Friday, July 31, 2015

Humanism Gaining Support

Image from the Renaissance

Back in the Renaissance, which folded into the Age of Reason in the 1600s, a small number of artists, philosophers and scientists began to move from the stifling Christianity of their day into an realm labeled “humanism.”  Buoyed by studies of Greek and Roman scholars, they began to emphasize human needs and develop rational solutions to human problems.

Many retained a belief in God, but some completely shed any concept of a deity, although the word “atheism” wasn’t coined until centuries later.

Humanism has lingered on the fringes of society ever since, often lambasted by religious organizations and demeaned by those who only focus on the lack of interest in a deity.  Now, Humanism actually may be coming into its own as an acknowledged alternative to mainstream religions.

Humanist inmates?
Most recently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons settled a lawsuit by accepting Humanism as a religion, placing it on par with Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Inmates who list Humanism as their religion of choice can now hold events, meet with Humanist chaplains and obtain appropriate literature.  They will even be able to celebrate Darwin Day, February 12, which has become a holiday among Humanists.

“This settlement is a victory for all Humanists in the federal prison system, who will no longer be denied the rights that religious individuals are accorded,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Considering that 92 percent of the American population believes in God, Humanist gatherings in prison or elsewhere can’t expect a big turnout, but the decision confirms the rising interest in Humanism in this country.

After all, in 2014, the U.S. Army recognized Humanism as well.  Since Humanism does not include a belief in a god, the military won’t need to hire any clergy for humanists in the ranks, but servicemen and women now can opt out of programs held by other religions.

They aren't members of a monolithic entity.  There are actually many sects within Humanism, mirroring the diverse beliefs within Christianity, Islam and other prominent faiths.

For example, Literary Humanism focuses on humanities or literary culture, while Renaissance Humanism emphasizes the ability of humans to separate truth from lies.

Famed Greek philosophers
Other sects include Western Cultural Humanism, which looks to traditions developed in ancient Greece and Rome; and Philosophical Humanism, which centers on human needs and includes Christian Humanism.  Modern Humanism, which has several names, may be the largest of the groups and is "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion," according to the late philosopher Corliss Lamont, who taught at many Ivy League schools.

Religious Humanism encompasses organized groups like Unitarian Universalism.   “Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose,” according to the American Humanist Association, whose motto is “Good without God.”

Because Humanists jettison a god, they are often attacked as amoral.  Folks with deep religious beliefs are sure no one can behave ethically without the big eye in the sky watching.  That view turns out to be wrong.

Several national studies of morality and religion have turned up no correlation between the two. True believers donate more to charity than Humanists, but they also commit more murders. In a book, Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California, demonstrated that morality does not require a deity.

“Most residents of Denmark and Sweden … don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the ‘happiness index’ and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer,” according to a review of the book.


A separate study in 2005 by Gregory Paul, an author better known for his work with dinosaurs, found that the societies that have moved away from religion often have lower murder and suicide rates, and few abortions and teen pregnancies.  That’s corroborated in this country where the highest teen pregnancy rates are in the states that statistically contain the most religious residents.

Paul issued a second study four years later, noting that "high religiosity is not universal to human populations, and it is actually inversely related to a wide range of socio-economic indicators representing the health of modern democracies … once a nation's population becomes prosperous and secure, for example through economic security and universal health care, much of the population loses interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural entities. “

At the same time, most Americans actually don’t equate religion with morality.  A report from the Pew Research Center, which studies religion in American life, found that less than 33 percent of Americans “cite religion as the major source of their moral values, and more than half claim that practical experience and common sense are the major source.”  In essence, the vast majority of Americans, religious or not, support Humanist ideals.

Don’t expect to see Humanist churches popping up on street corners or Darwin Day turning into a national holiday.  However, the decision by the Federal Government to accept Humanism as a religion mirrors the burgeoning social movement carrying a large chunk of the American population away from religion toward organizations that focus on rational thought rather than religious speculation.

Think of it as a new Renaissance.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Real Reason Rap Music is Popular

Back in the 1800s, Walt Whitman shocked the literary world with his free verse published under the title Leaves of Grass.  His work, which captured the rhythm of American life, served as a springboard to other famous writers, including Carl Sandburg and beat poets like Allan Ginsburg.

Today, Rap music attempts to build on that legacy and has failed miserably.  Rap, and its cousin Hip Hop, is loud, often profane, usually incomprehensible with pathetic attempts at meaningless lyrics, with no depth or purpose other than the damage hearing of anyone within a few miles of the source.  No one remembers a single line a few moments after hearing a "song."

On the other hand, Whitman’s observations echo today: “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”  In other place, he wrote, “I am satisfied ... I see, dance, laugh, sing.”  '

Then there’s Sandburg’s safe comment, “A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on.”  

One of his poems radiates with humanity and feeling that Rap cannot touch:

“Come clean with a child heart
Laugh as peaches in the summer wind
Let rain on a house roof be a song
Let the writing on your face

be a smell of apple orchards on late June.”

In contrast, here are some of the most famous lyrics in Rap music, culled from a website that listed the top 50 rap lyrics of all time:

"Crack mothers, crack babies and AIDS patients/Youngbloods can't spell, but they could rock you in
Mos Def
PlayStation." Mos Def

"If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?" Kendrick Lamar

"Thinkin' of a master plan/Cause ain't nothin' but sweat inside my hand." Rakim

“Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head/It's like a jungle. Sometimes it makes me wonder/How I keep from goin' under." Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

If none of that is rancid illiteracy enough, how about the number 1 lyric?

"I never sleep 'cause sleep is the cousin of death"  Nas

Thrilled by banality?  Sleep being tied to death goes back 2800 years to the Iliad, for example. 

It doesn’t get better with “famous” Rap artists.  Consider these lyrics from Eminem, who is considered one of the great Rap artists of all time.

"Lose Yourself"
Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down,
The whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out
He's choking how, everybody's joking now
The clock's run out, time's up, over, bloah!
Snap back to reality, Oh there goes gravity
Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked
He's so mad, but he won't give up that
Easy, no
He won't have it, he knows his whole back's to these ropes
It don't matter, he's dope
He knows that but he's broke
He's so stagnant, he knows
When he goes back to his mobile home, that's when it's
Back to the lab again, yo
This whole rhapsody
He better go capture this moment and hope it don't pass him

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo
You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo
(You better)

The “song” rolls on for a lot more lines, but anyone with the slightest sense can see this is simply gibberish.  Yo.

To be subjected to such idiocy on a regular basis helps explain why Climate Change has become such a threat to human civilization.  God has clearly had enough.

There could be another reason as well.  It relates to a recent discovery that I am a victim of an international conspiracy to prevent me from going where I want to go at the pace I want to go.  Yes, driving and bad music are definitely connected.

Previously, I thought that the many examples of bad driving I see daily were random.  Most people probably make that same mistake when they encounter someone going 10 miles under the speed limit in a speed lane, or who pulls out of a side street oblivious to the lack of space and then slows down, who signals one way and goes the other or who simply drives so erratically as to clog traffic.

It’s not random, at least in my case or in the many like me across the country.

My first real clue came recently when I was driving to the library.  I innocently followed another driver who carefully signaled and turned until we came to the library.  Then, the driver simply stopped his car and blocked both the road and the entrance to the library.

This was clearly planned and organized to stop me.

I immediately recognized two basic criteria that determine whether a driving episode reflects the conspiracy: 1) there had to be no apparent reason for interfering in the flow of traffic, and 2) I had to be the only one affected. 

Sample of bad driving
Since then, I have endured multiple instances of similar blockade efforts.  They made me think about various aspects. 

First, why pick on me?  I’m innocuous with no power or authority.  I concluded that haplessness made me the perfect candidate.  If I complained, who would listen? That's why others caught up in this same situation have failed to speak out.

Second, why do this at all?  I concluded that this was a practice run for disrupting the entire traffic flow in this country.  Terrorists realized that we are on guard for bombs and other violence.  However, havoc caused by creating gridlock would cause far more damage than any explosive.

Third, how did they communicate?  This was trickier because no one could hold up a sign.  I could see that. Besides, I could shift directions abruptly, leaving a team of obstructionists on the wrong road.  The answer was that they must use the radio.  Every car has one.  Instructions can be sent instantly and in direct response to any direction I choose.

Car radio
However, I realized there could be a problem: after all, I could hear the instructions and would be immediately alerted to the conspiracy.  Therefore, any messages must be in code.  Couldn’t I still hear the code?  Obviously, I could stumble on it by going through stations.  Therefore, the code must be played on a station I was not likely to visit or to linger there should I accidentally turn it on.

To accomplish that, the station must play the worst music ever composed. Naturally, I would never listen to that or would immediately turn the channel as soon as I heard it.  In fact, the music must be so bad that no one would listen to it unless forced in order to obtain the code. As a result, the music would appear popular as conspirators listen, while, in reality, it’s simply causing their ears to bleed. 

The obvious answer: Rap music.

At least, as a code for nefarious activities would explain its continued existence.  Nothing else does.

I imagine Whitman’s modern counterparts are patiently waiting for the truth of Rap’s purpose to be publicly known so that the conspiracy can be thwarted.  Then, maybe, Americans can actually return to music that isn’t designed to nauseate listeners.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about various topics, including contemporary American issues.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Rating the Obama Presidency

Where does Barack Obama rank today on the list of American presidents?

There are 44 slots available.  Of those, 15 were re-elected, including Obama.  Since the 1960s, historians have debated and argued about each man, trying to judge their position in comparison to the others.  The criteria have remained fairly consistent.  Voters want honesty, consistency and good morals, according to a Gallup poll.  They put those qualities above experience and sound judgment.

Historians have added to that short list, including foreign policy, communication skills, luck and the opinion of international historians, along with such standards as: 

·                     An ability to put their own times in the perspective of history
·                     Effective communication skills
·                     The courage to make unpopular decisions
·                     Crisis management skills
·                     Character and integrity
·                     Wise appointments
·                     An ability to work with Congress
·                      A strong vision for the country's future
Franklin Roosevelt

CNN added in 2012 that “great presidents are those who change the course of American history.”

Because the list involves evaluations, opinions often change over time.  Some presidents, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, have consistently been highly rated as they successfully dealt with significant crises and significant turning points.

Others, however, have gained or lost status.  Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were both considered mediocre presidents until more recent assessment moved them higher on the list.  On the other hand, George W. Bush has fallen to the bottom, a position typically reserved for James Buchanan, whose shortcomings helped precipitate the Civil War.

Where does Obama fit on the list?

Justice Sotomayor
His major accomplishments include the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, which still needs Congressional approval; the restructuring of the medical system; the reversal of the recession and resurrection of the automobile industry; increased the minimum wage to $10.10 on federal contracts; reduced the federal budget deficit from 9.8 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.9 percent of GDP by 2014; appointmed women to prominent positions, creating the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history and added the first Hispanic, male or female, to the Supreme Court;  ended the U.S. involvement in the Iraqi war and set a timeline for leaving Afghanistan; re-established American credibility and influence worldwide; and oversaw the military’s capture and death of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden.

That’s quite a record, but it doesn’t really end there because Obama added money to Pell Grants to help poorer students pay for higher education; increased support for stem cell research; stopped federal opposition to the sale of medical marijuana; increased rules to help keep waterways clean; and started immigration reform, which carries a 90 perfect approval rating among Hispanics. Most recently, he resolved our long-standing Cuban crisis.

He did all that without a breath of scandal.

He succeeded despite unprecedented opposition by Republicans.  Former Sen. George Voinovich admitted recently that Republican legislature agreed in 2008 to oppose anything Obama proposed, regardless of its merit or value to the voters.

Yet, because of his excellent communication skills, Obama managed to win the vast majority of his fights.  In his first year, for example, Obama obtained 97 percent of his initiatives, the highest success rate in American presidential history.

Internationally, according to Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, U.S. President Barack Obama restored faith in the U.S. presidency in the eyes of many around the world. And while that impact is waning, it still remains a strong American asset abroad.”

By the criteria established by historians, then, Obama has performed admirably.  He still has critics, and obviously, can never win over everyone, especially with the drumbeat of hate from the conservative elements of society. Racism, too, remains the tacit cause for the ever-present eagerness to both defy and demean any of his accomplishments.

To get a clearer picture of Obama’s legacy, in January 2015, New York magazine asked 50 historians to evaluate how the Obama administration will be seen in 20 years.  Here are some of their comments:

Stephen Walt, Harvard University professor of international affairs:  “As president, he showed that effective governing requires careful deliberation, discipline, and the willingness to make hard and imperfect decisions, and he let us all watch him do just that. Even when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier. Future historians will give him full marks for that.”

Stephen Kinzer, New York Times correspondent and author: “Forging a popular coalition, however, requires a galvanizing inspirational agenda. His policies were too moderate to electrify the public.”

Theda Skocpol, Harvard University professor of government and sociology: “Obama will get much more credit as time passes for saving the U.S. and global economy from a major crash and launching a robust and sustained economic
recovery. The question mark will remain how equitable the recovery proves to be.”

Thomas Holt, University of Chicago professor of American and African American history:  “Obamacare is easily the signal accomplishment of this president, assuming current efforts to unravel it will be defeated. It’s an achievement that will put Obama in the ranks of FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare) because of its enduring impact on the average American’s well-being. He won’t need bridges and airports named after him since opponents already did him the favor of naming it ‘Obamacare.’”

James Mann, author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies: “Historians will see that during Obama’s administration, the old China policies of the past four decades were quietly, gradually put to rest.”

Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania Professor of History and Sociology: “The Department of Justice had arguably never been as partisan as it was during the Bush years. Obama, by contrast, appointed many highly regarded professionals. Those appointees have professionalized the hiring process and reinvigorated many of the DOJ’s divisions. A similar process has played out in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor.”

Crystal Feimster, Yale University Associate Prof African American Studies and American Studies and History:  Obama … has expanded economic opportunities for women, fought pay discrimination, increased women’s access to quality and affordable health care, worked toward combating sexual assault on college campus and in the military, and expanded services for victims of domestic violence and their children.”

Mark Lilla, Columbia University professor of Humanities: “Good historians pay attention not only to what political figures actively accomplish — wars won, legislation passed — but to what they prevent from happening, a negative but real accomplishment. By that measure, Barack Obama accomplished a lot.”

Jeffrey Alexander, sociologist: “Obama has had to have been his own social movement, and this puts him in vulnerable territory. The exceptions — the gay and lesbian movements and the Hispanic mobilization around immigration — … in these areas Obama has been demonstrably responsive.”

There’s no reason to reprint all the comments, but the consensus today is that Obama did a very good job.

Isn’t that all anyone can ask of a president?

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus, whose doctoral work was in American Studies at Case Western Reserve University, regularly writes about religion, religious history and American history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at