Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mississippi Hurricane Relief Fund Supporting Religious Organizations

Separation of Church and State.jpgI am posting the following on behalf of our own Mims H. Carter:

I have been asleep at the wheel. I have spent the last 4+ years working in Katrina recovery on the Gulf Coast. In that time, I have had many interactions with faith-based groups participating in the effort. I have had many chances to see the intersection of public money and faith-based organizations, and have made every effort to ensure that these interactions are, if not ethical or particularly fruitful, at least legal.

Today I was reading the Gulf Pine Catholic, a weekly periodical of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi. In it was an article about the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Fund (MHRF), a resource set up by Gov. Haley Barbour to distribute money donated to the State of Mississippi after Katrina, granting a local catholic elementary school $25,000.00 to renovate its playground for pre-schoolers.

I have worked intimately with the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Fund. It is run under the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a public non-profit that serves the six most southern Mississippi counties. The MHRF since it started concentrated on supporting the county long-term recovery coalitions, other state initiatives involved in the recovery effort, and helping to re-build local civic infrastructure like libraries, public playgrounds, civic centers, Boys & Girls Clubs. I had never heard of them openly granting money to a religious organization, unless it was a volunteer construction organization that needed money for building materials.

I just finished looking up their project history on the Gulf Coast Community Foundation web page, and found several other suspect projects, including another grant to a religious school and a retirement home run by a church. I am going to look in to the legality of these projects. I just can't see how this does not violate church-state separation.

Please post this at Mississippi Atheists. I would like to hear some feedback and see if someone else on the blog is interested in pursuing this issue.

Thanks,
Mims

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Darwin Day


Everyone is "agnostic" within the context that we "do not know" all of the answers to all of the mysteries of the universe and/or the final answer to the cosmological conundrum.

That said, Charles Darwin was quite obviously as much a non-believer in Christian lore and that particular God who fathered a half-god son (Jesus) born of a human female (Mary) as Christians are of Zeus who fathered a half-god son (Heracles) born of a human female (Alcmene).

In this context, Darwin was as much an atheist as I am.

"Dear Sir

I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.

Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin"

Naturally, any good seeker of solutions to great puzzles, any detective, would be remiss if religion were not equally explored, critically analyzed and commented upon within a lifetime thereby opening the arena for all sorts of "interpretations" of personal views over time.

It is one of the reasons why I remain so unambiguous in proactively asserting that I am an atheist as often as religious discussion arises and then move on to all of the other affiliations and moral and ethical standards I also espouse.

The beautiful thing about science is that uncertainty is a valuable feature, not a critical flaw.

This is why I cherish the wonder of mysteries and thrive in the journey of exploration wherever it leads.

In my view, the sugar coated hubris and mind-numbing pretense of religious faiths without evidence based in mythology, fuzzy headed mysticism, hushed reverent tones, supernatural superstition, rote, ritual and lore filled with assorted God(s)es(es) with peculiar cravings and enemies that nearly always match those of the respective mortal believers are all dreary and mundane compared to a full immersion in the brilliance of the thermonuclear jewel that is the universe in plain view.

I think that Darwin was a great human being with all of the same flaws, loves, joys and despairs we have in our own lives.

He shouldn't be deified or vilified, but his life should certainly be honored and his concepts diligently studied because even with those basic traits he still courageously managed to use his human brain, in an age of thoughtless indoctrination, to explore this jewel and present his findings directly against the power of religious coercion to those who were taught not to listen.

Darwin Day February 12, 2010

For those interested, here is a wonderful interview with the actor Paul Bettany who plays Charles Darwin in "Creation" (2009):

UK Interview




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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mississippi is Unhealthy

A public health report released this week found that Mississippi leads the U.S. in obesity and the complete absence of physical activity among adults.
"Physicians know all too well the health behaviors such as poor diet, too little exercise, tobacco use, substance abuse, contribute to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other fatal conditions. If you don't take care of yourself, your health will go up in smoke," said Dr. Randy Easterling, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association.
I suspect that poverty is one important factor here. Poor education is likely another. Could religious doctrines about the relatively low worth of the body vs. the soul be yet another contributing factor?

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Action Alert: Oppose House Bill 586

Action Alert.gifI received the following today from the National Center for Science Education:

Dear Mississippi members of NCSE,

We thought you would like to know about a proposed bill which has just been introduced in the Mississippi legislature by Rep. Gary Chism [R-District 37]. House Bill 586 has been referred to the House Education Committee.

HB 586 would require local school boards to begin every high school biology course with a lesson on human evolution. However, the bill mandates that such lessons "... shall not evidence bias through selective instruction on the theory of evolution, but rather, shall have proportionately equal instruction from educational materials that present scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution."

The bill provides no indication of how to define or recognize "scientifically sound arguments", but is clear in requiring equal time for "educational materials" [also undefined] from both supporters and opponents of evolution. Since there are no "scientifically sound arguments" against evolution which have been presented or accepted by the scientific community, it seems clear that any arguments against evolution presented in such a lesson are very likely to be the sort of religiously-based ones which creationists put forward. Thus this bill could easily have the effect of opening science classrooms to the presentation of those particular religious views which reject evolution.

Last year Rep. Chism introduced a bill which would have required biology textbooks in Mississippi to include an evolution disclaimer similar to that mandated in Alabama. At the time he was quoted in the "Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal" as saying "Either you believe in the Genesis story, or you believe that a fish walked on the ground."

To read the full text of HB 586, see:
http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2010/html/HB/0500-0599/HB0586IN.htm

NCSE has a news story about this bill here:
http://ncse.com/news/2010/01/antievolution-legislation-mississippi-005283

If you should want to contact your representative or members of the Education Committee about HB 586, the following may prove useful.

A roster of House members, with contact information:
http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/members/h_roster.pdf

A list of House committees with their members:
http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/htms/h_cmtememb.xml

To track the status of HB 586 [or any other bill]:
http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/2010/pdf/lookup.htm

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Friday, January 15, 2010

How to Contact Your Elected Officials in Mississippi

walker_quote306.jpg

After the most recent assault on science education by Mississippi Rep. Gary Chism, it occurred to me that it might be useful to have a brief, step-by-step guide for how to respond to this sort of thing in the future. I am well aware that many of you already know how to do this, but my goal with this post is merely to make it as easy as possible by providing an outline for Mississippi's reality-based community to use.

Here's the scenario: you learn about a bill introduced in our state legislature that represents yet another blow to science education, separation of church and state, etc. The bill must be killed in committee or defeated if brought to a vote. Here is what you can do about it:

  1. Determine whether it is a house bill (HB) or a senate bill (SB) and find the bill's number (e.g., HB 25). This is easy to find because it will usually be included in the story through which you first learned of the bill.

  2. Visit the state legislature's webpage. Under "bill status," click "select a measure" and enter the source and number of the bill into the form. Not only will this page provide a link to the text of the bill, but you'll see three critical pieces of information to note: actions taken on the bill so far, the committee which will be reviewing the bill, and the bill's author.

  3. Now return to the main page and go under either House or Senate depending on where the bill originated and click on Click on "house committees" or "senate committees." This will show you who sits on the committee that will be handling the bill in question (remember you noted this in Step 2).

  4. Now that you have the names of the relevant committee members, you know who to contact. At a minimum, I tend to contact the Chair and any members representing my legislative district. If you aren't sure who represents your district, you can find that information here.

  5. Now that you know who to contact, you need to find out how to contact them. Return to the main page. Under "house" or "senate," depending on which is appropriate, you'll find a list of names to click on. Each link will provide all the contact information you'll need. Email addresses are generally included, so use them.

  6. Let us know who you contacted, what you said, and whether you receive a response. This will help us coordinate our efforts.


Simple and highly effective. You better believe that these individuals hear from the Christian extremists in our state on a regular basis, so it is important that they hear from those of us who are oriented to reality too.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Helping Humans in Haiti


As many of you know, our family survived hurricane Katrina as our home was torn apart around us and we were displaced for quite some time. In short, we have firsthand experience and knowledge that large humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross are first rate when it comes to providing much needed food, water, medicine, supplies, volunteers and monetary help on the ground as quickly as possible.

Being a first responder in the midst of utter destruction I was responsible for search, rescue and recovery along with my collateral duties of protecting property against looting and general investigations of criminal activity while trying to keep my family safe and putting our home back together. Right up until this very moment we continue to rebuild and still feel the deep emotional and physical ramifications of August 29, 2005.

As tragic and despairing as our own experiences were in the aftermath of Katrina, though, I must admit that this earthquake and resulting human toll will be thousands of times larger in scale. The scars run deep with me, right into my heart, and the only thing in this world that is right and worthy is to remain diligent and to help those in need to the best of our ability.

Terresa and I provide regular donations to the Red Cross and I have already given a blood donation two weeks ago. Now we have sent additional donations to Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders and recommend them as efficient secular humanitarian agencies with an already established presence on the ground in Haiti.

For those interested, the Foundation Beyond Belief and the American Humanist Association are wonderful organizations providing secular humanitarian networks and resources as well.

The most important thing we all can do is send whatever donations we can manage in order to help folks and then continue to do so for the next several months.

http://www.pih.org
http://doctorswithoutborders.org
http://foundationbeyondbelief.org

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Gary Chism: Hero of the Religious Right in Mississippi

evolution.jpgOn January 5th, 2010, Mississippi State Representative Gary Chism introduced House Bill 46, which has a summary that reads "To provide that the sale of utilities to churches shall be exempt from sales taxation; and for related purposes". On January 12, Mr. Chism introduced House Bill 586, which will require biology teachers to "present scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution."

Mr. Chism is a social conservative and on more than one occasion he has introduced bills that blur the line between the Constitutional idea of state-church separation. Several of our readers here at Mississippi Atheists took an active role in spreading the word about House Bill 25, a bill introduced by Mr. Chism which threatened science education in Mississippi. That bill died in committee. Mr. Chism told a reporter at the website OneNewsNow that House Bill 25 was used to test the waters in preparation for a bill requiring that Mississippi schools teach "the strengths and weaknesses of evolution" some time in 2010. He wasn't kidding. It is time to spread the word once again.

The new rallying cry of the Creationist movement is to "teach the controversy". Without out a doubt, there is a controversy: the theory of evolution is in direct contrast to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of the Bible, which many people still believe to be the inerrant in all factual detail. This is certainly a discussion for the social studies classroom, but not the biology laboratory. Within the scientific community, there is no controversy: the theory of evolution is currently our best explanation for describing the observed phenomena of natural selection, random mutation, and adaptation. If there is a "scientifically sound argument" that anything biologists have observed really wasn't observed, I want to know about it. Arguments against evolution should be coming from real scientists doing real laboratory work, not from lawmakers forcing their ideology into high school classrooms or traveling preachers who mislead people on science despite having a PhD in biology.

With House Bill 46, he continues this tradition of giving preferential treatment to religious organizations. This is the key portion of the bill:
Gross income from sales to chruches[sic] exempt from federal income taxation under USCS Section 501(c)(3) of electricity, current, power, natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas or other fuel for heating, lighting or other use, and sales of potable water to such churches shall be excluded form taxable gross income of the business.
What Mr. Chism is proposing with this law is that business do not have to pay taxes associated with income received in the sales of utilities to churches, but he makes no mention of secular organizations which are also classified under Section 501(c)(3). If this bill were to go into effect, it would encourage utility companies to provide more support to religious organizations than to secular organizations. I would encourage the Mississippi State Legislature to amend this bill by striking the occurrences of "churches" and replacing those occurrences with "nonprofit organizations". Or just let the bill die in committee.

Mr. Chism has a history of introducing bills which support the religious right ideology, but most of these unconstitutional bills die in committee. We can write, call, and e-mail our legislators and local newspaper editors to restart the dialog about the importance of science education in Mississippi, or we can take our chances and do nothing. As with HB25, we will be posting our letters on this site and encourage you to write your own.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Help for Haitians


I just got in from work and heard the news about the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Please take some time to consider a donation to help those who are sure to need it ~

Mercy Corp

Red Cross

Direct Relief

Anything we can do will help.

Thanks!

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Why Atheists Must Speak Out

090418aspeakout.gifThis post was inspired by an intriguing discussion on one of the many local atheist listservs I'm on, the Central MS Atheist Meetup Group. There are some great folks in this group, and they always make me think.

I want to start by acknowledging that living in Mississippi is no picnic for an atheist. This is about as oppressively religious environment as one is likely to find in the U.S., and we face situations on a regular basis that are virtually unheard of in more secular regions of the country. It is commonplace for complete strangers to approach us and ask where we go to church and whether we would like to visit their church. Church/state violations abound, and our complaints are often met with, "We're in the South; what do you expect?" Most of us have lost friends simply for describing ourselves as non-religious, and many of us have been threatened with hell.

In such an environment, it is only natural that we would learn to keep our views on religion concealed. We dread the point in the conversation when the topic comes up. There is tremendous social pressure to lie, even if only by omission. We don't want to use the a-word because we fear many negative outcomes. Some of us know - or at least suspect - that disclosing our atheism might mean the loss of our job, social ostracization, vandalism, threats of harm to our families, and even physical assault.

What makes all of this even worse is that most of us know, at least on some level, that this is no way to live. We deserve better than a life ruled by fear, and we know damn well that it is our silence that perpetuates these circumstances. By refusing to express ourselves honestly, we give power to those who oppress us. We know this rationally, but it provides little comfort to the individual contemplating such a disclosure.

A Relationship Analogy

I'd like to suggest that we take a moment and forget about the broader social implications of speaking out. Forget about how keeping silent enables discrimination and bigotry to continue. Set all of those considerations aside for now. Instead, I want you to consider how communication works in an intimate relationship and what happens when it becomes less than open and honest. I find that this can be a powerful analogy to help us realize that our silence is not fair to anyone.

Partner A was raised to be very conservative when it comes to spending money. She places great importance on saving, budgeting carefully, and planning for the future. Partner B has no interest in any of this, has never understood it, and derives great pleasure from impulsive buying. Partner A knows this about Partner B and due to her own fears of abandonment decides to keep her own values around money to herself. She does not want to be perceived as a nag, and so she refuses to tell Partner B what she wants. The outcome is inevitable. Partner B continues on without knowing anything is wrong, while Partner A becomes increasingly resentful, unhappy, etc. In all likelihood, this relationship is doomed.

Who is at fault here, and how do we fix the situation? Partner A bears the bulk of the responsibility here because her silence deprives Partner B of even knowing that there is a problem. She is guessing as to what Partner B's reaction to her values would be, but she is not willing to enter into any sort of negotiation or problem-solving. She becomes resentful because she thinks her partner should somehow know what the problem is without being told. Partner A needs to be honest with Partner B and express herself openly.

To Thine Own Self Be True

I know this is a difficult lesson to grasp, at least emotionally, but we atheists are not being fair to ourselves or to our Christian neighbors by remaining silent. Nobody enjoys feeling like they must live a lie, and doing so can be expected to take a toll on us. The harder lesson here is that our silence deprives our Christian neighbors of any opportunity for growth, compromise, or reconciliation.

Like Partner A, we fear all sorts of unpleasantries in exchange for disclosing our atheism. We've had enough life experience to estimate the probabilities of some of these as being reasonably high. But also like Partner A, we do not know for sure. We may be pleasantly surprised with some of the responses we receive. But even more important, our silence prevents our Christian neighbors from ever having the chance to develop increased tolerance.

"I'm not religious," "I do not attend church," and "I'd rather not discuss religion with strangers" are all perfectly acceptable responses. One does not need to identify oneself as an atheist unless one wants to. However, doing so can provide some Christians with a powerful learning opportunity (i.e., they can no longer claim that they've never met an atheist).

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Louisiana Policy May Allow Creationism in Science Class

evolution.jpgAmericans United for Separation of Church and State is asking the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to reconsider plans to adopt a policy that favors creationism through "supplemental materials" for use in public school science classes.
"It's obvious what's going on here," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Louisiana elected officials are once again trying to undercut the teaching of evolution and slip creationism into science classes. This effort must fail."
According to Americans United, the policy provides a loophole through which creationist doctrine may enter the public school classroom. Not surprisingly, the legislation was supported by Christian extremist groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of Dobson's Focus on the Family.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Anti-Intellectualism Affects Quality of Education

education_ctr.jpgI have been reading Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, and while I am really enjoying it, I also find much of it very depressing. The role of anti-intellectualism in undermining education is quite clear, both historically and in modern times. Moreover, it is clear that anti-intellectualism varies considerably from region to region.

Mississippi leads the U.S. on many indicators of religiosity, and those of us who live here know that it is not just some abstract form of religion that pervades our culture but evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that our state would come out near the top on a per capita measure of biblical literalists. Is it any wonder that our educational system is in shambles?

Jacoby's book is helpful in understanding the historical factors which led to widespread anti-intellectualism in the South, and it is worth noting that she does not consider fundamentalist Christianity to be the only cause. Regardless of the causes, it is clear that public attitudes toward education play a role in public attitudes toward funding education.

When I see that our governor is advocating even larger cuts to education, I am outraged. Part of this comes from my understanding of the utility of education in lifting people out of poverty and combating the many other social ills which plague our state. Part of my reaction comes from the idea that one does not improve a seriously failing system by cutting the budget even further. Part of it comes with my amazement that our elected officials are placing their own job security above the good of our state by refusing to raise taxes to support public education. And yes, part of my reaction comes from my belief that anti-intellectualism is playing a role here.

Undoubtedly, a strong and adequately funded system of public education is essential for Mississippi if we are to have any hope of advancing our position on the many lists of social ills. But this need seems to be so intertwined with the pervasive anti-intellectualism in our area that I'm not sure they can be meaningfully separated. We need a cultural shift in how education is valued.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Irish Atheists Challenge Blasphemy Law


As a follow up to the recent Gallup poll revealing that our fine state of Mississippi is the "most religious" (along with all of the other causal factors that particular recognition implies about our less than stellar statistics regarding health, wealth and wisdom), I thought I'd share with you a chilling bit of news from my ancestral home of Ireland.


It appears that while our country has more than its fair share of those folks who believe (paraphrasing the late George Carlin):



"...that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!"

We still have a secular US Constitution and the Bill of Rights to protect our freedom of speech, to include blasphemy and outright rejection of the claims made by religious adherents.


A recent law in Ireland, however, has made blasphemy in that country a crime by enacting:


The Defamation Act of 2009


Yes, this is now the currently "on the books" law, punishable by exorbitant fine and the search and seizure of material at any location by police using force if necessary.

The Dark Ages firmly revisited and always content to fight the good fight, our inherently clever Irish kin are standing up to this bit of nonsense in diligent and unambiguous terms by...well, of course...using the best of the best blasphemers in history and lore to make their point. You know the ones, those rabble-rousers and militant disturbers of the peace, Jesus, Muhammed, Mark Twain, Tim Minchin, Bjork, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins to name a few.

While I don't personally recommend or make it a practice to overtly mock or ridicule people for their religious beliefs, for many are my own caring friends, co-workers and family members and because I just think it is counterproductive to be rude...I wholeheartedly defend the freedom of expression to do so.

Equally, I defend the religious adherent's their right to make all sorts of insulting, crude and outright false statements about atheists, atheism, secular humanism, etc., and will engage in a forthright discussion to soundly refute such dehumanizing rhetoric in the open marketplace of ideas.

Open Marketplace of Ideas


Here is one consideration where this law becomes extremely pernicious and debilitating.

If we are to buy into the purported beneficial causal effects of religion and the claims of adherents without any allowance of refutation out of a fear that our ideas and our speech will be perceived as "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion", then it could stifle a critical analysis of religious claims that may affect our human liberty, health and well-being.

Returning to the recent Gallup poll regarding causal relationships between religion and the overall condition of our state and citizens, we run the risk of defamation of religion by openly suggesting that such religious piety, faith and ritual is just as possibly correlated to perpetuating poverty, ignorance, illness and war.

Potentially, only one "side" of religion and the claims of religious adherents could ever be presented, that being the one that only shows it in a positive light...honest critical inquiry, alternative view and facts be damned, fined and destroyed.

Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Voltaire, Thomas Aikenhead, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson spring immediately to my mind.



Furthermore, it isn't clear how the Irish court would deal with a claim of blasphemy by one religious adherent offended by the defamation espoused by an adherent of a different faith.

I wonder what would happen if a group of orthodox Jews brought the claim of blasphemy by stating that it was grossly abusive and insulting in matters held sacred to their religion that others would take their holy text, the Torah, and use it to claim that their deity now has a son?

And what about the apostates of Islam, Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, Taslima Nasreen, Parvin Darabi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, etc.?

Should there be no hope of refuting and outright rejecting sacred religious orthodoxy regardless of brand?


This law and subsequent proactive atheist challenge in Ireland has certainly presented a conundrum to the final arbiters of mind crimes to be sure.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mississippi Celebrates Ignorance and Superstition

The state of Mississippi topped the list of most religious states according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. On worship attendance, frequency of prayer, and god belief, we are #1. Of all the responses to this ranking I have encountered, one stands out to me as demanding attention.

After noting that "...generations of Mississippians have learned time and time again just how bad the state is in comparison with other states in the union," the Editorial Board of The Natchez Democrat had this to say:
But last week, just before the nation paused to celebrate the birth of Christ, Mississippi made a No. 1 appearance on perhaps the only list that will ultimately matter.
While acknowledging that Mississippi leads the nation in poverty, obesity, illiteracy, and heart disease, the board saw fit to write an article titled "Mississippi focuses on what matters."
As refreshing as it is for the humble people of Mississippi to be No. 1 in something, Mississippians certainly won’t gloat. The majority of them — the study confirms — takes their lead and example from the humble son of a Jewish carpenter.
They really don't get it, do they? How can we expect to improve our state when we celebrate ignorance and superstition?

H/T to StateStreetPosts.com

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