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Monday, December 21, 2009                                                                                       View Comments

Sexy Nativity scene draws chorus of critics

This time of year, nativity scenes are going up, but one in particular is drawing a chorus of critics.

The display is at a 3rd Street boutique and features a scantily clad Virgin Mary near wise women posed with shopping bags.

"I'm not a Bible-thumper, not someone who is going to jam my beliefs down your throat," display critic Kaaren Benton said. "I just said to them, your display is degrading, it's disgusting and it is an insult to my religion."

Diane Gan, another critic of the display, said that she didn't like the display because it desecrated Mary and it showed a lack of respect.

The public relations representative for Madison, the boutique chain, says they are making no comment.

Some onlookers wonder why people are making such a fuss.

"It's done in good taste," Los Angeles resident William Smith said. "If the image had high heels and garter belts, yeah, but no."

"There is so much going on in the world," Los Angeles resident Beryl Smith said. "This should be the least of anybody's worries."

Although some people are OK with the display Benton says someone needs to take a stand and urge the store to remove the display.

Benton and her co-workers are reaching out to the faithful, even the head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

"Cardinal Mahony, it was an e-mail and a couple of Protestant churches in the area," Benton said.

The response from one church said that the campaign to take down the display could backfire.

"We didn't want to bring publicity to the store. At the same time we wanted to speak out," Benton said.

A group that works across the street from the store said sex, their religion and shopping in a single tableau is too much for them to handle.

Said one woman, "The way they have presented Mary in a very provocative position with a baby in her crotch, and that baby is supposed to be Jesus... No."

The group is asking that the display be changed immediately.

If the store doesn't oblige, they plan to go to every church in the area to garner support for the removal of the display.


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Tuesday, December 15, 2009                                                                                       View Comments

Ruling allows for atheist display

Judge grants Freethinkers’ request for kiosk at Arkansas state Capitol

Winter solstice display to be erected at the Arkansas state Capitol. More information and photos of the display are available by clicking here.
An atheist group’s display marking the winter solstice will join the traditional Nativity scene on the Arkansas state Capitol grounds as a result of a ruling by a federal judge Monday.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, who sued Secretary of State Charlie Daniels after he refused to grant permission for the group to put up its display, dubbed the Box of Knowledge.

“We liked the outcome,” said Mark Love, an electrical engineer who is the registrar for the society. “We wanted to be included and to be able to express our message. It looks like it’s going to happen.”



Arkansas judge allows secular solstice display to join nativity scene at state Capitol

Secretary of State Charlie Daniels violated free speech rights when he rejected a “winter solstice” display at the state Capitol by a group opposed to the nativity scene displayed annually at Arkansas’ seat of government, a federal judge ruled today.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright’s ruling cleared the way for the display proposed by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit after Daniels rejected the group’s written application to put up a display that would describe the meaning and history of the winter solstice.

The group had asked for an expedited hearing so it could erect the display before the winter solstice on Dec. 21. Freethinkers member Mark Love said his organization plans to put up the display Wednesday or Thursday.

“We like the outcome. We wanted to be included in the holiday season and we are,” Love said.

He said his group was not anti-Christian or anti-Christmas.

“No, this was about being included in the holiday … why not make the holiday time more inclusive, not less,” Love said.

Daniels told reporters after the hearing that his office would work with the group.
“We will comply with the order,” he said.

During the hearing, Daniels testified that he denied the group’s request because the display “did not go along with the Christmas theme or holiday theme.” He also said he didn’t like temporary displays in general.

“It didn’t look appropriate to me that it belonged on the Capitol grounds,” the secretary of state said.

The freethinkers first applied to put up a winter solstice display at the Capitol last year and were turned down. Daniels said at the time the proposed exhibit failed to maintain the order and decorum of the holiday season.

The organization submitted an application in October that met all of Daniels’ requirements, but still the application was rejected.

During Monday’s hearing, it was revealed that the secretary of state’s office has a written policy that allows anyone to apply to put up a display at the Capitol. The policy was established by Daniels’ predecessor, Sharon Priest. The nativity scene was exempt from the application process because it has been a temporary holiday display on the Capitol grounds since the 1940s.

No one had ever applied for permission to erect a temporary holiday display until the freethinkers, according to testimony.

“This was a massive violation of the First amendment,” said ACLU attorney John Burnett, adding the nativity scene “existed outside the scope of these particular guidelines.”

In her ruling, Wright noted that by allowing a nonprofit organization to erect a nativity scene annually, the secretary of state had “designated a public forum,” and that the freethinkers “have free speech rights and did follow the policy.”

“The court finds this policy is not content neutral as applied and it permits a Christmas display and denies another view point,” she said, adding the policy was “narrowly tailored.”

“This is a designated public forum for that type of speech,” she said.

Wright also said Daniels’ argument that the freethinkers display was not aesthetic enough for the holidays did not make sense because the nativity scene is made out of wood and is completely opposite from the festive decorations inside the state Capitol.

She said the freethinkers display would fit well near the nativity scene, and she expressed some concern that the secretary of state’s office may soon be inundated with requests for other temporary displays in the area.

“There might be enough room,” she said.

Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU chapter in Arkansas, told reporters after the hearing she was pleased with the ruling.

“I don’t know of any other state capitol that has set up a public forum the way this state had done,” she said. “Again, they didn’t have to do that, they didn’t have to invite anybody, but they did, and that set up a forum so that anybody with any idea … any time of year.”



Judge says ‘winter solstice’ display OK for Capitol

Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled in Little Rock on Monday that the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers has a First Amendment Right to set up their “kiosk” alongside the Nativity Christmas display on the grounds of the State Capitol. Judge Wright ruled that Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels had established a “public forum” by allowing a private organization, the owners of the Nativity, to set it up.

The Nativity has been a part of Christmas decorations at the state capitol at least since the 1940s. Wright issued an injunction ordering the Arkansas Secretary of State to allow the Freethinkers to set up their four-sided display celebrating the winter solstice. According to Mark Love, a member of the Society of Freethinkers, only one side of the display commemorates the Winter Solstice, the other three sides tell about Freethinkers, promote certain books, and contain an “ancestry timeline”. The monument measures a little over 4 feet square and, including the roof, stands about 10 feet tall. According to Love, the purpose of the monument is to educate people about Freethinkers.

Arkansas Secretary of State Daniels denied the groups application for a display in 2008. Daniels denied the group again in 2009, stating that their display did not fit the tone of the holiday decorum at the State Capitol.

The ACLU assisted the Freethinkers in filing a lawsuit against Daniels, and handled the case for them in Federal Court.

Attorneys for the Arkansas Secretary of State argued that no public forum had been established. Since the Nativity had been part of the State Capitol Christmas display for over 60 years, they argued that the Nativity was simply one of many decorations traditionally displayed at the Capitol during the holidays.

Judge Wright took the opportunity to speak against the Nativity in general. Even though the complaint filed by the Freethinkers argued that rejecting their display violated their free speech rights, Judge Wright interjected her own arguments and made it a religion case. She stated that in its current form the Nativity is likely in violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause which prohibits state sponsorship of religion. The fact that the Nativity was set up on a location on the south side of the Capitol, away from other holiday decorations, made it suspect, she said. She also pointed out that the Nativity contained no red, green, or white colors, colors normally associated with Christmas festivities. She said that the colors of the Nativity were colors normally associated with the common view of the birth of Christ.

In the 1980s artisans at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, hand-carved life-size people and animals for a new Nativity. A 13 by 26 foot structure was built to house the outdoor display. The Nativity was the property of the State of Arkansas until around 1992, when it was donated to a private foundation known as the Foundation to Protect and Promote the Nativity. The non-profit group has been allowed to set up the Nativity on the Capitol grounds every Christmas since then. They bear all financial responsibility for the set-up, maintenance, and storage of the Nativity.

Secretary of State Daniels pointed out the fact that he is constitutionally and legally responsible for the Capitol Building and its grounds. He said that he and his staff routinely approve events, including displays, at the State Capitol. Daniels determined that an atheist display did not fit the decorum of the Holiday decorations at the Capitol. He said that they would be welcome to exercise their First Amendment rights by holding a rally or other event on the Capitol steps the same as other groups.

This lawsuit and today’s ruling has very little to do with the First Amendment rights of the atheist Freethinkers. It has everything to do with trying to get rid of the Nativity. They’ve tried and failed to have Nativities removed from public property. The one at the Capitol in Little Rock has stood in spite of objections by the ACLU. Now they’re trying to come in through the back door by making Nativity displays so controversial that public officials decide to remove all religious displays, including Nativities.

At the end of the hearing, the judge told everyone to have a “happy holiday, or solstice, or whatever.”


Friday, December 04, 2009                                                                                       View Comments

Born With an Urge to Help

Mommy's HelperImage by DQmountaingirl via Flickr

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

“It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.

Infants will help with information, as well as in practical ways. From the age of 12 months they will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share information.

For parents who may think their children somehow skipped the cooperative phase, Dr. Tomasello offers the reassuring advice that children are often more cooperative outside the home, which is why parents may be surprised to hear from a teacher or coach how nice their child is. “In families, the competitive element is in ascendancy,” he said.

As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”

Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.

Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.

Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.

If children are naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing best takes advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that the approach known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.

“Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch.

An interesting bodily reflection of humans’ shared intentionality is the sclera, or whites, of the eyes. All 200 or so species of primates have dark eyes and a barely visible sclera. All, that is, except humans, whose sclera is three times as large, a feature that makes it much easier to follow the direction of someone else’s gaze. Chimps will follow a person’s gaze, but by looking at his head, even if his eyes are closed. Babies follow a person’s eyes, even if the experimenter keeps his head still.

Advertising what one is looking at could be a risk. Dr. Tomasello argues that the behavior evolved “in cooperative social groups in which monitoring one another’s focus was to everyone’s benefit in completing joint tasks.”

This could have happened at some point early in human evolution, when in order to survive, people were forced to cooperate in hunting game or gathering fruit. The path to obligatory cooperation — one that other primates did not take — led to social rules and their enforcement, to human altruism and to language.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

A similar conclusion has been reached independently by Hillard S. Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. Modern humans have lived for most of their existence as hunter gatherers, so much of human nature has presumably been shaped for survival in such conditions. From study of existing hunter gatherer peoples, Dr. Kaplan has found evidence of cooperation woven into many levels of human activity.

The division of labor between men and women — men gather 68 percent of the calories in foraging societies — requires cooperation between the sexes. Young people in these societies consume more than they produce until age 20, which in turn requires cooperation between the generations. This long period of dependency was needed to develop the special skills required for the hunter gatherer way of life.

The structure of early human societies, including their “high levels of cooperation between kin and nonkin,” was thus an adaptation to the “specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for other primates to capture, Dr. Kaplan and colleagues wrote recently in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. We evolved to be nice to each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.

Much the same conclusion is reached by Frans de Waal in another book published in October, “The Age of Empathy.” Dr. de Waal, a primatologist, has long studied the cooperative side of primate behavior and believes that aggression, which he has also studied, is often overrated as a human motivation.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

“Humans clearly evolved the ability to detect inequities, control immediate desires, foresee the virtues of norm following and gain the personal, emotional rewards that come from seeing another punished,” write three Harvard biologists, Marc Hauser, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter R. Blake, in reviewing their experiments with tamarin monkeys and young children.

If people do bad things to others in their group, they can behave even worse to those outside it. Indeed the human capacity for cooperation “seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

Sociality, the binding together of members of a group, is the first requirement of defense, since without it people will not put the group’s interests ahead of their own or be willing to sacrifice their lives in battle. Lawrence H. Keeley, an anthropologist who has traced aggression among early peoples, writes in his book “War Before Civilization” that, “Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.”

The roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression. We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice to others.

“That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”


Wednesday, December 02, 2009                                                                                       View Comments

Jesus Christ called for jury duty

Court officials were skeptical at first when on Monday a potential juror submitted a name change form with "Jesus Christ" on it. But the 59-year-old Birmingham woman, who previously went by Dorothy Lola Killingworth, assured the presiding judge that was her name.

"It raised eyebrows, so I asked her if that were truly her name," Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell said. "She assured me that it was. She had her name changed in the Probate Court, and she presented her driver's license."

Christ was sent to Judge Clyde Jones's courtroom for a criminal case. She was excused because she was disruptive, court officials said. Instead of answering questions, she was asking them, a court employee in Jones's office said.

Efforts to reach Christ today were unsuccessful.

Court administrator Sandra Turner said she and others in the jury assembly room were somewhat shocked at first when the woman insisted Christ was her name. And when her name was called, several potential jurors laughed out loud.

Unlike some Jefferson County residents, Christ did not try to get out of jury duty, Turner said.

"She was perfectly happy to serve," said Turner.