent to a religion in many ways because it can be characterized by a strong faith in "savior" Steve Jobs and enmity towards a common "satanic" enemy. Similarly, Muniz and Schau (2005) found that the Newton community (centered around PDAs discontinued by Apple) reflects five key themes: (1) tales of persecution, (2) tales of faith being rewarded, (3) survival tales, (4) tales of miraculous recovery, and (5) tales of resurrection. The authors argued that these religious themes reflect the human need for community and religious affiliation.

 To me that sounds like 'just so' story telling � finding amusing parallels between a hobbyist group (one that just happens to have a focus on a brand) and a particular Western religion (Christianity). If those 5 themes are really what constitutes religion, then most people in the world are not religious!
Shachar, R., Erdem, T., Cutright, K., & Fitzsimons, G. (2010). Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses? Marketing Science DOI: 10.1287/mksc.1100.0591

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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Dr. Jonathan Tobert Joins CFI Board of Directors

Posted: 18 Nov 2010 08:43 AM PST

Richard Schroeder, Chair of the Center for Inquiry's (CFI) Board of Directors, is pleased to announce that Jonathan Tobert, MD, PhD, has joined CFI as the organization's newest director. Schroeder stated that "Jonathan Tobert is a strong addition to our current board, bringing practical knowledge about the use of science in the service of humanity, one of the underpinnings of the philosophy of the Center and our affiliated organizations."

Jonathan Tobert was born in the United Kingdom. He decided to be a scientist at the age of 14, and has been a nonbeliever since the age of 15. He has a medical degree from Cambridge University and a PhD in pharmacology from London University. He moved to the United States in 1975 and worked for 27 years in the research laboratories of the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Inc. in New Jersey, where he continues to live. Dr. Tobert led the team that developed lovastatin, the first member of the statin class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, and was responsible for later large-scale clinical trials to prove that statins reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. He retired from Merck in 2004 and started Tobert Medical Consulting LLC. He also served on the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee from 2004 to 2007. Dr. Tobert is an honorary member of Oxford University, England, and spends a third of the year in Oxford. He is a member of the steering committees of several clinical trials conducted by the university to evaluate the potential cardiovascular benefits of various therapies for cholesterol disorders. He is married and has two daughters. Dr. Tobert has been a supporter of CFI and its predecessor organizations for 30 years.

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Have a Nice Fall: 11/18/10 Atheist Cartoon

Posted: 18 Nov 2010 08:40 AM PST

MP 'not convinced' by government plans to prevent extremism in religious 'free schools'

Posted: 18 Nov 2010 08:37 AM PST

In a debate in the House of Commons yesterday, the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, failed to give reassurances to MPs that religious extremists would be prevented from setting up 'free schools'. The 'Opposition Day' debate on education gave MPs the opportunity to discuss the government's education reforms, including on academies, free schools and curriculum issues. The BHA briefed MPs ahead of that debate.

In response to a question from Mike Gapes MP asking 'What safeguards are there against extremists, including Islamists and creationists, setting up free schools?', the Education Secretary said that he opposed Islamic extremism and had set up a 'due diligence unit' in order to deal with the threat of extremism.

However, Barry Sheerman MP, former chair of more than ten years of the House of Commons Education Select Committee stated: 'I am not sure that the answers we heard today about faith schools were entirely convincing.'

In July, when legislation to create academies and free schools was going through parliament, the government said it had no plans to stop creationism being taught in those schools.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips said, 'The government has consistently failed to give convincing assurances that adequate measures are in place to ensure that state-maintained 'faith' academies and free schools will be free from religious extremism either in the way they are run or what they teach. Setting up a 'due diligence unit' is one thing but falls far short of what is needed. We want to see the government introduce more robust safeguards, such as legislative change and statutory guidance, to protect children and young people from extreme religious views being imposed on them when they go to school.'

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Catholic League unleashes holiday assault on church-state separation, atheists

Posted: 18 Nov 2010 08:32 AM PST

Last week, the Catholic League unleashed its latest volley in the Religious Right-created "culture war" ― an attack on atheist and humanist advertising campaigns. Driving the point home, the attack was tied to a shipment of Christian nativity scenes to each and every governor, and the release of contact information to make harassment and haranguing easy should the displays not be placed in public view on government property.

From the Catholic League:


November 10, 2010

Catholic League president Bill Donohue announces the Catholic League's Christmas project for 2010:

The atheists are out in force this year trying to neuter Christmas. While a few of their efforts are benign, e.g., the United Community of Reason's bus billboards, "Don't Believe in God? Join the Club", most are predictably hostile, e.g., the American Atheists' billboard that features a picture of a nativity scene with the inscription, "You Know it's a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason."

The Catholic League does not have to resort to negative advertising to get its point across, and that is why we raised the money last month to launch a Christmas campaign that almost everyone will like, save for embittered atheists. A week ago, we mailed a Holy Family Nativity Scene [click here] to the nation's 50 governors; a letter to the governors alerting them that our gift was being sent in care of their chief of staff was first sent. We know they arrived because we already received a kind letter from one governor, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.

In my letter to the governors, I explained that it was our "sincere hope that it [the crèche] will be displayed in the Capitol Rotunda alongside secular symbols (e.g., a Christmas tree) this coming Christmas season." I also made clear that this is entirely legal: "We are paying for it because we believe it would be inappropriate to use public monies to pay for religious symbols. But we also believe, consistent with Supreme Court rulings, that there is no constitutional prohibition banning privately-funded crèches from being displayed alongside secular symbols."

In the December edition of our monthly journal, Catalyst, we are publishing the names of the 50 chiefs of staff [click here]; this way our members can contact them if they do not see a manger scene in the Capitol Rotunda.

So let the militant atheists do their thing, appealing to debased motives. We're taking the moral high road.

As Donohue says, the Catholic League "does not have to resort to negative advertising" like those "embittered atheists" who are "predictably hostile" and "appealing to debased motives".

No negative advertising there.

Thus far, only a few states have made an official response to Donohue. Washington state said thanks, but no thanks:

A New York-based Catholic group has sent a small Nativity set to 50 governors, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, but it won't be going up inside Washington's Capitol.

Thank the hubbub over religious displays at the Capitol in recent years.

State officials rejected the informal request to display it indoors, citing a policy that no longer allows non-government displays inside Capitol Campus buildings.

"Private exhibits and displays, such as a Nativity scene, are permitted only outside on the campus grounds, provided they meet certain conditions regarding time, place and manner," Department of General Administration director Joyce Turner said in a letter this week to the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights in New York City.

Meanwhile, Virginia's governor has told the Catholic League that the display will be set out in the executive mansion ― that is, not at the Capitol, and not in public view ― and two other governors have sent letters of thanks without any commitment to display the religious icon.

Have you seen stories about other states' responses? Let us know!

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Chester County, PA commissioners move to eliminate freethought Tree of Knowledge

Posted: 17 Nov 2010 09:15 PM PST

Freethought activist Margaret Downey has coordinated the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia's Tree of Knowledge display for the last three years. One of the most conspicuous freethought/humanist alternative holiday displays in the country, it consists of a large outdoor tree decorated with reproductions of covers of current and classic freethought/humanist/atheist books. It stands alongside various religious holiday displays on the courthouse lawn in West Chester, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Tomorrow, November 18, the Chester County Commissioners will vote to take control over all holiday decorations on the courthouse lawn, leaving the choice of decorations not only in the hands of three commissioners, but funded by taxpayers instead of by private citizens. The action will ban private displays of any sort ― including the Tree of Knowledge.

Please read Margaret's message below and take action!

Message from Margaret Downey :

The Chester County Commissioner's Office is considering passing "Resolution 58-10″ which will "revoke" and rescind all private unattended winter holiday season displays on the Chester County Historic Courthouse property. A vote will be taken on the morning of Thursday, November 18, 2010.

The resolution expresses the Chester County Commissioners' desire to "own, erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays." The resolution states that the Commissioners desire "to celebrate peace and foster and promote commerce."

The passage of Resolution 58-10 would authorize the "County to acquire such holiday decorations and displays and erect and maintain such decorations and displays as it determines appropriate on the grounds of the Chester County Historic Courthouse consistent with and as otherwise constitutionally permitted by applicable law."

The problem is that it is highly unlikely that the secular/nontheist community will have any representation at all in a display supervised and implemented by the Chester County Commissioners. A future display of the Freethought Society's (FS) Tree of Knowledge, therefore, is in jeopardy.

Over the last three years, many citizens in Chester County have appreciated the presence of the Tree of Knowledge as a positive and beautiful symbol of what is important in their lives.

The FS Tree of Knowledge display conveys to passersby that there exists in America a strong united minority of nontheists which include Freethinkers, Atheists, Secular Humanists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Rationalists, Ethical Culturalists and Humanists.

Similar to most citizens, winter is a special time for the secular community to celebrate family, the beauty of the natural world, the changing of the seasons, our community culture and the power of knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge represents the many contributions nontheists have made to society and has become an anticipated tradition.

FS has only one day to rally voices of concern. The Chester County Commissions must hear from as many people as possible that Resolution 58-10 should not pass. The Commissioners must hear from you before the end of business Wednesday, as they intend to vote on this resolution on Thursday morning.

A few talking points are:

1. Ask the commissioners NOT to pass Resolution 58-10, which will unfairly exclude many different groups

2. Ask the Commissioners to keep the Tree of Knowledge as a participant in the Holiday Display in order to include all citizens of Chester County.

Send email messages to (sample below):

Carol Aichele �

Terence Farrell �

Kathi Cozzone �

Phone calls can be made to:

(610) 344-6100

For further information, contact:

Margaret Downey

Sample Letter:

Dear Chester County Commissioners,

It has come to my attention that some changes are under consideration to the winter holiday displays at the County Courthouse in West Chester.

I strongly request that you NOT pass Resolution 58-10.

The holiday displays, including religious and secular symbols of celebration should be designed and installed by Chester county citizens, as has been the case for the past several years, and not selected by the government.

Every community, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Freethinkers, etc. should be given equal opportunity and access to put up their displays, which of course would be limited in number and design by reasonable, uniform rules and regulations.

In particular, I have enjoyed seeing the Tree of Knowledge as a part of the holiday displays these past few years, and it has been great that non-religious citizens of the county and others are able to see the existence of their community acknowledged as well, at a time when there are so many displays of religious based decorations in the public arena.

Thank you for your consideration,

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President Obama issues executive order implementing long-awaited reforms of the faith-based office

Posted: 17 Nov 2010 09:05 PM PST

WASHINGTON, D.C. ― President Barack Obama issued an executive order Wednesday implementing many of the recommendations of a diverse advisory council designed, in part, to advise and reform the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The executive order amends one issued by President George W. Bush in 2002 and clarifies some of the rules governing partnerships between the government and faith-based and community-based social service groups.

Among the changes are provisions that ensure compliance with constitutional standards prohibiting government-funded religion and protect the beneficiaries of federally funded social services. Specifically, organizations are forbidden from engaging in "explicitly religious" activities in the course of a program that receives direct federal financial assistance.

Click here to download the executive order in a pdf format.

The amended order also directs agencies that award government aid to establish procedures to ensure that beneficiaries can receive benefits from an alternative provider if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization. Each participating organization is responsible for responding to objections and providing referrals to other programs, as well as timely notice of these options for program beneficiaries. This provision replaces and expands upon a weaker provision that was often criticized as blurring constitutional boundaries.

The executive order maintains protection of the character of faith-based organizations, allowing them to compete and participate in federal funding programs without varying their autonomy, expression or religious character. In addition, the organizations will not be forced to remove or cover religious symbols or icons, as long as they do not use direct government funds to implement an explicitly religious program.

In February, a task force of religious and secular leaders charged with reforming the White House faith-based office, including BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker and chaired by former BJC General Council Melissa Rogers, presented 12 recommendations to President Obama's 25-member Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The recommendations were made to strengthen the constitutional and legal footing of public-private partnerships. The recommendations ask the administration to clarify the prohibited uses of direct financial assistance, provide guidance on the protection of religious identity while providing social services and assure the religious liberty rights of clients and beneficiaries of federal social service funds.

Overall, Walker was pleased with the executive order, as well as the deliberations of the task force and advisory council that led to it.

"The President's Executive Order makes major strides in more clearly identifying how government and religious organizations can work together effectively while honoring constitutional protections for religious liberty," he said. "As a member of the Reform of the Office Task Force, I was privileged to have had a part in contributing to this very helpful and needed executive order."

Not mentioned in the executive order was the issue of whether the government should require houses of worship to form separate corporations, such as 501(c)(3) organizations, to receive federal funding for social services and work to reduce barriers to obtaining 501(c)(3) status. The BJC has long-supported this approach as a way to avoid commingling federal dollars with financial gifts from parishioners.

"I regret that our recommendation requiring a separate corporation was not included, but the executive order embraced most of our recommendations," Walker said.

The amendments did not address the contentious issue of religious hiring in government-funded programs, leaving in place Bush-era regulations. This issue was not part of the Advisory Council's charge. The administration has stated that the issue will be treated on a case-by-case basis by the Attorney General and the White House Counsel.

"This admittedly divisive issue cannot be kicked down the road forever," Walker said. "The president missed an opportunity on this point. It's simply wrong for the government to subsidize religious discrimination."

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Obama Executive Order On 'Faith-Based' Initiative Is Disappointing, Says Americans United

Posted: 17 Nov 2010 08:58 PM PST

Today's White House executive order on "faith-based" funding fails to correct significant constitutional problems and leaves important civil rights issues unresolved, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United applauded President Barack Obama's decision to require federal agencies to provide alternatives for people who do not want to receive social services at religious charities and also welcomed a process to create greater transparency in the program by requiring that recipient organizations be listed on government Web sites.

But AU is disappointed that the order allows public funds to go directly to houses of worship, allows publicly funded faith-based charities to display religious signs and scriptures and entirely dodges the issue of religious hiring bias by faith-based charities that receive federal funds.

"I'm disappointed," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This leaves much of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative in place. That's not the change many Americans hoped for when President Obama took office.

"I am particularly frustrated that President Obama still has done nothing to ban hiring bias by publicly funded religious charities," continued Lynn. "That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. No American should be denied a government-funded job because he or she holds the 'wrong' views about religion."

Lynn noted that Obama, as a candidate, vowed to repeal this policy. Today's order, however, leaves the Bush-era rules in places. A wide array of religious, civil rights and civil liberties organizations have appealed to the president to take action on the issue, and polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose faith-based employment bias.

Lynn said he is still hopeful Obama will see the basic unfairness of publicly funded job discrimination and rescind the Bush policy.

"I don't believe Barack Obama wants to go down in history as the president who helped George W. Bush roll back civil rights and religious liberty," Lynn said. "At a time when jobs are scarce, it is especially troubling that qualified applicants can be rejected from government-funded positions because they don't go to the 'right' church.

"Taxpayer money should never be used to underwrite religion or religious bias," Lynn concluded. "That's a fundamental constitutional principle, and it needs to be observed."

Americans United has been wary of the faith-based initiative since the concept was first introduced in the 1990s by then-Sen. John Ashcroft. AU maintains that a special government program that looks for ways to funnel public funds to religious entities is inherently problematic under the First Amendment.

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