20 April, 2010

From Madalyn Murray O'Hair to Antony Flew: My own intellectual journey in unbelief

by Jorge Reyes

Browsing the internet today, I read the obituary of the British rationalist philosopher Antony Flew.

For most of his life Flew has been a consistent and strong advocate for natural philosophy, unemcumbered by belief in God or miracles. To him, he advocated a negative form of atheism, placing the burden of proof of belief in any transcendence squarely on the shoulders of theists. Since propositions of belief in God cannot be disproven, he would say, then he argued that it would be senseless to even advocate a rational marriage between belief and unbelief, like much of philosophy has tried to do. One key to understanding much of Flew's philosophy: to follow evidence wherever it leads, something also said by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

By a strange twist of intellectual honesty (some people call it intellectual dishonesty or age-old decrepitude), in 2004 Flew changed his mind. Still denying much belief in a personal God, life after death, or the supernatural, he began to argue that discoveries into the DNA prove that an intelligent design of some sort must have brought such complex matter into existence. He went on to argue that although this proved that something-- never calling that something by a name-- had to have been involved in the first act of creation, what is called the Big Bang, the springing forth, of sentient matter from inanimate matter. What that something was, Flew didn't go into detail. It was a deism in the philosophical tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

To deists, nature's god first created the world and then let the world function with its natural laws, letting the great natural machinery of life evolve on its own, without any special assistance from this god. Life, in other words, is like a blind clockmaker created by an unknown clockmaker.

As Flew wrote, DNA had "shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved". It was not coincidental that during his lifetime, he advocated in Great Britain the teaching of creative intelligence, something that their American fundamentalist brethens have tried to push through the public schools for many decades now.

I've always had the intellectual and psychical need to know what's behind religious belief. Call me whatever you want, but to me it all hinges on whether life has or doesn't have meaning, though meaninglessness is something that troubles me because nature equipped us all to find meaning even in the most mundane, trivial acts of living. Since I was a little kid I questioned what it was most people referred to when they pray to god. Believing in the bible stories, I often glanced at the sky trying to see if I would take a sneek peek at that famous Jesus who died for our sins one day, really soon, would come back to take us back into the kingdom of heaven.

I kid you not, growing up in a communist society such as Cuba, my religious curiosity wasn't normal and it would have branded me into an anti-social element, a social deviate who should have been spending more time, instead, delving into the historical materialism of Hegel or Lenin, not Christ's second coming.

(Left to Right: Jon Garth, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Robin Murray O'Hair)

Fast-forward my timeline and years later living in the United States as a young adult enrolled in college, I remember the day I heard the well-known American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair calling all believers idiots, all miracles as a form of mental illusion, and anyone who disagreed with her were just suffering from mental illness. If there were any gods, as she liked to whip, all you had to do is prove it to her and the whole assorted mess would be resolved.

I fell in love with the 70 year old atheist! Unlike Flew whose writings were dense and in the best philosophical tradition, O'Hair made it popular and chic to disbelief, to question god, to grapple with ideas and bring them down to their bare essentials. Her message was not unique, she was just titilating to watch.

As some of you may remember her, during her lifetime O'Hair was demonized. At one point in the 1960's, Life magazine called her "one of the most hated women in America", and indeed she was. Her ramblings, often peppered with nuggets of intellectual insights, didn't win her any fans. It seems that she had an equally dysfunctional family. In the 1980's her eldest son, William Murray, the litigant whose Supreme Court case won them infamy by banning bible and prayer recitation in the United States, had a religious conversion and turned into his mother's worst enemy.

Murray even wrote a "mommie-dearest" sort of biographical book titled "My Life Without God," which is still in print  three decades after it was written.  O'Hair, of course, had her own book titled "An Atheist Epic."  If compared, both books tend to totally contradict one another. 

                                 Photo courtesy of Corbis

Sadly for her and for her other son Jon and granddaughter Robin (William's daughter), in 1995 they were all abducted by their office manager, held hostage for a few months in a cheap motel in Texas and forced to take out of the corporate's account more than $600,000 in gold coins. They were then slowly and brutally murdered, their bodies dismembered, and disposed of in a farm in Texas. A nationwide search led by the FBI and then the IRS found their remains in 1999, five years after their infamous disappearance.

I was often like O'Hair herself. If it couldn't proven, it must be false. I still feel that way, but I often express this in less histrionic ways than hers.

There are things unseen that the mind cannot know, that our rationalism by itself is not fit to know (or at least not evolved yet to know), and that although miracles and belief in the particular of the major religions may be forms of mental delusion and brainwashing, for all practical purposes life itself is a mystery.

It is that same Kantian unknowability, that the mind has not evolved to the point that we can know things as they are, that I think Flew hit on the nail. Still looking at most rational proofs of God as hogwash, Flew nonetheless still marvelled at the uniqueness and unlikely story of existence. His recant and intellectual postulation from outright disbelief to a form of agnosticism is not hypocritical, but I think it goes to the very core of what it is to question, to take ideas seriously, and to "follow the evidence, wherever it leads", a key element to any philosophy.

Antony Flew's and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lives- and deaths-- were as ironic as their ideas. One died brutally murdered and still unrecanted and uncommitted to belief. The other died in peace, with all the accololades that his profession accorded him. In the end, both of them agreed more than disagreed: we just don't know. Or as O'Hair herself may have said: "just f***cking prove it."

Rummaging through my old files, I found a few letters and notes written to me by O'Hair decades ago.  I  intend to publish them one day because they are so interesting, highly intelligent, even funny.  In one of them, she ends by quoting a poem from an atheist poet named Ralph Chaplin.  The poem/note reads as follow:

" 'Mourn not the dead
But rather mourn the apathetic throng
the cowed and meek
Who see the world's great anguish
and its wrong,
and dare not speak.

Your fellow Anarchist,
Madalyn Murray O'Hair' "

Two years later after she wrote this to me, O'Hair was murdered.

04 April, 2010

INS's 400,000 quota will divide families and erode American values

By Jorge Reyes

I recently received a petition to sign from a friend of mine, Andy Hernandez. Since there are so many petition drives for just about every type of issue, at first I thought this one was for the Green Movement, Save the Whales, or something similar. But then when I began reading the petition drive I realized that it had been made on behalf of Andy by his wife and children.

Here's the story.

Andy Hernandez went to live in New York from the Dominican Republic in 1975, age 8, having been granted permanent residency status. His family settled in Washington Heights, where he went to school, got a job, and became thoroughly Americanized.

Washington Heights, as you may know, is one of New York City's "most murderous neighborhoods." Most of the violence could be attributed to the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s and the activities of the rival drug gangs who plied their trade on neighborhood street corners. In the 1990's, Washington Heights was known to be the largest drug distribution centers in the NE USA. As late as 1998, drug arrests in Washington Heights occurred once every hour-and-a-half, inspiring a book titled Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders and the Forces of Order, by Robert Jackall. Only in the mid 2000's, after years when gangsters ruled a thriving illegal drug trade, does it seem that some urban renewal has begun for that plighted community.

The harsh realities of Andy's youth, like many kids growing up in similar environments, compelled him to make mistakes. In 1992, he was convicted of criminal possession of stolen property in the 5th degree. Andy never served time for the alleged crime, though he was sentenced to three (3) years' probation. In 1994, he was convicted of conspiracy to possess unauthorized access devices. For this offense he was sentenced to three (3) years' probation and 400 hours of community service. Again, for this crime he was not required to serve any time in jail.

But by the end of 1994 and with most of his legal problems behind him, Andy tried to put his life back together again; he enrolled in college on a full time basis, while he also worked to support himself. In 1999, he got married raising his biological daughter, age 10, and his step daughter, age 5. By 2003, Andy had totally turned his life around and by then had become one of the most admired and respected producers in Telemundo, working for top-rated TV shows such as Caso Cerrado. In 2008 he became a foster parent in order to give unwanted children a better life.

Believing his past was behind him, on July 3, 2007, upon returning from visiting his family in the Dominican Republic, Andy was held in Miami International Airport for 10 nerve-wrecking hours. To the bureaucratic INS officer (a Hispanic), it was sufficient to know that Andy had had prior criminal convictions, regardless and in spite of the fact that he had been living an honorable, honest, and hard-working life for well over 16 years; regardless and in spite of the fact that those problems were a thing of the past; a past Andy recalls as being a nightmare.

Now Andy faces deportation. His fate is to be decided by an immigration judge at his hearing sometime this year, 2010.


If you think that Andy Hernandez's legal problems is an isolated case of an overzealous agency or that it can't happen to you, think again. You're in for a surprise.

Due to dropping deportations the INS have set out to do something about it, creating a new set quota rules for its agency and agents. This is happening, despite the Obama's administration call to focus deportation for illegal immigrants and for only a narrow group of violent offenders.

This has been outlined in documents recently acquired by a senior U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to field directors nationwide. In the Feb. 22 memo, James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down, and this is where it all starts. While ICE was on pace to achieve "the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals" for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, "well under the Agency's goal of 400,000," and nearly 20 percent behind last year's total of 387,000, he wrote.

In explicit language, Chaparro set out to explain how to go about achieving the agency's goals: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a "surge" in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.

"These efforts must be sustained and will be closely monitored," Chaparro told field directors in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Washington Post.

ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale distanced the agency from Chaparro's remarks, saying, "Portions of the memo were inconsistent with ICE, inconsistent with the administration's point of view and inconsistent with the secretary." He added that the agency has moved to "clarify" the situation.

Chaparro issued a new memo Friday stating that his earlier e-mail "signals no shift in the important steps we have taken to date to focus our priorities on the smart and effective enforcement of immigration laws, prioritizing dangerous criminal aliens . . . while also adhering to Congressional mandates to maintain an average daily [detention] population and meet annual performance measures."

In the new memo, Chaparro did not change nor alter the previous strategies he had laid out.

Advocates on the right and left pounced on the memo and other ICE documents, saying they showed that the agency is being neither tough nor consistent in targeting the worst offenders.

"We cannot allow a preoccupation with criminal aliens to obscure other critical ICE missions," Rep. Harold Rogers (Ky.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, said in a statement released by his office. "At best, it appears as though immigration enforcement is being shelved and the Administration is attempting to enact some sort of selective amnesty under the cover of 'prioritization.' "

Joan Friedland, immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center, countered that quotas will encourage agents to target easy cases, not the ones who pose the greatest safety risk.

"For ICE leadership, it's not about keeping the community safe. It's all about chasing this 400,000 number," said Chris Crane, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 118, which represents ICE workers.

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn "excellent" ratings.

I don't know about you, but I smell a rank and file hypocrisy in all of this double-talk.

The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization never shy about embracing unpopular causes, said in a statement, "These enforcement priorities are in direct contradiction with those set forth by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton who have both repeatedly testified, for much of the past year, that ICE's priority is the deportation of dangerous criminal offenders."

"This is unsound government policy and an imprudent use of American taxpayers' money that can very easily lead to civil liberties abuses," said Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel, who attended the DHS meeting.

"Immigration enforcement practices should be tied to the needs and demands of America, not driven by arbitrary numerical goals set by ICE. The preoccupation with reaching the number 400,000 has placed intense pressure on all corners of ICE to step up immigration enforcement operations," she said.

"The ACLU is very concerned that ICE agents, in the name of meeting specific numerical goals, will feel pressured to cut corners and improperly target people who look 'foreign' for stops and interrogations."

All that is fine, but to an immigrant who under force or intimidation signs away a waiver to his/her rights for an immigration hearing or to an established legal resident with a family to support and a successful business and career whose past seems to be having a deletorious karmic effect years later, change in the law can't come soon enough.


But to Andy all this bureaucratic double-talk means little. His main concern is for the family he might have to abandon if an immigration judge decides that it is in the best interest of our society to destroy it by deporting him. 

That's not the way it should be. It's one thing for a government entity to uphold the law, another thing to over use it in order for its agents to get "excellent" ratings in their personnel job performance evaluations.

We live in a society where many of us have had past legal issues-- misdemeanors, felonies, what not. But once we comply with the requirements of the sanction of the law, it's time to assist them to move on with their lives, which means not subject them to ongoing, often lifelong, forms of discrimination. If that's your interpretation of what a just society should be doing to its productive members of society, then I beg to differ in the strongest possible way.

Sadly, that is exactly what is happening and, surprisingly, what continues to happen despite the election to the Presidency of a man who comes from one of the most discriminated groups in our society, African-Americans.  Ironically, folks, deportations under President Obama are still higher than under the Bush administration.

I hope that when the Obamas come next week to Miami for a Democratic fund-raiser dinner at the palatial residence of Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio, this issue like many others affecting immigrants will be utmost in their minds. That's only a hope, of course, so that at least the Estefans can put to good use their pricey $34,000 a plate invite only fund-raiser-- an event most of us are automatically precluded from attending.

If real reform that respects the full rights of every American (aliens or naturalized) doesn't happen, then the witchhunt against legal immigrant Americans will continue. In effect, this won't be any different than a new form of Jim Crow, something akin to the noxious "separate but equal" laws that for centuries treated some Americans with more rights than others.  This time around, though, it's not against a despised African-American minority, but against Hispanics.  So, watch out with that misdemeanor you had years ago.  You could be next.

If you feel it in your heart that you should sign yet another petition, by all means do so by going to: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/Help-keep-a-loving-man-from-getting-deported.