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24th National Convention


Frank Zindler Frank Zindler, nationally renowned critic of creationist pseudoscience, author and editor of the American Atheist Magazine, addressed the convention on the subject of "The Prospect of Physical Immortality."

Mr. Zindler also serves as Science Advisor for American Atheists. He has debated the major figures in the modern Creationist movement, including Duane Gish, Kent Hovind and John Morris. He is also the author of numerous articles and books dealing with such subjects as the historicity of Jesus and Biblical history. Mr. Zindler is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Zindler began by asking "Is there any possibility of extending human life, and doing so for an indefinite amount?" He noted that it was important question for Atheists, who -- as Dr. William Provine noted at the Friday morning of the convention session -- realize that "when you're dead you're dead..." Mr. Zindler noted that the question of mortality had an underpinning in the influences of biological evolution. One reason for death in sexually reproducing species is that it "reshuffles the genetic deck and re-deals the genetic cards in order to allow species to keep up with changing environments..."

Different species have different life spans, noted Mr. Zindler, all of which are determined through natural selection. He cited the example of salmon, where healthy specimens die shortly after mating; Zindler opined that this was due to certain types of genes which "turn you off when they turn on..." A similar effect takes place with progeria, a disease afflicting children which results in premature and accelerated aging; a genetic basis for this has been discovered.

"Another thing we notice is that with aging, we lose our ability to repair DNS damage -- the task of certain enzymes." The human body is constantly suffering what Mr. Zindler described as "chemical insult," and the accumulation of "chemical garbage." Another deleterious factor involves so-called "free radicals," which are increasingly being identified as biological contributors toward a range of diseases. The constant process of cell division also results in genetic degradation.

"We have to learn about turning genes on and off," suggested Zindler. He then discussed cutting-edge work in biotechnology, where activation of certain genes helped to break down the dangerous "free radicals" and extend longevity.

"Biology should enable us to become, essentially, immortal," Zindler recalled writing back in 1980-- he set the deadline for that prediction for the year 2000. "Was I really that far off the track, though? asked Frank, pointing out that the rate of scientific discovery in the last five years has been "dizzying."

"What I'm seeing taking place in the sciences makes me an optimist. Genetic manipulation is taking place every day in laboratories throughout the world. Genetic engineering is a reality, it's not just a metaphor, and a practical application for the extension of the human life span cannot be far away."

"I think that for all practical purposes, we may be very close to the control of aging..."

More immediate strategies, though, which people can initiate include taking vitamin supplements, particularly anti-oxidants like C and E. Lysine, an amino acid, helps to retard "glucose cross linking," a major factor in the aging mechanism.

Conrad Goeringer Conrad Goeringer, Senior Staff Writer for the American Atheist Magazine, spoke on the topic of "BREACHING THE WALL -- the Religious Campaign for Special Rights." His talk began with an outline of the historical confrontation between secular institutions and religious movements, and included a global survey of political developments. "Religion will be playing more, not less, of a role in coming years as it confronts secular society and the economic and cultural changes being generated by modernity." Mr. Goeringer touched upon the current situation involving India and Pakistan, a "collision of civilizational fault lines" between Hindu and Islamic cultures. "The prospect of a religious war or jihad is made all the more dangerous by the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons."

Dr. Marci Hamilton A high point for our convention session this morning was the appearance of Dr. Marci Hamilton, Professor of Law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. Dr. Hamilton successfully challenged the discredited Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year in the historic BOERNE v. FLORES case.

"The debate behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is all about what happens when a general, neutral civil law collides with religious practice."

She noted that in the founding documents of the country and at the Constitutional Convention, "the question of religion hardly came up. Madison said, though, that religion, like every other social force in society, was capable of over-stepping its bounds. The constitution was designed to separate the competing power centers of the society."

Dr. Hamilton declared that "all of our beliefs are absolutely protected and that governments are prohibited from mandating what anyone may believe. But this debate is about religious conduct."

Hamilton added that prior to 1990, government could regulate certain forms of conduct and cited the policies in the nation's penal system which were necessary for maintaining order, but might have violated certain religious practices." She noted that from the perspective of the Supreme Court, the government was NOT always required to accommodate religious activities; often, decisions were left to the appropriate state or government entity, the "political process."

Following the decision in the 1990 SMITH vs. EMPLOYMENT DIVISION case, religious groups united to form a Coalition claiming that the "end of religious liberty" was immanent. The group also sought to craft legislation that would reverse the decision in the SMITH case. In that legal dispute, the court ruled that an employee of the State of Oregon who was a drug counselor was not permitted to take peyote. The court noted that the restriction on peyote use was a "neutral applicable civil law."

The proposed remedy for the alleged abuse of SMITH was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which established a higher standard for government when applying a "religiously neutral" civil law.

It was in the BOERNE v. FLORES case, the high court struck down the RFRA. The court ruled that congress, by passing RFRA, was essentially trying to amend he U.S. Constitution, but without taking the appropriate and required legislative procedures, as required.

With the defeat of RFRA, the Coalition has attempted to introduce "mini-RFRAs" in states throughout the country; and it has now introduced a new "Religious Liberty Protection Act" on Capitol Hill.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this bill is unconstitutional," opined Dr. Hamilton.

One provision of the "Religious Liberty Protection Act" is that zoning and land use policies, when they affect religious groups, will now be brought under the jurisdiction of the federal government. "This is a massive invasion of local power," said Dr. Hamilton, noted that ironically the RLPA is drawing support from Republicans who wanted to curtail the use of federal power.

Dr. Hamilton raised questions that legislators should ask before voting on RLPA.

"What about the question of immunization for children who may be in religious families that believe that practice to be wrong? What about women involved in abusive relationships, who are members of patriarchal religious groups?"

Hamilton also question how substantial the alleged "burdens" on religion really were. She also asked whether or not the citizens of the United States are prepared to deal with the increased legal costs brought about by the RLPA, which includes a special "attorney's fees" provision. An audience member noted during the call for questions that there is proposed legislation in the current congress which would ban compensatory attorney's fees for plaintiffs in cases involving state-church litigation.

Hamilton reported that legislators on Capitol Hill have promised quick action on the Religious Liberty Protection Amendment. She added by Rep. Canady in the House, and Senators Kennedy and Hatch are hoping for a vote during the current session.

American Atheists President Ellen Johnson and Dr Marci Hamilton