1993

 

A History Of The Laws Of Nature

July 1993

Modern science, for reasons that are only dimly understood, appears to have had its origins in Europe and the Middle East although it is now totally international in character. It is surely Europe’s most enduring and universal contribution to world culture–more than any of our religions, our arts, our music, our political systems, or even our languages. In the history of western thought it looms as perhaps the largest theme.

Nothing like the scientific revolution of the European Renaissance occurred anywhere else at any time, a cause for much baffled scratching of the head and a puzzle to which I want to return at the end of my remarks when I will say a little about what people have learned in studying comparisons between the history of science and technology in Europe and in China.

Einstein was once asked his opinion on why modern science began in Europe instead of in China or India. He said that this wasn’t the real question. The real question is how it is that so arduous and unlikely an undertaking as science arose anywhere, not why it failed to be developed somewhere in particular. It is arduous and unlikely and the long story of its tortured development is one of the most interesting histories I know. There is nothing obvious or linear or inevitable or upward about the tale. It has produced some extremely strange and unexpected concepts. One of these is the concept of “The Laws of Nature”.

To sophisticated thinkers such as the Chinese encountering the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that “Nature” had “Laws” was incomprehensible. The missionaries tried to prove the existence of God using the traditional argument that there must be a Creator since the universe shows so wonderful a regularity and that it must be governed by divine laws–hence the existence of God, creator and law giver. To those Chinese this whole argument was meaningless and it is interesting now to read their description just how absurd it seemed to them. It would take us too far a field to look into that right now.

What I would like to do in the short time that I have is to try to emphasize the oddness of the very idea of “The Laws of Nature” and give a little flavor of the enduringly weird character of those laws that have been discovered.

The ideas and the questions which were being persistently asked in the Greek Ionian city states in the sixth century BC are surely older, but that century was a time of astonishing ferment and speculation not only in the Mediterranean but all over the parts of the world for which we have written history of that time. It was the century of the Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Zoraster, and of the group that have come to be known as the Pre-Socratic Ionian philosophers. If ever there was an inappropriate and unjust label, this is it. Socrates disapproved of much that these so-called Pre-Socratics stood for so there is more than a little irony in their being named for their eventual critic and repudiator.

For us, as we do a quick survey of the development of the idea of Laws of Nature, the questions they asked are interesting. They wondered how to reconcile the notion of the unity and regularity of nature, which they could see evidenced in the motions of the stars and planets, with the equally evident observations of ceaseless change and variety. They believed with considerable tenacity that there was a unity, that this unity was material and not mystical, and that mankind had the ability to know it. Brash. Unwarranted. It’s almost as if these Ionian philosophers had the list of forbidden questions which are enumerated by the voice in the whirlwind in the Book of Job and proceeded to throw them back defiantly at that discouraging speaker.

With many of these philosophers, their way of trying to imagine how, behind the shifting facades of change and seeming chaos, there could nonetheless be a deeper unity was to argue that everything was made of water. They had euphonious names and startling hypotheses: Anaximander taught that all is Air; Heraclitus the Obscure taught a paradoxical doctrine in which change itself was somehow the unity; Heraclitus of Ephesus opted for fire as the fundamental substance; Empedocles believed in four elements–Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; and about a century later Democritus was to teach that all was composed of atoms and the void. None, or practically none, of any of this was based on any evidence whatsoever. The idea that controlled experiment might be involved in efforts to answer questions about the world hadn’t yet become part of such speculations. I have left out one of the most peculiar of the speculators, and in the end one of the most prescient: Pythagoras. Pythagoras taught that everything was made of numbers, almost literally of numbers. The arguments were vague, mystical, and much influenced by the discovery of the relationship between the length of lyre strings and heard harmony. Pythagoras taught the wonderful doctrine of the music of the spheres whereby the planets and stars in their motions emit beautiful sounds, sounds which we no longer hear because we have been bathed in them from birth. The nature–harmony–numbers–mathematics metaphor or idea was to haunt thought for thousands of years and to prove to be astonishingly fruitful.

A crucial development or invention in Greek, and hence “western” thought, was that of axiomatic geometry. The ancient Greeks became obsessed with mathematics, geometry in particular, and with chains of logical inference. This led to that shining body of thought called Euclidean geometry, named for the man who troubled himself to write down the work of many others. Though there was much sophistication of calculation and notation developed by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, and Chinese there is no evidence that anyone other than the Greeks invented the chains of “theorem–proof, theorem–proof” that can seem, on the other hand, so barren, and on the other, so magical a way to discover eternal truths.

Inevitably the speculations of the Pre-Socratics and the preoccupations of the mathematical thinkers would become intertwined. Let me mention just two examples among many: one strange, eccentric, and almost clairvoyant; the other ambitious practical, and enormously productive.

The strange one is Plato’s so-called dialogue called the Timaeus. This is a sort of a dream of an axiomatic theory of the entire universe full of mathematical apparatus and purporting to account for everything from the stars to fingernails and hair. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water are composed of a subset of the so-called Platonic solids, regular polyhedra bounded by isosceles triangles and squares which assemble and disassemble from the solids in a sort of snowstorm of change and unity.

It’s a beautiful, poetic, and very obscure work. It was read in Europe right through the Dark Ages when most of Plato’s other works were not known. It fired the imaginations of those who knew it. It fueled a fascination with numerology and the association of mathematics and natural phenomena.

The practical example is Ptolemaic Astronomy. This is the contraption, the imagined geometrical model mechanism involving crystalline spheres, epicycles and deferents which was able to account for and predict the motions of the sun and the planets against the majestically rotating celestial sphere of the fixed stars. It was a model that called on the full sophistication of ancient engineering and of Euclidean geometry. It worked, giving predicted positions of heavenly bodies precise enough for calendar making to use in civil and agricultural affairs as well as in astrology and its application to medicine. Eventually the model had to be abandoned as the observations became more accurate and the practical needs more demanding but it was, in its way, a success. Here is where the idea of the universe as a machine governed by mathematical rules comes from.

Note the word “governed”. Gradually the notion of “law” became intertwined with the idea of the orderly unfolding and recurrences of nature. Scholars who study such matters point out that, as the Roman Empire became more far-reaching and diverse, the distinction between local customs and practices and the body of law that should apply to all people in the Empire led to the idea of “natural law”–the sort of law that applied to all. Also contributing to the notion of Laws of Nature were the teachings of the Stoics who urged their disciples to live according to the laws of nature so as to achieve serenity and balance in a basically hostile world. “Go along or be dragged”. Thinking about the laws promulgated by imperial authority and the Stoic’s laws of nature led, as Christianity developed, to the idea of God’s laws and to the rather novel idea that His laws extended not just to mankind but to nature and nature’s creatures as well. In the medieval imagination these laws of nature could be violated and the violators punished. In 1474 a cock was sentenced to be burned alive for the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg, at Basel.

These many ideas and strands of thought began to be gathered together as Europe began to be transformed by what we now call the Renaissance. Galileo discovered and publicized the power of controlled experiments. He also pointed out explicitly and bluntly that the book of nature was written in a mathematical language–God is a Geometer. Kepler, enthralled both by Platonic numerology and a reverence for carefully measured data, discovered regularities that came to be known as “Laws of Planetary Motion”. The medieval idea that nature was a book (now in mathematical language) in which the Laws of Nature (and hence something of the character of God) could be learned by humans became a research agenda rather than a lovely metaphorical thought.

It was Newton, of course, who astonished the world with his translation of this book of nature. In what was to become the future pattern for scientific thought, he managed to summarize a wide variety of observation and experiment in the statement of a very few Laws (four) expressed in mathematical form from which, by mathematical deduction, a staggering list of new predictions could be made as well as the explanation, in the form of relating to the Laws and hence to one another of many previously apparently unrelated phenomena.

Many of the details and basic features of Newton’s world picture have been modified, abandoned, or superseded. His absolute space and time proved not to be adequate, his laws of mechanics and gravitation have had to be modified, his mechanical universe in which rigidly causal playing out of initial conditions (Laplace’s Boast) has proved to be far from the experimentally discovered quantum nature of things. The boundary between order and chaos has been confused both by the biology of evolution through natural selection and by modern investigations of unadorned Newtonian mechanical systems themselves. The idea of the world as a mechanical contrivance has been challenged by the rise of field theories with Maxwell’s synthesis of electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation leading the way.

Still the idea that one can fashion an axiomatic mathematical map of a wide variety of natural phenomena has proved to be very powerful indeed. Why the map should so appropriately be one which relates physical phenomena (out there) with that play thing of the human mind, mathematics (in here), remains a mystery. Why should mathematics be the uniquely suitable human tool for the study of nature?

An extremely striking feature of the actual laws of nature which have emerged is their elegant parsimony. Consider the world of “classical physics” a version of the laws of nature which reigned briefly about 100 years ago having to bow out with the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity and the new range of phenomena which they treat. Classical physics can be summarized in just 8 statements which, in the compact notion invented for the purpose of expressing them succinctly, appear as:

The first three represent Newton’s three laws of motion; the second is his universal law of gravitation, and the last four encapsulate electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation. The process of mapping these mathematical statements and their symbols onto physical phenomena is, of course, not contained in these bare prescriptions and is also where most of the content lies. Still, as a starkly beautiful account of the action of the solar system, the world of light and color, electromagnetic technology, the foundation for much engineering, the rhythm of the tides, and the flow of fluids, it is astonishingly economical and extremely explicit in its manner of use.

I have talked very briefly about some of the familiar episodes in the epic called the history of science and tried to indicate just a little how unlikely and unusual this epic has been. I said at the outset that I would make a few remarks on the contrast between this European epic and the parallel and different experience of China.

Joseph Needham, a legendary scholar and scientist of this century, has spent a lifetime trying to understand why modern science developed only in the Western world. In particular he has been a great instructor to both East and West in what he has called the “…triumphs and poverties of the Chinese scientific tradition…” Why, he has repeatedly asked, did the scientific discoveries and inventions of the European Renaissance not occur in some way in China which for many centuries was far more technologically advanced than Europe; which had observed the heavens for just as long and with more precision and thoroughness than the Greeks, the Babylonians, Europeans, or the Arabs, and which never went through the collapse and recovery that Europe had to endure during the Dark Ages.

There is an intriguing parallelism between the astronomical, chemical, mechanical, and technological challenges that were being explored, often almost contemporaneously but in long lasting mutual isolation in China and in the West. This pair of histories present themselves as one of the rare cases when one can confront “if history” with two examples rather than the usual single and unique one. It is as if you had subsequent developments both for Caesar crossing and Caesar not crossing the Rubicon. Needham and others, in trying to understand why it might have been that science did arise in Europe but not in China, have come up with a wide variety of intriguing contrasts in society, government, language, religion, traditions of thought, economic considerations, social position of craftsmen and astronomers, and in legal theories.

To me, Needham’s most convincing case rests on the observation that for some reason, the Chinese never developed an axiomatic mathematics such as Euclidean geometry, and their practical concern with human society and technological problems acted as a barrier to the sort of wildly impractical speculation that led to the construction of an imagined mechanical model of the heavens.

Confucius is often compared with Socrates as a thinker about human societies. The Pre-Socratics have had their anticipatory revenge on both Socrates and Confucius. Or maybe Socrates and Confucius, both of whom could be called profoundly anti-scientific, were wiser than we yet understand.

–B. Gale Dick, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics at the University of Utah

 

The Gospel of OOPS!

November 1993

A humanist recently had to buy an older used car. He took it to his mechanic and friend of 25 years for his evaluation, who said that the car was in good condition. The humanist bought it. Shortly thereafter, the car broke down, and it was taken back to the mechanic. The mechanic apologized and said that he felt very “guilty.”

“I don’t believe in guilt!” said the humanist. “I believe in The Gospel of OOPS! As in OOPS! I made a mistake and I’d better fix it.”

“OOPS! Why OOPS?” asked the mechanic, not believing what he heard.

“Well it’s like this,” the humanist went on, “Once you believe in guilt, then comes sin, repentance, salvation, judgment day and so on, it just never ends. OOPS! does it all.”

“Okay. No sin, no guilt, just OOPS! Right!” said the mechanic as he happily began to fix the car.

–Bob Green

 

Gender Unity and Humanism

November 1993

Who Is Going To Decide Things?, asked Dr. Alan Coombs in his lecture on Progress at the Humanist meeting of July 8, stating further that this is one of the most important decisions a new society or organization can make.

From a female perspective, the results of those who make decisions can be critical, far-reaching and very personal in nature, because the decision-maker not only determines the course of events an organization takes, but also defines the amount of power, control and freedom each member of the group can exercise.

Theories about how women and men look at the world are well documented. Though not everyone fits the mold, it helps us to become aware of the generally attributed differences. Men tend to be direct, status-conscious, and hierarchical in their inter-actions. The feminine perspective is steered toward people, intimacy, and interdependence. Women see themselves as persons in a network of connections, cognizant of human inter-relatedness. As Deborah Tannen explains in her 1990 book You Just Don’t Understand, “Life [to women] is as community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Though there are hierarchies in the female world, they are more of friendship than of power and accomplishment.”

Because men tend to focus more on control and independence, and women generally place more emphasis on closeness and connection, we can expect differing leadership styles to be practiced between the two. Consequently, the decisions a leader makes in an organization, whether male or female, will reflect their personal biology, their conditioning, their experiences, and their biases. And these biases, if left unchecked, can lead to narrow perspectives and alienation.

In some ways we’re all alike, but in other ways each person is different, and these differences may conflict with each other from time to time. To ensure that our differences do not become a major source of conflict, we must begin with awareness. Linda Galindo in an October, 1991 article in Network states: “Being aware of differing orientations or preferences can assist all of us in pulling together, rather than seeing the way things are done as right and wrong. The most successful people are those who integrate their own cultural orientation with the organizations to preserve the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of the individual while achieving the organization’s goals.” Hopefully, the organization’s goals will be gender inclusive and equitable.

We all must face the fact that gender is an issue that will not go away, nor should it; for both women and men could benefit from learning each other’s frame of reference. Becoming aware of our different approaches to life can provide a “starting point to develop not only self-understanding, but also flexibility–the freedom to try doing things differently, if our own ways of doing them aren’t having entirely successful results.” (Tannen)

The more women and men work together on an equal basis, the more they will be modeling behaviors that benefit each other. Men can learn how to listen and be more personal, more caring, and connected in their interactions. And women can learn to be more assertive, independent, and forthright in their approach. Women and men would both do well to learn strategies typically used by members of the opposite sex, not to switch over entirely, but to have more strategies at their disposal. Then perhaps over time, our gender differences will be minimized because males and females will be better integrated. Both will have discovered and developed their female and male counterparts and learned to use them effectively and appropriately.

An obvious question is, Can people really change their ways of thinking and behaving? I sincerely believe if they want to, yes, they can. But it will take a conscious effort, and an inclusive approach. Both women and men would be included in decision-making and policy-making within an organization because of their different approaches to life. And both need to listen to each other, respect differing viewpoints, and have the courage to try new and perhaps better ways of doing things. Honest and sometimes heated disagreements should be expected to occur, but if negotiation and compromise are valued in an atmosphere of having the freedom to disagree, then perhaps wiser and more humane decisions could be the result.

Humanist, Elizabeth R. Johnson, sees more women and men acting with a spirit of unity, making the world a better place. “As courageous wives, mothers, and daughters liberate themselves from traditional bondage, they find many bold men are also shaking off the undemocratic, restrictive shackles of the past, and adopting a more humanistic attitude, philosophy and lifestyle. They are bravely working out their own destinies. In every instance, these more mature and more responsible women and men, while learning from the past but devoted to the present and the future, are displaying intellectual and social integrity combined with an impressive spirit of unity. Bringing a new vitality, a new social consciousness and conscience to human relationships, these individuals are doing their utmost to make this world a healthier and more civilized place. These women and men are the instigators of meaningful change. They speak with the voice of reason, combating ignorance and stupidity with knowledge and compassion. Whether they are working at the home, community, national, or international level, their positive influence is unequivocal.” (Free Inquiry, Fall, 1990)

Because of its inclusive philosophy, Humanism should be at the forefront of this evolutionary change. Both women and men will be the benefactors of this approach.

“A true democracy welcomes differences and disagreements, and cherishes as a creative force in society, minority criticisms of existing institutions and prevailing patterns of thought.” (Corliss Lamont, 1965, The Philosophy of Humanism)

–Nancy Moore

 

Behaviors Leading to Self-Actualization

by Hugh Gillilan

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Source: Maslow, Living Psychology, 1967, pp. 281-284
(1.) Self-actualization processes begin to occur by experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption. (1.) To become totally absorbed in a task; to lose yourself in a job or while interacting with another person or other people.
(2.) One moves toward self actualization by thinking of life as a process of choices, one after another. These choices involve being honest with oneself and others or being dishonest; whether to tell the truth or lie. (2.) To make choices that seem right to you as a unique person. To be honest in your feelings with yourself and others. Not to be phony.
(3.) When one realizes that one has a unique self to express and one begins to express how to feel about things, this is considered to be moving along the road toward self-actualization. (3.) To realize that you are a unique person. To listen to yourself, rather than do what others have taught you to do or believe.
(4.) When in doubt, be honest rather than not. (4.) Be responsible toward yourself by being honest in responding to the world. Or, when in doubt, act according to your impulses.
(5.) When one dares to listen to oneself…at each moment in life, and to say calmly, “No, I don’t like such and such.” To be courageous rather than afraid is another version of the same thing. (5.) To speak out and say how you feel about a painting or an unusual situation, even if you risk being unpopular.
(6.) Self-actualization is not only an end state, but also the process of actualizing one’s potentialities at any time, in any amount. (6.) Using your intelligence; working hard to be the best you can in whatever field you want to go into. It may mean going through a period of time when you work very hard in order to attain a certain goal.
(7.) Peak experiences are transient moments of self-actualization. (7.) When you become one with your environment, another person or an object such as a tree, a sunset, etc.
(8.) Finding out who one is, what one is, what one likes, what one doesn’t like, what is good for one and what bad, where one is going and what one’s mission is–opening oneself up to one’s self–means the exposure of psychopathology. Inadequate ways of relating to oneself, others, and the world in general. (8.) When we get to know ourselves, there may be things that we see that we don’t like; things that get in the way of seeing the world and others as they are. We have to learn to drop these; this may be painful.

 

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Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

by Hugh Gillilan

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Self Actualization Needs

  • Self Actualization
  • Truth
  • Beauty
  • Aliveness
  • Individuality
  • Perfection
  • Completion
Growth Needs*
  • Justice
Being Values
  • Order

Metaneeds
  • Simplicity
  • Richness
  • Playfulness
  • Effortlessness
  • Self Sufficiency
  • Meaningfulness

  • Self Esteem
  • Esteem By Others

  • Love and Belongingness

Basic Needs
  • Safety (Deficiency Needs)
  • Security

  • Physiological
  • Air, Water, Food, Shelter, Sleep, Sex

  • The External Environment
  • Preconditions For Need Satisfaction
  • Freedom, Justice, Orderliness
  • Challenge (Stimulation)

*Growth needs are taken from: The Third Force
all of equal importance by Colin Wilson
(not hierarchical).

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The Humanistic Psychology Tree

by Hugh Gillilan

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Liberation Movements

Female & Male

Therapies

Client-Centered
Gestalt
Transactional Analysis (Eric Berne)
Radical therapy
Rational-emotive (Albert Ellis)
Self-actualizing (Everett Shostrom)

Association for Humanistic Psychology, 1962

Philosophical Humanism

Petrarch
Erasmus
Spinosa
Leibnitz
Rousseau
Kant
Goethe
Marx
The Reformation
Renaissance
Enlightenment

Eastern Thought

Hinduism
Zen Buddhism
Taoism
Confucianism

Growth Centers

Esalen, et. al.
Encounter Groups
(William Schutz)
Sensitivity training
National Training Labs
Assertiveness training

Education

Humanistic education
Value clarification (Sidney Simon)
Effectiveness Training
PET etc.(Thomas Gordon)American Psychological Association

Div. 32 Humanistic Psychology 1971

Carl Rogers
Abraham Maslow
Erich Fromm
Rollo May
Sidney Jourard
Alan Watts
Fritz Perls
Viktor Frankl
James Bugental
Tony Sutich
Clark Moustakas
Albert Ellis
Everett Shostrom
Charlotte Buhler

Human Potential Movement

Gardner Murphy
Herbert Otto
Cal Taylor

Other Philosophers

John Dewey
Ralph W. Emerson
Henry Thoreau

Existentialism

Kierkegaard
Heidigger
Sartre
Camus
Buber
Tillich

Transpersonal – “4th Force”

Meditation, TM
Parapsychology (J.B.Rhine)
Psychosynthesis(Assagioli)
Arica
Consciousness expansion

Holistic Health Movement
Body Work”

Massage
Structural Integration
(Rolfing – Ida Rolf)
Bioenergetics (Alex.Lowen)
Alexnder Technique (F.
Matthias Alexander)
Feldenkrais (Moshe
Feldenkrais)
Primal scream(ArthurJanov)
Sensory Awareness(C.Selver)
Yoga

Neo-Freudian/Self (ego)

Psychology

Alfred Adler
Carl Jung
Karen Horney
Harry Sullivan
Otto Rank
Wilhelm Reich
William James
Kurt Goldstein
Gordon Allport
Henry Murray

Classical Gestalt

Wolfgang Kohler
Kurt Lewin
Kurt Koffka
Max Wertheimer

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What Happened To The Promise Of A Humanist Manifesto?–Revisited

October 1993

With the understanding that Humanists of Utah is a democratic organization that considers dissident views, I am writing this rebuttal to Bob Green’s article in the September 1993, issue of The Utah Humanist with the hope it can be printed in that publication so that members will be exposed to both sides of the issue.

I do not think we should be too quick to indulge in self-congratulation over the expression of support from the AHA President to President Wineriter of Green’s viewpoint in the article; I suggest there are some serious problems with the Editor’s expressed position that need to be addressed.

The article contains a good deal of invective criticism including name-calling, impugning of motives, and attacking of the character of writers of what Green considers to be objectionable pieces in the Grassroots News. He condemns “a militant anti-religionism, a rejection, (approaching hatred) of supernaturalism.”

I was puzzled as to what Green is talking about, since he fails to provide in the article a single specific example of the kind of writing that was upsetting him. Most Utah humanists, I believe, like me, do not take the Grassroots News, but do take The Humanist. Since he says that the offensive rhetoric was “encouraged by” the latter, I reviewed all the articles in that magazine from the September/October, 1992 issue to the present one.

I found that the articles on the subject he was referring to were informative: (1) describing activities and conditions promoted by some creeds and (2) including thoughtful analysis which indicated the implications of these for values cherished by humanists, such as religious liberty. The pieces discussed the need for freedom from religious libel and unfair and dishonest attacks by believers, fundamentalist and otherwise, and the absurdities of some religious beliefs, as well as the harm some of these do by promoting intolerance and persecution. Examples are the articles about Catholicism in the September/October, 1993 issue: “Sweet Land of Libertines? Fear mongering over Gays in the Military” in the May/June, 1992 issue; “The Great Satan of Humanism” in the September, 1992 issue; and the regular features, “Civil Liberties Watch” and “Watch on the Right.”

Green says, “Forget the insensate fight with the fundamentalists and old bugaboo of religion.”

If we did that, we would be signaling to the world that humanists are not concerned about the abuses perpetrated against people in the name of religion. We would also be abandoning the posture taken in the “Religion” section of Manifesto II, which forcefully criticizes traditional dogmatic or authoritarian faiths as doing a disservice to humankind and as harmful or inadequate in other ways. I suggest all humanists re-read this section.

The war in Yugoslavia is as much a battle of religious faiths between Roman Catholics (in Croatia) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity (in Serbia) as it is of ethnic intolerance; the Roman Catholic Church has established compulsory religious teaching and prayer in public schools in Poland; and Hindus and Muslims in India, spurred on by propaganda from the leaders of fundamentalist sects in both camps, are killing each other in large numbers.

Fundamentalist and authoritarian believers are unrelenting in their efforts to take control of the public schools and politics and to push their beliefs and practices upon others. Because of their tendency to practice thought control, their posture is a threat to freedom of speech, religion, and the press, as well as to the separation of church and state, principles which humanist support. They also continually spread misrepresentations about humanists.

It is obvious that we are talking about good guys here and we must not critique them and their activities.

Green argues for Roy Wood Sellars’ “basic interrogation of human life,” a concept with which I have no argument; but I question this author’s second point, which entails a change in dominance from attacking supernaturalism to describing humanism within a “new framework,” in which belief in supernaturalism simply fades out. Not many people in the United States have experienced this fading out, if we can go by public opinion polls. If people believe their traditional creeds provide the definitive answers to the important questions, are they likely to look any further for answers? Probably not.

The people who most influenced me toward humanism were such as H. G. Wells, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Bertrand Russell who pointed out candidly that much in traditional creeds consists of superstitious and magical belief and blind obedience to authority. In everyday life I encounter many people who seem unaware of the potential for mind-control of these features of faith. How are we to make human beings aware of the problem, if we do not call their attention to it, as Manifesto II does?

Green believes we will persuade more people to humanism if we drop the fight with fundamentalism and authoritarian religion. His assumption is questionable. Even if it were correct, are people who cannot face the facts about traditional faith really very promising as recruits to humanism? Actually, he is asserting an accommodationist position toward such faith. Such soft-pedaling may offend fewer people, but we are being something less than forthright in telling the full story of what we are about if we engage in it. It is better to state our case fully and candidly.

–Richard Layton

 

What Happened To The Promise Of A Humanist Manifesto?

Has The American Humanist Association Lost The Vision?

September 1993

An examination of the history of the writing of A Humanist Manifesto and recommendations to restore its meaning and mission.

Introduction

In the time since I became a member of the AHA and this Chapter, I have continued to research and explore the meaning and definition of humanism and how to apply that to the organization that is the Humanists of Utah.

This article is a continuation of several previously published articles: Report to the Membership, of last April; and 60 Years of A Humanist Manifesto, in the May issue. The Humanist Manifesto And The Future, by Sterling M. McMurrin, published in December, 1992, serves as a reference as well.

What is the AHA?

The foundation document of the American Humanist Association, A Humanist Manifesto, was published in 1933 in The New Humanist, a little known publication with a limited circulation among Unitarian Ministers and students. However, very little is heard of it anymore, and the message which it carried seems to have been lost. Why?

In 1941, The AHA was established to support the Humanist magazine (formerly The New Humanist). At this point, it was an organization of individual subscriber members. Thereafter, the organizational structure becomes confusing, because there is a curious disorganization to it which I will try to describe.

As AHA membership grew, home study groups formed and became Chapters. The Chapter Assembly (CA) with the Grassroots News was begun to support the Chapters, with its own by-laws and finances separate from the AHA. It encourages each Chapter to join the CA and receive the News, but it isn’t required and many Chapters do not belong. Then the Free Mind publication was started for AHA members; it shares some personnel with the Humanist but is not a part of the Chapter Assembly. Neither the AHA nor the CA give direction to Chapters; they are independent. Chapter members do not have to belong to the AHA and AHA members aren’t required to belong to a Chapter. (It is estimated that about half have a ‘dual’ membership.) Dues paid to one doesn’t carry membership to another.

Over time, other changes occurred. The Fellowship of Religious Humanists and its magazine began with a membership primarily of Unitarian Ministers, academics and others interested in the religious side of humanism. As each challenge occurred (such as Creationism), a new periodical or body was created (I don’t know all of them). The greatest schism was the organization of the Committee For Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) and its magazine, Free Inquiry. The AHA just keeps dividing itself into smaller, separate periodical entities.

The Humanists of Utah is an AHA Chapter, and we operate under a charter given by the AHA. What happens in the AHA imposes itself upon this Chapter. We have a responsibility to represent to the membership of this Chapter the goals and purposes of the AHA. At least in normal organizational structure it would seem that it should work that way. In reality, it is quite different, as I will attempt to show, and that might be one of the reasons for the present confusion.

The Present Problems of the AHA

The AHA has recently had to reorganize because the immediate past President resigned and it took more than several months and a number of ballots to choose another. Board members resigned who were just elected, and more had to be chosen. Then the new Editor of the Humanist resigned after beginning what many hoped would an improvement in the editing and content of the magazine.

In the June issue of the Grassroots News the new AHA President, Mike Werner, and CA (Chapter Assembly) Secretary, Lloyd Kumely, outlined their programs for improving the AHA. They are ambitious programs and examples of good organizational programming. Unfortunately, both are based on the assumption that an organization exists which can respond to direction and submit to some kind of group discipline. With the above described fractionalization has come a weakening of authority. After 52 years, the AHA has a membership of only about 5,300. It has marginalized itself into an ineffective, quarreling group of entities with little impact, publishing a second-rate magazine, and showing questionable concern for its membership. I know this is harsh criticism, and I wouldn’t make it if it didn’t seem so apparent to me and if I didn’t have some suggestions for its improvement.

The Chapters of the AHA

There are about 76 Chapters of the AHA across the U.S.A. Each one is led by volunteer lay-leaders. In the nature of such organizations, leadership devolves upon those willing to do the work. Each Chapter therefore represents the idiosyncrasies and orientation of the local leadership.

There is often no single focus to Chapter activities. If there is one, it is a militant anti-religionism, a rejection (approaching hatred) of supernaturalism, which is encouraged by the Humanist. I receive a number of Chapter newsletters and some of them set my teeth on edge. They are a newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” gone mad! They celebrate all manner of religious atrocities, stupidities and anything else they can glean from news far and wide, cataloguing them with glee and black humor (seemingly justifying their heresy over and over again). Not to mention the radical positions they take concerning political, economic and social problems.

Of course, not all Chapters are this way. Many work to educate and inform their members on current issues of concern. The Humanist Community based in San Jose has an entirely new approach which could well be the model for all Chapters in the future. The Humanists of Utah is also different. This is what results from the built-in independence of the chapters and lack of direction from the AHA.

The question remains: Is this chaos what the framers of A Manifesto intended? There may be an answer to that question which could lead to an organization of humanists which would grow and be a force for the philosophy of humanism.

Drafting Manifesto I

I found some most significant information in the May, 1953 issue of the Humanist. This issue carried a symposium on the twenty-year anniversary of A Humanist Manifesto (Please see The Utah Humanist of May, 1993). In it, there is an article by Roy Wood Sellars (the Philosopher who wrote the first draft of theManifesto), entitled “Naturalistic Humanism, A Framework for Belief and Values.” It throws an important light on what really happened back in 1933.

I was not aware of the important part that two philosophers had in the drafting of that work. I had attributed it to the commonly mentioned Unitarian ministers: Bragg, Reese, and Wilson. Sellars wrote the original draft or outline, which the three ministers and Professor Eustace Haydon of the University of Chicago revised and edited, returning it to Sellars for approval. The document was the result of the work of a committee. But since it was to Professor Sellars that the four editors went for the beginning draft, he is due a great deal of credit. This is an important distinction because of what he wrote twenty years later.

Sellars’ 1953 article explains his reasons for writing the draft of the original Manifesto and gives his hopes for its future. In my opinion, he makes two points which are of vital importance. First:

“…religion…has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things–which every human being in some degree and in some fashion, makes.” He calls the Manifesto a “…new framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers, with what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions.”

Sellars’ second point is just as important. In contrasting humanism with rationalism:

“The older rationalism was on the defensive. And so it expressed itself too often in negative terms: not this; not that; not God; not revelation; not personal immortality. What humanism signified was a shift from negation to construction. There came a time when naturalism no longer felt on the defensive. Rather, supernaturalism began, in its eyes, to grow dim and fade out despite all the blustering and rationalizations of its advocates.”

He then emphasizes: “Now this was a change in dominance…”

Humanism, having most importantly now defined itself with the Humanist Manifesto, no longer needed to defend itself against supernaturalism. Sellars continues:

“…Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist [humanist] simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist…There were now two competing frames of reference for both belief and values…”

To summarize, Sellars states:

  1. Every human being seeks answers to a basic interrogation of human life.
  2. The humanist movement, a new framework, is engaged in formulating new answers.
  3. The old rationalism was negative, stressing what it was not. Now there is a shift, and supernaturalism is on the defensive.
  4. This was a change in dominance. Humanism, in the Manifesto, has defined itself.
  5. There are now two competing frames of reference, supernaturalism and humanism.

Contrast this with what the AHA is doing now, and the conclusion is obvious that something changed.

After the Publication of A Manifesto

What happened after the publication of A Manifesto? Perhaps the answer is helped by reference to those five men who were there at the beginning: Sellars and Haydon, Professors of Philosophy; and Bragg, Reese and Wilson, Unitarian ministers. All except Wilson, who was then 35, were over 50 years of age and well established in their professions which they continued; there was apparently no need for them to do anything more: the Manifesto had been written and published.

The responsibility for continuing the “good news” of A Humanist Manifesto fell to Ed Wilson, the Editor of The Humanist since its beginning and for many years after. It went with him in his Ministry. The magazine had a limited subscription and seems to have been an exclusive journal for liberal Unitarian ministers and University professors who wanted to counter theism in the Unitarian church and exchange views on humanism. The good news of A Humanist Manifesto did not reach the general populace.

Edwin Wilson, who is much respected as a Minister and an administrator, was not a theologian or a philosopher. He was educated as a Minister, and first and foremost, and always a Unitarian. The point needs to be made that Unitarianism does not answer that “basic interrogation” emphasized by Sellars. It is not part of its tradition. In addition, the Unitarian church is not a crusading missionary church, so Unitarian ministers could hardly be expected to mount an effort to capitalize on the innovation of Sellars’ “new framework” and “change in dominance.” (Who else was there to do it?)

I don’t know what happened in the interim to bring about the present situation. I’m not sure it is all that important to know the details. There does seem to be one common factor throughout the history of the AHA: almost all of those in the leadership were Unitarians. What there is about that I’ll leave to others, but it has to be very significant. What is important is that the AHA does not now follow the direction set forth by the framers of A Humanist Manifesto.

It is my thesis that for 60 years the whole “outfit” has been wandering in the Unitarian wilderness and now, like the dying man in the desert, will expire unless it reaches the oasis of the first Manifesto’s original intention, which is to answer the “basic interrogation” and bring about a “change of dominance” from attacking supernaturalism to explaining humanism within a “new framework.”

What needs to be done to change this? The combination of iconoclastic stubbornness and endemic individualism is probably intractable. However, I have some recommendations.

The Ubiquitous Humanist

I have been looking for a “key” to unlock this conundrum. First, it must be recognized that humanism can have many different meanings as applied to philosophy, religion, politics, sociology, science, etc. It usually refers to a naturalistic position which emphasizes human worth or concentrates on human issues. Most importantly, each has its own defenders and organizational structure. What is significant about A Humanist Manifesto is that it brings humanism to the individual level where its meaning relates to a life idea-system, or a personal philosophy. This was its intent, the purpose for which it was written.

This “key” to my understanding of the personal meaning of humanism was my own experience. Unknowingly, I have been a humanist since 1953 when I was a college student. Like many others, I had formed my own “life philosophy.” I believed that I was a free individual capable of improving myself, and that by using the scientific method to problem-solve and acquire knowledge of the material universe governed by natural law, I could bring about the progress of myself and contribute to the progress of society. I had the basic framework of answers to that “basic interrogation” or the existential questions of who I was, where I came from, and of the purpose of life. (Although there was the guide of a liberal theology, it was essentially based on my liberal education in the humanities.) This philosophy has served me well. Then, in early 1992, I met Ed Wilson and read the Manifestos.

Reading the first page of that document was akin to seeing the light on the road to Damascus! This was it; I had found a system of thought which coincided with my own that I had since college. I felt an exhilarating newfound freedom. I now knew I was a humanist. That is perhaps the only thing that the AHA has done for me: it gave me that identity. I have come to the conclusion that many thinking, reasoning, educated people do essentially the same thing I did.

When the Manifesto was published in The New Humanist in 1933, there was in that same issue an article entitled “Religious Humanism” in which the author states:

“In A Humanist Manifesto it will be seen that many of us have reached a common body of beliefs and attitudes, beliefs about man, his place in the universe, the general nature of that universe, and attitudes toward the great questions of life.”

This is humanism for the individual. Like myself, there are a great many individual humanists present in our society. They do not necessarily call themselves by that name, but they are humanists.

Some Characteristics of the Humanist

Before any organization sets out to represent and serve individual humanists, there needs to be an understanding of their unique individual character. The humanist, having answered that “basic interrogation” is now free from the problem of “salvation” which is the emphasis of the Christian religions. Humanists have saved themselves, not from their sins, but from their ignorance, and have reached that “state of grace” (emphasized in religion), in which everything can be known which is necessary to the good life. Very importantly, humanists have done this alone, without the intercession of an organization which would claim their allegiance. The humanist is free.

The humanist avoids mass movements. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, describes the “true believer” as those who are “frustrated” and “…driven by guilt, failure and self-disgust to bury their own identity in a cause oriented to some future goal…” because “…a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.” Hoffer’s hero is “the autonomous [person],” those “confident [people] at peace with [themselves], engaged in the present.” These latter people are humanists, and need no organization except those considered by themselves as important.

Colin Wilson, in The Outsider, defines “…the Outsider’s fundamental attitude: non-acceptance of life, of human life lived by human beings in a human society.” Humanists are definitely not outsiders, because they see themselves as part of the natural world, living in it and actively engaged in life and society.

On the other hand, the militant anti-religionists, often calling themselves “humanists” qualify for both the “true believer” and as an “Outsider” because of their frustration with religion and non-acceptance of the religious life.

The ideal humanist is best described by Dr. Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology as the “actualized” person. Maslow lists a number of basic “needs” and states that once these needs are satisfied, or actualized, the person is then in full harmony with their reality. The purpose of an individual’s life is to achieve actualization. Living on the actualized level, the humanist has a natural ethic because only in maintaining a healthy environment is the sustaining of actualization possible. There could be no better goal of a humanist than reaching this “actualization.”

How People Become Humanists

As stated in my article of last April, I believe that our educational systems create humanists all the time. There is a recent controversy in the Utah Schools about “outcome-based” education. This method of education teaches students to build self-esteem, be self-directed and show concern for others. They learn how to solve problems, communicate, make decisions and be accountable. Conservatives object to this, wanting their children to grow up with a chance to believe what they themselves do; that this “outcome-based” method destroys the family; that values, attitudes and opinions are the sole responsibility of parents and family. However, finances will dictate that out-come based education will continue, because once students learn how to think and solve problems, they comprehend more easily, requiring less time from teachers and use fewer scarce resources. These students are on the way to becoming the thinking, reasoning person who with education in the humanities will eventually become a humanist.

This humanistic reasoning has its effect on contemporary Christian religions. In the August 9, 1993 issue of Newsweek, in an article entitled “Dead End for the Mainline? Religion: The mightiest Protestants are running out of money, members and meaning”, the author explores the causes of a decline in the membership of the seven dominant Protestant churches. The article explains that these churches are gripped by crisis: of identity and loyalty, membership and money, leadership and organization, culture and belief, and there is a loss of denominational distinctiveness: the “differences between denominations are negligible.” One historian states “Many people now see no reason to be Christian.” Another observed: “We provided our children with a theological rationale for embracing secularism.” New television-based churches have the goal “to lure baby boomers back to church by welcoming all comers regardless of their beliefs and appealing to their lack of theological convictions.” The article concluded that theology is being rejected in favor of a ministry whose goal is to provide community and give some meaning to life.

Professor Sellars, in that 1953 article, foresaw this situation, when he wrote about a “change in dominance:”

“…Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation, and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist. And he knew that both theologians and philosophers in the past had never been able to develop satisfactory proofs. In short, the strategic situation had changed.”

The Need for Change

In my “Report to The Membership” of last April, I concluded that the purpose of an organization of humanists was to “facilitate the process of becoming a humanist.” It is a process which takes place over time. Most members of this Chapter became humanists not because an organization helped them; it was their own work, their own discoveries, which brought them to humanism. Rejection of supernaturalism was only one step, not necessarily the beginning, but occurs as a natural outcome of the search for truth. This is illustrated by an incident of two years ago in which I attended a meeting at the Unitarian Church in which a prominent Mormon dissident told of his “journey of faith.” Ed Wilson was also there and we talked about the meeting. Ed commented “it seemed more like a journey of accommodation, than a search for truth.”

If our target population is the thinking, reasoning, educated person, which is the best approach? Present information about why they should reject supernaturalism? Or, to present the naturalistic “new framework” of answers to that “basic interrogation of life” spoken of by Professor Sellars? Humanism has answers. In my two years as a member of AHA I haven’t received any.

It is my conclusion that any organization of humanists will only succeed if it stops trying to disprove supernaturalism and devotes itself to presenting that “new framework” provided by that first Manifesto. That is not happening now, and to my knowledge never was attempted.

Forget the insensate fight with the fundamentalists and the old bugaboo of “religion.” Stop the criticisms and esoteric nonsense in the Humanist, there is no value in that approach. The magazine and many Chapter newsletters have such a shrill, strident, critical and negative voice that it only drives more people away than it attracts.

Specific Recommendations

The AHA must reorganize itself. Something drastic needs to be done if the AHA is to be what it was meant to be. Small changes can correct only the small problems. The problems of the AHA are large and require a great change.

Two interconnected changes are necessary:

  1. Publish one monthly membership magazine. Join the Humanist, Free Mind, and Grassroots News together and make it serve as the monthly communicator for every Chapter and each AHA member.
  2. Include all AHA members as part of a local Chapter, and all Chapter members as part of the AHA. This will require a unified dues and membership structure. The Chapters are where growth happens and new members are recruited. Other changes will come to mind once this one big step is taken.

Conclusion

There are thousands of unidentified humanists in our society who will welcome an organization which will give them identity and complete their already begun process of becoming a humanist. The need is apparent, and the organization which meets this challenge will grow and prosper. The AHA was organized to do just this. It is time for it to fulfill its mission.

–Bob Green

 

Religious Freedom: America’s First Liberty
Preserved Through Separation and Education

October 1993

Introduction: Perilous Times

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It is not by chance that these precious sixteen words are the first words of our Bill of Rights. These words were meant to be first. It is our most valuable liberty; it is our freedom of conscience.

Our nation was formed in perilous times. There was no assurance that it would succeed. When the Founding Fathers gave us the immortal words, “All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they put their very lives on the line. These words express the founding Father’s unequivocal belief of a relationship between God and Human Rights.

What is an unalienable right? Surely it is full religious liberty. Surely it is freedom of conscience. At an earlier time, when religious liberty was granted in the Virginia Assembly, Madison wrote to its author, Jefferson, who was then in Paris, “The enacting clauses passed without a single alteration, and I flatter myself to have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

Those perilous times were preceded by a century of religious wars in Europe, fought over attempts to control the human mind. Freedom from religion and freedom for religion weighed heavily on the minds of those who crafted our great constitution.

When our preamble stated: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” its authors knew it was a noble experiment! That this noble experiment has lasted for two centuries does not mean it will endure through its third century. I submit that we again live in perilous times.

Tragically, much of the world is torn by religious conflict. By one count, 14 of the 27 current wars in the world are deeply rooted in religious differences. We are not Bosnia, we are not the Middle East, we are not Ireland, but we do face a cultural breakdown. We are at war with ourselves. Bitter contentions over religion in public life erupt around us, extremes have surfaced, and in many areas of our land any sense of the common vision for the common good has been lost.

The desire to force the human mind still “runs amuck” in our own country.

How We Arrived At This Difficult Situation

An understanding of the educational and religious history of our country can not give anyone the idea that our past has been rosy: Political parties were formed in defiance of religious liberty; Irish Catholics were severely persecuted; My great-grandfather and many of your progenitors came to this barren land to have freedom of worship.

After World War II, the Supreme Court heard a number of cases involving schools and religion. Landmark cases in the 50’s and 60’s, such as Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, Lemon v. Kurtzman, etc., produced many questions. Can we have a State prayer in school? Can the Bible be read to all students at the beginning of the school day? Can we just have a moment of silence for each child to recognize God in his or her own way? Can taxes pay for transportation of Catholics to school? These struggles about religion and the schools are not new and never have been.

The Removers and the Restorers

When the Supreme Court made these decisions (and in my judgment correct decisions), it left in the minds of the public and the teachers, administrators, and School Boards that it was illegal to talk about Religion. Unfortunately, they appear to have not read the cases. I quote from Abington v. Schempp (1983):

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of Comparative Religion or the History of Religion and its relationship to the advancement of Civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of Religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

What happened? Many people became so concerned that Religion in the classroom was illegal that the subject was removed from the curriculum and it was “voided” from textbooks.

On one side of the playing field is the extreme left. It would remove all reference to Religion from the public place and particularly from education. For thirty years we were dominated by the “removers,” and all are silent on matters of Religion. Now we are “fraught with peril” from the Right. These “restorers” would demand Religion return to the public place and the schools. These are angry people and they are political, they are organized, they are well financed. It leaves us a litigious society. By and large, State legislatures are dominated by conservatives, and they take up the Fundamentalist cry.

The Breakdown of The Wall of Separation

Back in 1802, the Danbury Baptists deeply resented a legislature that presumed to pass laws regulating Churches and taxing citizens for the support of Religion. They sought the same liberty of conscience that Roger Williams had opted for when leaving Massachusetts for Rhode Island. In their letter to Jefferson they stated:

“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals—that no man ought to suffer in the name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions—that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

Jefferson’s answer to their concern contained the significant words he borrowed from Roger Williams: “The Wall of Separation.” This metaphor was used repeatedly in the courts of our country to prevent government from the “Establishment of Religion.”

The most blistering attack on the use of the Jefferson metaphor came from Justice William Rehnquist in Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985. The Alabama Legislature attempted to authorize a moment of silence in public schools. Justice Rehnquist dissented from the Court’s decision prohibiting this exercise, and wrote that the clause, properly understood, “requires government to be strictly neutral between religion and irreligion, nor does that clause prohibit Congress or the States from pursuing legitimate secular ends through non-discriminatory sectarian means…” He thought the “wall” image should be given up entirely. He further wrote:

“The wall of separation between Church and State is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”

In more recent cases his opinion has prevailed. Probably the most frightening is the Smith case in Oregon, where the Supreme Court upheld the State Legislature in the restriction of the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremony. It made no difference that the use of peyote as part of their religious ceremony preceded the coming of European and Africans to America, or that peyote is a nasty substance that has no market value as a drug. (I have not heard of one case of a person’s life that has been corrupted because of an excessive use of peyote.) It is now simply and starkly illegal for Native Americans to use peyote in their religious worship.

Changes in The Rules of The Game

Equally, or more frightening, the Court severely weakened the “Lemon” test of what constitutes appropriate religious activity in the schools. For several decades this test was used to determine if a statute met the First Amendment standard. First, does the statute have a secular legislative purpose? Second, is the principle and primary effect to neither advance nor inhibit religion? And third, does the statute foster an excessive government entanglement with religion? The Smith case, prohibiting the use of peyote, changes the rules of the game. Local legislatures now are more able to make these fundamental decisions than are the courts.

What Freedom does this give? How can we depend upon state legislatures for religious liberty? This vital issue is currently before Congress to seek a remedy from the extreme position of the Supreme Court. We do not want to depend on some State Legislative body to determine whether a religion has the right to build in a given city or for instance, that it is illegal for youth to partake of sacramental wine.

The Question of Religion in The Schools

Cultural diversity makes this issue more critical. Most high schools on the Wasatch front probably have a Muslim student attending school with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, all with a majority of Mormons. Does the First amendment apply to everyone? What accommodation can schools make for Friday worship of the Islamic people? How can we solve religious holidays so our Jewish or Hindu neighbors will not be offended? We are housing children, not educating them, when students are not legally free to explore their religious similarities and differences. How can we expect them to live together in “domestic tranquility?”

Many Americans are angered by what they see as a loss of morality in the schools and they show a hostility, not neutrality, towards religion. The familiar charge is that the religious establishment has been replaced by secular humanism, or more recently, “new age religion.” There are competing visions of America: Who are we as a Nation? Whose values will prevail?

Questions schools must answer are many. What are they supposed to do about prayer at graduation? What control do they have over the lack of religious reference in textbooks? What do they do when a legislature demands that they teach Creationism as part of the curriculum? What about sex education and religious and moral beliefs? Isn’t abortion a religious issue every bit as much as it is a political issue? What do we do with religious holidays? Is it okay for a school choir to sing the religious music of Christian history?

There is enough here to strike fear into school personnel. In the minds of many, the very mention of Religion means litigation. Emotional debates among parents, teachers, and school board members cause great concern for those with legal responsibilities. The debate has been dominated too long by the restorers and the removers. The time as come for a new approach, a new vision for public education that offers a new understanding of the proper role of religion in the schools.

A New Approach

It is ludicrous to think that anyone can have a complete education without an understanding and knowledge of religious belief. This does not say that people need be religious. To not understand religion is to be ignorant, and no nation can survive ignorance! George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights wrote: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people…but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

This first principle that any logical, rational, or spiritual person must agree with is, in my judgment, that no religious consensus is possible, but civic consensus is mandatory if we are to survive as a nation!

The First Amendment offers that possibility!

The three R’s of Liberty are:

Rights: freedom of conscience for all. A person’s conscience is the same as “free agency,” and this is what makes each person unique. We cannot sustain legislation that forces the human conscience.

Responsibility: protecting the rights of others, especially those with whom we disagree.

Respect: accepting each others differences. The right to be wrong. Debate that is civil. How we disagree on these issues is as important as the issues themselves.

Schools traditionally have been America’s hope for the future. A firm case can be made that it is the one institution that allows the “kid on the other side of the track” to compete with those of greater affluence for social and economic betterment. Our schools must be used to cement together our cultural diverse future.

Schools Can Accomplish A Return To Civic Decency

The religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment provide the civic framework for teaching about Religion in the public schools. Teaching about Religion is not indoctrination. A recent report by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development described the place of Religion in the curriculum:

“The proper role of religion in the school is the study of Religion for its educational value. The task is to teach about Religions and their impact in history, literature, art, music, and morality. It seems natural that the art curriculum, for example, must pay attention to the impact of Christianity on the work of Michelangelo, just as a history class focusing on the Colonization of American must pay attention to the Religious upheaval in Sixteenth-Century Europe that fueled that colonization.”

And, the National Council for the Social Studies has stated:

“Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person, but it is also absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity.”

Public school teachers must have a clear understanding of the crucial difference between the teaching about religions and the teaching of Religion. It is as essential for professional teachers to be trained in this area as it is in any area of their civic responsibilities.

I have discovered that there is a broad coalition of educational and religious organizations which have distinguished between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination. In part, the guidelines are:

  1. The approach is academic, not devotional.
  2. The emphasis is on awareness and diversity of religious views, and does not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
  3. The study is about Religion, not the practice of Religion.

My experience tells me that Utah teachers are eager, capable, and “improved” when they have received training using these guidelines.

Conclusion

I believe America to be the most fortunate of all Nations. We do not have a single religion imposed upon us and we are not denied the expression of a variety of religious beliefs. In our own way we are the most religious nation on the earth. Religious opportunity is healthy in America because it operates in a free economy.

Religions are a part of the political atmosphere and our social fabric. We cannot be free and restrict the right of Religions to advocate their political agenda. This is true whether they be Moonies, Mormons or Muslims. However, all must work within the civic rules of our Republic. How we resolve our differences, especially our deepest differences, will determine the future of our schools, and the destiny of our Nation.

I personally believe that Religion generally improves people when it is used with intelligence and humility. When the beliefs and practices of many faiths are a part of the school curriculum, and when appropriately taught, I believe our Nation becomes better. It is most imperative that we understand the conscience of our neighbors. Maybe when we do we will understand ourselves.

–Ray Briscoe


About the author: Ray Briscoe has a Ph.D. (1970) in Education, specializing in Social Studies, from the University of Utah. He has taught in the Davis School District, at Westminster College, and presently is employed by the Research Division of the LDS Church. He was a member of the Davis County School board for 12 years, and is a National Advisor to the First Liberty Institute, a part of the Williamsburg Charter. He has conducted workshops for public school teachers on how to teach about religion in the schools.


The Essence of Humanism

November 1998

Defining Humanism

I was challenged to quickly define Humanism during a Humanist conference in Columbia, Maryland, a few years ago. A passenger on an elevator noticed my convention name tag and said to me, “What’s Humanism?”; before I could think of a 30-second sound-bite definition the elevator stopped and the person left. That incident made me realize that we need to clarify for ourselves and for others just what we are all about.

Let me remind you of a familiar story that may illustrate basic Humanism. It’s the story of the man who bought a piece of ground overgrown with weeds and filled with debris. He spent a lot of time, effort and money in clearing the land, constructing a nice home and landscaping the yard. One morning while he was weeding his flower garden a local minister walked by and commented, “What a beautiful place you and God have created.” The man replied, “You should have seen it when God was taking care of it alone.”

That story indicates the main thrust of Humanism—Humans are responsible for the state of the world, we created the beauty and the ugliness of the human condition. We can take credit for the things that go right and we must take responsibility for the things that go wrong.

In 1933 a group of men put their signatures to a document defining human responsibilities and possibilities. They said the document was the result of much study and discussion, that it was representative of a large number of people who were forging a new philosophy about the human condition. They called the document “A Humanist Manifesto.”

The introduction says, “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. Science and economic changes have disrupted old beliefs. Religions of the world are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by vastly increased knowledge and experience.” They defined religion as “the quest for life’s highest values and life’s abiding values.” They proposed their manifesto as a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. They set forth fifteen principles defining what they called Religious Humanism. Let me summarize those principles.

Religious Humanism regards the universe as self-existing and not created.

Asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural origination of human values.

Considers the complete realization of human personality to be the goal of life.

In place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer, the humanist finds religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.

Believing that we must work continuously to define the virtuous life, humanist seek to explore the possibilities of life, aim to foster human creativeness, and encourage conditions that add to the satisfactions of life.

The manifesto concluded with:

“Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”

(Parenthetically, I should point out that in that period of time the use of the male pronoun was an acceptable reference to both sexes!)

Forty years later the manifesto was revised and published as Humanist Manifesto II. The preamble to the 1973 document recognizes the tremendous progress of the preceding 40-years noting: “We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age, ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets. Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life. Humanity, to survive, requires bold and daring measures. We need to extend the uses of the scientific method, and to fuse reason with compassion in order to build constructive social and moral values.”

The second Manifesto is organized into six major sections. The first section restates the humanist attitude toward religion concluding with the statement, “We appreciate the need to preserve the best ethical teachings in the religious traditions but we reject those features of traditional religious morality that deny humans a full appreciation of their own potentialities and responsibilities. No deity will save us, we must save ourselves.”

The second section deals with ethics and says “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics stem from human need and interest. Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humans possess.”

Section three deals with the individual, saying “The preciousness and dignity of the individual is central to humanist values. Individuals should be encouraged to realize their own creative talents and desires and freedom of choice should be increased.”

The fourth section supports the Democratic Society, saying “To enhance freedom and dignity the individual must experience a full range of civil liberties in all societies. This includes freedom of speech and the press, political democracy, the legal right of opposition to governmental policies, fair judicial process, religious liberty, freedom of association, and artistic, scientific, and cultural freedom.

We would safeguard, extend, and implement the principles of human freedom evolved from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights, the Rights of Man, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The fifth section expands to the world community and deplores the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. Quoting from Manifesto Two: “We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. This world community must renounce violence and force as a method of solving international disputes…and must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources. The cultivation and conservation of nature is a moral value.”

The sixth and concluding section says “At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable; it transcends the narrow allegiances of church, state, party, class, or race in moving toward a wider vision of human potentiality. What more daring a goal for humankind than for each person to become in ideal as well as practice, a citizen of a world community. We believe that humankind has the potential intelligence, goodwill, and cooperative skill to implement this commitment in the decades ahead.”

Conversion to Humanism

So much for the history and the philosophy of Humanism, now I would like to spend a few minutes explaining how I came to be an advocate for Humanism. I believe my first conscious awareness of my need to find an acceptable philosophy was triggered by events of the Second World War. During a furlough home I was asked to speak to the Sacrament meeting of my Ward. The focus of my talk was my concern about the ethics and morality of a Mormon from Salt Lake City being required to kill a Mormon from Berlin, Rome, or Tokyo. I was deeply bothered by the conflict of loyalty to God and loyalty to country. To this day, I continue to believe that members of all religions must wrestle with that conflict.

My concern about ultimate loyalty led me to do a great deal of reading about wars, their causes and resolutions. I discovered that the Old Testament contains a great deal of history about religious wars, that the history of Europe is filled with religious wars; the history of relations between the Jews and the Arabs is a continuous religious war that has lasted thousands of years. I eventually came to the conclusion that if beliefs in God created so much bloodshed, even among those who share the same basic religious concept, then I needed to find a basic belief that holds more hope for the future of the human race and for peaceful resolutions of conflicts. I believed then, and I believe now, that humans are more capable of coming to terms with conflict when they have a deep respect for life and for one another than when their highest allegiance is to a supreme being.

My personal experiences as a member of the Utah State legislature and as a political reporter for several years made me acutely conscious of the need to be alert to religious pressures in state politics. One example occurred when I was a member of the House of Representatives in 1957. A bill that required an appropriation of several thousand dollars for a project favored by the LDS church failed to get the two-thirds vote required for passage. The Speaker of the House, Jerry Jones, said he wasn’t posing as a prophet but he was predicting that the bill would eventually pass. The next day several legislators announced that they had received telephone calls during the night “explaining the bill in more detail” and they moved for reconsideration of the defeated measure. As you might have guessed those “explanation phone calls” came from Church lobbyists and, just as Speaker Jones had prophesied, the bill passed with votes to spare!

I only need to remind you of the LDS Church involvement in State liquor laws, a State lottery proposal, the Equal Rights Amendment, and horse racing legislation to point out how effectively the Church influences politics in Utah.

Now I don’t take the position that the Church should be silent on legislative and political matters. Religious leaders have the same freedom of expression that every citizen enjoys. Churches have the same right as all other organizations to take positions on social and political issues. The problem is not religious involvement, the problem lies with individuals who, because of authoritarian religious indoctrination, accept their authoritarian religious leaders as also being their authoritarian political leaders.

Religion is rooted in authoritarianism. All religions accept the concept of an infallible God, the word of God as the final authority, the ultimate truth. Anything attributed to God is absolute truth: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud. And to question anyone accepted and recognized as a spokesperson for God is considered to be grounds for excommunication in many religions. It is this “authoritarian mind-set”, encouraged by religions, that makes religious involvement in politics a dangerous problem. Religious leaders speaking on political matters poses a danger of theocracy replacing democracy.

I am also upset with the tendency in our political system to equate being religious with being patriotic and the converse of not being religious with being unpatriotic. George Bush said during the 1982 presidential campaign that he didn’t think it possible to be President and not be religious. Such intertwining of religion and politics is in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Utah Constitution (Article 4, paragraph 3, of the U. S. Constitution and Article 4, sec. 4, of the Utah Constitution). Even with these constitutional restrictions George Bush made his statement about the Presidency and religion and many candidates continue to cite their religious activities as evidence of their qualification for office. Such statements I believe are an inferred “religious test” imposed indirectly and contribute to a public tolerance of theocracy.

This nation is politically and economically secular. In 1833, U. S. Representative Rufus Choate of Massachusetts said “We have built no temple but the Capitol, we consult no common oracle but the Constitution.” That quotation is engraved over a doorway in the U.S. House of Representatives. Maintaining the independence of religion and politics and the separation of Church and State is a major principle of Humanism, and is one of the reasons I have become an advocate of Humanism.

The Challenge

So far I’ve discussed the philosophy of Humanism, the historical development of Humanism and my conversion to Humanism. I’d like to now spend a few minutes discussing what I think are the challenges to the Humanist movement.

If Humanism is to become a major part of the human enterprise I believe we must recognize the need to develop the attributes of community. We must increase our awareness of the role religions play in the lives of humans and position ourselves as an alternative to religion rather than an esoteric philosophy.

We must make an effort to recognize the important role emotions play in life. Humans are more than just cerebral beings, we are feeling animals as well as thinking animals. Feeling has been the primary appeal of religions; they call it spiritual, it’s really emotional. We are more than rugged individuals, we are also social animals; we are more than independent and something more than dependent, we are interdependent. We are not loners, we are joiners; we have a need to belong, to share, to care with and about each other. Human relations and human involvement are a vital part of life and Humanism must find ways to recognize this and develop ways of bringing humanness into Humanism.

Kahlil Gibran speaks on Reason and Passion in The Prophet saying:

“Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite. Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody. But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements? Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else beheld at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction. Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing; And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above it’s own ashes. I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house. Surely you would not honor one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.”

Symbolism, rituals, poetry, moving prose, they are all important aspects of community and the big challenge for the Humanist movement is to recognize this and find ways to involve the finest aspects of the human intellect and human emotions. Ed Wilson knew the importance of this. In 1986, writing for Volume Two of the publication Humanism Today, said: “The whole field of secular art, poetry, literature, drama, music is ours to claim and use selectively for inspiration and renewal, for the enrichment of the heart.”

For many years I thought the Unitarian Church was the religion of Humanism, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there remains a very strong element of Deism and Theism in Unitarian Universalism and therefore Humanism must find its own distinctive and distinguished ways to appeal to the whole human personality. Humanism must talk about morality, the values and the standards that are vital to an effective and worthwhile human community. We must talk about ethics, reasonable and acceptable ways of treating each other.

If we are to become a major player in the struggle for human allegiance, Humanism must find ways to speak to, in the words of Gibran, “Reason and Passion.”

–Flo Wineriter

The Individual As Scientist:
Descartes’ Method in Reason and Science

Date Published

My purpose today will be to relate some information about the methods of science that Descartes advocated and used during his lifetime. I hope that you will see this talk as a continuation of the one delivered two months ago which focused upon Copernicus and the problems of astronomy in his time. That talk attempted to show how inappropriate it would be to expect that Copernicus’ near contemporaries should have accepted his theory. Partly because the scientific evidence for the theory was not unequivocally on his side, especially for physics and astronomy. And partly because it seemed quite right to many of them on both sides of the Copernican debates to find a role for the Bible in their assessments of scientific value.

This discussion of the character of scientific reasoning will consider Descartes, a particularly interesting figure. Not only was he a historically important mathematician and scientist, developing theories about physics, cosmology, optics, physiology, psychology, and more; he also was a philosopher, and particularly important to this presentation, a philosopher of science.

So, something about his science itself, to give some idea of what the science he put forward was like; and a view about his philosophy of science and his ideas about how science should be pursued. And, with any luck, to complete the parallels with the earlier talk, there will be an opportunity to mention another interesting and enjoyable squabble between religion and science in which Descartes was involved.

An Introduction to Descartes’ Early Life

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was, as a youth, a bright but not an especially noteworthy character. He studied at the College of La Fleche, a boys’ school, until about 1613; he then attended law school at Poitiers. After law school, by his own reckoning, he was a licentious young rake of a soldier. He found an intellectual companion in Holland late in 1618 in Isaac Beeckman, who encouraged him to pursue studies in music and mathematics (for which he showed a great aptitude), as well as physics, navigation, and many other scientific investigations. We find in his notebooks a very self assured young man; the author of a small collection of notes and thoughts, one of which is the abstract for the ‘Treasure Trove of Polybius’, a book that most doubt was ever written. I think this piece of text provides a fair enough vignette of the young M. Descartes:

“This work lays down the true means of solving all the difficulties in the science of mathematics, and demonstrates that the human intellect can achieve nothing further on these questions. The work is aimed at certain people who promise to show us miraculous discoveries in all the sciences, its purpose being to chide them for their sluggishness and to expose the emptiness of their boasts.”

Descartes was working upon problems of mathematics and methods for scientific inquiry, though finding little success with anything so ambitious as the treasure trove. On the 10th of November, 1619, Descartes had a dream/vision that apparently changed his life. Among the visions was one of a book with ‘what road shall in life shall I follow?’ written on it. Looking back in his autobiography of 1637, perhaps embroidering on his experiences a little, Descartes explains the change in his thoughts:

“I stayed all day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts. Among the first to occur to me was the thought that there is not usually so much perfection in works composed of several parts and produced by various different craftsmen as in the works composed of one man…And so I thought that since the sciences contained in books…is compounded and amassed little by little from the opinions of many different persons, it never comes so close to the truth as the simple reasoning which a man of good sense naturally makes concerning whatever he comes across.

“Admittedly, we never see people pulling down all the houses of a city for the sole purpose of rebuilding them in a different style to make the streets more attractive…But regarding the opinions to which I had hitherto given credence, I thought that I could not do better than undertake to get rid of them, all at one go, in order to replace them afterwards with better ones, or with the same ones once I had squared them with the standards of reason.”

This passage suggests several of the essential elements of Descartes’ method. He chooses what road he will take, and is set to rebuild opinion into knowledge; but first he pauses: his autobiography continues with a bit of the Cartesian humility we find in the passage about ‘Polybius’:

“I thought that first of all I had to try to establish some certain principles in philosophy. And since this is the most important task of all, and the one in which precipitate conclusions and preconceptions are most to be feared, I thought that I ought not try accomplish it until I had reached a more mature age than twenty three…”

Method and the Meditations

After a few more years of travel during which Descartes performed more scientific investigations on such diverse topics as anatomy, rainbows, and physics, he felt able to publish his musings on method along with the autobiography, at the ripe age of forty one.

Descartes distilled his method into four rules, quite reminiscent of his musings concerning his experiences of eight years before:

“The first was never to accept anything as true if I did not have evident knowledge of its truth: that is, carefully to avoid precipitate conclusions and preconceptions, and to include nothing more in my judgements than what presented itself to my mind so clearly and so distinctly that I had no occasion to doubt it.

“The second, to divide each of the difficulties I examined into as many parts as possible and as may be required in order to resolve them better.

“The third, to direct my thoughts in an orderly manner, by beginning with the simplest and most easily known objects in order to ascend little by little, step by step, to knowledge of the most complex, and by supposing some order even among objects that have no natural order of precedence.

“And the last, throughout to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so comprehensive, that I could be sure of leaving nothing out.”

Descartes’ Meditations are an attempt to carry out such a project, showing a sort of order of re-discovery for newly-secure knowledge on new foundations. As he stated in another passage of writing, it was to be a method like dumping all of the apples out of a basket, replacing them one-by-one so that none would get by that could spoil the rest: no rot at the base of knowledge. He attempted to provide secure foundations of knowledge by instituting the following test: for any candidate for the beginning of a chain of knowledge, can I doubt it?

On these ground rules, Descartes comes to doubt almost everything we would consider ourselves to know. The work is divided into six sections, six meditations. In the first, he brings this project of doubt to its full development. In the second part, he finds one thing he can be certain of: that he himself exists, whenever he is thinking that he exists; for how else could the thinking occur without a thinker? Hence the famous dictum: “I think, therefore I exist.”

An interesting point, for how can one doubt it?

Method, Order, and Science

The point is not to tell all of Descartes’ metaphysics nor all of his science; it is to clearly represent his professed method and the way in which this method affected his progress in science. The method is to allow doubt to intrude wherever it may and build certain knowledge only upon the basis of prior certainties. These prior certainties came to be delineated in a very particular order, however. Descartes felt reason to believe that they had to be; and so there is much to tell about the influence of his method on his scientific thought.

We can see the importance of this method when we consider the next several certainties that Descartes develops in the Meditations, and how they affect the rest of his scientific system. After the certainty of his own existence, Descartes came to the certainty that he was not a body: for since he knew through thinking thathe was, and yet did not know on this account anything about his body, or even that he had a body (for example, he did not know that his ‘body’ wasn’t just the result of a bad dream), it seemed reasonable to him to conclude that this thing that he did know wasn’t a body. This was the (unfortunately bad) argument that Descartes used to show that he was an immaterial soul: the argument that lies at the center of the famous ‘Cartesian Dualism’ of body and soul. Of course, Descartes did not invent the dualist conception of the person, but he played a great role in entrenching this belief in our culture. He wove much of his scientific investigation of psychology, morality, and physiology around this prior certainty; for if it was built first in Descartes’ system of knowledge, it remained a tenet to be built around thereafter.

Descartes’ second certainty about the world around him also had great scientific significance, for it was his certainty about God’s existence. Descartes felt it necessary to prove God’s existence and explain God’s nature before proving anything further since the existence of a good God would ensure that what his senses told him about the world was neither erroneous nor fantasy. Indeed, he appears to have honestly felt that a divine being’s power might be so great as to allow that being to change the truths of mathematics from what they are. Descartes, then, had to prove the existence of a good God who wouldn’t try to deceive us in this way, in order for any further knowledge (in the sciences, for example) to be certain. Proving the existence of no Gods at all might have done the job for him, but that wasn’t an advisable approach in 17th century Europe.

Cartesian Science

Descartes’ systematic construction plan for certainty should certainly not be taken to be representative of how he in fact inquired into subjects of science; at least, not entirely. He certainly was engaged in scientific activity long before he proved his own or God’s existence, and we should not really believe that he went about destroying all of his knowledge about science and built it up again upon these certain foundations when he did finally come to these conclusions. Nonetheless, this method that he espouses in his writings does stand, for him, as an ideal for all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Ideally, all knowledge would be connected back to indubitable first principles, and any that is not is that much the less certain, and that much the less worthy of the title ‘knowledge’.

Realistically, we can also see much of his reasoning in science as representative of the ideal of systematicity: for his science is quite systematic. It is a reasoning from rational principles, from the simple towards the complex, from mystery towards truth. Descartes presents in his writings something of a deductive analysis of science from prior principles, but not the strict deduction of a logician. Observation, he finds, is only necessary for determining the details of science and is not relevant to decision regarding framework.

A quick example of this aspect of Descartes’ science can be found in his arguments concerning the ‘geometricization’ of matter. Descartes presents a striking effort to explain what matter is, and he finds, partly on the basis of his understanding of geometry, that the ‘essential property’ of matter (or ‘corporeal substance’) isextension. This leads him to the conclusion that space and matter are only different modes (modifications) of the same thing. Space is a ‘corporeal substance’, a corporeal substance lacking most but not all corporeal properties.

Another reason behind these conclusions runs as follows: each of the other characteristics normal to matter can be found to be missing from some. Glass is colorless. Fire is not hard. But all matter must have extension. Further, since space doesn’t disappear when a stone is moved out of it to another place, matter must just be space, with some different (extra) qualities added in.

Very odd and interesting reasoning but it does represent some of Descartes’ ‘scientific method’ and argument from first principles rather well.

Descartes’ approach should not be considered a ‘failure’ because it is superseded by the quantitative approach of Newton. Descartes did do useful, quantitative, more long-standing work in optics. His approach to physics (dynamics, terrestrial and celestial) and astronomy was grand and fascinating. It was a great system, but less worked out and less detailed for it did not come into close contact with the details of observational astronomy at Descartes’ time. Newton exploited this mismatch very well in his theoretical reply to Descartes in the Principia Mathematica.

Descartes and the Eucharist

There is much to be considered regarding Descartes’ scientific findings. I would like to close by offering a little extra, interesting piece of history concerning one of his scientific battles just to show how some of the connection between religion and science mentioned in the Copernicus lecture still hangs on for Descartes.

You have already heard about how Descartes felt it necessary to prove the existence of God before many other things, and you also heard, I hope, an interesting logical reason for his doing so. Another area in which Descartes’ science and theology connected, perhaps even clashed, is the miracle of the Eucharist. That miracle, as any good Catholic will tell you, is the genuine change of substance, or transubstantiation, of the eucharist cracker and holy wine into the body and blood of Christ. It is supposed to be a genuine miracle, one that happens (according to one account) as the host hits the tongue.

But how could this intersect with Cartesian science? If matter and space are indistinguishable, excepting certain accidental physical properties, and if body and animate soul are as distinct as Descartes’ arguments suggest they are, then how could such a transformation take place? That is, if matter only has a ‘geometric’ essence and properties added on, how could anything, once it is detached from Christ himself, be legitimately considered to be ‘Christ’s body’? At best, the only way to distinguish a piece of Christ’s body, without a soul attached from anything else, would be to find out whether it once was attached to Christ’s body. But a cracker is a cracker, not Christ’s body–so how does it become so? This problem, at the interface of religion and science, was one that exercised Descartes a great deal, and one that he could not solve to the satisfaction of many intellectuals of his time.

So runs a rather interesting scientific problem of the 17th century concerning a specific phenomenon that a physical theory of the time would have to be designed to accommodate. And it is not a minor one, since, as one historian has argued, the problem of the Eucharist, and not Copernicanism, may have been at the root of Galileo’s condemnation by the Church.

A note on useful sources

Quotations from Descartes’ writings are from the translation of Cottingham et. al., in Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, and A. Kenny, translators and editors, 3 vols., Cambridge, U. K., Cambridge University Press 1984-91. William Shea, The Magic of Numbers and Motion, gives a fine intellectual biography of Descartes and his times.

–Dr, Eric Palmer

 

Copernicus’ Astronomy and Scientific Argument in the Renaissance.

March 1993

Introduction

Thank-you for inviting me here to speak to you about the ‘scientific revolution’. What was so special or ‘revolutionary’ about the scientific revolution? Few would doubt that it provided a significant change, and a genuine increase in our knowledge of the world; but what sort of change, or why such a sudden increase? Were our putative revolutionaries (Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, Torricelli) somehow different from their predecessors in their outlook? Does this explain their contributions and success? Does the scientific revolution represent a special change in the attitudes of thinkers, a shift in mind-set to a ‘scientific perspective’ on knowledge?

In general histories of Europe and the Renaissance, quite simple explanations of the scientific revolution are often allowed to pass, hinged upon claims about heroic figures, manifesting a heroic change in mind-set. One often reads that the revolutionaries, particularly Kepler and Newton, were singular in that they paid the strictest attention to empirical matters, to nature, in their considerations of the world: they would not let a theory go except that it fit with all the facts known, thus leaving no room for error or mystery. Or, like Descartes especially, they strove for a consistency in their thought across all scientific disciplines to ensure that what they presented was plausibly representing the reality of nature. Or, like Galileo, they gave their minds to nature alone, rather than to authority, or what the Bible and religion told them must be so. These sorts of analyses of the scientific revolution, of great men holding up a new standard for the investigation of nature and truth against outmoded approaches, are the norm for many presentations of the scientific revolution in history classes today.

So, the goal of this presentation is to indicate some of the problems with the simple concept of the scientific revolution as a victory of heroic figures and their methods over the dunces among their contemporaries.

Such an account, as voiced by A. D. White and many others, does not do justice to the revolutionaries’ contemporaries, and also doesn’t accurately reflect the characters of the heroes. For when we look closely at the discussions between supposed revolutionaries and reactionaries, we do not see an overwhelming difference in the wit, attention to nature, or sincerity among antagonists.

This becomes evident if we examine one particularly important development: Copernicus’ ideas, and the reception of Copernicus’ astronomy in the 16th Century. It will be made clear how difficult a problem it is to determine what should count as a ‘scientific’ approach when considering the thoughts of scholars in the late Renaissance. For when we look carefully at the character of their ‘scientific’ argument, it becomes hard to find definitive reasons for holding to Copernicus’ theory, and divorcing the authoritarian or religious from the scientific.

Why is Copernicus’ theory obvious to us?

So, we will consider a historical debate over the meaning of Copernicus’ theory, much of which can be found in the first pages of the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus’ great work, “Six Books On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. The book put forward the idea in 1543 that the earth revolves around the sun instead of the sun and all other planets similarly revolving around the earth. This was a change in astronomy from a ‘geocentric’ or earth-centered universe to a ‘heliocentric’ one in which the sun, rather than the earth, occupies the central area of the universe.

To understand the problem of comprehending Copernicus’ theory during his time, we need to strip away many preconceptions about the certainty of and the justification for Copernicus’ system. All of us here think that Copernicus’ theory, in partial or general outline, is true; in fact, it is probably obvious to each of us beyond doubt. Nonetheless, it was by no means obvious to everyone educated in these matters in Copernicus’ time, and not simply because their heads were clouded by tradition or by the voices of their teachers. The reason that the Copernican analysis of our planetary system is obvious to us now, and not obvious to them, is largely because of arguments that were formed long after Copernicus’ time.

Consider why you think that the sun is at the center of our solar system. Note that the sun is, for Copernicus, at the center of the universe, and not merely the center of the solar system. He maintained that the planets were kept in their orbits not by momentum and mutual attraction, but rather by nested crystalline spheres, centered near to the sun, that constrained the planets’ motions to specific regions in space.

An account of heliocentrism bringing into play a discussion of force, mass, inertia and attraction, hinted at by Kepler and Descartes, and developed well over 100 years after Copernicus by Newton, explains for most of us why it is true. But this is not the sort of explanation for heliocentrism that you will find in Copernicus’ work. In fact, the physics of the experts of his time presented quite an obstacle to accepting his theory!

Why did Copernicus think his explanation was true, then, and why Galileo, and Descartes, and others before Newton? If we find that the view was not so certainly true in Copernicus’ time as we might have expected it to be, then we have already made progress on this historical problem. The reasons for holding to Copernicus’ theory were compelling for a certain type of person with a certain education and experience. The question is, if there is something special and particularly important about a ‘scientific mind-set’ that leads to knowledge, what is it, and would it lead one to a Copernican view near to Copernicus’ time?

Evidence for and against heliocentrism

What was so special about Copernicus’ position, then, and was it more credible than the geocentric view? There are a good number of important arguments in favor of Copernicus’ position, and they mostly have to do with observational astronomy, the placement of the planets in the night sky. Copernicus explained much more elegantly than before the differences in the rates of motion of different planets across the sky. He similarly explained their tendencies and rates for retrogression, and also why two of the planets, Mercury and Venus, stayed very close to the sun from the point of view of the earth, unlike the other planets. Copernicus’ theory incorporated some very important attractions (see Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Copernican Revolution).

‘Looking at the facts in nature’, then, does provide some support for Copernicus’ view; and all historians agree that such facts were very important in convincing Copernicus of the truth of heliocentrism. But reasonable judgment is not as simple as this would suggest, for many of ‘the facts of nature’ also appeared to count against Copernicus’ hypothesis. It is fair to say that if we were looking at Copernicus’ theory in Copernicus’ time, many of us would doubt the correctness of his claim.

First of all, Copernicus and other astronomers had difficulty explaining the planets’ motions in terms that seemed physically possible. Copernicus’ mechanism for explaining the irregularities of planetary motion was extremely elaborate, difficult, and no less complex than those of his more traditional contemporaries; he shared with the others a theory in which the planets circle the center of the universe describing circles built upon circles. The often discussed doubts about the reality of the Ptolemaic mechanisms transferred directly onto Copernicus’ system.

Copernicus also had to try to explain problems in physics that weren’t problems for those who left the earth at rest at the center of the universe. One such problem is: how do we manage to avoid falling off of a ball of rock and water that spins every day and does a circuit around the sun once a year; and why doesn’t the ball we are on itself fly apart under such conditions? (These problems were solved in a convincing way much later by Newton.)

Despite the weaknesses of his theory, Copernicus felt that he did assert the truth, that the earth went around the sun. Physical arguments against his astronomy give you a taste of how scientists have to negotiate obstacles put up by ‘the facts of nature’ as they are understood in different areas of science. Copernicus saw that he was forced to construct a new physics in order to avoid making his astronomy a physical impossibility; and the physics that he authored, incidentally, would have been no more recognizable to us as a reasonable one than the theory that it replaced. For example, Copernicus felt that he had solved the problem of the earth flying apart by suggesting that it wouldn’t do so because the earth is spherical, and rotation is ‘natural’ to all spheres (Book 1, Chapter 8).

By contrast, the great astronomer of the sixteenth century, Tycho Brahe, attempted to incorporate the advantages of Copernicus’ astronomical system into a view that didn’t present such new physical problems. Tycho, trying to mediate between physical and astronomical intuitions, presented a system in which the earth remained stationary at the center of the spinning universe: the sun orbited it and the rest of the planets orbited the sun. This may begin to show you how difficult it is to decide when a theory such as Copernicus’ becomes believable and where the proper ‘scientific attitude’ might lie.

Realism, and the prefatory sections of Copernicus’ work

We might all agree that what is most important about Copernicus’ theory is not the details of his system. Despite his problems with physics, and the strange mechanisms of circles and epicycles which proved to be quite off the mark, and despite that those of us who are not astronomers tend to base our conviction in the Copernican system on Newtonian reasons, what is important is the shift from ‘geo-‘ to heliocentrism. The special feature of Copernicus’ insight, perhaps, was simply his recognition that the heliocentric system in its rough outlines, if not in its details, must be true, and represent reality–for after all, that is all that survives of Copernicus’ work to the present day. Was such an understanding of the reality of the system that Copernicus put forward, then, the scientifically appropriate conclusion to draw?

To determine this matter, we must delve into the history close to 1543 more carefully, and so, know a little more about Copernicus’ book and astronomical argument in his time. Here, the story gets very interesting and entertaining, for, surprisingly enough, arguments both for and against a realistic approach to Copernicus’ theory can be found in the pages that begin the book, probably much to his dismay!

Copernicus, who was quite old and unwell by the time he had been sufficiently encouraged by his friends that he felt ready to publish his book, entrusted a student of his with the task of taking the manuscript to a publisher in Nuremburg. Copernicus was also quite wary of publishing it, fearing that his views were too radical to be generally accepted. This might well have presented the danger of excommunication, which would also lose for him the role that he had within the Roman Catholic administrative structure as a church canon. It is probably no accident that his student, Rheticus (a Protestant himself), took the manuscript to a press in a protestant area of Europe, since Copernicus’ book might have required a review and imprimatur from the church before being published in Catholic lands. Where one published was a very significant issue in Copernicus’ time as it also is today.

To alleviate his fears of opposition, Copernicus included in the prefatory sections of his work a letter written seven years earlier by Cardinal Schoenberg of Capua, Italy that urged Copernicus to publish his findings. The letter stands authoritatively at the front of the book, subtly suggesting that if anyone thought that the views expressed after it were heretical and wished to challenge Copernicus on them, that person would likely face some significant opposition in the Church. Copernicus’ fears were not idle, for the theory would be noticed in Rome quite quickly, and some participants attempted to bring it up for discussion at the Council of Trent less than ten years after its publication.

The theory, then, was quite contentious, and for this reason the story becomes even more interesting. Rheticus took the manuscript to Nuremburg, and instead of seeing it through the press himself, laid it in the hands of another person, Andreas Osiander, whom he and Copernicus both knew. Osiander, however, took the liberty of adding a page of his own at the beginning: a letter to the reader concerning the contents of the book. A letter quite shocking to Rheticus. Copernicus died just about when the book came out, and we are not sure whether he lived to see it in print, or whether he perished before he published. We do know that Rheticus, when he saw what was done, attempted to blot out Osiander’s contribution by crossing over it in red ink in as many copies of the book as he could. The reason for the shock: Osiander’s letter lays out an instrumentalist conception of Copernicus’ astronomy, denying that it represents the structure of reality, and asserting that it merely presents a useful tool for calculating the positions of the planets; whereas Copernicus’ preface, just two pages later, lays out an argument for a realistic interpretation.

Osiander’s argument is worth a careful look because it indicates just how science has been held in a different sort of light at different times; how beliefs about the sources and certainty of knowledge change over time. For Osiander really represents the voice of tradition and perhaps reason against Copernicus the radical. Osiander takes the instrumentalist position just a little bit into his preface. He suggests that the astronomer predicts the positions of the planets, but cannot hope to discover the true causes or laws underlying their motions. He predicts that many learned men will be indignant about Copernicus’ hypothesis that the earth goes around the sun; but, he continues, “…the author of this work has committed nothing which deserves censure…”

That true laws and real structures cannot be discovered by astronomy, Osiander does not defend straightforwardly, but he goes on in his uninvited preface to illustrate the sort of problem one would have if one interpreted astronomy realistically. Astronomers were unable to explain the variation in brightness of Venus using their strange mechanisms to calculate planetary positions. So we can see that interpreting astronomy realistically would be, as Osiander says, “absurd.” We can see some reasonable basis for his doubts: a reason justifying his claim that “it is clear enough that this subject (astronomy) is completely and simply ignorant of the laws which produce apparently irregular motions.” It is important to note that Osiander’s instrumentalist interpretation of astronomy was mirrored by the approaches to astronomy of a large group of astronomers of Wittenberg, who incorporated Copernicus’ advancements into a variety of other models of the universe in their attempts to simplify the calculating tool.

Hierarchies of knowledge

Osiander’s argument becomes still more interesting, providing further insight into the problems in interpreting the virtues of Copernicus’ claims from the standpoint of the Renaissance thinker. The astronomer puts forward absurd hypotheses that should not be understood realistically; how, then, can we attain certain knowledge, in Osiander’s view? He writes: “Since different hypotheses are sometimes available to explain one and the same motion…an astronomer will prefer to seize on the one which is easiest to grasp; a philosopher will perhaps look more for probability; but neither will grasp or convey anything certain, unless it has been divinely revealed to him.” Here Osiander presents the final piece in the puzzle concerning why he, and many people of his time, did not take astronomy to represent reality for, despite Copernicus’ evidence and assurances, there is also an order of certainty to sources of knowledge to consider. There is a hierarchy of disciplines.

The ordering of disciplines deserves a more careful explanation at this point. Astronomers put forward hypotheses, Osiander argues, but, because different hypotheses might account for the data of the world similarly, astronomers cannot be certain of the truth of their theories. They should instead opt for presenting the picture that seems simplest to them, and easiest to use; and this is what Osiander claims Copernicus has done: the new system, with everything going around the sun, is simpler as astronomy than the Ptolemaic system. But complete certainty, he suggests, is only to be achieved through divine revelation, be it personal, or from the Bible. Osiander’s point is that if astronomical knowledge is only understood properly (that is, instrumentally, as a means for predicting the positions of planets, and not realistically, as a description of the structure of the universe), then one can find nothing objectionable in astronomy.

Why did Osiander conclude that Copernicus’ astronomy should be considered instrumentally? It is perhaps not enough to say that astronomers could always be wrong in their speculations for they could also be right. There is one more piece to this puzzle. There seem to be a variety of distinct sources of knowledge that Osiander has indicated: science, philosophy, and revelation. But what might we do if our best indications from these different sources were to conflict? There has to be some way of adjudicating such a dispute since this sort of conflict had occurred often enough before Copernicus’ time; and a solution that had been proposed long before for scholars was the one that Osiander reflected here in his letter: that science must bow to revelation. Heliocentrism appeared to contradict revelation—the Bible—in many places. In the Psalms, for example, one passage reads “…the world also is established, that it cannot be moved”; and, as Luther said with reference to Copernicus, “This fool wishes to reverse the entire pattern of astronomy; but Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” So we have another clear reason for doubting the truth of Copernicus’ theory, and a particularly relevant one, I should think, from the point of view of Andreas Osiander, who was first and foremost an important figure in the Protestant Reformation, and a sometime friend of Luther.

Reason vs. Religion?

Was Osiander simply being less scientific, and more religious than Copernicus in his assessment of the theory? A positive reply to this question may be too simple an answer. Osiander’s instrumentalism is certainly more cautious than Copernicus’ realism. He also has what would appear to be scientifically sound reasons for holding to it; reasons that are augmented when we recall that the Wittenberg astronomers and Tycho created different astronomical systems that preserved many of the advantages of Copernicus’ system, and also consider that instrumentalism has been a respectable scientific position in physics at many times since the 16th century. Does the difference between the scientific and the less scientific lie in the idea of a hierarchy of knowledge? Though Osiander states that we must use the Bible as evidence where astronomical argument cannot provide us with certainty, it may not sit well with us. Is the complete subordination of the word of the Bible one part of the distinction that we are looking for, the respect in which ‘looking to nature’ is relevant to the scientific revolution?

If so, it appears difficult to argue that the complete subordination of the Bible to ‘looking to nature’ is a prevalent feature of Humanistic-scientific argument in Copernicus’ time. No straightforward defense of his astronomy against the claims of this hierarchy of knowledge has been found among Copernicus’ writings. In a book by Rheticus, Treatise on the Motion of the Earth, we can see he argued a place for religion in the hierarchy of knowledge about the world. Rheticus presents what we might expect to be the humanist’s challenge to the authority of the scripture when he writes that the Bible may be inaccurate on matters of physics because it was provided by God not to teach us physics, but to save our souls. “…But as it is clearer than the day that God has left a good deal to our own efforts, so as to stimulate the arts and sciences necessary to life, and the things that pertain to education and the honest use of our minds, we should really follow in these things the thread of nature, by which first principles, reason, and daily experience lead us…” But Rheticus also argues for a clear role for the Bible, for he maintains that on the question of the age of the earth, and whether it is created or eternal, “The physicists…are right in disagreeing with Aristotle…And although Aristotle’s arguments cannot be refuted after the rules and in a philosophical way—and likewise Plato’s [contrary] teachings…—yet because they are against the clear teaching of the Scripture…one must abstain from these tenets, regarding them as impious and sacrilegious.” Rheticus also argues that for rather ordinary physical properties of the universe, as opposed to a matter as ‘metaphysical’ as the beginning of the universe, wherever observation and the philosopher’s argument are not decisive, there the authority of the Bible should be taken as truth. Rheticus maintains that the philosophers should accept the argument that the sphere of the stars around us is surrounded by water, as the book of Genesis makes clear.

Copernicus also brought quasi-religious arguments into play at one point in defending his theory, arguing on the basis of an Aristotelian conception of divinity, that “noble[ness] and divin[ity]” accrue more definitely to immobile things than mobile things, and that thus it is natural that the most noble of all, the heavens and the sun, be immobile, instead of the earth (Book 1, Ch.8). References to the importance of the consonance of physical theory with pre-established religion can also be found in remarks by many leading scientists much further on in history, including such luminaries as Newton and Einstein.

Conclusion

Why did Copernicus believe in heliocentrism? You have been presented with some reasons and many more could be provided. Should others as well-informed as Copernicus and manifesting a ‘scientific attitude’ also have believed his theory at that time? Clearly some such as Rheticus thought so, but it does not appear to be easy to separate the better scientific position from the worse, or the scientific from the non-scientific. For at this early point in the scientific revolution, separations between religion and science, and ‘fact’ hierarchy and authority in knowledge, are much less clear than they might appear from our long perspective.


References and Notes

A good resource for learning about Copernicus’ views and their importance in the history of science is Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1957). Information on Tycho’s system is also available from Kuhn’s book. Osiander’s preface is considered in more detail by Bruce Wrightsman inThe Copernican Achievement (R. Westman, Ed. University of California Press, 1975). More on the Wittenberg astronomers can be found in Owen Gingerich and Robert Westman, The Wittich Connection (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 78, part 7 1988). More on the relation between Copernicans and the churches of Europe can be found in Robert Westman’s article in God and Nature (D. Lindberg and R. Numbers, Eds., University of California Press, 1986). Passages from Copernicus’ book are taken from the translation by A.M. Duncan, Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres(Barnes and Noble, 1976). Rheticus’ book has also been translated into English, with an introduction by G. Hooykaas, under the title G.J. Rheticus’ Treatise on Holy Scripture and the Motion of the Earth (North Holland Publishing Company, 1984).

–Eric Palmer, Ph.D.
University of Utah
Department of Philosophy

The History Of Political Liberty:

From the 17th and 18th Centuries to the Present Day

June 1993

Introduction

The title of my talk fails to convey the fact that I shall discuss the seventeenth and eighteenth-century history of the concept of political liberty, rather than the extent to which people have or have not been free of political servitude during the past 350 years. The latter topic would take considerably more than forty minutes; so perhaps there is something to be said for listening to an historian of political philosophy: I can at least promise to be relatively brief.

The concept of political liberty is one of a family of notions: equality, justice, democracy, and harm which political theorists describe as “essentially contested.” All of these terms involve endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users. The easiest way to see this is to imagine what I take to be a typical debate between two invented characters who I will unimaginatively name “A” and “B”.

“A”, who may own her own business or be a professional of some sort, has worked hard to reach her present position. She has saved and sacrificed in order to buy a nice house in an exclusive neighborhood, to send her children to a good public school or a private university, to pay for some special type of medical care for her aging and increasingly infirm parents, and so on. She now finds all her projects threatened by rising taxes. She regards this threat to her projects as an infringement of her basic freedom. She recognizes that she is being prevented by others from doing what she could otherwise do, and she objects to what amounts to coercion. She claims to have a right to what she has earned and that nobody else has a right to take away what she acquired legitimately and to which she has a just title. She intends to vote for candidates for political office who will defend her property, her projects, and her conception of political liberty.

“B”, who may be a member of one of the helping professions (a teacher or a social worker) or even someone with inherited wealth, is impressed by the arbitrariness of the inequalities in the distribution of wealth, income and opportunity. He is even more disturbed by the inability of the poor and the deprived to do very much about their own condition as a result of their lack of mental or physical capacity, which he understands as needlessly constraining. He believes that all inequality stands in need of justification. He draws the conclusion that in present circumstances redistributive taxation which will finance welfare and the social services, thereby enabling the poor to exercise their economic and political opportunities, is what true freedom demands. He intends to vote for candidates for political office who will defend redistributive taxation and his conception of political liberty.

I realize that these two ideal-typical characters represent simplified moral and political positions. Our actual moral and political judgments are rarely this uncomplicated. I wish only to suggest that “A” and “B” represent eligible viewpoints within our society, that they are going to disagree about policies and politicians, and that they will both appeal to the language of freedom to express their political preferences.

“A” thinks of freedom exclusively in terms of the independence of the individual from interference by others, be these governments, corporations, or private persons. For “A”, the concept of political liberty is essentially a “negative” one. Its presence is marked by the absence of something else; specifically, by the absence of coercion or constraint. “A” insists on defining liberty in this way because she thinks that an important part of being human is having the exercise of her intellectual capacities under her own, rather than someone else’s control.

“B”, on the other hand, is most unwilling to endorse the individualistic values that stand behind “A”‘s references to political liberty. From “B”‘s standpoint, to offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the state, to speak of opportunities made possible by freedom from constraint when the recipients of such rights and opportunities are penniless, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition. Rights and opportunities are one thing, the ability to exercise those rights and opportunities is quite another. Unless one is free to exercise his rights and opportunities, appeals to “freedom” are not only empty, but fraudulent. For this reason “B” insists that the concept of political liberty should be a “positive” one. Freedom for “B” is not freedom from coercion or constraint, it is freedom to exercise one’s rights and opportunities; and if this requires that others help in these by sharing some of their wealth through the payment of mandatory taxes, then this is the price we all pay for our freedom.

I would now like to move beyond these particular statements of political liberty to consider the more general problem of determining the permissible limits of coercion. The assertions of “A” and “B” presuppose some of the most important theoretical arguments on behalf of political liberty of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Compelling reasons for these positions have been worked out with considerable brilliance and care by three early modern political theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their theories, which continue to inspire political theorists to this day, may be understood as attempts to answer the following rather abstract questions: “Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?”; “Why should I not live as I like?”; “If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?” Although their answers to these questions vary widely, they each shared the belief that only the voluntary agreement of adult human beings can give others political authority over them. They each believed that such agreement was best expressed in the form of a social contract, whereby individuals agree to obey a sovereign, provided the sovereign abides by the terms of the contract. And they each believed that the terms of the contract should take into account the nature of humans and the human condition.

Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was born in England into a relatively poor family. The date of his birth, April 5th, ominously witnessed the sighting of the Spanish Armada. Throughout his life he was fond of repeating the joke that his mother went into labor with him on hearing a rumor that the Armada was coming–“so that fear and I were born twins together.” Early on in his schooling he distinguished himself as a classical scholar and his first publication was a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Hobbes derived from Thucydides the ideal of an unchanging human nature as the constant element in history which enables the historian to compare one event with another and construct a formula or pattern which is intelligible and useful. Hobbes also concluded that the ultimate source of war is to be found within human nature. As he would explain in his greatest work, Leviathan (1651), the three motives of human nature which lead humans to quarrel and to subdue one another are desire of profit, fear, and love of honor (meaning the respect of the inferior for his superior). Of these three, Hobbes believed that fear was the cause of the Peloponnesian War, and its absence–when men no longer feared human or divine punishment–was responsible for the anarchy of the time of the Plague. Both instances support the doctrine of the Leviathan that fear breeds war between nations and the lack of it breeds anarchy within nations. What Thucydides had written made an immense impression on Hobbes because of the violent political events transpiring during his own lifetime. Among these, the English Civil War was the most terrifying. It struck Hobbes as a deeply irrational event, though it was nonetheless what was to be expected given the violent and passionate nature of man.

The experience of war, both past and present, was one of two factors that shaped Hobbes’ philosophical ideas. The other was the contemporary upheaval in scientific ideas that he attributed to Galileo. Before he met Galileo, Hobbes had come to believe that geometry was the foremost method of reaching conclusions about the world. The geometrical method enabled one to demonstrate the truth of some complex and at first sight quite unlikely propositions from some very simple propositions which everyone would agree were obviously true. Here, it seemed, was a way to get certain results. How soon Hobbes made the connection between the certainty of the method of geometry and the uncertainty of current moral and political theory we cannot be sure.

Something more than his discovery of Euclidean geometry was needed before he could apply anything like a geometrical deductive method to politics. What was needed was a basic hypothesis about the nature of things, which could embrace the actions of men in society and their relations with each other. Enter Galileo’s law of inertia. In the old prevailing view, rest was the natural state of things: nothing moved until something else moved it. Galileo postulated that motion was the natural state; things moved unless something else stopped them. Hobbes would apply this to the motions of humans, would get a system which would explain their motions relative to one another, and would then deduce what kind of government they must have to enable them to maintain and maximize their motions. He planned a systematic philosophy, or science, in three parts: of Body, which would set out the first principles of motion; of Man, which would consider man as one kind of body in motion and would explain his sensations, desires, and behavior as results of his internal motion and the impact on it of external motions; and of the Citizen, which would show what these motions would necessarily lead to and how their result might be altered for the better of knowledge of these laws and by rational forethought.

In other words, Hobbes decided that he could answer the question of political liberty (“What are the permissible limits of coercion?”), if human nature and the human condition were treated according to a method comparable to that of geometry and pure mechanics. Armed with the right method, it would be possible for humans to construct a political order as timeless as a Euclidean theorem.

Let us look quickly at Hobbes’ efforts to achieve this. His essential concern was to “demonstrate” the necessary form of the state and the citizen’s obligation to it as a deduction from the known nature of humans. Contrary to the traditional picture of man as a political or a social animal, Hobbes argued that man’s “dispositions are naturally such, that except they be restrained through fear of some coercive power, every man will distrust and dread each other, and as by natural right he may, so by necessity he will be forced to make use of the strength he hath, toward the preservation of himself.” Hobbes’ first “demonstration” was “that the state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all, in that war all men have equal right unto all things.”

His second “demonstration” was that, as the basic law of man’s nature made self-preservation his paramount aim, so “all men as soon as they arrive to understanding of this hateful condition of universal war then desire (even nature itself compelling them) to be freed from this misery.” This “demonstration” presupposes an exceedingly spare concept of liberty. Hobbes used the word liberty negatively. As he explained, “Liberty…is nothing else but an absence of lets and hindrances of motion; as water shut up in a vessel is therefore not at liberty, because the vessel hinders it from running out; which, the vessel being broken, is made free. And every man hath more or less liberty, as he hath more or less space in which he employs himself.” Recalling that motion is the natural condition of all the matter of which the universe consists, we see that Hobbes is prepared to attribute freedom and unfreedom to all bodies whatsoever. This second “demonstration” also presumes that it is possible for humans to improve their natural condition.

Such improvement would only take place when everyone makes the following covenant with all of the others (except the Sovereign) who will thereafter form the political association: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or this assembly of men, on this condition: that thou give up the right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” This was Hobbes’ central “demonstration.” Although a person’s absolute self-seeking could be mediated “by compact,” it could only be adequately mediated by a compact which set up an absolute, preferably monarchical, power. For “except they do so” there will “evidently appear to be no civil government, but the rights all men have to all things, that is the rights of war, will remain.”

Given Hobbes’ assumptions respecting human nature, here was an immensely powerful and systematic political theory. In short, he argued that the best way to ensure peace (and maximize freedom) is for everyone to acknowledge a perpetual sovereign power, against which each of them would be powerless. Hobbes is in fact a theorist of the ugly proposition that might makes right. Again, this is a very spare conception of liberty. For Hobbes, civil society exists in order that people may be left in peace to pursue their individual desires. Civil society is not founded in order to realize any other purportedly common good such as equality or justice or any other conception of the good life.

Locke

Some theorists have found this to be a liberating theory, others have been frightened by its totalitarian tendencies. Among these latter was John Locke (1632-1704). Although Locke did not write in direct opposition to Hobbes, he did write against the absolute power of the king. He did so in terms that will appear very familiar to us. Locke was born in a Puritan household in Somerset, England. Both of his parents came from Puritan trading families. They weren’t rich but they were well connected, and Locke was able to take advantage of his natural intellectual talents. He trained as a doctor and in fact first gained fame through his skill as a surgeon, which allied him with one of the most powerful and politically radical men in the kingdom, the first Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke’s greatest political work, the Two Treatises of Government (1689), was by and large fully in keeping with the political principles he shared with his patron. It was a book designed to assert a right of resistance to unjust authority; a right, in the last resort, of revolution. If we focus on the second and more famous of Locke’s work, Two Treatises and the Essay Concerning Civil Government, we will find that it contains much more than a defense on the right to resist. It is also a brilliant defense of the claim that sovereignty rests on the consent of the people, who naturally and individually possess the right to life, liberty, and property.

The Two Treatises were written in opposition to the political thought of Sir Robert Filmer, whose ultra-royalist tract Patriarcha was regarded as the most forceful statement of the divine right of kings. The essence of Filmer’s view was simple: all authority among humans was essentially of the same kind, the authority of a father in his family and the authority of a monarch in his kingdom. All authority of one human being over another was given directly by God. Since no human being had a right over his own life and since all human rulers had a right to take the lives of their own subjects or of foreign enemies when these in their judgment had damaged the public good, it must follow that rulers derived this right not from their subjects but from God himself. God gave the whole earth to the first man, Adam, and all political authority and all rights of ownership were an historical and legal consequence of that gift. Every subsequent title to rule (that is, the right of the king to rule through succession) was a direct expression of God’s providence and must be recognized as representing his will. Locke’s task, and it wasn’t a small one, was to explain how individuals acquire a right to resist unjust authority and still respect the supremacy of God.

Locke addressed the problem by granting that humans belong not to themselves but to the God who made them. Therefore, any human right to take away the life of any person (oneself included) must rest directly on God’s purposes for persons in general. The idea of one person owning another by inheritance has no plausible link with God’s purposes for humankind. This made people into slaves, or at least children. For Locke, slavery was the precise opposite of legitimate political authority. What made political authority legitimate, what gave legitimate rules the right to command, was practical services which they could and did provide for their subjects. So far from being the owner of those whom they ruled, a legitimate monarch was essentially their servant. As Locke explained:

“Political Power then I take to a Right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such laws, and in the defence of the Commonwealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Publick Good.”

In order to show how such a right arises, Locke explains “what State all Men are naturally in.” The State of Nature is not so much designed to show what humans are like but rather what rights and duties they have as creatures of God. Their most fundamental right and duty is to judge how the God that created them requires them to live in the world which he has also created. His requirement for all persons in the state of nature is that they live according to the law of nature. Through the exercise of his reason every person has the ability to grasp the content of this law. “Reason…reaches all mankind, who will but consult [the law of nature], that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”

Although Locke’s purpose in appealing to humans’ natural condition was not dissimilar to that of Hobbes, he wanted to ignore prevailing political circumstances in order to be free to give his own account of what is truly essential about humans and the human condition. Locke’s account of that state of affairs was dramatically different. Unlike Hobbes’ state of war of all against all, Locke’s state of nature was a moderately peaceable and rational state of affairs. For Locke, the vast majority of humans come equipped with a conscience that tells them, at least in general terms, right from wrong. So why would anyone willingly surrender their natural liberty in favor of government? There are two principle reasons: it is often difficult to determine how the law of nature applies in specific circumstances, difficult because we all have a tendency to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in cases of conflict; and it is inconvenient that we ourselves would have to enforce the law of nature.

Thus we find it in our interest to unite ourselves into one society, and to give over our right to interpret and execute the law of nature to the public. “And this puts Men out of a State of Nature into that of a Commonwealth, by setting up a Judge on Earth, with Authority to determine all the Controversies, and redress the Injuries, that may happen to any Member of the Commonwealth; which judge is the Legislative, or Magistrates appointed by it.”

This is, I fear, but the briefest sketch of Locke’s account of obedience and coercion. What bears noticing is that his conception of political liberty, like Hobbes’, is essentially negative. Locke was most desirous of propounding a theory of government that would enable people to resist the unjust actions of an arbitrary sovereign. For that reason he argued, again by resorting to the metaphor of the state of nature, that all humans are endowed with certain natural rights. We all have a right, Locke thought, to be protected in our lives, our liberty, our health, and our property. These are rights that we may voluntarily surrender (for good reasons), but (and this is crucial), they are also rights that ensure to all of us a measure of privacy by protecting us from the interference of others, be they the government or other entities within our society. Locke had much more confidence in the ability of ordinary persons to govern themselves than Hobbes, but he had little doubt that most people would find it in their interest to be left alone, so long as they weren’t being harmed in their life, liberty, health, or property.

I hope that it is plain that the arguments of Hobbes and Locke can be used to underwrite the claims that “A” waged on behalf of her political liberty. If we turn briefly to the political thought of Rousseau, we will see that reasons can and have been given that lend support to the decidedly more communitarian position of our friend “B.”

Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, the son of a footloose and irresponsible watchmaker. He was privately educated and, as he reached his adulthood, managed to attract the attention of a number of prominent philosophers, including Voltaire and Diderot. His breakthrough to fame came in l750, when he won an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. This was the first of his three discourses, The Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. I will focus on his second discourse, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, also written for an essay competition, which he did not win. It was in this discourse that Rousseau turned his attention to the problem of political liberty, or to the extent to which all modern societies deprive persons of their natural liberty.

The Second Discourse is mostly a profoundly destructive piece of writing. There is nothing positive in it except his prefatory “Letter to the Republic of Geneva,” to which Rousseau had dedicated his essay. In the “Letter” Rousseau extolled Geneva in terms that bore absolutely no resemblance to what that city was actually like; it is an apically nostalgic depiction of that community, but no less interesting or important as a result.

This is what he wrote:

“If I had to choose my birthplace, I would have chosen a society of a size limited by the extent of human faculties, that is to say, limited by the possibility of being well governed, and where, with each being sufficient to his task, no one would have been forced to relegate to others the functions with which he was charged; a state where, with all private individuals being known to one another, neither the obscure maneuvers of vice nor the modesty of virtue could be hidden from the notice and the judgment of the public, and where that pleasant habit of seeing and knowing one another turned love of homeland into love of the citizens rather than into love of the land.

“I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have but one and the same interests, so that all the movements of the machine always tended only to the common happiness. Since this could not have taken place unless the people and the sovereign were one and the same person, it follows that I would have wished to be born under a democratic government, wisely tempered.”

This fictional account of Geneva evokes the participatory virtues of classical Athens, where the small size of the community and the homogeneity of its citizens enabled them to govern themselves directly. Rousseau was in effect smitten by “polis envy” and could see no reason why this did not represent the quintessence of all political societies. Mind you, he never believed it possible to recreate Athens, or Geneva for that matter, elsewhere. The happy circumstances of Geneva were a stick with which he intended to beat all contemporary societies.

He did this by fabricating his own state of nature story. Unlike the stories of Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau’s state of nature did not depict one particular condition; it was more a process of degeneration. He made no bones about the fact that it was purely fictional, but he insisted that it was not untrue. “It is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man,” Rousseau explained, “and to have a proper understanding of a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and yet about which it is necessary to have accurate notions in order to judge properly our own present state.” He continued: “Let us therefore begin by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question. The investigations that may be undertaken concerning this subject should not be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional reasoning, better suited to shedding light on the nature of things than on pointing our their true origin, like those our physicists make everyday with regard to the formation of the world.”

The first stage of Rousseau’s state of nature, certainly the most famous, is that of innocent primitivism. It was at this stage that he described humans as “noble savages.” In this non-moral condition, humans are all strong of stature and utterly without guile. Unlike the rest of the animal world, humans possess two essential characteristics: freedom and the capacity of self-improvement. The freedom Rousseau had in mind was personal freedom: the independence of an individual who has no master, no employer, no one on whom he is an any way dependent. The capacity of self-improvement is actuated by the challenges of nature. In addition, he has one natural virtue: pity. It is the source of all the most important social virtues: kindness, generosity, mercy, humanity. (Notice that in contrast with Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau believed that humans are natural social creatures.) When persons are removed from nature, he thought, they scarcely feel the influence of pity. In the modern world, it is the least educated people, the ones in whom the power of reasoning is least developed, who exhibit toward their suffering fellow humans the most lively and sincere commiseration.

This initial state of primitivism is of crucial importance to Rousseau’s argument. He insists that the most basic motives leading humans to act are non-rational instincts. Reason, though part of the human constitution, is given no chance to act. It was only from this starting point that Rousseau could find what he took to be a truly common denominator among humans. As he put it, with the example of Locke and other natural law theorists clearly in mind, “In this way one is not obliged to make a man a philosopher before making him a man.”

Humans do not remain for long in this condition, however. Rousseau explains that certain natural occurrences, such as volcanoes or lightening, which provide humans with knowledge of fire, place them in a position to make a virtue of their reasoning powers, of their ingenuity. It is at this stage, necessarily, that the process of moral and physical degeneration begins. Man finds it necessary to make his way in the world by laying claim to scarce resources. He begins to create for himself an identity that is necessarily purchased at the expense of others.

Man becomes self-conscious, he plans for the future. The first stirrings of pride manifest themselves. The tragedy of this state of affairs, for Rousseau, is that with the development of the human mind, with the progress of what is usually called civilization, comes the progress of human inequality. Trust gives way to competition; individuals lose their independence; private property comes to be established, and with it, an ever more complex division of labor. It is by this principal means of generating wealth that man becomes alienated from his true self. For once the institution of property is introduced, the differences between individual capacities and circumstances produce even greater inequalities in individual processions, which in turn leads to the alienation of man from himself and from his fellows.

It is through the endless proliferation of needs that man himself creates that this conflict grows into a war of all against all. The remedy for this state of affairs is the institution of a system of laws through a social contract. But whereas the contracts described by Hobbes and Locke were rational and just solutions equally advantageous to all, Rousseau’s social contract is a fraudulent deal imposed on the poor by the rich. The social contract promises liberty, but enforces the status quo. Rousseau imagines the first founder of civil government as a wily rich man saying to the poor: “Let us unite…let us institute rules of justice…instead of directing our forces against each other, let us unite them in one supreme power which shall govern us according to wise laws.” The poor, who can see that in setting up a system of law they are establishing peace, agree; they do not realize that they are transforming existing possessions into permanent legal property, and so perpetuating their own poverty as well as the wealth of the rich.

The tragedy of modern man, as Rousseau sees it, is that it is no longer possible to find happiness in the only way it can be found, which is living according to nature. “Natural man” enjoys repose and freedom. “Civilized man,” on the contrary, is always active, always busy, always playing a part, sometimes bowing to greater individuals, whom he hates, or to richer ones, whom he scorns; always ready to do anything for honors, power and reputation, and yet never having enough. The lessons of Rousseau’s Second Discourse are, as I’ve suggested, entirely negative. And there’s no turning back. He recognizes that man’s noble savagery cannot be replicated, and we shouldn’t even try.

Our task is perhaps a more daunting one still. It is to teach people to recognize that the good life depends upon inculcating a set of civic virtues that will allow men to act, not on the basis of narrow self-interest, but for the common good, when that good is defined in terms of economic, social, and moral equality. This is what true political liberty entails. It’s an uncompromising ideal to be sure. It is hardly surprising that when Rousseau discussed the approximation of that ideal he began by admitting that “man must be forced to be free.” Rousseau loved to revel in such paradoxical utterances, so it is perhaps not wise to take him literally–though of course others have (Robespierre, Sainte-Juste) with violent and tragic results. What Rousseau meant, at a minimum, is that the essence of political liberty is self-government.

Conclusion

Self-government requires that people learn to exercise their rights and opportunities. This is no simple or easy matter; but then, in a free political society–as our friend “B” recognizes–you get what you deserve.

–Peter J. Diamond, Ph.D

 

 

Thomas Jefferson and the Humanism of Jesus

January 1993

Talk given by Reverend Tom Goldsmith, Minister of the First Unitarian Church, at the monthly meeting of the Humanists of Utah on December 10, 1992.

Although I feel very honored to address the Utah Humanists, I confess that it is no easy task to be a speaker immediately following Sterling McMurrin. To make matters worse, I didn’t even have any “free agency” in determining my topic. Bob Green said, “You will speak on the Humanism of Jesus.”

The only thing harder than being the sequel to Sterling McMurrin is being forced to speak to a group of humanists on Jesus. Given the nature of this group, I would rather follow Jesus as a speaker and talk to you about the humanism of Sterling McMurrin.

Of course I know why Bob wanted me to give a speech on Jesus. It’s that time of year, with the holidays and all, when humanists dig in their heels with all this religious observance and pageantry stuff. Humanists contend that the holidays smack of too many church celebrations, and organized religion rears its ugly head.

But the problem is that humanists, like most people, enjoy holiday celebrations. Even humanists feel Christmas as a time of emotional attachments, and they end up embroiled in tremendous warfare between their rational selves and emotional selves. I think Bob wanted to hear something positive about Jesus in a humanist light so he can enjoy Christmas without guilt.

One of the old lines from way back: What’s the difference between a Unitarian and a reformed Jew? The Reformed Jew has the Christmas tree. Let’s face it, Christmas as a religious holiday poses problems for everyone in this room, yet we celebrate it anyway because we need something more satisfying and soulful than the 4th of July.

Salt Lake City is a great place to talk to humanists about Jesus. Especially at Christmas-time; with Temple Square decked out in beautiful lights; Jake Garn’s new book on why he believes hot off the presses and selling like hotcakes; and the Tabernacle Choir sounding like celestial angels singing the true meaning of Christmas. And here we are.

But I’m certain that all of us have strolled through Temple Square during this season. I certainly recall my first meandering through the grounds on a cold pre-Christmas evening—unsuspectingly bumping into the biggest Jesus Christ I ever saw in my life—smiling down at me from the Visitor’s Center. Scared my children to death. He seemed free-floating in space, and as I walked up the ramp I felt I had come face-to-face with the Cosmic Christ.

Let me begin by saying that Cosmic Christ may sound like hippy jargon as in: “Wow, out of sight, man.” But Cosmic Christ is really a legitimate theological term, stemming from the doctrine of Jesus as the incarnate Logos.

Jesus became the Logos in the fourth century when the Nicene Creed adopted the dogma of the trinity. By applying this title to Jesus, the Christian philosophers of that time interpreted Jesus as the divine clue to the structure of reality–phrased another way, Jesus as key to all metaphysical thinking. That is, if the question of “being” is the riddle of the ages, Jesus provides the missing piece to solve the puzzle.

The opening words of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” was deliberately meant to paraphrase the opening words in the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth…and God said…”

One way to translate logos is “The Speaking of God.”

The power of Jesus as the Logos incarnate is staggering–imagine, the “Speaking of God” taking on human form. And because the Speaking of God made the world possible, it was also the “Speaking of God” that made the world intelligible. Thus Jesus Christ as the Logos was the word of God revealing the way and the will of God to the world. Jesus tells us the meaning of it all (The Cosmic Christ).

We need to understand as we try to process this amazing stuff that the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are two very different people with two very different stories. Essentially, for those of you who cling to the Christ of Faith, his personal history is irrelevant because Christianity begins with the resurrection—the risen Christ. His history, they contend, is irrecoverable, and besides, it doesn’t matter.

For those who hope to construct some understanding of this person in history, and discern his ethical humanism which might help us construct a better life in this world–the Cosmic Christ and incarnation of the Logos overshadow any reasonable lessons we might otherwise glean from Jesus’ exemplary life as a Jewish holy man committed to providing justice for the poor and outcast.

What became dogma in Nicea was the belief that through Jesus the Christ, all things were made. In other words, the word God spoke at the creation was also present in Jesus. The word which created something out of nothing…which turned non-being into being…was present in Jesus.

And when the world that the Logos fashioned turned their eyes away from God and became a fallen world, God sends us his Son and the Christmas Story becomes the lynchpin for getting the whole thing rolling. The word of God becomes incarnate in Jesus, born in a manger in Bethlehem. Christmas is powerful stuff for the believing Christian. The fact that the birth narrative we associate with Jesus is all folk-tale, including the shepherds and wise men and no room at the inn embellished by artist renditions of that holy night, does nothing to dissuade the believing Christian that cosmic mysteries were revealed in human form some 2000 years ago.

Images of Jesus that precluded the Cosmic Christ idea–word became flesh–didn’t get much attention, really, until the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers trying to dig out from under this Cosmic Christ theology might constitute an interesting lecture in and of itself some day, but I just want to touch briefly on two names before moving to Thomas Jefferson, the thrust of my address tonight.

I need first to mention Matthew Tindal, and you’ll be pleased to know he’s not even a Unitarian and somehow wound up in my remarks. In his 1730 publication, he portrayed Jesus as “The Teacher of Common Sense.” He argued that a new image was necessary because in the course of time and with the advance of science and philosophy, the ambiguity in proving Christ’s uniqueness demanded fresh thinking.

It’s remarkable that Tindal is at least 260 years ahead of Pat Robertson, today’s presidential hopeful whose Christianity boasts hatred, intolerance, and division among people. But we don’t want to get into politics tonight.

Nonetheless…it is amazing just to contemplate how hatred and intolerance is perpetuated in Christ’s name, the word of God made flesh. The power of creation made manifest in human form supposedly holds opinions now on feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, quotas, family values, and welfare queens.

But getting back to the topic at hand. Isaac Newton reacted quite negatively to the Cosmic Christ theology saying, “As a blind man has no idea of colors, so we have no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things.”

It’s important to note that Newton still possessed faith; it was the mystical Jesus which he protested. When it came to God, Newton seemed to say, “That’s just fine. Let’s deal with God as First Cause, Prime Mover of sun and stars and life in the galaxies.” But, the notion that the God of creation was present in Jesus is not only incompatible with reason, but you won’t even find it in scripture. It’s a doctrinal inclusion which transpired 300 years after Jesus’ death.

Clearly the Christ of Faith and the Historical Jesus are two very different people. And Thomas Jefferson, known more for his politics than his theology, made (I believe) one of the most notable contributions in helping us see the distinction between the two images of Christ. In a sense it’s remarkable that a president of this country almost two hundred years ago was more free to indulge in the humanism of Jesus than the president is today. It seems that any embrace by a public figure today of a Jesus other than the Logos incarnate would doom him or her politically.

Although Jefferson never joined a Unitarian Church, his sympathies were with this denomination and he predicted that before the end of the 19th century, Unitarianism would be the dominant religion in America. Of course that prediction was made even before the birth of Joseph Smith, so it goes to show you that history has a few surprises up its sleeve.

Jefferson once refused to be the God-Parent of his nephew, for fear the Episcopalian priest would make him promise to raise the nephew a Christian. It was only after pre-arranging with the priest that he would not ask Jefferson such an embarrassing question that he did agree to be the God-Father.

Jefferson’s theology was greatly influenced by the renown scientist and British Unitarian minister, Joseph Priestly. Priestly, who felt his theological charge was to discover the authentic Jesus buried beneath dogma and tradition, wrote a treatise called, “Corruptions of Christianity.” He thought he was nailing tight the coffin of the Cosmic Christ, but actually almost sealed his own fate when mobs tried to hang Priestly. He ran for his life, but all his scientific work in the laboratories of Birmingham England was burned to the ground.

Only because of a prior friendly meeting with Ben Franklin in London in 1774, did Franklin persuade Jefferson to help Priestly to this country. Priestly began the first Unitarian Church in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in 1793, but more importantly, became the religious mentor to Thomas Jefferson.

Priestly inspired Jefferson’s own personal pursuit of the authentic Jesus. Jefferson claimed it was simply not enough to reject the dogma and liturgical tradition of orthodox Christianity but to find a purified Christianity “…away from the rubbish in which it was buried.”

Most people identify Jefferson as an author of the Declaration of Independence. I was surprised during my first and only witnessing of the July 24th Pioneer Day Parade, how much Mormons seem to own Thomas Jefferson. I never quite understood it, other than when a friend explained that Jefferson was converted to Mormonism after he died…which really didn’t clear things up for me, either.

At any rate, my surprise of the Mormon embrace of Jefferson leads me to believe that they know little of his theology and his remarkable contributions to the theological world. He left behind several tracts on the philosophy of Jesus, but his seminal work is called, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually From the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English.” More colloquially, it’s known as THE JEFFERSON BIBLE.

In his earlier works, Jefferson wrote of Jesus, “And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.” In the Jefferson Bible, he expunged the term “and the grace of God was upon him.” He didn’t begin his bible with “In the beginning was the Word,” nor did Jefferson make any accounting of the annunciation, virgin birth nor the appearance of angels to the shepherds.

Jefferson wrote a profile of a human Jesus, a very ethical man whom Jefferson referred to as “The greatest of all reformers.” Jefferson termed the beginnings of Jesus “a man of illegitimate birth.” Incidentally, Clinton is a great admirer of Jefferson, part of the inauguration will include a swing through Jefferson’s Virginia, and indeed, Jefferson is Clinton’s middle name. Although a Baptist, I think and hope and pray that we might become a tad less concerned about being a Christian nation in the next four years and start to examine our foibles in the light of a greater human good.

Jefferson’s rational account of Jesus goes on to say, “A man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, and enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions of divinity, ending in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to Roman law.”

Jefferson insisted that Jesus’ humble origins not detract from the content of his message—namely a morality of absolute love and service. The humanism of Jesus is quite obvious, once it is liberated from the trappings of dogma, miracles, and the notion of the Cosmic Christ.

Jefferson had pieced together a portrait of Jesus as one who served humanity. Once the image of Jesus leaves the realm of the supernatural and conventional piety, we can begin to see a spiritual dynamic which drives to the core of humanism…at least religious humanism.

One of the leading humanists and a Unitarian minister from Minneapolis, Khoren Arisian, speaks of spirituality as “a potential aspect of all life.” I think we would all agree that spirituality is not a definable reality, but (according to my good friend and humanist leader, Ken Phifer) humanists can participate in spirituality as the journey, if not the actual arrival.

The humanism of Jesus, I believe, was geared towards the journey and addressed the “potential aspect of all life.” His foremost commitment lay with the poor. He demanded the poor be treated with justice.

Last Sunday in church I took the opportunity to explore some of the new images of Jesus since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a host of other writings found in Qumran (I have been immersed in a lot of Jesus this week, a not too common experience). Essentially, Jesus is now viewed as a holy man from Galilee, a healer and exorcist in great demand. He was more likely a scholar than a carpenter, and was probably married. It would have been very unusual at this time for a young Jewish male to have been unmarried. He had a strained relationship with his family, who disapproved of his association with swindlers, drunkards, and whores. He was sought by Rome for armed insurrection. He died a Jew, with no fixed body of teaching or blueprint for a new religion.

Thomas Jefferson obviously didn’t have the advantage of the Dead Sea Scrolls to enhance his portrait of a historical person some 2000 years ago. But he managed, nonetheless, to distill from the original texts, a commitment that life is beautiful and that our challenge is to bring peace and justice into the world.

The humanism of Jesus seemed like a process and attitude towards realizing the “potential aspect of all life.” His defense of the poor and empathy with the suffering are directly related to the demands of justice implored by Old Testament prophets. Jesus had studied them well.

Let me just add in conclusion, that it might appear shocking to some to consider the humanism of Jesus–a strange juxtaposition of secular and religious. Especially when we look at the 2000 year history of Christianity, it seems incomprehensible all which has been done in Christ’s name, from the Inquisition, to Hitler’s final solution, to the bigotry of Pat Robertson. I doubt Jesus would have looked upon Christianity any too kindly. In fact, said historian and biographer, A. N. Wilson, “If Jesus had foreseen the whole of Christian history, he might have exclaimed with Job, ‘Why died I not from the womb?'”

So as you dare take your next stroll through Temple Square…relax, enjoy the lights and ambiance…and be sure to meet up with that huge monstrosity of a Jesus, a reprehensible symbol to be sure, but worthy of contemplation. It represents a lot of theology; and it is a noble movement to get out from under such gaudy impressions of a mystical figure in order to appreciate a teacher–a Jewish holy man–whose visions of peace and justice resonated in all likelihood with your sentiments today.

Also, relax about the holidays, and don’t feel embarrassed as a humanist who enjoys Christmas. That might actually make a nice title for a Children’s story: “The Humanist Who Enjoyed Christmas,” right on the shelf next to the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

“Thanks for having me here tonight, and Merry Christmas to you all.”

During the discussion afterward, Reverend Goldsmith spoke of the book of James (brother of Jesus) found among a group of early Christian writers that added much to the “snap-shot” glimpses of Jesus and the times in which Jesus lived. At that time, Galilee was a hot-bed of political activism, there were 20-30 active sects striving for religious independence from Rome. Here, also, were holy men, usually Hasidic healers.

The book entitled “Jesus” by A. N. Wilson contains much information about this historical person with a following. A charismatic, itinerant exorcist, whose only goal was teaching about how to be a good Jew. He was a scholar, not a carpenter.

 

The Renaissance:

Humanism, Civic Virtue, and the Revival of Classical Learning

February 1993

Talk given by Dr. Robert Hansen on January 14, 1993. The following is edited from the lecture transcript.

I would like to thank the Humanists of Utah for inviting me to discuss Renaissance humanism for their meeting in January of 1993.

Our popular concept of the Renaissance as a distinct period in European intellectual history has become so well-entrenched over the last century that we need to be reminded that this is a problematic, although a useful, concept. Our use of the term “Renaissance” is primarily due to a single great historical work by the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, published in 1860.

Perhaps one example will illustrate the usefulness of the popular concept of the Renaissance. Most of us probably associate that period with an ideal called “the Renaissance man.” We think of an individual like Leonardo da Vinci, celebrated as much for keen powers of observation and scientific imagination as for his artistic output.

The classical expression of that ideal is set forth by Baldesar Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528). The book describes the qualities which should be possessed by the perfect courtier. Such a man should ideally be “born of a noble and genteel family” and have an impressive list of skills. As the servant of a king, the courtier should possess all the martial skills of a warrior. But the list of his skills has just begun. He should be a master of any physical activity even vaguely related to the skills of a warrior, and have all the social graces. He must also be a man of letters, an amateur musician who can play a variety of musical instruments, and know how to draw and have “an acquaintance with the art of painting itself.”

There is one other quality which Castiglione regards as just as important as the master of a variety of skills: “…above all, let him temper every action with a certain good judgement and grace, if he would deserve that universal favor which is so greatly prized.”

Thus, the ideal courtier, what we would now call “the Renaissance man,” needs to have two major qualities: versatility and grace. Castiglione explains the quality of grace and coins a new term, sprezzatura: the ability to perform a task not only skillfully as regards the outcome, but also with the appearance of effortlessness or nonchalance.

Imagine, for example, a game of billiards or pool. All of us have witnessed an overly fussy competitor who takes excessive pride in his skill. He eyes his target from every conceivable angle and assuming some contorted stance, finally takes a shot. If the shot fails, he looks like a fool. But even if the shot works, such a man has no sprezzatura. Now imagine a different player. He arrives at a tasteful bar accompanied by the most attractive woman in the establishment. Interrupting a casual conversation with a friend concerning the big bang and the prospects for a unified field theory, he takes a quick sip of his martini, casually puts down his glass, and having given the pool table a cursory glance, sinks a complicated combination shot. This is a man with sprezzatura! (Editor’s note: Perhaps Roger Moore’s James Bond is the modern equivalent!)

Clearly, it is an aristocratic ideal. It reflects the practices of many of the more prosperous and cultured people during Western European fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This has been most influential. Until recently it was precisely this model which shaped the structure of college education in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Note that this is a secular pattern of behavior. Though not directly opposed to Christianity, it is certainly an ideal which does not reflect the influence of medieval Christianity. Sprezzatura has little in common with Christian humility.

Our concept of the Renaissance is problematic not merely because the period is not precisely bounded at either end, but rather because many of the authors and works we think of as characteristically “medieval” are contemporaneous with the very authors and works which we regard as representative of Renaissance humanism. The Renaissance does not really follow the Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation, which begins no later than 1517, overlaps it at the other end, with the Scientific Revolution following quickly.

Thus no simple chronological criterion serves to demarcate the Renaissance, even if we confine our attention to intellectual history.

Perhaps we can best illustrate the subtlety of the distinction between medieval times and the Renaissance by comparing two of the most famous Florentine exiles: Dante Alghieri (1265-1321) and Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). Viewed without any historical preconceptions, their dissimilarities are obvious. One significant difference is the contrast in their attitudes toward scholastic philosophy. In The Divine Comedy Dante refers to Aristotle as “the master of those who know.” Petrarch was opposed to the whole enterprise of scholastic philosophy, which was the attempt to base Christian theology on the natural philosophy of Aristotle. For all their similarities, Dante, celebrated as the author of The Divine Comedy, is commonly regarded as the greatest literary figure of the Late Middle Ages, while his younger contemporary, Petrarch, is regarded as the first Renaissance humanist.

It is typical of Dante’s attitude toward the great figures of classical antiquity that some of them are to be admired. Aristotle is “The Philosopher”, just as Virgil is “the Poet” and Paul is “the Apostle”. But Aristotle and Virgil, unlike St. Paul or even Moses, are consigned nonetheless to Limbo, since they lived by “the light of human reason” alone, having been denied the benefits of the Christian Faith.

Dante’s most systematic treatise, De Monarchia, is a decidedly medieval work in that it is focused on an issue which goes back to 1075 when Pope Gregory VII claimed the right to depose a Holy Roman Emperor. In 1198, Pope Innocent III made the papal claim that the Pope possesses an ultimate authority over all temporal rulers. Dante argues for the desirability of a single, secular, world-state. He contends that the government of ancient Rome existed de jure and by divine right, as is shown by the birth of Christ during the reign of Augustus, and that the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor is derived directly from God. Mankind, Dante says, has two distinct ends, temporal happiness and eternal salvation. Eternal salvation is the concern of the Church, and hence within the province of the Pope, since it depends on the faith and sacraments of the Church. Temporal power is to be achieved by philosophical instruction supplied by a secular state, and this is the province of the Emperor.

There is nothing radical about Dante’s insistence on the independence of the temporal power, since the champions of the Emperor were almost as numerous during the century and a half prior to Dante’s work as the champions of the papacy. If there is anything radical about the doctrine of Dante’s De Monarchia, it is Dante’s optimism concerning the possibility of earthly felicity and his emphasis on philosophical instruction which is to be provided by the state. If divine revelation is our only guide to happiness in the next life, the Ethics of Aristotle is the best guide to happiness in this life. Notice that nowhere does Dante dispute the doctrine that “there is one holy, Catholic and apostolic church” outside of which “there is no salvation or remission of sins.”

Now, Petrarch lives in the memory of most people today as a great Italian poet, but among his contemporaries he was a living representative of antiquity. Primarily on the strength of his unfinished Latin epic on the career of Scipio Afticanus (modelled on a work by Virgil) and his Country Songs and numerous Latin letters (modelled on the correspondence of Cicero) Petrarch was crowned poet laureate in 1341. Petrarch’s ambition, his undisguised thirst for fame, his seemingly endless penchant for self-praise exceed not only the bounds of Christian humility but even a modern sense of modesty. It is just these characteristics, along with Petrarch’s celebrated chronic melancholy or depression, that are cited by historians who see in Petrarch “the first modern man.” One wonders whether pathological megalomania is really a symptom of modernity.

An important point in his Secretum is that although some of the passions to which Petrarch confesses are traditional Christian vices, others are more “modern”, or at least less typical of medieval culture. However, the remedies are those of the traditional Christian.

In another Italian writing Petrarch wrote an elaborate reply to the charge that he was “certainly a good man, but a scholar of poor merit.” This work displays the character of his objections to scholasticism (the reconciliation of Aristotelian natural philosophy with Christian theology). Petrarch’s contention is undoubtedly correct that some of the fundamental doctrines of Aristotle are incompatible with Christianity. Aristotle did believe in the eternity of the world, and this belief is certainly incompatible with the Christian belief that the world is created. Another celebrated example is the question of the immortality of the soul. Petrarch’s contention that Aristotle’s works in moral philosophy, though correct in that the conclusions reached are true, are not psychologically effective. Reading them is not likely to make the reader a better person. Most ancient moralists, including Aristotle, believed that the object of studying moral philosophy is to become, in some sense, a better person.

Now if one seriously believes that the goal of moral philosophy is to produce better citizens, better Christians, or whatever else one might suppose to constitute better human beings, then it is entirely plausible to suppose that eloquence or moral persuasiveness in a moral philosopher is just as important, or even more important, than logical acumen. But, of course, Petrarch and most of his humanist successors subscribed to precisely that assumption.

For all his seemingly modern predilections, he remains very much a medieval man. An interesting passage from the “Letter to Posterity” links Petrarch’s adoration for Roman antiquity to his acute sense of alienation from the culture into which he was born: “… I devoted myself singly, amid a crowd of subjects, to a knowledge of antiquity: for this age of ours I have always found distasteful, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other.”

Here, at last, we find something which really does serve to distinguish Dante and his medieval contemporaries from Petrarch and his humanist successors. Dante, like his scholastic contemporaries, had a considerable reverence for the achievements of classical antiquity. But he was also very much at home in the culture of the Late Middle Ages. The humanists, on the other hand, while rarely repudiating Christianity, did reject the late medieval synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian natural philosophy (Scholasticism). They looked to classical antiquity to provide them with models and educational programs for their own medieval culture.

What we call scholasticism was a response to the first stage in the recovery of classical learning, the recovery of the works of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For, as the knowledge of Greek rapidly dwindled in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west in 476 A.D., medieval philosophers were left with a very slim remnant of classical Greek philosophy in Latin translation. Between 1100 A.D. and 1270 A.D. most of Aristotle’s works and a few of Plato’s works were translated into Latin. Although all the works we now have were available in the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages, relations between East and West were so strained after the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. that most early translations came either from Norman Sicily, or from Spain. By the end of the thirteenth century most of Aristotle’s works were not only available in Latin but had also been incorporated into the curriculum of European universities.

The second stage of the recovery of classical learning is an the attempt to reconcile the Aristotelian natural philosophy with Christian theology. Its other defining characteristic was a particular dialectical method in the form of many scholastic works divided into questions, followed by a list of quotations from various authorities, then the author’s response to objections and finally the author’s argument for his position. This task of reconciliation was urgent in part because Aristotle’s natural philosophy was the most advanced body of thought available at the time.

The project of scholasticism was from the very beginning quite problematic. One major problem is that there are a number of apparent inconsistencies between Aristotle and any mainstream version of Christian theology. Aristotle did not believe in the immortality of the soul or any other form of personal immortality, nor did his discussion of the soul lend itself readily to the doctrine of individual immortality. Another inconsistency is that, while Aristotle recognized a god of sorts, the celebrated “unmoved mover”, it would be difficult to confuse the unmoved mover with the God of Christianity. (Aquinas and others apparently succeeded in accomplishing that difficult feat.) The unmoved mover does not concern itself with the affairs of human beings: it neither answers prayers nor punishes sinners, above all, it is not a creator. (Since Aristotle believed in the eternity of the world, he had no need of a creator.)

When we think of scholastic philosophy today we tend to think of systematic theologies supplied by philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274). This has been especially true since 1879, when the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII designated the philosophy of Aquinas as the official theology of the Catholic Church. The philosophy of Aquinas, however, enjoyed no such pre-eminence in the Late Middle Ages. Even in Petrarch’s day the philosophy of John Duns Scotus (ca. 1266-1303) rejecting Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God on the grounds that they were not sufficiently formal was the predominant view in many European universities. The philosophy of William of Ockham was the most formidable challenger of Aquinas.

What was at issue was the question of the status of natural theology and the demonstrability of the existence of God. The official, orthodox Catholic position, as found in Aquinas, is that although there are theological questions which cannot be settled without appealing to revelation, there is a core of questions which can be rationally demonstrated. These questions comprise natural theology. In particular, proponents of natural theology commonly held that the existence, uniqueness and benevolence of God can be rationally demonstrated.

The contention is that Ockham holds that neither the existence, nor the uniqueness, nor the benevolence of God can be demonstrated. This does not, of course, make Ockham an atheist. He never denied that there was a God, nor was there any reason to doubt that Ockham supposed that there was a God. But Ockham’s conclusion does imply that there can be no natural theology. If accepted, this means the end of scholastic theology as it was understood by St. Thomas Aquinas and his predecessors.

How influential was Ockham’s position? The best indication is that there were university decrees directed against his teachings as early as 1339. From the number of his known followers throughout the next century, we can conclude that it was very influential indeed.


HUMANISM: philosophical and literary movement in which human values and capabilities are the central focus. The term originally referred to a point of view particularly associated with the RENAISSANCE, with its emphasis on secular studies (the humanities), a conscious return to classical ideals and forms, and a rejection of medieval religious authority. BOCCACCIO, ERASMUS, and PETRARCH were outstanding humanists. In modern usage, humanism often indicates a general emphasis on lasting human values, respect for scientific knowledge, and cultivation of the classics.
The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1983.

 

Progress: Our Most Important Product

The American Idea of Progress: People Naturally Seek Improvement For Themselves and Society

August 1993

Introduction

One of the reasons I accepted this invitation to talk to the Humanists of Utah so readily (apart from the intrinsically interesting nature of this group) is that I have been fascinated for a long time by the concept of Progress–by which I assume we mean primarily progress in the affairs of human beings. In fact, I have taught for some years now in the Liberal Education program at the University of Utah a course entitled “Perspectives on American Culture” which typically deals with several very large questions, tracing them through several different time periods in the American experience for their cultural impact.

We have, for example, discussed whether Americans really believe that all men (and maybe women) are created equal–and just what we really mean when we quote Mr. Jefferson’s memorable lines from the Declaration of Independence. We have discussed the question of cultural distinctiveness, what it is about Americans (if anything) that makes them different from other peoples around the globe. And one of my favorites has long been the question: IS REAL PROGRESS POSSIBLE?

I might say that often strikes my students as an odd kind of question to ask, for belief in Progress–the possibility if not, in fact, the inevitability of Progress–has long been part and parcel of being American and having an American outlook on life. When you go to the supermarket and inspect the laundry detergent, you will probably find each box marked “new and improved,” and to most Americans that seems redundant. “New” is obviously improved and better.

There are no doubt historical reasons for this American affinity for the idea of Progress. To the extent that this is, as John Kennedy once said, a “nation of immigrants,” why would people pull up stakes, leave friends and family and familiar surroundings to undertake a perilous ocean voyage in the 17th and 18th centuries, to try to carve a new community out of the North American wilderness–unless they anticipated improving their circumstances? Improving their situations materially and maybe spiritually? Why would they make so bold as to take up arms in 1775 against the soldiers and the Navy of the strongest military power in the western world, a British nation that had just vanquished the French in the Seven Years’ War, unless they were optimistic about being able to replace the political status quo with a system more likely to uphold their “unalienable” human rights?

So a dozen different elements–relatively large amounts of individual freedom, geographical and social mobility, relative material abundance, and the rapid pace of technological discovery and change, for example–conspired to make most Americans ardent believers in PROGRESS from the earliest times.

Historical Background of Progress

What we tend to forget is that not all people have assumed so easily that Progress is automatic, or that real Progress is even possible. In some ways, it is a conspicuously modern concept. In the Ancient World most people were poor, living at or near the poverty line, the level of bare subsistence. Life was short; age after age found itself afflicted with famine or pestilence or war (or all of the above) and human nature was often assumed to be a constant, never getting much better or much worse, a constant which precluded meaningful improvement so long as human beings remained human. How much hope was there in such a world? Occasionally, of course, a person might place his or her faith in a Messiah, someone sent by God to wrench humanity out of its normal historical rut and show them a better way. But there was little tangible secular progress as we think of it.

That is not to say there were not some exciting, even dazzling, periods in Ancient History: The Civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were striking in their own way. And we still speak of the Periclean period as the “Golden Age” of Greece. There was the glory that was Rome under the Caesars. But all of these remarkable civilizations eventually passed from the scene, victims of internal decay of one kind or another, or external pressure–or both. And perhaps also ultimately the victims of unchanging human nature.

After the Roman Empire had dissolved, after the “barbarian invasions,” the Middle Ages, at least in the West, were anything but optimistic about progress in this world. I am not arguing that the period between 500 and 1200 A.D. was totally bleak, “Dark Ages” in which nothing of importance was happening. But hardly anyone in the Medieval period expected Progress. Life was simple; interpersonal and institutional relationships were essentially fixed and stable. And as Christianity became the dominant institutional force in Europe, the focus tended to be on the assumed next world rather than on this one, on the hereafter rather than the here-and-now.

All that began to change with the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the dawning of the Modern Era. With the development and expansion of long-distance trade and commerce, the isolation of communities and their citizens was breached and in time they became more economically interdependent. Politically, we witness the rise of dynastic Nation-States where old feudal fiefdoms or rustic principalities had previously existed. And the inquiries of thinkers like Copernicus and Galileo and, by the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton, led to a whole host of new discoveries and inventions, new ways of looking at our existence in the Universe, and the adoptions of inductive logic and a scientific method for solving problems which had previously seemed insoluble.

So all of a sudden (to historians that means over a period of several hundred years!), people began to direct more attention to this world, on our day-to-day existence and what might be done to improve it, rather than merely waiting around for the promised after-life. The conception of a Newtonian universe, operating according to a series of discoverable and dependable natural laws, had a lot to do with the coming of the Age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century–and with the rise of a philosophy like Deism–ultimately with the intellectual justification of the American Revolution.

The Idea of Progress in America

As I have already suggested, there was nowhere in the world that the Idea of Progress took root so firmly and enthusiastically as in the new United States of America. That impulse is more observable at some times than at others; one of the favorite themes historians use to try to make sense out of the past is the cyclical theory of alternating periods of reform and consolidation (or even drift) until new problems arise and new pressures build necessitating another burst of reform activity. Certainly one of the most exciting of these periods of reform ferment occurred between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1860-61, a period we sometimes call the “Era of Reform” in American history. It was Henry Adams who noted in his remarkable history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that:

“In 1815 for the first time Americans ceased to doubt the path they were to follow. Not only was the unity of their nation established, but its probable divergence from older societies was also well defined.”

Adams then noted the American reputation for shrewdness in the early 19th century, the “Yankee trader” image, and the relatively high state of public morality, but then went on to add:

“If Englishmen took pride in one trait more than in another, it was in the steady uniformity of their progress…[But] America showed an un-English rapidity in movement. In politics, the American people between 1787 and 1817 accepted greater changes than had been known in England since 1688. In religion, the Unitarian movement of Boston and Harvard College would never have been possible in England where the defection of Oxford or Cambridge, and the best educated society in the United Kingdom, would have shaken Church and State to their foundations. In literature the American school was chiefly remarkable for the rapidity with which it matured. The first book of [Washington] Irving was a successful burlesque of his own ancestral history; the first poem of Bryan sang of the earth only as a universal tomb; the first preaching of Channing assumed to overthrow the Trinity; and the first paintings of Allston aspired to recover the ideal perfection of Raphael and Titian. In all these directions the American mind showed [progressive] tendencies that surprised Englishmen more than they struck Americans.”

So Americans were conscious of their “newness,” their willingness to break with the past, and were inclined to see that inclination as an advantage rather than a handicap. Starting anew, we could avoid the mistakes and burdens of older, more staid civilizations. In this new setting, all things should be possible. We should at least be able to build John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.”

Technological Change and Progress

This optimism and belief in Progress was clearly aided and abetted by the rapid pace of technological development. The amazingly rapid growth of a textile industry in this country followed the recreation by the weaver Samuel Slater of vital pieces of machinery from memory following his immigration from England in the late 18th century. And Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 is another example of growth propelled into the early 1800’s. Just consider the list of American inventions, sometimes produced by the different conditions encountered during westward expansion: (1) John Deere’s invention of a steel plow in 1837, an implement light enough to be pulled by a team of horses instead of the slow-moving oxen required to pull earlier plows, yet (2) tough enough to cut through the thickly-matted grass and roots of the American prairie, and (3) smooth enough to keep the soil from clinging to the blades. By 1860, John Deere’s factory in Moline, Illinois, was turning out 10,000 plows a year and the impact on American agricultural development and productivity was tremendous.

Or consider young Cyrus McCormick who had already produced a workable model of a horse-drawn reaper by 1831. McCormick’s device allowed wheat to be cut and bundled five times as fast as the process had required when farmers were using only a hand scythe. By 1860, McCormick was selling roughly 35,000 reapers each year. And to the degree that this new machinery permitted fewer workers to produce just as much or more food and fibre in the countryside, no longer needed workers might now be put to work in the nation’s burgeoning industrial sector. We need not run through the entire list of mid-19th century inventions: Charles Goodyear and the vulcanization of rubber in 1839; the first practical telegraph invented by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, which opened up an entirely new field of electrical and eventually electronic communication over long distances. My point is simply that the psychosocial impact of these technological innovations, the sense that America was on the move, life was changing before one’s very eyes and each succeeding generation would be the beneficiary of these changes, was incredibly powerful. How could a person living in the United States in the middle of the 19th century fail to believe in the possibility of Progress?

Or, in a more scientific realm, consider the impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. (The Origin of Species was first published in 1859). The common understanding of this process of natural selection was that those forms of life best adapted to their environment, to the natural order of things, would survive in larger numbers and would triumph over those less fit. I am choosing my words with some care, for the evolutionary process as I understand it does not make value judgments, better or worse, except by a very pragmatic standard. But it was utterly predictable that most people, including some less-than-scientific thinkers like Herbert Spencer, would assume that the inevitable result of evolution was PROGRESS.

The Progressive Era

By the early years of the 20th century, as I’m sure you are aware, the country had passed into another period of reform ferment, the period we usually call the “PROGRESSIVE ERA.” Again, perhaps partly because we were entering a new century, there was a new readiness to seek ways to improve our society, our economy, our political system, even our morals. Suddenly we were encouraged to take nothing for granted. Obviously many of the old institutions and habits of thought had proven inadequate or we would not be faced with all the problems the country faced in the year 1900: (a) a concentration of wealth and economic power until the old competitive ideal and individual initiative seemed imperiled; (b) the huddled masses of “new immigrants” in the big cities of the north and east, often living in squalor amidst urban vice and crime and disease; (c) a political system that often seemed unresponsive to the people it was supposed to represent–political decisions made too often in smoke-filled rooms by corrupt ward bosses or, in the South, corrupt county sheriffs.

So now we’re going to make all of these old ways of doing things justify themselves anew, measured by the knowledge and expectations of the 20th century. That’s an exhilarating exercise when you get into it, and the years between 1901 and 1917 (or so) were exciting. Of course nothing like this can happen without a prior judgment that Progress is possible: we can make things better.

Problems For The Idea of Progress

Having said that, I would argue that notwithstanding its promising beginning, the 20th century has not been kind to the Idea of Progress. I just tossed off the year 1917 as a fairly traditional end for the Progressive Era in this country. Why? Because, of course, that is the year the United States entered World War I. And even before this country became an active belligerent, that first Great War had proved to be so ghastly in its results, so efficient with the new technology at killing literally millions of human beings (tanks, airplanes, submarines, poison gas) that the faith of thoughtful people in Progress was being shaken. When you see the cream of the younger generation in country after country go off to fight for the dubious honor of the Fatherland (or King & Country), and you see so many of them returning maimed in body and spirit–or not returning at all–it is not easy to sustain your faith in Progress.

Then, by the early 1930’s, the Western World was entering a period of catastrophic economic distress, the Great Depression. The economic dislocation of the interwar years had more than a little to do with the rise of Fascism and the rise to power first of Mussolini in Italy and, by 1933, the coming to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. We know what that portended, along with the rise to power of a military oligarchy in Japan and Tokyo’s drive for its own expanded empire in East Asia. We know the sorry history of World War II: perhaps 20 million Russians killed, another six million Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Aryans murdered in the Holocaust, and finally the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in August, 1945. In the face of these developments, could we any longer maintain that “every day and in every way” we were getting better and better–or, for that matter, that any meaningful progress had been made by humankind in the past several thousand years?

So historians, among others, became skeptical and the so-called “Progressive Historians” of earlier in the century–Charles Beard, Carl Becker, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and to some extent Frederick Jackson Turner–gave way to later generations of scholars who chose to emphasize the intolerance and bigotry that have so often colored our domestic history, and the way in which American capitalism had so often exploited people we considered “backward” in other lands. Progress, these younger scholars seemed to suggest, was a faint hope if not an outright myth. Were they–are they–right? Are we just kidding ourselves if we continue to entertain the possibility of improvement? Well, let’s talk about that.

Quantity as Progress

Before we begin, it seems to me we need to make some distinctions. What do we mean when we use the word “Progress”? Are we talking primarily, perhaps exclusively, about quantifiable, material, physical progress? Or are we also, at our best, talking about striving for qualitative, moral, even spiritual progress? If we mean only the material side of life, surely for most Americans the evidence of progress during this century is overwhelming. To take perhaps the most obvious example, consider the strides made in the field of medicine and health care. No, I am not arguing that we have achieved perfection or that we do not still face monumental problems in this field, perhaps most of all the problem of how a society with finite resources will be able to pay for the best possible health care for all of its citizens. But this “health care crisis” is at least partly the result of our success in prolonging life and controlling if not eradicating any number of diseases and medical conditions that people had no choice but to face with grim resignation in the year 1900.

1993 is the 200th anniversary of a terrible Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, that ravaged particularly the poor neighborhoods of that city–a disease that was still a dreaded killer over a century later as Americans contemplated building the Panama Canal. Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” killed hundreds of thousands in the early 20th century. And typhoid! And who remembers the great influenza pandemic at the end of World War I? All this, of course, was prior to the advent of penicillin or broad-spectrum antibiotics, or radiation or chemotherapy for cancer victims, or microsurgery. In my own lifetime, I remember taking our first child, as an infant, to a St.Louis Cardinal baseball game in the middle 1960’s in August, secure in the knowledge that she had had her polio vaccine. Twenty years before, a prudent parent would not have taken a child that age out in such a large crowd at that time of year. That was the “polio season.”

Well, I need not belabor the point. People are living longer. In the year 1900, the average life expectancy at birth in this country was 47.3 years, compared to over 75 years today (and almost 80 for girl babies). And, in the majority of cases, for all of our environmental hazards, Americans are enjoying better health than they were 50 or 100 years ago, and that is a kind of undeniable Progress.

We are also, for the most part, living more comfortable lives than our grandparents could even have dreamed of. Many of the most odious, backbreaking manual labor jobs are now done by machines. True, that change may produce other kinds of problems. You didn’t find the mass of humanity worrying a lot about how it would spend its leisure time when it didn’t have any. Now, however, the standard amenities of life for the American middle class include jetting across the continent–or the world–to visit friends and family or foreign lands, and instantaneous communication with the people they would like to see if it is inconvenient to get together in person. We have enormous quantities of information available for the enrichment of our minds and the enhancement of our understanding of current affairs and the wonders of nature, all at the flick of a switch.

So when I spend a few weeks on the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in my classes at the University of Utah and then ask my students if they would like to trade places with their ancestors who lived in that time period, they tend to look at me as though I had slipped my moorings. No matter how nostalgic we might become about the supposedly simpler, more straightforward world of our youth (and there is always a good deal of selective memory at work when we do that), how many of us would really want to return to the first half of this century?

Quality as Progress

Still, material, quantifiable progress may not be enough It may ultimately be less important than improving the way human beings relate to one another, care about one another–humanistic progress, if you will. That was the note sounded by Lyndon Johnson in proposing his “Great Society” programs of the 1960’s. In that very affluent decade, the President (or maybe it was Joe Califano or Richard Goodwin) said it was about time that Americans started asking “not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.” It was time, the Great Society said, to start measuring people and institutions not by the quantity of their goods but by the quality of their character. And the Great Society was willing to be judged by the way it treated even the least of its citizens. Of course, that is a very tough standard to use in measuring Progress. Did Lyndon Johnson ask too much of us? Did he, in fact, ask too much of himself?

For, again, we all know what happened next. Within three years, we were mired in a bitterly divisive war in Southeast Asia, one that ultimately cost more than 58,000 American and many many more Vietnamese lives–a war that went a long way toward tearing Mr. Johnson’s consensus apart. And at the very same time we saw the Civil Rights movement, which had crested so marvelously in the March on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, give way to rioting and looting and burning in the nation’s cities: Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and dozens of metropolitan areas in flames in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. The combination of Vietnam and the Race Problem–and finally Watergate–destroyed the faith many younger Americans had in their political system, the system we had depended on to produce progress in the area of social justice.

After the double-digit inflation of the Carter years and escalating budget deficits of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, even our continuing material progress seemed in doubt. You may recall that Bill Clinton got a lot of mileage in the 1992 presidential campaign out of the question of whether the young people in his audiences might constitute the first generation of Americans to have little realistic hope of doing better than their parents had done. It was a line that worked because we couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t actually true. So what do we conclude from the historical evidence? Is it naive in the last years of the 20th century to think real progress is possible? We must have some doubts or it would hardly be worth talking about.

A Definition of Progress

Let me offer a few suggestions as we approach the problem. First of all (and perhaps this is where I should have begun), it seems to me we need to consider defining the terms. My dictionary offers as the first, generic meaning of the term “Progress,” “movement toward a goal,” and only secondarily “steady improvement, as of a civilization.” The phrase “toward a goal” is crucial. Unless you have some standard in mind, some yardstick for measuring progress, the concept is meaningless. There is no way to tell what is and is not “improvement.” What this definition does, you see, is to distinguish between simple change, and actual progress. Historians are fond of saying that change is virtually the only constant in history, the only thing that is always present. Nothing is ever quite the same as it was a century or ten years or ten minutes ago; the world is in a continual state of alteration. But whether the change is for the better, constituting genuine progress, is a different question. That necessarily involves some value judgements. So what criteria should we use?

What Criteria for Progress?

I suspect we could find as many answers to that question as there are people in this room–or people who would care to try to answer it. However since this is, after all, the Humanists of Utah, a Chapter of the American Humanist Association, I thought it might be appropriate to borrow from the list of Ten Principles of Global Humanism recently framed (and dedicated to the memory of our own Ed Wilson) by Bill Jacobsen, the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University and a field director of the AHA. We won’t go through all ten, but some of them seemed especially suitable for use as a kind of check-list to determine whether any meaningful progress is observable over the last century or so.

Take, for example, Jacobsen’s First Principle: “We focus on human concerns, not doctrinal claims.” My hunch is that it is generally true not just of Humanists but of American society today. Consider the millions of Americans who are essentially “unchurched,” who belong to no religious denomination and, for the most part, are not even embarrassed about it. That does not mean that they are indifferent to people or human concerns. When they direct attention to the plight of the homeless in the nation’s cities, or adequate health care for pregnant teenagers, or the right of homosexuals as well as heterosexuals to serve in their country’s armed forces, or battered spouses, they are showing that they care about people.

And although it is not hard to find doctrinal squabbles in some religious denominations, it seems to me the old-line, mainstream Protestant churches in this country have soft-pedaled their discussion of doctrine in recent decades in preference for more active work for social justice and human rights. Most Americans are far less likely to get excited today about the precise configuration of the Godhead, or whether we ask forgiveness for our debts or our trespasses when we mumble the Lord’s Prayer, or whether one should be dunked or sprinkled during baptism, than was the case a century ago. I confess I regard that as Progress.

The Second Principle says: “We celebrate character, not creed; a diversity of traditions, not just what we inherit personally or culturally.” We hear a good deal about diversity these days. There is even an Associate Academic Vice President at the University of Utah whose job it is to foster diversity on campus, something we badly need. The fact is, even though we still fall far short of full equality of opportunity in our society, there are many more women and people of color on college campuses today than there were half a century ago. And I have to believe that represents Progress. Contrast the fact that today we court and welcomediversity, with the ethnocentricity and gender bias that prevailed a few decades ago, which reflected deeply ingrained attitudes of Anglo-American, Christian, male cultural and moral superiority and no need to honor or even tolerate different styles and customs. Isn’t that Progress?

The Fourth Principle proclaims that “We embrace the scientific project that explores humanity and nature without recourse to non-natural entities.” It is within the lifetime of some people in this room that William Jennings Bryan and the Christian Fundamentalists launched their attack on the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools of Dayton, Tennessee during the trial of John Thomas Scopes in the summer of 1925. Today, I suspect the overwhelming majority of Americans immediately wrote off David Koresh and his followers in their compound outside Waco, Texas, as a bunch of loonies for their rejection of the secular world’s understanding of reality. Perhaps the thing that frightens us the most about Islamic Fundamentalism in a place like Iran is its utter rejection of the last several hundred years of the rule of reason and the scientific method in the world, things we instinctively feel all sensible people should agree on. So I think I would argue that despite the aberrant behavior of some groups and individuals, scientific realism and inductive reasoning are the norm in the modern era. And that is Progress.

The Sixth Principle of Global Humanism reminds us that “This planet is our home, shared with other people, other sentients. As we write a story with our lives, we determine the fate of future generations.” In the early years of this century, a man like John Muir was literally a “voice crying in the wilderness” in urging human beings to respect their environment, to live within and appreciate nature. To be sure, old habits are hard to break, and the impulse to exploit natural resources for immediate profit with little regard for the future (or the other inhabitants of the plant) certainly lingers. But at least it is an issue now, and millions of people have an environmental sensitivity that was almost totally absent a few decades ago. Surely that is Progress.

Conclusion

Well, I am not going to go through the entire list of ten. You may want to pursue it on your own or create your own set of criteria for Progress. All in all, I wonder if it doesn’t finally come down to an Act of Faith, a faith that human beings do have the ability, the opportunity, to improve themselves, to choose the better over the worse? You see, if we have lost that faith, there is no earthly reason to make the effort–and ethical stasis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I wonder if the striving itself is not the point. In casting about for a title for this talk, I decided the old Westinghouse slogan might be amended to good advantage; maybe our most important product as human beings is the continuing quest for progress.

Of all the species on this planet, so far as we know, only humans have the capacity to imagine a better world and the possibility of making it a reality. Isn’t the quest for progress, then, an essential part of being human? (No one said it would be easy.) Hardly anything of importance is accomplished in this world without an enormous amount of hard work, endurance, and tenacity. Progress, if it exists, seems nearly always to be a matter of three steps forward and two back (or fifty-three forward and fifty-two back); yet what is the alternative to continuing the quest?

For the sake of humanity and ourselves, we have little choice but to try to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. Our forebears believed that, and their efforts gave us much of lasting value. We can do no less for generations yet to come.


Additional ideas generated during the discussion after the lecture:

  • Is the key to real, qualitative progress to be found within each individual, within the human heart? Or must it be found in the interaction between/among human beings, the way we treat one another?
  • What are some other possible criteria for judging progress?
    1. Basic fairness? Our increasing refusal to discriminate against other people for reasons that are beyond their control, “accidents of birth”?
    2. More compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves?
    3. More tolerance for people who are different, perhaps linked to our growing awareness of the marvelous diversity of humankind. As differences become more familiar they are less frightening.
    4. Are we more or less violent than we used to be? Or is increasing violence inevitably linked to changing technology and the global population explosion?
  • What is the goal, the objectives, toward which we want to move?
    1. Is it personal happiness, linked to finding fulfillment in life? (If so, how do we account for different levels of expectation? Don’t people today expect much more from life than their grandparents did?)
    2. Have you ever considered trying to design your own Utopia, the perfect society in which progress over the present would be self-evident?
  • If Progress is an illusion, isn’t it still a very useful, functional illusion?

–Alan Coombs, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History, University of Utah.

 

Humanism: A Brief History

September 1993

The earliest record of the discussion of Humanist philosophy is found in Greek manuscripts around 600 BCE when some Greek scholars questioned the purpose of life and the influence of supernatural forces on life. The Greek philosopher, Protagoras, (490-420 BCE) wrote “Man is the measure of all things.” Then, as now, the majority of thinkers postulated that gods had an interest-in and an influence-on the affairs of the human race and the workings of nature. A few thinkers questioned the majority concept and proposed that humans should accept responsibility for what happens in life and that death is neither a reward nor a punishment, but simply a natural event. The Greek philosopher Epicures (342-270 BCE) summarized this attitude writing, “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consist in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.”

In Western Europe and the Middle East an atmosphere of free and open discussion about the meaning of life and death, about science, philosophy and religion continued for about 800 years. During that period in history a magnificent library was constructed in Alexandria, Egypt. It became the repository of all the recorded knowledge the intelligentsia could gather. Around 500 CE. the library and its contents were destroyed, thus began the era we have come to refer to as the Dark Ages, a period when the only people permitted to read and write were residents of Catholic monasteries. For nearly a thousand years the Christian Religion controlled the major sources of knowledge in Europe and the Middle East, consequently it also controlled the political climate.

The Humanist philosophy was revived in the 14th century Renaissance. Freedom of the human spirit from a thousand years of bondage to oppressive ecclesiastical and political orthodoxy emerged. The printing press was developed about the same time and the thoughts of those rebelling against authoritarian controls were widely distributed. Once again knowledge became public property and increasing numbers of people began to think about human relationships, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. A French philosopher, Pierre Charron (1541-1603) may have summarized the dominant theme of the Renaissance when he wrote in his Book of Wisdom, “The proper science and subject for man’s contemplation is man himself.”

Free thinkers continued to challenge secular and religious authority leading up to the period of Enlightenment when the English philosopher John Locke (1532-1704) wrote his essays on human nature and the right to think freely and express one’s views without public censorship or fear of repression. Another Englishman, poet and philosopher Alexander Pope (1686-1744), in his Essay on Man wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”

John Locke’s writings were a major influence on Thomas Jefferson who put Humanist principles into a revolutionary document, “The Declaration of Independence”, and later an orderly public document establishing a humanistic form of popular government, the “Constitution of the United States.”

Public interest in Humanism as a philosophy of life in the United States increased in the early 1930’s with the publication of “A Humanist Manifesto” a declaration of Humanist principles endorsed and signed by 33 prominent scholars and theologians. Dr. Corliss Lamont, philosopher and professor, published “The Illusion of Immortality,” a humanist explanation of life and death in 1935. Fourteen years later Dr. Lamont wrote and published The Philosophy of Humanism still considered the definitive work of the Humanist movement.

A Unitarian Minister, Dr. Edwin H. Wilson, one of the 33 signers of the “Humanist Manifesto”, founded the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941 and in 1980 Paul Kurtz, author of Humanist Manifesto II and Professor of History, NYSU, Buffalo, established the “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (CODESH). Today the AHA and CODESH are the major Humanist Organizations in the United States.

Humanism today emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the importance of human values and freedom from secular and religious authoritarianism. Humanism is a moral life style, a realistic basis for ethical decisions and a valid explanation of the human experience. Humanism is a positive attitude toward life and living and death.

For an understanding of Humanism I recommend the following books: The Philosophy of Humanism and The Illusion of Immortality by Corliss Lamont; The Humanist Alternative by Paul Kurtz; and Humanist Anthology by Margaret Knight. A Humanist adversary, James Hitchcock, opposes humanism but gives an accurate historical and social impact perspective of the philosophy in his book What is Secular Humanism?

–Flo Wineriter

 

 

 

The Positive Versus The Negative

December 1993

There are several ways to structure the programs of Chapters of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Two are here under discussion: the Positive and the Negative. They are opposites.

The Positive Approach has as its premise that the main function of a Chapter of humanists is to study and present information about humanism. The Humanist Manifestos I and II serve as a guide, and programs from the humanities and the sciences are presented. Its basic assumption is that humanism presents an answer to that “basic interrogation” everyone makes of life and that the purpose of its program is to facilitate the process of becoming a humanist. It does not present itself as a crusade against supernatural religion but holds itself out as an alternative way of life.

The Negative Approach agrees with that part of the Humanist Manifesto II which criticizes traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions as doing a disservice to humankind and are harmful or inadequate in many other ways. Chapter leaders see it as their duty to point that out as often as possible. This is based on the assumption that people need to face the facts about religion and what is wrong with supernaturalism before they can change to humanism. Very little positive humanism is presented.

Both points of view are frequently forcefully argued, and it does not seem possible to resolve the matter. The letter by Richard Layton presents a justification for the negative approach. The positive approach is unfocused and disorganized because no one seems to be sure what to do. Under the Charter granted to each Chapter, it’s leaders are free to choose whatever program they want to follow and the greatest number of AHA Chapters follow the negative approach.

The present leadership of the Humanists of Utah have determined to follow the positive program, and as far as is known, our program is different from other chapters.

The Study of Humanism

I recently rediscovered the textbooks for a course in the humanities presented as a television extension course by the Salt Lake Community College in 1986. They are: The Art of Being Human and A Guide to the Art of Being Human, both subtitled, The Humanities as a Technique for Living. These two texts are authored by a number of instructors of the Miami-Dade Community College in Florida and published by Harper & Row (1984). It is not an appropriate program for our chapter, but can serve as a model to be followed.

Through these books I have gained a great deal of new understanding about humanism. I have learned that humanism is a way of life, and a humanist is one who practices the art of living, of being human, and that the humanities are the accumulated record of what humankind has done with its humanness. To become a humanist therefore requires a study of the humanities. Since the Humanist Manifestos I and II accept naturalistic evolution as the basis for its declaration, we are appropriately called Naturalistic humanists, and our studies also include the sciences.

Quotations from the Prefaces of these texts further define humanism and what it means to be a humanist:

“…A study of the humanities should offer a whole approach to living–accessible to all people–in which one makes full use of creative and intellectual resources in order to enhance the quality of one’s life…Being human may be inborn, but the art of being human is not. It has to be acquired…You alone must initiate the drive…Never is the spotlight turned aside from the central issue: what it is to be human, and what it can mean to practice the art of being human.

“…The art of living includes thinking about matters not directly related to the needs of the moment…It is being sensitive and alive to both the physical and the social environment…spending time in the company of the philosophers, the poets and artists, the composers and dramatists…

“A humanist…chooses the…deliberate actualization of…potential…humanists are people who make time in their everyday lives to read, to think, to experience new ways of seeing, more complete ways of being…They concern themselves with the quality of other human lives…It is very hard for a humanist to be bored…The humanist’s path, however, can be lonely, for society usually requires the very least, not the very best, of which one is capable…(W)e are not born with the knowledge of how to live a fully human life…”

Conclusion

What this means on a universal scale is best expressed by Sterling M. McMurrin, Ph.D., in his lecture, “The Patterns of our Religious Faiths”, the Eighteenth Annual Frederick William Reynolds Lecture, University of Utah, January 18, 1954.

“The strength of the humanistic religion is its supreme commitment to reason, its faith in [humankind’s] creative intelligence, faith that [we have] the power to discern, articulate, and solve [our] problems. The humanist is confident that under the guidance of good will, the patient processes of scientific thought may eventually win through for the amelioration of society and the achievement of human happiness. Nowhere is there a greater confidence in education, in [our] power to affect [our] own character or to determine the course of history. Humanism denies that there are uniquely religious experiences and refuses to distinguish between the sacred and the secular. It declares instead that religion embraces every worth-while human attitude and activity, and it grounds its moral ideals in the living experience of the individual and society. [The human being] is the primary object of its interest and devotion. Its instruments are science and democracy, and its goal is the good life.”


This article is in response to Richard Layton’s dissenting views on a September article, What Happened to the Promise of A Humanist Manifesto? Has the American Humanist Association (AHA) Lost The Vision?

–Bob Green

 

A History Of Knowledge, Past, Present, and Future

by Charles Van Doren
~Book Review~

January 1993

The sub-title on the cover states: The Pivotal Events, People and Achievements of World History. The review on the back cover is by Clifton Fadiman, and this book published by Ballantine Books, was a selection of the Book-of-The-Month and The History Book Club. These are good recommendations for “popular” reading, but also probably means that the book won’t find itself on the book-shelf of many Professors of History, which is a recommendation in itself.

As a text for our current lecture/discussion series on the History of Humanism, this book comes as close as one single book could. It reminds me of the College Outline Series giving an overview of course subjects I read as a college student. This is not an outline, but reads as though it were. To cover the subject in 422 pages, it has to be very direct. I find the book to be very readable, not at all like the usual history text, while still presenting the information. As stated in one review: “…making even the most complex ideas clear, accessible, and compelling.”

The author, Charles Van Doren, was a student at St. Johns College, which studies the Great Books, and he was for twenty years an Editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He clearly has the credentials to write this kind of book. I recommend that you read it.

–Bob Green

 

 

Eupraxophy, Living Without Religion

Book Review

November 1993

Eupraxophy, Living Without Religion written by Paul Kurtz, was published by Prometheus Books in 1989.

Paul Kurtz is the Editor of Free Inquiry and President of CODESH. “Eupraxophy” is a word coined by Kurtz to more accurately define humanism. The Greek roots of the word are eu, good; praxis, conduct; and sophia, wisdom. His excellent book of only 160 pages is an exciting exploration of the various aspects of positive humanism. Eupraxophy is about the nature of the universe and how to live a meaningful, moral life. It also deals with the humanist challenge of creating a just society. Kurtz offers concrete recommendations for the development of humanism as an individual and as a community. It deserves a reading by every serious humanist. I read a Salt Lake County library copy, but plan to add it to my growing library of essential humanist books.

–Flo Wineriter

 

 

Sixty Years Of A Humanist Manifesto

May 1993

May 1st, 1993 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of A Humanist Manifesto, which was published in the May-June, 1933 issue of The New Humanist, Edwin Wilson, editor.

Among the books in the collection which Ed Wilson gave to the Chapter was the May-June, 1953 issue of The Humanist, successor to The New Humanist. Edwin Wilson, who was editor of both magazines and at that time the executive-director of the American Humanist Association, published in that 1953 issue a Symposium titled “The Humanist Manifesto, Twenty Years Later.” In his preface to that article, he states:

“This present re-appraisal is a continuation of the constant effort to keep Humanism a dynamic movement. Humanists do not look back to a faith delivered once and for all time at a particular moment or during a particular period in history. They rather look forward to a constantly growing synthesis produced by the interaction of many minds relating the increasing discoveries of science to human fulfillment.”

Following this introduction, the Manifesto was reprinted, followed by observations from a number of the then living signers. I thought it would be interesting to include some of those comments in this issue of The Utah Humanist, also begun by Ed Wilson.

I include the historical notes of Raymond Bragg, one of the original four editors, which tell of the history of the composition of the Manifesto and the responses to the original circulation which led to its first publication. Most of the names cited are not recognized today, and were probably Unitarian Ministers. (Where possible, I have included their identity.) In reading the notes of Raymond Bragg and the l953 responses of the original signers, I was struck by a similarity between what they wrote in 1933, as reported by Bragg, and what they said in 1953. In the main, their comments concerned words and phrases which they thought should be different, and criticisms of content which reflected more a change in perspective than outright disagreement in philosophy. It was refreshing to read the 1953 comments of Robert Morss Lovett of Chicago, who wrote: “I think the Manifesto is fine. I would change nothing.” Therefore, I include the statements which make the most positive contribution to the understanding of this remarkable document.

I also include the substantive notes from John Herman Randall, Jr., because of his status as Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and author of “THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIND, A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age”, (Columbia University Press, 1926, 1940). This text has been used by many Universities, and was part of my course of study at George Washington University in 1953. The last quote is from the lead article of the Symposium written by Roy Wood Sellars, who composed the first draft of the Manifesto.

AN HISTORICAL NOTE, by Raymond B. Bragg, Kansas City, Missouri

“For a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional talk of its preparation. In January of that year the talk reached the project stage. The Chicago group, once it had agreed on publication, realized the difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars (Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan) to prepare a draft that the undertaking might by launched.

“The frame of the Manifesto as finally published is essentially what it was when received in the first draft. The correspondence, however, makes clear the extent of revision in terminology and order of the theses.

“The committee–Reese, Wilson, Haydon, Bragg–spent unnumbered hours in successive sessions culling, refining, reordering the statement. Then it was returned to Sellars whose rejoinder was in effect: ‘You fellows have done a good job.’

“The first circulation to potential signers was then prepared. The resulting correspondence was torrential. Some of the commentators viewed with alarm a statement so haphazard, while others found in it only the clearest of phrase and thought. Several wrote detailed comment; a few revised the statement (and its meaning) point by point. A half dozen lost their copies and made their replies out of faulty memory; the cautious asked for an additional copy.

“The editorial task at this time emerged as a full time undertaking. While no thought was given to abandonment of the project, despite discouragement by a few honored skeptics, it was necessary to deal fairly with every thoughtful suggestion. There was consideration given to postponement until approval was close to unanimous. The prospect was suggested that in a document involving the thought of thirty or forty or fifty minds we could expect no final, detailed formulation satisfactory to all. We could hope only for approximations, not ultimates.

“How many editorial sessions were held in drawing up the final draft, I do not recall. They were not few and they were lengthy. In the latter part of March the draft was mailed to about fifty individuals and each was requested to authorize the use of his signature. April 10 was the deadline.

“There was another flood of mail in response to this ‘final’ request. A few sought postponement; and a few abandonment. The first response, I recall, was from John Dewey who ignored the form provided for signature authorization and signed his name to the mimeographed copy of the Manifesto. Robert Morss Lovett(Teacher, Editor) wrote, ‘I am proud to be able to sign the Humanist Manifesto, so sound in thought and admirable in expression.’ One dissenter, on the other hand, wondered at the lack of form and still further at the complete ignoring of literary values. His substitute manifesto is available in the file of The New Humanist (now The Humanist).

“Such is the trial of preparing a statement meant to express a consensus of many minds. There were light responses, and some made no response at all. F.C.S. Schiller(Philosopher) noted that ‘your Manifesto has 15 articles, 50% more that the Ten Commandments, and one more even than President Wilson’s Fourteen Points,’ Harlow Shapley(Astronomer) stated that excursions of other scientists out of the realm of science had embarrassed him—he would forego participation in religion.

“There were a few men who refused to sign and stated their reasons. Some of these reasons were published in the May (1933) issue of The New Humanist, the issue in which the Manifesto first appeared, Harold Buschman found in the document the exclusiveness of a creed rather than a new inclusiveness. John Haynes Holmes objected to the spirit of the Sixth Thesis for, ‘You are arbitrarily ruling out from our thought something about which you know absolutely nothing at all.’ Max C. Otto(Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin) expressed his fear for the Manifesto as ‘one of those theoretical gestures which leave with some persons a feeling that something has been done when all that has been done is that something has been said.’ James H. Hart was reluctant to go on record about ‘continuous processes.’ Arthur E. Morgan wrote that his hesitance to sign grew ‘out of the questions of emphasis rather than of explicit disagreement…Humanists are not, he said, ‘characteristically strong in faith, hope and love.’

“The Manifesto had a wide press coverage. Time, The Literary Digest, The Christian Century, the Associated Press, religious journals representing a variety of denominations sent it into every corner of the country. The late Clarence Skinner thought it might some day rank with Luther’s more extensive theses. Catholic journals presented it as the logical outcome of the centuries of Protestant thought.

“The immediate aims were achieved: to stir up discussion, to prompt debate. The editorial note accompanying the publication was explicit on that score. And, for the greater part, that spirit was carried in the reporting of the document.

“To revise the Manifesto, in my estimation, would be misfortune. If Humanists in 1953 or 1954 want to restate the position, let it be done in today’s terms. Twenty years ago the editors were careful in their designation. The document of 1933 was called A Humanist Manifesto. Each living signer has pondered many meanings since that time. Nonetheless, in 1933 he stood by what he signed, whatever qualifications he may have made in his own mind or for the informal record.

“A new formulation may be in order. May the vigorous undertake it!”

Comment by J. H. Randall, Jr., New York City

“I originally signed the Manifesto in a spirit of general agreement, without quibbling over details. My own philosophical views I have long preferred to call naturalistic rather than humanistic, and while for the purposes of stating a religious position the differences are minor, they are there. Thus in Point Five, while there certainly has been discovered no ‘cosmic guarantee of human values’ I have always wished that there were some emphasis on the fact that such values are and must be rooted in the natural conditions of human life. Religion has always seemed to me truncated when focused too narrowly upon man alone, without a sense of the encompassing presence of the nature that has generated man and his concerns.

“On two points on which the Manifesto failed to satisfy me I have come to feel more strongly. First, there is lacking any expression of a tragic sense of life. ‘Joy in living’ (Point 12) is not the only attitude religion must foster. There is also such a thing as humility. The inevitabilities of frustration and the evil that men necessarily do must be seen in proper perspective, but they must be seen. There is no reason why supernaturalism should be allowed a monopoly on the religious expression of this tragic sense. Humanism can do it more effectively because more sanely. Thus, in the last paragraph, ‘man has within himself the power for the achievement of the world of his dreams,’ has always sounded insensitive and brash. Man has the power to work toward it, and there is no other power. But…

“Secondly, there is insufficient recognition of the need of imagination in religion, and of the role of religious symbols. The traditional Christian symbols are no longer adequate—though they seem much more relevant to present-day experience than to that of a generation ago. But no religion that tries to get along without any imaginative embodiment of its basic attitudes and values is likely to attract many. Humanism should face seriously the very difficult problem of creating more adequate imaginative symbols. It should at least recognize the need even if it cannot yet satisfy it.

“Both these points demand much further elaboration, especially the second, to which I have given a great deal of attention and thought. But I think the problems suggested will be sufficiently indicated to any one who has lived through the last twenty years with some sensitive attention to the direction of religious feeling and thought.”

NATURALISTIC HUMANISM: A Framework for Belief and Values,

by Roy Wood Sellars (Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan).

“It goes without saying in detail that I have read and thought much about religion in the abstract and in the concrete since those already far-off days when I first sought to make explicit to myself and others the perspective called religious Humanism…

“Much has happened since the formulation and the publication of the Humanist Manifesto. Under able and vigorous leadership in this and other countries, Humanism has become an international stream of thought and commitment aiming at a basic revision of the human outlook and a revaluation of values. I still think the adjective, naturalistic, best symbolizes the perspective of religious Humanism since it calls attention to its rejection of supernaturalism. Modern naturalism is, inevitably, evolutionary in its premises. And I can quite understand why the distinguished English biologist, Julian Huxley, selects this latter term and speaks of evolutionary Humanism. As I see it, it is all a matter of accent. The essential thing is to have a common framework.

“Is Humanism a religion, perhaps, the next great religion? Yes, it must be so characterized, for the word, religion, has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things—which every human being, in some degree and in some fashion, makes. What can I expect from life? What kind of universe is it? Is there, as some say, a friendly Providence in control of it? And, if not, what then? The universe of discourse of religion consists of such questions, and the answers relevant to them. Christian theism and Vedantic mysticism are but historic frameworks in relation to which answers have in the past been given to these poignant and persistent queries. But there is nothing sacrosanct and self-certifying about these frameworks. What Humanism represents is the awareness of another framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The Humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers, with what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions.

“It would be absurd to expect complete novelty in either framework or answers. Many people throughout the ages have had a shrewd suspicion that established beliefs were insecurely based. Humanism at its best represents a growth and a maturing of its perspective…I fear that the orthodox idea of religion is something static and given—once for all. The Humanist thinks of his answers as responsible ones, that is, responsible to the best thought and knowledge on the subjects involved. He [they are] is always ready for honest debate…

“…I want to contrast the perspective of Humanism with that of traditional rationalism…There is no Humanist who does not appreciate with respect and admiration the moving story of the Gospels. Seen as one of the culminations of Judaism in the setting of the Roman Empire, it speaks to us of nobility of soul, human love, pity, and comradeship; and this among everyday people fired by moral and religious leadership of high quality. The heroic and the earthly touch meet, and mingle; and so it has been ever since.

“What have the intervening centuries made possible? The gradual disentangling of ethical principle and example from both the early framework of belief and the later ecclesiastical development of power and dogma which supervened. But the notes of love and self-sacrifice remain as perennial chords. This also, is greatly human.

“The older rationalism was on the defensive. And so it expressed itself too often in negative terms: not this; not that; not God; not revelation; not personal immortality. What Humanism signified was a shift from negation to construction. There came a time when naturalism no longer felt on the defensive. Rather, supernaturalism began, it its eyes, to grow dim and fade out despite all the blustering and rationalizations of its advocates.

“Now this was a change in dominance, long prepared in both philosophy and science, and beginning to manifest itself in everyday life. To use a homely expression, the shoe was on the other foot. Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist. And he knew that both theologians and philosophers in the past had never been able to develop satisfactory proofs. In short, the strategic situation had changed.

“As I conceived it, then, the Humanist Manifesto expressed this change of dominance as a sort of declaration of independence. And I imagine that Wilson and the others who supplied the comments and suggestions which went into its making had something similar in mind. Naturalism was maturing into a humanistic phase. The old supernaturalistic framework no longer possessed its former intrinsic prestige. There were now two competing frames of reference for both belief and values. The time had come for a reassessment all along the line. If possible, a friendly debate was indicated. Let the premises or theses be stated and the arguments, pro and con, be entered. To the best of our knowledge, what kind of a universe are we in? What can man [humankind] expect? Is man [humankind] now his [its] own worst enemy? What are the complexities of human nature? In what fashion are these tied in with cultural arrangements? What can be done about it?

“I have recently read over the fifteen theses. On the whole, I think they sketch the essentials of a framework which is both naturalistic and humanistic. There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about any of the formulations. New conditions will bring new emphases…Every framework needs clarifications and a rational grounding if it is to function satisfactorily. And this process is, as we all know, well under way both here and abroad. It will continue. The annihilation of civilization alone could stop it as well as all progress.”

–Bob Green


(Note: A second Humanist Manifesto was published in 1973, but that is another story.)

 

Annual Meeting Report

March 1993

The annual membership meeting of the Humanists of Utah was held Thursday, February 25, 1993 in Eliot Hall of the First Unitarian Church, at 7:30 p.m. Chapter President, Flo Wineriter, opened the meeting with a summary of the significant accomplishments of the Chapter during the past year.

Highlights of his report included the Chapter’s legal standing as a non-profit corporation under Utah State law, a doubling of paid memberships, the initiation of the annual Edwin Wilson Lectures, and the use of $1,600.00 from a Chapter Expansion Grant to give 40 public Libraries a copy of Corlis Lamont’s book, The Philosophy of Humanism, for their circulation department.

The Chapter also received the first annual AHA “Chapter of The Year” award at the Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The Secretary, Wayne Wilson, reported there are 84 dues paying members plus 32 subscribing members and 51 trial members. Our monthly Journal is currently being mailed to 213 addressees.

Our Treasurer, Anna Hoagland, reported a substantial growth in the Chapter’s financial situation. The fiscal year 1992 started with a checking account balance of $956.63 and concluded the year on December 31st with a balance of $2251.18. The Auditing Committee reviewed and verified the accuracy of the Treasurer’s books.

Vice-President Bob Green expressed satisfaction with excellent speakers who have presented at our monthly meetings and said examining the historical development of humanism by outstanding professors will continue. Bob also presented several suggestions for enhancing Chapter activity: those suggestions are reported in depth in a separate article.

Board member Richard Layton declined to run for re-election and was presented an engraved plaque expressing appreciation for his service to the Chapter. Nancy Moore was nominated to replace Richard on the Board. Acting Secretary Wayne Wilson was nominated to serve a full term. By secret ballot the membership voted to elect these two new Board members and maintain the remaining Board Members and Officers for another year.

Revising, clarifying, and updating the Chapter By-Laws created a lively discussion and resulted in an excellent version that should easily guide the present and future membership.

The meeting concluded with an enjoyable social hour of cookies, punch, and coffee prepared by Martha Stewart and Lorille Miller.

— Flo Wineriter

 

 

The Creed Of A Liberal

July 1993

There is a creed which the untired and undaunted liberals of all time have lived by.

It is this:

We believe in man–
in his slow ascendant progress,
in the autonomy of his spirit
and the primacy of his claims over the claims of all forms of human organization.

We believe in freedom–
the fullest measure of freedom compatible with the fullest measure of responsibility.

We believe in authority–
but only in authority sanctioned by reason and consent.

We believe that the only tools of social progress
are education, experimentation, and cooperation.

We believe that to be well governed is not as important as to be self-governed, that values bestowed are not as valuable as values achieved.

Hence, we reject all manner of millenniums proffered to us at the spear-point of dictatorship.

We believe that all truth is made manifest through the contact and clash of diverse opinions and that the very motive power of progress is the free exchange of ideas and the exercised privilege of non-conformity.

We believe in tolerance but not in indifference,
in enthusiasm but not in fanaticism,
in convictions, but not in obsessions,
in independence but not in isolation,
in conflict but not in hate.

–Richard Henry, DD
Adapted from Rabbi Abba H. Silver

 

 

In Memoriam

Edwin H. Wilson

August 23, 1899 – March 26, 1993

Summer 2003

Edwin H. Wilson, the father of organized Humanism in the U.S., died in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 26, 1993. He was 94 years old.

Ed’s meritorious service to rational thought and responsible behavior brought world-wide recognition and respect to the humanist movement. He was a key figure in drafting the Humanist Manifesto I, published in 1933 and the revised version, published 40 years later in 1973. He founded the New Humanist magazine and the Humanist Bulletin, serving as their Managing Editor from 1928 to 1941 when they were combined into one publication titled the Humanist which continues to be the official publication of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Wilson was the Editor of the publication from 1941 to 1957 and again from 1963 to 1965. He was the first Executive Director of the American Humanist Association which he helped to establish in 1941.

For his service to humanism, Ed was honored in 1955 with the AHA Humanist Merit Award in 1972, the Unitarian Universalist Association presented him their top award “For Distinguished Service to Liberal Religion”, and in 1979 he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. In addition to his distinguished career with Humanism, Edwin H. Wilson was also an ordained minister of the Unitarian Church. One of his ministries was the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City from 1946 to 1949.

The Humanists of Utah was organized two years ago with the guiding hand of Ed Wilson. The 100 members of the local Chapter appreciate his leadership and his inspiration. In his honor, we will continue to promote his philosophy of seeking rational solutions to the problems confronting the human race.

As a tribute to our beloved friend, we quote the following. It was written by an old companion, Corliss Lamont, in his book, Humanism as a Philosophy. It is a fitting epitaph.

This Life, This Nature is Enough!

Humanism is an affirmative philosophy. It is essentially yea-saying. It says: “Yes, this mighty and abundant Nature is our home: in it we ever live and move and have our being. This Nature produced the marvel of life and the race of man(humankind). It sustains us with its varied goods and stirs us with its wonderful beauty. Yes, this is a good earth and upon it we can create a worth-while and happy existence for all humanity. Yes, we men (humans) possess the glory of mind and the power of freedom; we know the grace of body and the splendor of love. We are grateful for the many simple pleasures that are ours, for the manifold enjoyments which art and culture and science bring. We mortals delight in the sweetness of living rather than lamenting its brevity. And we rejoice in being able to hand on the torch of life to future generations. Yes, this life is enough; this earth is enough; this great and eternal Nature is enough.”

–Flo Wineriter

 

Human Values Need To Change

July 1993

Sex as a competitive sport, gang violence, murder and beatings, child abuse and spouse abuse! These current daily events should make us realize we humans haven’t made much social progress since the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire almost two-thousand years ago. At some point in the human experience we must evaluate the human potential and determine how to teach people self-respect and community pride.

Entertainers, athletes, politicians, and educators must share some of the blame for the low level of humanness that dominates the world social standards. Movies, television, and video games glorify violence and in sensitize us to the pain suffered by the victims of mayhem, rape, and torture. Players and spectators in the major sports glorify physical violence promoting acceptance of the goal of winning at all costs. Political hyperbole glorifies character assassination and gives the impression that there is nothing unethical about maligning another person. Education has shifted the goal of learning for enhancement of the human condition to the goal of getting a competitive edge in the work force.

Decreasing self-respect, increasing greed, excessive pride, and too little social conscience indicate a dramatic need for a change of attitude. We need to emphasize the higher qualities of being human; that promote the moral and ethical values that glamorize respect for self and others; that teach us how to solve conflicts without destructive acts; that teach us the value of sharing, giving rather than receiving; being equal rather than superior.

Tribal superiority is an attitude that needs addressing. Races, religions and nations have historically bolstered their members’ patriotism by instilling a ‘tribal pride’ of being the chosen people, being better than other races, religions, or nations. Such attitudes of superiority encourage confrontation, hostility, and anti-human actions. Such attitudes have caused terrible violence to millions of people for thousands of years. Tribalism, a belief that your tribe is superior to another tribe, is the basis of all racism. Racial leaders, religious leaders, and national leaders have a responsibility to teach the equality of the entire human race. No race, no religion, no nation has a monopoly on truth. No race, no religion, no nation has been chosen, appointed nor anointed to rule this world. Any tyrant claiming otherwise is appealing to the fears, the ignorance, and the prejudice of people to gain their support.

All human beings alike share the desire for peace, adequate food, appropriate shelter, and meaningful work.

We must support leaders–racial, religious, political–who will inspire us to feel equal, not seek our favor by telling us we are superior or that others are inferior. We need to be free of tribal oriented leadership. We need leadership for humanity.

We, the people of the world, in order to form a more perfect society, must unite as equals to honor, respect, and support each other in the quest for the good life. We must join together to encourage rational thinking and responsible behavior among ourselves and demand it of our leaders.

–Flo Wineriter

 

 

Free Will Debates in 16th Century Europe

April 1993

Answers will be suggested for certain interconnected questions: Why did thinkers in the sixteenth century fuss about free will? What were the positions in the debate and why were they irreconcilable? What were the implications of the debate for a more general subject of interest in the sixteenth century, the relation between human intellect and human action?

Lecture given by Dr. Michael Rudick on April ll, 1993. The following is edited by the Journal staff from the lecture transcript.

The talk tonight is about the problem of free will in a historical context with respect to western Europe in the sixteenth century. We must first recognize that the issue concerns only the question of freedom to do acts that have some moral content. And, we need to narrow the issue even further so that we can appreciate that in the sixteenth century the issue comes to us in a religious context: the question of the effective role of the individual moral will in determining the soul’s salvation. This question engages for this epoch the most crucial human outcome imaginable: where one spends eternity after that relatively brief span of time in which one deals with life’s choices.

It is conventional to distinguish the Renaissance from the Middle Ages by the degree of secular concern exhibited by the cultures in each period. We’re taught to call the Middle Ages the Age of Faith, and to imagine medieval Christians so preoccupied with theology and worship and the salvation of their souls, as to be minimally attached to the things of this world. We are then taught to conceive the Renaissance as the moment of rebirth in which humanity and the things of this world become proper objects of concern. Indeed it’s in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the words “humanities” and “humanists” become established in the European languages. But we need to remind ourselves that we, in our century, use those words differently from their meanings in the sixteenth century. And we need to remind ourselves that the sixteenth and the better part of the seventeenth century was most surely an age of religious enthusiasm, as much as the Middle Ages in that persons then faced conflicts of allegiance between radically different kinds of Christian faith.

We do tend to be captives to that stereotype of the Renaissance that regards it as an epoch of emancipation from religious authoritarianism. And we can’t ignore the emancipatory power of the Reformation itself: Luther’s doctrine of Christian freedom through which–under conditions he proposed to understand–the soul is liberated from the obligation to earthly authority made by an institutional church. And yet Luther’s age is the first age in a long time in which some rather disturbing propositions about human freedom could be taken seriously: that the human moral will was not free, not free to will good actions, therefore of no effect in determining the soul’s salvation, and perhaps even that human free will in the largest sense was pretty much an illusion.

The prehistory of the sixteenth-century disputes begins with one of the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul addresses there a problem that had emerged among the gentile Christians in Rome, the question of whether they could be saved, given that Jesus had directed his ministry to the Jews. Paul’s answer was “yes,” God could give eternal life to anyone He wanted to, and the availability of salvation to the gentile Christians was made evident by Paul’s God-given mission to evangelize them. It has always seemed one of the great ironies of history that, in the process of reassuring the Roman Christians that they, too, could be saved, Paul bequeathed to Christianity a problem it still wrestles with, that knotty one of predestination. The question, can the individual soul do anything to effect its own salvation? Or is it determined entirely by God’s inscrutable will?

It is convenient to distinguish between what is called “tough” readings and “tender” readings of Romans. The most prominent example, before Luther, of a “tough” reading is that of St. Augustine, who interpreted Paul to have been a predestinarian with respect to salvation and then (in a move my colleague Peter Appleby calls “biting the theological bullet”) implied that, if one could do nothing to effect one’s salvation, one could do equally nothing to effect one’s damnation. It was all up to God’s will: in effect, a double predestination, which is about as tough as you can get, leaving no room for a human power of choice in what matters most.

The historical context of Augustine’s tough argument is his controversy with the Pelagian heresy, a tender position that taught pretty much an unconditional human freedom in matters of moral will and action. Pelagians held that one could not only know the difference between right and wrong, but could (and should) act on the knowledge. Salvation was the reward of a moral life, and moral obligation entailed the ability to do moral deeds. St. Augustine couldn’t accept this because it amounted to a Christianity without Christ. Unconditional moral freedom ignores the corruption of the human will due to original sin, and denies Christ’s sacrifice as the necessary gesture toward atonement for original sin. Pelagianism implied that even virtuous pagans could be saved.

The tradition of tender readings begins with Boethius in the sixth century. He argued an influential position that would preserve human freedom (and consequent reward for goodness) while at the same time preserving the absolute power of God’s will. It went something like this: God did predestine certain souls to salvation; His special grace protected them from sin, even from the will to sin. To all other Christians, He extended His grace to make them eligible for salvation, but left it up to their free wills to use or to refuse that grace. In particular, it recognized freedom in one crucial requisite for salvation, that is, penitence, the will to ask God’s forgiveness for sins. This is about as tender as one can get without wandering into the Pelagian heresy. It retains God’s grace, granted because of Christ’s sacrifice, as the condition sine qua non of salvation, but allows human freedom some consequential scope, and thereby preserves the system of reward and punishment given according as the Christian person uses what scope it has.

From the institutional church’s point of view, there was nothing to be gained by a decisive, authoritative settlement of the question since there was no final pronouncement that could possibly have satisfied all parties and ended the debate. What’s interesting is that the tough and the tender are focusing on a particular issue: if a person can, as it were on his or her own steam, will a good act and do it, then that person deserves some credit. Are human beings entitled to such credit or merit? The tough say “no”; all the merit belongs to God, and good deeds are done only when God enables them. The tender say “yes”; this is a position associated with the later scholastic thought of William of Ockham: God enables good works by giving human beings free will, permitting them, in effect, to do or not do the right thing, then exercising His justice by rewarding their merit and punishing their demerit. This is a critical issue in understanding the Christian program of salvation, but that when formulated this way, the debate begins to engage the question of natural human potentiality. Is the human creature so wretchedly weak as to carry no power for good, no merit, no dignity? Or is the human condition one of substantial dignity, carrying the potential to transcend bodily weakness and earthly limitation, to rise or fall by its own moral powers? There is an important sense in which the side one took on this was governed less by an interpretation of Christian doctrine than by a value judgment placed on the human creature.

There also existed the more down-to-earth Renaissance thought that just assumes free will. Human agents were seen as significantly restricted in their scope for action by the conditions they find themselves in, but believed they could do something about it. Their thought assumes a human power over circumstance.

To the extent that there was a common, publicly available doctrine preached by Christians in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it might be called “the doctrine of doing one’s best” (that’s the actual language used by the mainstream theologians). Human beings were in certain respects limited in their capacity for good by original sin, but God had granted them in nature enough power to control their decisions and actions, such that some good could come. They could at least cooperate in their salvation; if they would only do their best with the natural powers they had, God’s grace would help them the rest of the way.

In outline, the doctrine of doing one’s best is the one Erasmus adopted, implicitly in his earlier writings and explicitly in his writings against Luther in the 1520’s. We think of Erasmus as the renaissance humanist par excellence (by the modern definition), mainly because we recognize his primary interests. His main concern was ethics, the behavior appropriate to a Christian life. Ethical teaching makes no sense if the taught can’t choose to follow it or if persons have no capacity for moral discipline. It’s no surprise that he would accept the tender reading of Romans, since he’d focus more on Paul’s moral and spiritual advice than on the theology of grace, justification, and election. Erasmus almost always asked his audiences to view Paul, and the apostles generally, as examples of Christian living, not as metaphysicians or theologians. Erasmus was an advocate of the utility of ancient learning to contemporary ethical and political issues and assumed a connection between intellect and action, and in that sense, his position was essentially that reason is choice, that a human agent acts freely when he or she acts upon a prior rational deliberation. He appreciated the power of habit, both for bad and for good and he had a conviction that mental and moral effort mattered. When Luther’s doctrine denied this, Erasmus’s first response was outrage. He had faith that given a good enough reason to try their best, people would do so.

There was from the 1520’s a saying current among writers to the effect that “Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched them.” There was in fact much in common between Erasmus’ reform agenda and Luther’s. Erasmus was, up to a point, reluctant to fault Luther’s criticism of the institutional church. But whatever attitudes they may have shared, the differences between these two men were enormous, and most of them are on display in their published debate about free will. To Luther, free will was the basic issue in Christian belief.

The leading Lutheran texts for free will are his Preface to Romans (1522) and his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian (1520). Romans was for Luther the central document in the New Testament because it set out the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul, goodworks–keeping the Mosaic moral and ceremonial law, obeying the ten commandments, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so forth–counted for nothing when salvation was at stake. Good works done without faith in Christ were worthless because they were done for the wrong motives. Faith would indeed produce good works, but good works wouldn’t earn faith. Faith came from God for reasons known only to God. So, what is the “freedom of a Christian?” Here’s how Luther expresses it: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to none.” The paradox comes clear if we recognize the language Luther is using, a legal language, the language of ownership.

When Luther speaks of the Christian, he doesn’t mean just any person who worships in a Christian church; he means instead a saved soul, one who has received God’s grace. Think again of property. The Christian is owned by God, God’s dutiful servant, bound to obey God’s orders. Christian freedom is, first of all, a freedom from, a liberation from bondage to all that isn’t God, whether written law or human obligation. Then the freedom from carries with it a freedom to, specifically the freedom to obey God the master who commands that human beings to love their neighbors, and so the Christian becomes a dutiful servant in love to all humankind.

To a Lutheran, to be bound by God’s good will is the only way to be freed from one’s own bad will. It is the only condition in which good deeds can matter to salvation. And Luther was perfectly ready to accept the consequence of this; in fact, the consequence is his premise: human free will has nothing to do with this process. The soul elected by God has in fact no will at all, except insofar as it is congruent with or the same thing as God’s will. Those whom God has reprobated to damnation also have no free will; they’re left in bondage to the evil forces God’s providence permits to range abroad in the world. In either case, a power of necessity does the driving, and that fact obliterates any freedom. Luther minces no words on this: good is the necessary consequence of God’s grace. “This being so,” he wrote in reply to Erasmus, “enlarge the power of ‘free will’ as much as you like…but once you add this doleful postscript, that it is ineffective apart from God’s grace, staightway you rob it of all its power. What is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power? So to say that ‘free will’ exists and has power, albeit ineffective power, is…a contradiction in terms.” It’s the Erasmian position that’s doubletalk as far as Luther was concerned.

The force of Erasmus’ argument in favor of free will depends on what stock one places in the late-medieval doctrine of doing one’s best, which is pretty much what Erasmus relies on substantively. This was ultimately a matter of temperament, as was Erasmus’ rhetoric. On dark matters of doctrine, like free will and predestination, Erasmus always tried to be as latitudinarian as he could, believing as he did that no good ethical purpose was served by hardening positions, the way Luther had. He refused to harden his own, which allowed him to condemn Luther for being too severe. In the context of this debate, Erasmus comes off the eternal liberal–the reluctant adversary who tries to sound sweet and reasonable, argues a moderate position; confesses uncertainty, tries to make light, not heat, and prefers to compose and placate disputing actions rather than provoke further dissension. Luther, on the other hand, is the uncompromising fighter who goes straight for the jugular. Viscerally convicted of the certain truth he thought God had given him, Luther took Erasmus’s very moderation as the sign his opponent wasn’t just wrong, but also indifferent about truth.

Erasmus was obnoxious to Luther, worse than a Pelagian heretic, more like a Laodicean, who blew neither hot nor cold. The issues of free will and predestination were the ostensible subject of the debate, but there was more to it than that. Erasmus recognized that Luther called into question any number of subsidiary points that he, Erasmus, would feel less inclined to let Luther get away with. The most important of these was Luther’s questioning the connection between intellect and action. This is where he really hit Erasmus where he lived, challenging the very principles Erasmus had based his public career on: that learning, that intellectual effort and progress, could and did have a salutary effect on the moral life; that right learning and right thinking led to right doing. In ethical thought, there’s something of the Aristotelian in Erasmus, in the stress on habituation and moral discipline as the effective path to virtuous living; but there’s also a touch of the Platonist, in the conviction that knowledge is virtue, that correct belief disposes its possessor to correct action.

Luther would have none of that. If souls are justified by faith alone, and persons must have that directly from God, not from themselves or any other source, intellectual striving for correct belief is just another ineffective human work, a fictional power. To Luther, faith is not belief, faith is “an experience in the depths of the heart…something God effects in us. It changes us.” So morality wouldn’t come from human knowledge or study. Good behavior might be habituated or constrained by external forces, but there’d be no exercise of free choice in that.

We cannot overestimate how seriously this Lutheran challenge affected Erasmian thought, and we are back to the question of human potential for intellect and action based on faith. The works of Dante, especially the Divine Comedy, would be the best place to see this, the better part of that poem focussing continually on rational deliberation as the prerequisite for freely chosen moral activity. An early sixteenth-century work that foregrounds the problem is the Utopia by Erasmus’ good friend and coadjutor Thomas More, published in 1516, the year before Luther tacked up his Ninety-five Theses. Utopia is a very complex and tricky work to interpret, but there are reasons to read that dialogue as well as the invention of a putatively ideal state that hint toward More’s skepticism about the relation between intellect and action. At a minimum, More sees the relation as deeply problematic.

Now, Thomas More was no Lutheran, and it might be said that just the gesture of trying to invent a Utopia reflects an optimism about human moral progress through rational endeavor. Luther may not have read Utopia, but in his tract on Secular Authority (1523) he stated clearly that an ideal polity could never materialize unless it were populated entirely by, and governed by, true Christians (ie…saved souls), and this was never going to happen because far the greatest proportion of humanity was surely damned. Hence the best efforts of sound ethical or political philosophy weren’t going to reform the world’s injustices. Needless to say, the latter part of the century was a time for skeptical explorations of the question of how much credit human beings might claim for themselves, in the spheres both of intellect and of action. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1600 or 1601, seems to be a good example.

The action of the play shows us that the man can think straight; that the thinker who meditates so long, so hard, and so exquisitely about the pursuit of his revenge can also, on occasion, act with remarkable impulsiveness; also that the man of scrupulous morality can behave rather crudely, even cruelly, toward others and seem not troubled in conscience for doing so. Human character has its contradictions; the problem is to discover a philosophical frame in which they make sense.

No surprise, then, that interpreters ask if they’re to judge Hamlet a success. In some real sense, we can say he was. He appears to have achieved moral certitude, and he did kill Claudius. But at what cost? The man temperamentally indisposed to bloodiness has left a trail of dead bodies behind him. And did the moral certitude have anything to do with the revenge effected? We’re left to puzzle over both questions. It’s in that light that we might read the well-known “What a piece of work is man?” speech in Act II. Does Shakespeare’s play suggest the human creature is in fact less close to any angel or a god than to a “quintessence of dust”?

Let us conclude by returning to Luther and asking where the appeal lay in his position. Over the broad range of history, tender mindedness usually wins out, but Luther’s toughness had plenty of sympathizers, among intellectuals and among people with no pretensions to great learning. We should recognize that the tough position of double predestination could be attractive, could even provoke tenderness. One of the last sections of Luther’s tract against Erasmus is titled “Of the comfort of knowing that salvation does not depend on free will.” Here the knowledge of human inadequacy leads to intolerable human anxiety. It’s the guilt, the anxiety of human moral shortcoming, and the uncertainty of outcome that are relieved by predestination, and, in what may sound an odd sort of way, even those predestined to hell can share in this. If their lack of assurance makes them fear hellfire, they’re disposed to behave themselves on the expectation of reward, real enough to them, if false in fact. So, at least in this life, they, too, along with the saved, can enjoy an almost epicurean calm of mind. A philosophy of intellectual striving and consequent moral discipline entails the opposite of comfort, which can’t be had as long as the uncertain human creature, in its weakness, operates on its own steam. To hear fatalism in Hamlet’s speeches in Act V may well be to hear a man finding his peace and security in the knowledge that his and everyone else’s fate is governed by something beyond himself.

A final observation: this attitude isn’t unique to Protestantism. The most vocal movement in the Roman Catholic counter-reformation was the Jesuit order, founded by Igatius of Loyola in the 1530’s. This order conceded the role of free will in salvation, but in their religious lives, they did all they could to suppress their freedom. It was Ignatius’ determination that each member of the order would “abandon his own will, consider himself bound by special vow of obedience to the present Pope and his successors”. Further, obeying orders was only the first surrender of will; obedience had to be internal, there had to be an “inner wish” to obey authority–not only to will what the superior commanded, but also “think the same as the superior.” Perfect obedience was “the true resignation of our wills and abnegation of our own judgments” to the point where, Ignatius says somewhere, the Jesuit will believe black to be white and white to be black if that’s the teaching of the church.

So Luther believed there was no free will, and the Jesuits believed there was enough free will to make it dangerous. How much difference is there between them? In the comfort of not worrying about how to create alternatives for oneself, none.

A note from the Editor and Program Director. Now, I know what you are going to say: “Why do we need to know all of this “theology”–didn’t we leave it all behind when we joined the Humanists? NO. We still need to know it, for it is still very much a part of our culture. Most of the present-day controversies are rooted in the concepts discussed in this Lecture. You need to understand the concepts of this lecture before you can make sense of what comes next in our study of Western Intellectual History. The meeting attendance has been down lately. Perhaps it is because you know you will be able to read about the lecture in the Journal. Therefore, we have not edited the transcripts as much as we might have so you would not miss a thing!

Free Will Debates in 16th Century Europe

Answers will be suggested for certain interconnected questions: Why did thinkers in the sixteenth century fuss about free will? What were the positions in the debate and why were they irreconcilable? What were the implications of the debate for a more general subject of interest in the sixteenth century, the relation between human intellect and human action?

Lecture given by Dr. Michael Rudick on April ll, 1993. The following is edited by the Journal staff from the lecture transcript.

The talk tonight is about the problem of free will in a historical context with respect to western Europe in the sixteenth century. We must first recognize that the issue concerns only the question of freedom to do acts that have some moral content. And, we need to narrow the issue even further so that we can appreciate that in the sixteenth century the issue comes to us in a religious context: the question of the effective role of the individual moral will in determining the soul’s salvation. This question engages for this epoch the most crucial human outcome imaginable: where one spends eternity after that relatively brief span of time in which one deals with life’s choices.

It is conventional to distinguish the Renaissance from the Middle Ages by the degree of secular concern exhibited by the cultures in each period. We’re taught to call the Middle Ages the Age of Faith, and to imagine medieval Christians so preoccupied with theology and worship and the salvation of their souls, as to be minimally attached to the things of this world. We are then taught to conceive the Renaissance as the moment of rebirth in which humanity and the things of this world become proper objects of concern. Indeed it’s in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the words “humanities” and “humanists” become established in the European languages. But we need to remind ourselves that we, in our century, use those words differently from their meanings in the sixteenth century. And we need to remind ourselves that the sixteenth and the better part of the seventeenth century was most surely an age of religious enthusiasm, as much as the Middle Ages in that persons then faced conflicts of allegiance between radically different kinds of Christian faith.

We do tend to be captives to that stereotype of the Renaissance that regards it as an epoch of emancipation from religious authoritarianism. And we can’t ignore the emancipatory power of the Reformation itself: Luther’s doctrine of Christian freedom through which–under conditions he proposed to understand–the soul is liberated from the obligation to earthly authority made by an institutional church. And yet Luther’s age is the first age in a long time in which some rather disturbing propositions about human freedom could be taken seriously: that the human moral will was not free, not free to will good actions, therefore of no effect in determining the soul’s salvation, and perhaps even that human free will in the largest sense was pretty much an illusion.

The prehistory of the sixteenth-century disputes begins with one of the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul addresses there a problem that had emerged among the gentile Christians in Rome, the question of whether they could be saved, given that Jesus had directed his ministry to the Jews. Paul’s answer was “yes,” God could give eternal life to anyone He wanted to, and the availability of salvation to the gentile Christians was made evident by Paul’s God-given mission to evangelize them. It has always seemed one of the great ironies of history that, in the process of reassuring the Roman Christians that they, too, could be saved, Paul bequeathed to Christianity a problem it still wrestles with, that knotty one of predestination. The question, can the individual soul do anything to effect its own salvation? Or is it determined entirely by God’s inscrutable will?

It is convenient to distinguish between what is called “tough” readings and “tender” readings of Romans. The most prominent example, before Luther, of a “tough” reading is that of St. Augustine, who interpreted Paul to have been a predestinarian with respect to salvation and then (in a move my colleague Peter Appleby calls “biting the theological bullet”) implied that, if one could do nothing to effect one’s salvation, one could do equally nothing to effect one’s damnation. It was all up to God’s will: in effect, a double predestination, which is about as tough as you can get, leaving no room for a human power of choice in what matters most.

The historical context of Augustine’s tough argument is his controversy with the Pelagian heresy, a tender position that taught pretty much an unconditional human freedom in matters of moral will and action. Pelagians held that one could not only know the difference between right and wrong, but could (and should) act on the knowledge. Salvation was the reward of a moral life, and moral obligation entailed the ability to do moral deeds. St. Augustine couldn’t accept this because it amounted to a Christianity without Christ. Unconditional moral freedom ignores the corruption of the human will due to original sin, and denies Christ’s sacrifice as the necessary gesture toward atonement for original sin. Pelagianism implied that even virtuous pagans could be saved.

The tradition of tender readings begins with Boethius in the sixth century. He argued an influential position that would preserve human freedom (and consequent reward for goodness) while at the same time preserving the absolute power of God’s will. It went something like this: God did predestine certain souls to salvation; His special grace protected them from sin, even from the will to sin. To all other Christians, He extended His grace to make them eligible for salvation, but left it up to their free wills to use or to refuse that grace. In particular, it recognized freedom in one crucial requisite for salvation, that is, penitence, the will to ask God’s forgiveness for sins. This is about as tender as one can get without wandering into the Pelagian heresy. It retains God’s grace, granted because of Christ’s sacrifice, as the condition sine qua non of salvation, but allows human freedom some consequential scope, and thereby preserves the system of reward and punishment given according as the Christian person uses what scope it has.

From the institutional church’s point of view, there was nothing to be gained by a decisive, authoritative settlement of the question since there was no final pronouncement that could possibly have satisfied all parties and ended the debate. What’s interesting is that the tough and the tender are focusing on a particular issue: if a person can, as it were on his or her own steam, will a good act and do it, then that person deserves some credit. Are human beings entitled to such credit or merit? The tough say “no”; all the merit belongs to God, and good deeds are done only when God enables them. The tender say “yes”; this is a position associated with the later scholastic thought of William of Ockham: God enables good works by giving human beings free will, permitting them, in effect, to do or not do the right thing, then exercising His justice by rewarding their merit and punishing their demerit. This is a critical issue in understanding the Christian program of salvation, but that when formulated this way, the debate begins to engage the question of natural human potentiality. Is the human creature so wretchedly weak as to carry no power for good, no merit, no dignity? Or is the human condition one of substantial dignity, carrying the potential to transcend bodily weakness and earthly limitation, to rise or fall by its own moral powers? There is an important sense in which the side one took on this was governed less by an interpretation of Christian doctrine than by a value judgment placed on the human creature.

There also existed the more down-to-earth Renaissance thought that just assumes free will. Human agents were seen as significantly restricted in their scope for action by the conditions they find themselves in, but believed they could do something about it. Their thought assumes a human power over circumstance.

To the extent that there was a common, publicly available doctrine preached by Christians in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it might be called “the doctrine of doing one’s best” (that’s the actual language used by the mainstream theologians). Human beings were in certain respects limited in their capacity for good by original sin, but God had granted them in nature enough power to control their decisions and actions, such that some good could come. They could at least cooperate in their salvation; if they would only do their best with the natural powers they had, God’s grace would help them the rest of the way.

In outline, the doctrine of doing one’s best is the one Erasmus adopted, implicitly in his earlier writings and explicitly in his writings against Luther in the 1520’s. We think of Erasmus as the renaissance humanist par excellence (by the modern definition), mainly because we recognize his primary interests. His main concern was ethics, the behavior appropriate to a Christian life. Ethical teaching makes no sense if the taught can’t choose to follow it or if persons have no capacity for moral discipline. It’s no surprise that he would accept the tender reading of Romans, since he’d focus more on Paul’s moral and spiritual advice than on the theology of grace, justification, and election. Erasmus almost always asked his audiences to view Paul, and the apostles generally, as examples of Christian living, not as metaphysicians or theologians. Erasmus was an advocate of the utility of ancient learning to contemporary ethical and political issues and assumed a connection between intellect and action, and in that sense, his position was essentially that reason is choice, that a human agent acts freely when he or she acts upon a prior rational deliberation. He appreciated the power of habit, both for bad and for good and he had a conviction that mental and moral effort mattered. When Luther’s doctrine denied this, Erasmus’s first response was outrage. He had faith that given a good enough reason to try their best, people would do so.

There was from the 1520’s a saying current among writers to the effect that “Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched them.” There was in fact much in common between Erasmus’ reform agenda and Luther’s. Erasmus was, up to a point, reluctant to fault Luther’s criticism of the institutional church. But whatever attitudes they may have shared, the differences between these two men were enormous, and most of them are on display in their published debate about free will. To Luther, free will was the basic issue in Christian belief.

The leading Lutheran texts for free will are his Preface to Romans (1522) and his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian (1520). Romans was for Luther the central document in the New Testament because it set out the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul, goodworks–keeping the Mosaic moral and ceremonial law, obeying the ten commandments, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so forth–counted for nothing when salvation was at stake. Good works done without faith in Christ were worthless because they were done for the wrong motives. Faith would indeed produce good works, but good works wouldn’t earn faith. Faith came from God for reasons known only to God. So, what is the “freedom of a Christian?” Here’s how Luther expresses it: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to none.” The paradox comes clear if we recognize the language Luther is using, a legal language, the language of ownership.

When Luther speaks of the Christian, he doesn’t mean just any person who worships in a Christian church; he means instead a saved soul, one who has received God’s grace. Think again of property. The Christian is owned by God, God’s dutiful servant, bound to obey God’s orders. Christian freedom is, first of all, a freedom from, a liberation from bondage to all that isn’t God, whether written law or human obligation. Then the freedom from carries with it a freedom to, specifically the freedom to obey God the master who commands that human beings to love their neighbors, and so the Christian becomes a dutiful servant in love to all humankind.

To a Lutheran, to be bound by God’s good will is the only way to be freed from one’s own bad will. It is the only condition in which good deeds can matter to salvation. And Luther was perfectly ready to accept the consequence of this; in fact, the consequence is his premise: human free will has nothing to do with this process. The soul elected by God has in fact no will at all, except insofar as it is congruent with or the same thing as God’s will. Those whom God has reprobated to damnation also have no free will; they’re left in bondage to the evil forces God’s providence permits to range abroad in the world. In either case, a power of necessity does the driving, and that fact obliterates any freedom. Luther minces no words on this: good is the necessary consequence of God’s grace. “This being so,” he wrote in reply to Erasmus, “enlarge the power of ‘free will’ as much as you like…but once you add this doleful postscript, that it is ineffective apart from God’s grace, staightway you rob it of all its power. What is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power? So to say that ‘free will’ exists and has power, albeit ineffective power, is…a contradiction in terms.” It’s the Erasmian position that’s doubletalk as far as Luther was concerned.

The force of Erasmus’ argument in favor of free will depends on what stock one places in the late-medieval doctrine of doing one’s best, which is pretty much what Erasmus relies on substantively. This was ultimately a matter of temperament, as was Erasmus’ rhetoric. On dark matters of doctrine, like free will and predestination, Erasmus always tried to be as latitudinarian as he could, believing as he did that no good ethical purpose was served by hardening positions, the way Luther had. He refused to harden his own, which allowed him to condemn Luther for being too severe. In the context of this debate, Erasmus comes off the eternal liberal–the reluctant adversary who tries to sound sweet and reasonable, argues a moderate position; confesses uncertainty, tries to make light, not heat, and prefers to compose and placate disputing actions rather than provoke further dissension. Luther, on the other hand, is the uncompromising fighter who goes straight for the jugular. Viscerally convicted of the certain truth he thought God had given him, Luther took Erasmus’s very moderation as the sign his opponent wasn’t just wrong, but also indifferent about truth.

Erasmus was obnoxious to Luther, worse than a Pelagian heretic, more like a Laodicean, who blew neither hot nor cold. The issues of free will and predestination were the ostensible subject of the debate, but there was more to it than that. Erasmus recognized that Luther called into question any number of subsidiary points that he, Erasmus, would feel less inclined to let Luther get away with. The most important of these was Luther’s questioning the connection between intellect and action. This is where he really hit Erasmus where he lived, challenging the very principles Erasmus had based his public career on: that learning, that intellectual effort and progress, could and did have a salutary effect on the moral life; that right learning and right thinking led to right doing. In ethical thought, there’s something of the Aristotelian in Erasmus, in the stress on habituation and moral discipline as the effective path to virtuous living; but there’s also a touch of the Platonist, in the conviction that knowledge is virtue, that correct belief disposes its possessor to correct action.

Luther would have none of that. If souls are justified by faith alone, and persons must have that directly from God, not from themselves or any other source, intellectual striving for correct belief is just another ineffective human work, a fictional power. To Luther, faith is not belief, faith is “an experience in the depths of the heart…something God effects in us. It changes us.” So morality wouldn’t come from human knowledge or study. Good behavior might be habituated or constrained by external forces, but there’d be no exercise of free choice in that.

We cannot overestimate how seriously this Lutheran challenge affected Erasmian thought, and we are back to the question of human potential for intellect and action based on faith. The works of Dante, especially the Divine Comedy, would be the best place to see this, the better part of that poem focussing continually on rational deliberation as the prerequisite for freely chosen moral activity. An early sixteenth-century work that foregrounds the problem is the Utopia by Erasmus’ good friend and coadjutor Thomas More, published in 1516, the year before Luther tacked up his Ninety-five Theses. Utopia is a very complex and tricky work to interpret, but there are reasons to read that dialogue as well as the invention of a putatively ideal state that hint toward More’s skepticism about the relation between intellect and action. At a minimum, More sees the relation as deeply problematic.

Now, Thomas More was no Lutheran, and it might be said that just the gesture of trying to invent a Utopia reflects an optimism about human moral progress through rational endeavor. Luther may not have read Utopia, but in his tract on Secular Authority (1523) he stated clearly that an ideal polity could never materialize unless it were populated entirely by, and governed by, true Christians (ie…saved souls), and this was never going to happen because far the greatest proportion of humanity was surely damned. Hence the best efforts of sound ethical or political philosophy weren’t going to reform the world’s injustices. Needless to say, the latter part of the century was a time for skeptical explorations of the question of how much credit human beings might claim for themselves, in the spheres both of intellect and of action. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1600 or 1601, seems to be a good example.

The action of the play shows us that the man can think straight; that the thinker who meditates so long, so hard, and so exquisitely about the pursuit of his revenge can also, on occasion, act with remarkable impulsiveness; also that the man of scrupulous morality can behave rather crudely, even cruelly, toward others and seem not troubled in conscience for doing so. Human character has its contradictions; the problem is to discover a philosophical frame in which they make sense.

No surprise, then, that interpreters ask if they’re to judge Hamlet a success. In some real sense, we can say he was. He appears to have achieved moral certitude, and he did kill Claudius. But at what cost? The man temperamentally indisposed to bloodiness has left a trail of dead bodies behind him. And did the moral certitude have anything to do with the revenge effected? We’re left to puzzle over both questions. It’s in that light that we might read the well-known “What a piece of work is man?” speech in Act II. Does Shakespeare’s play suggest the human creature is in fact less close to any angel or a god than to a “quintessence of dust”?

Let us conclude by returning to Luther and asking where the appeal lay in his position. Over the broad range of history, tender mindedness usually wins out, but Luther’s toughness had plenty of sympathizers, among intellectuals and among people with no pretensions to great learning. We should recognize that the tough position of double predestination could be attractive, could even provoke tenderness. One of the last sections of Luther’s tract against Erasmus is titled “Of the comfort of knowing that salvation does not depend on free will.” Here the knowledge of human inadequacy leads to intolerable human anxiety. It’s the guilt, the anxiety of human moral shortcoming, and the uncertainty of outcome that are relieved by predestination, and, in what may sound an odd sort of way, even those predestined to hell can share in this. If their lack of assurance makes them fear hellfire, they’re disposed to behave themselves on the expectation of reward, real enough to them, if false in fact. So, at least in this life, they, too, along with the saved, can enjoy an almost epicurean calm of mind. A philosophy of intellectual striving and consequent moral discipline entails the opposite of comfort, which can’t be had as long as the uncertain human creature, in its weakness, operates on its own steam. To hear fatalism in Hamlet’s speeches in Act V may well be to hear a man finding his peace and security in the knowledge that his and everyone else’s fate is governed by something beyond himself.

A final observation: this attitude isn’t unique to Protestantism. The most vocal movement in the Roman Catholic counter-reformation was the Jesuit order, founded by Igatius of Loyola in the 1530’s. This order conceded the role of free will in salvation, but in their religious lives, they did all they could to suppress their freedom. It was Ignatius’ determination that each member of the order would “abandon his own will, consider himself bound by special vow of obedience to the present Pope and his successors”. Further, obeying orders was only the first surrender of will; obedience had to be internal, there had to be an “inner wish” to obey authority–not only to will what the superior commanded, but also “think the same as the superior.” Perfect obedience was “the true resignation of our wills and abnegation of our own judgments” to the point where, Ignatius says somewhere, the Jesuit will believe black to be white and white to be black if that’s the teaching of the church.

So Luther believed there was no free will, and the Jesuits believed there was enough free will to make it dangerous. How much difference is there between them? In the comfort of not worrying about how to create alternatives for oneself, none.

A note from the Editor and Program Director. Now, I know what you are going to say: “Why do we need to know all of this “theology”–didn’t we leave it all behind when we joined the Humanists? NO. We still need to know it, for it is still very much a part of our culture. Most of the present-day controversies are rooted in the concepts discussed in this Lecture. You need to understand the concepts of this lecture before you can make sense of what comes next in our study of Western Intellectual History. The meeting attendance has been down lately. Perhaps it is because you know you will be able to read about the lecture in the Journal. Therefore, we have not edited the transcripts as much as we might have so you would not miss a thing!

 

Why I Am A Humanist

July 1993

Humanism is a [human]-centered religion or philosophy. In ancient Greece, Protagoras (5th Century B.C.) proclaimed that he could not know whether or not the gods exist, but that “Man is the measure of all things…” I take this to mean not that the cosmos does not exist apart from [human beings], but rather–the only knowing, value center that we know anything about is [the human]. This is the starting point of humanism. As Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Man: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”

Certain ages in the history of [humankind] provide the historical roots of humanism. One of the reasons that I characterize myself as a humanist is that these ages are the most productive and most interesting periods of human history. Classical Greece, the Renaissance, the 18th Century (the age of enlightenment), the 19th and 20th Centuries (ages of science)–are to me the most important historical periods. Developments in these ages centered around [the human being], [the] understanding of [themselves] and the world, and the development of [their] potential. This history cannot be reviewed in this short statement, but a most important trend in these key periods is the emergence of the humanist view of [humankind].

In studying the different religions of the world I find that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism–the three humanistic religions–appeal to me much more than the others. Christianity, incidentally, in some ways represented a humanistic emphasis to the world of pre-Christian Judaism. The concept of incarnation was an attempt to bring God close to [humankind], and to emphasize the divinity in [the human being]. Many sayings of Jesus, like “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,” contain a very healthy humanism. This reemphasized a humanistic tendency in the Jewish religion which grew out of the fact that [each person] was made in the image of God and hence cannot be all bad…

Perhaps the next most important support for modern humanism is evolutionary theory. The humanist in effect says, “Given a hot mass circling the sun and gradually cooling, then everything else follows: the emergence of life out of inorganic matter, the proliferation of life to fill every ecological niche, the development of animals with highly complex nervous systems, and finally the emergence of a higher primate who transcends biological evolution by the development of language which makes psycho-social (or cultural) evolution possible.” Now, says the humanist, “we must take responsibility for our further evolution on this planet. For the first time [we] are conscious of how [we] became what [we] are, and of how [our] decisions may affect the human race of the future.” Evolution has become potentially self-conscious in [the human being]…

Here is the main reason why I am a humanist. Please imagine an intelligent [person] (perhaps a genius), who has no personal history or religious upbringing, and no preconceived ideas. What if you could take such a [person], transport [this person] to a good university…to study every field in that university for a ten year period. [This would include] biology, literature, chemistry, physics, archaeology, zoology, ethnology, psychology, sociology, geology, and all the other disciplines. Now when [the study was] completed what if you said, “What single word might be used to characterize a religious stance that could best try to bring all of these disciplines together?” How could [this student] say anything else but humanism!

This hypothetical example is another way of saying that humanism is the best framework for integrating modern knowledge. My presupposition is that traditional words and concepts like God, or Jesus as the Christ, are kept because they are an emotional heritage in our culture and can provide a satisfying religion for some people although I do not think that in the long run they can serve as the best basis for integrating modern knowledge…

It may be that humanism could turn out to be an ideological framework capable of global acceptance…For the first time in the modern era (since the Renaissance) there is now a philosophy which is capable of unifying the world around an under-standing of [humankind’s] cultural heritage in all its diversity; with our scientific understanding.

–Paul H. Beattie, Unitarian Minister
Adapted from Religious HumanismVolume VI, No. 4

 

 

Report To The Membership

April 1993

Now that a full year has gone by since I became officially a part of the leadership of this Chapter, I need to make a report about what I have been up to and why. I want to emphasize that from the beginning I have always asked two questions of myself: “What is humanism and what should I do about it?” and “Do I know what I am doing?” I am only now beginning to understand the first, and no, I don’t always know what I am doing. I do the best I know how; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work too well. But I do work at it. My comments are from my own point of view and form a personal narrative. They are meant to be constructive although they may offend some local chapter members and some American Humanist Association (AHA) members as well. They are meant for this Chapter only. I tend to be plain spoken and I write about matters of great importance to me.

From the beginning there have always been two choices for the Chapter program I prepare. One is to follow the lead of the AHA and most other Chapters to concentrate on exposing the errors of religion and engage in critical inquiry into the problems of contemporary society. The other is to define humanism and present an alternative to theistic supernaturalism. The first would seem almost mandatory for humanists living in Utah and would be a very easy thing. However, the second is my choice, and is by far the more difficult.

There are good reasons why the first choice was rejected. When I first read the Humanist magazine and the newsletters of many other Chapters, I got a feeling of “dread,” a feeling of uneasiness, anxiety and apprehension. It was not comfortable so I just don’t read them. I know that I may be quite alone in this, and that other AHA members of the Chapter read the magazine and enjoy it. What accounts for the difference? I suggest that most probably it is the different way I came to humanism.

I suggest that the way each regards humanism is dependent upon the way one left supernatural religion. Most people come to humanism in one of two ways. One is after rejecting the supernatural which usually follows the occurrence of an event which precipitated a crisis. The other is by accepting humanism as a replacement for theology.

In my case. I rejected the supernatural only after I had accepted humanism. I was presented the Humanist Manifestos and found something I could accept and could then leave my own religion knowing I had found something better. There is no need for me to revisit the act of rejection. It is over, finished, gone. I have something else in its place and I want to build on it. The question for me is: “What do I do now?”

I put forward the proposition that those who first rejected the supernatural need to find a substitute before they can really leave the supernatural. Focusing on the negative and critical reinforces the rejection and justifies the heresy. That does not help the people like myself who come to humanism either having found, or who are in search of, an alternative.

The question I have had in my mind for a while now concerns the effect criticism and negativity has on the reader of the Humanist over the long term. I have formed the opinion that it brings about an alienation from society, a splitting of the individual from the mainstream. One begins to look for what is wrong, the negative, with special attention to religious errors, and becomes hostile to all religion and forces of society which are seen as oppressive and hostile. It becomes “us” vs. “them” resulting in a “fortress mentality,” leading to a morbid sensitivity to any incident in which religious practices appear to encroach on individual rights.

It seems to me that humanists have problems enough dealing with the fact that we are not Christian in a Christian society; that we use reason, not emotion; depend upon the scientific method, not revelation or guidance from religious leaders; and are continually learning and aware of what is going on in our world. What we humanists need is help to live in this world positively. There isn’t much of it in the current humanist reading material.

There is something about theological religion which we all must understand if we are to deal with that religion intelligently.

As stated in a recently reviewed book:

“If you believe that you possess an immortal soul, that your stay on earth is short, and that the character of your faith will determine how you spend eternity–in torment or in bliss–then religion is a very serious business, more serious than anything else you can do or think about. To die in your faith, if you believe that to do so is to gain eternal bliss, is obviously no loss whatever compared to living out of your faith, and losing heaven.”1

We as humanists should be glad that we don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to change people who are only doing what they sincerely believe they have to do to reach their ultimate goal of salvation. We accept the concept that it is in their very nature to do what they do. It is in the nature of the humanist to be tolerant. Most of my family and many of my friends continue in the LDS Church and find it gives their life meaning and purpose and are content with what they have. They accept my decision to go my separate way. Am I to return that grace with my condemnation of their religion? If I am to expect my decision and my idea-system to be respected, I must also respect their decision to remain with theirs.

I know; the extremists, like the fundamentalists, have named “secular humanism” as one of their principle enemies but I don’t think that they mean us, the Humanists of Utah. We are insignificant compared to their real enemy: the educational establishment, which teaches school children and college students how to think for themselves through the study of the humanities and sciences. The intelligent, well educated, thinking, reasoning person will almost always have a problem with theological religion sometime. Why do we ignore that?

The real question is: “What are we offering these thinking, reasoning people so that they might reject their theological religion and become humanists?” If we can’t give answers to what to do during this human interval between birth and death and provide a community for our human needs, we ought not to criticize those institutions which do.

Every organization such as ours which hopes to succeed must first decide: (1) who is your target population?, (2) what do you want to tell them?, and (3) what do you want them to do? We drew up a mission statement in August of 1992 which largely addressed these questions. In summary, it is this: We are looking in the community for intelligent, thinking, reasoning people. We want to tell them about humanism, and we want to give them information which will first present them with an alternative to theistic supernaturalism and then give them reasons to join us.

I am convinced that there are more people out there who are looking for an alternative, something else, than those who want to express their anger and outrage over the apparently egregious actions of our dominant faith. The latter only goes so far.

The lecture this month concerns the debate over what people should do in this short period of time between birth and death. Just because we reject the premise of theology doesn’t mean that the problem of what to do in that interval goes away. It is very much the concern of humanism. I accept the comment of the two volunteers from Los Angeles who state:

“What it all boils down to is the simple human logic of helping where we are able, living the best we know how in this one and only life we believe exists, and doing it for no other reason than it is ‘right’.”

I may be a cockeyed optimist but I believe that the average American will continue to reject extremists like the fundamentalists. I believe that there are people belonging to religious organizations with their faults and contradictions, who will want to find something else. I also believe that humanism will prevail and that it is doing well. I know that the educational system will continue to produce thinking, reasoning humanists.

Sixty years ago, May 1, 1933, the May-June, 1933 issue of the New Humanist, Edwin Wilson, Editor, published A Humanist Manifesto bearing the signatures of thirty-four prominent humanists. This Manifesto presents the alternative to which I have referred. In the introduction, the editors, after presenting the problem facing religion, left a challenge:

“…any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.” The need for such a religion is needed even more today.

I suggest we continue the work Ed Wilson was so instrumental in beginning.

As an example of what I mean, I give you a metaphor: a movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. In this movie, Bill plays a TV weatherman covering Groundhog Day in that town in Pennsylvania. He is an egotistical, negative, critical person who finds himself having to live the same day over again and again. After failing to halt his endless existence, he resolves his dilemma by becoming a different person. He becomes a Renaissance man, a humanist, with sprezzatura. On one final day we see him do everything right, and then he goes on to the next day!

I leave you, a thinking, reasoning person, to see the meaning of the metaphor. If you haven’t seen the movie, please go to it, because it is one with meaning, and it is funny.

One final word. I sincerely believe and affirm that the function of an organization of humanists is to facilitate the process of becoming a humanist. It is a process which never ends!

–Bob Green

 

 

Humanist Humor: Hindu, Rabbi, and Critic

May 1993

While traveling separately through the countryside late one afternoon, a Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught in the same area by a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse.

“That storm will be raging for hours,” the farmer told them. “You’d better stay here for the night. The problem is, there’s only room enough for two of you. One of you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing to me.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry,” he told the others, “but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred and one must not intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry, said the Rabbi, “Make yourself comfortable here. I’ll go to sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig.”

“Oh, all right,” said the Critic, “I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the cow and the pig.

From The Tao of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff, Penguin Books

 

 

Spiritual Evolution

June 1993

In the past, natural forces have shaped the environment. Now, unless a new round of volcanism erupts worldwide, or a comet courses in from outer space, or the possibility viewed by many of the “second coming,” human activities will govern the destiny of earth’s ecosystem. If humanity fails to seek an accord with nature, controls may be imposed involuntarily by the environment itself. It may soon be within human power to produce the republics of grass and insects that writer Jonathan Schell believed could be the barren legacy of nuclear War.

Is there room for optimism? Yes, but only if one can imagine the people of the year 2050 looking back at the mad spasm of consumption and thoughtless waste in the 20th century as an aberration of the history of human existence on our own earth, our own little island of consciousness somewhere in solar time.

To bring my discussion of conservation ethics a little closer to home I need to refer to a statement made at a recent Wasatch Front forum meeting that had to do with why more wasn’t done in Utah and specifically in the Salt Lake valley to preserve a better quality of environmental life. Utah House Representative Frank Pignanelli stated that “One has to remember that the majority of the Utah legislature, 93% to be exact, believes in the second coming.”

In a Time/CNN poll, over 800 Americans were asked, “Will the Second Coming of Jesus Christ occur sometime in the next 1,000 years?” 53% said Yes, and another 16% thought it highly probable.

Can one not ask the question: “At what point and time can the expectations of religious dogma become a self-destructive behavior to humanity?” Can not an occasional voice of Humanistic reflection, speaking directly, play a greater role in community interaction and individual thinking?

I would like to share with you my own Earth Day spirituality. For the sake of this presentation I wish to emphasize a highly personal, simple statement that I view as support for my own spirituality, deeply felt, that flows from my own experience as a student of the genealogy of life on planet earth. A genealogy of almost four billion years of life. Only in this context can I appreciate the millions of years of the evolution of man’s imagination that gave rise to his dogmas and superstitions. One can almost come to some form of understanding, appreciation, and occasional forgiveness.

We now have evidence in fossils of simple cells, and the mats of sediment that aggregates these cells, that life on earth arose at least 3.5 billion years ago. It has, since then, extended upward in time in unbroken continuity to the present. We can all, quite literally, trace our ancestry from moss to mayfly to walrus.

The tree is an accurate metaphor for life’s history: the origin of each current twig (we humans are one) is found going back through branches ever wider and sturdier to the common trunk of original cells nearly four billion years old. Extinction of a twig is a breach of continuity on this great scale. Of course, from a geological perspective, extinction is inevitable and necessary for maintaining a vigorous tree of life. We may also argue, both in the abstract and for life’s actual history, that an occasional catastrophic episode of mass extinction opens new evolutionary possibilities by freeing ecological space in a crowded world.

But, you may well ask if these geological scales are appropriate for contemplating our own life and its immediate meaning.

Ours is a small twig indeed, but remember that it runs back four billion years to the central trunk itself. Our origin in Africa and our subsequent spread throughout the world form a complex and compelling tale expressing our continuity with the entire history of life. If we extirpate this twig directly by destroying our own ecosystem or lose so many other twigs that our own eventually withers away, then we have canceled forever a most peculiar and different, unplanned experiment generated among the billions of branches—a twig that could discover its own history and at the same time can appreciate its continuity via consciousness. Some of us have never extricated ourselves from the chain of being, and view life’s history as a tale of linear progress leading predictably to the evolution of consciousness.

Some paleontologists and others who are knowledgeable tell us a much different story of the evolutionary life process. Stephen Jay Gould, a noted paleontologist, reaches, in his Reflections in Natural History, quite a different conclusion: “Consciousness is not a linear progression of evolution…Consciousness is a quirky evolutionary accident, a product of one particular lineage that developed most components of intelligence for other evolutionary purposes”.

Through no fault of our own and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited for such responsibility, but here we are. If we blow it we will permanently rupture a continuity of eons that dwarfs our own puny history to geological insignificance. I cannot imagine anything more vulgar, more hateful, than the prospect that a tiny twig with one peculiar power might decimate a majestic and ancient tree, whose continuity stretches back to the dawn of earth’s time. If this twig is lost through man’s extinction, consciousness may not evolve again in any other lineage during the 5 billion years or so left to our earth before the sun explodes.

Consciousness is the one characteristic we share with our own species. Though other life forms communicate their own self-awareness, the essence of life simply cannot be reduced to a simple fairy tale of presumed supernatural origin.

My own spirituality comes from both knowledge and the gut feeling that this very moment of consciousness is the result of over four billion years of evolution of life on this planet earth. I stand in absolute humbleness of that consciousness and it is this spirituality that I wish to share.

–Ron Healey, Earth Day 1993

 

The Future Of American Liberalism

July 1993

The liberal temper is above all a faith in enlightenment, a faith in a process, rather than in a set of doctrines, a faith instilled with pride in the achievements of the human mind, and yet colored with a deep humility before the vision of a world so much larger than our human hopes and thoughts. If there are those who have no use for the word ‘faith,’ they may fairly define liberalism as a rationalism that is rational enough to envisage the limitations of mere reasoning.

Liberalism is too often misconceived as a new set of dogmas taught by a newer and better set of priests called ‘liberals.’ Liberalism is an attitude rather than a set of dogmas–an attitude that insists upon questioning all plausible and self-evident propositions, seeking not to reject them but to find out what evidence there is to support them rather than their possible alternatives…Liberalism regards life as an adventure in which we must take risks in new situations, in which there is no guarantee that the new will always be the good or the true, in which progress is a precarious achievement rather than an inevitability.

It enables us to see that most of the ‘yes or no’ questions on which political debate centers at any given time involve false alternatives and unduly narrow assumptions that unnecessarily limit the scope of possible solutions. Thus the liberal, while generally provoking the hostility of both sides in any current dispute, sometimes develops a solution which shows that the dispute was a mistake.

Liberalism is therefore a reaction against all views which favor repression or which regard the denial of natural desires as in itself good.

“Liberalism so conceived is concerned with the liberation of the mind from the restraint of authoritarianism and fanaticism. As opposed to the policies of fear and suppression, based on the principle that nature is sin and intellect the devil, the aim of liberalism is to liberate the energies of human nature by the free and fearless use of reason.

Liberal civilization…is based upon…the Greek motto: ‘What is important is not life, but the good life’…The real liberal believes that life is important only as the condition or opportunity for the good life, and prefers not to live at all if he must live as a slave or in degradation.

–Morris R. Cohen.

 

 

Flo Wineriter Speaks Out On Humanism

February 1993

The following article was published in the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah on Sunday, November 22, 1992.

“Humanism’s basic message is that man alone is responsible for the world and its dreams, and moral values derive their source from human experience,” said Florien J. Wineriter, President of the Utah Chapter of the American Humanist Association.

Wineriter spoke at a recent Unitarian meeting where he discussed humanism and its message. The former radio journalist said humanism is a quest for life’s values, and a belief that we can solve our own problems without having to ask for supernatural guidance. He has observed that religion attempts to teach moral values through fear of punishment, whereas humanism teaches moral values through caring.

Wineriter’s own journey into humanism was triggered by the events of World War II. As a religious young man he felt a concern about the ethics of killing another human being on the other side of the world who might believe in the same religion as he. After studying the many religious wars of the past, Wineriter concluded, “If beliefs in God create so much bloodshed, even among those who share the same religion, then I want and need a basic belief that holds more hope for the future of the human race, and for peaceful resolutions of conflicts.”

The Humanist Counselor believes we must have freedom of choice and experience a wide range of full liberties. “There is no area of thought that we are unwilling to explore, to challenge, to question, or to doubt,” as our philosophy tells us.

Humanists want to maintain a separation of church and state. “Our founders were fearful of religious domination because of past experiences when countries mingled faith and government.” Wineriter believes that churches should continue to have the freedom to lobby and take positions on issues, however the fault lies when individual lawmakers make decisions based on the belief that church should be the final authority because their leaders are spokespersons for God. “The authoritarian mentality is not conducive to democratic governments. This nation is politically and economically secular, and we must not equate religious affiliation with patriotism. Our Constitution provides that there shall be no religious test of any kind,” says Wineriter.

Prayer in public meetings should not be allowed because, in rural Utah especially, it becomes an extension of theocracy. “Prayer in civic meetings continues the mood of yesterday’s priesthood meeting,” as Wineriter put it. He believes humanists should take an active role in their communities by helping others recognize the difference between secular authority and religious authority.

Many religions are threatened by humanistic thoughts, says Wineriter. Garth Brooks’ recent song “We Shall Be Free” is presently being censored by radio stations in Tennessee because of its apparent secular message. The following lyrics appear to be the most controversial.

When we’re free to love anyone we choose,
When this world’s big enough for all different views,
When all can worship from our own kind of pew,
Then we shall be free.

“Brooks has summed up humanism in just a few simple words, and it has upset the traditional religious ideas of country music,” says Wineriter.

Being a humanist does not lead to immoral behavior, as some people believe. “Humanism teaches us to be responsible, caring people and to continually search for the highest human ideals” he emphasized.

As a Humanist Counselor, Wineriter performs marriages, memorial services, and child naming celebrations.

–Nancy Moore

 

 

 

All I Really Need To Know About How To Live And What To Do And How To Be I Learned In Kindergarten

~From the book by Robert Fulghum~

April 1993

 

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the styrofoam cup–they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned–the biggest word of all–LOOK.
  • Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
  • It is still true, no matter how old you are–when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
 

Tribute To AHA Founder

May 1993

A memorial service for Dr. Edwin H. Wilson, founder of the American Humanist Association, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, was held Saturday, April 10, 1993 at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Dr. Wilson had been the Minister for this congregation for three-years, 1946 to 1949.

Featured speaker celebrating the life of Dr. Wilson was Reverend R. Lester Mondale, retired Unitarian Minister and one of the original signers of Humanist Manifesto I. Reverend Mondale recalled his first meetings with Dr. Wilson at the University of Chicago in the early 1930’s. He told of his conversion to Humanism and reminisced about the many meetings of the Humanist Founders and Ed Wilson’s leadership that led to the publication of the Manifesto. Reverend Mondale is now the sole survivor of the thirty-four men who signed the 1933 document that forged a new philosophy urging a secular, rather than a supernatural, approach to the problems of life and living.

Beverley Earles, Ph.D., a Unitarian Minister and a Board Member of the American Humanist Association, told of meeting Ed as a resource person while writing her thesis and praised him for the encouragement he gave her to pursue a career in the ministry and the Humanist movement.

Flo Wineriter, President of the Humanists of Utah, reflected on Dr. Wilson’s efforts to organize our local Chapter and the personal friendship that developed between them.

Family members shared some of their intimate memories of the private life of their famous father and grandfather.

Reverend Tom Goldsmith, Minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, conducted the hour-long tribute and Susanna Karrington played piano selections that Dr. Wilson particularly liked.

Following the service, Lorille Miller and Martha Stewart organized a reception including food and beverages in Eliot Hall. More than 100 people attended the reception and exchanged personal recollections of Dr. Wilson’s influence on their lives and talked about his impact on the world.

The tribute to Edwin H. Wilson was video recorded and a copy will be presented to the American Humanist Association for their archives.

–Flo Wineriter

 

 

American Democratic Thought

June 1993

The following is from The COURSE of AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC THOUGHT, by Ralph H. Gabriel, Larned Professor of American History, Yale University. 1940, The Ronald Press Company.

“The second doctrine of the democratic faith…was that of the free individual. It contained a theory of liberty and of the relation of the individual to the State which [each] ultimately governed…This philosophy affirmed that the advance of civilization is measured by the progress of [humankind] in apprehending and translating into individual and social action the eternal principles which comprise the moral law…Out of the concept that [a] civilized [individual] is the virtuous [one] and this hopeful philosophy that [all are] on the march toward a better world came the nineteenth century theory of liberty. As [people] became more nearly perfect in obedience to the fundamental moral law,…they needed less the external control of man-made laws. “Hence,” insisted Emerson following Jefferson, “the less government we have the better…The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual…To educate the wise…the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise…the State expires.”, [Emerson, Works, (Centenary ed.), III, 215-216]. Henry Thoreau, Emerson’s Concord friend, carried this reasoning to a logical conclusion. The [one] who has achieved moral maturity, he thought, should reject imperfect laws made by stupid majorities and should accept the higher law which is disclosed by [one’s] conscience as the sole guide and regulator of [one’s] life.” (pp. 19-20)

“…What is twentieth century humanism? It is not a philosophy, though it implies one. It is a point of view. It is an approach to the problem of living. It begins with the assumption, as old as Christianity, that human life is of supreme worth. From this premise follows inevitably the conclusion that [all] must be treated as an end, not as a means. Humankind does not exist to make possible any particular moral or social order. [We] do not live for the purpose of glorifying God or the State. Social institutions exist for [humankind]…But humanism implies more than the mere increase in the lives of [humankind]. It is an effort to enrich human experience. It aims at nothing less than the fullest possible life for every person born into the world. In order that this end may be approached humanism seeks to understand human experience by human inquiry. Its instrument is scientific investigation, for the humanist of the twentieth century cannot depend upon divine revelation. The humanist believes that knowledge will make possible the improvement of the condition of [all],…[and] does not wait for the blind forces of nature to act,…[and]puts…trust in creative human intelligence[,]…[but] does not ignore the determinism which science finds in nature…[and] understands that order in nature sets limits to human possibilities. But [one] does not permit such order to paralyze action. Twentieth century humanism, in essence then, is the faith that [individuals] to a limited degree [are] master[s] of [their] destiny and, being such, [have] a share in the responsibility for [their] fate. In the United States the background of this humanism is the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the nineteenth century religion of humanity.” (p. 374)

 

A Joyful Humanism

July 1993

Dare I say it? I want a human humanism. I want a humanism, not of the philosophers–the abstract thinkers, those sheltered in ivory towers, those trapped in the brilliance of their own minds issuing pronunciamentos and manifestos–but a humanism for the people, the man and woman in the streets, the poor who live in villages all over the world. I want a democratic humanism, a creatively democratic humanism.

I want a humanism that is joyful and a little messy. I want a humanism that is funny, full of jokes, stories, and tales. I want a humanism that is relaxed, friendly, helpful, not one that is full of bile, criticism, and always whining about how stupid it is to believe in God or religion.

I want a humanism that puts the head back on the body, that recognizes we have bodies–bodies that leak, smell, are awkward, and, though they may be beautiful, ultimately fail. The humanism of the mind is the humanism of the perfect idea, the principle, the system that issues a list of impregnable right positions. This humanism should retreat for a while; it should rest up, then wake up and smell the corpses of ideologies’ inhumanity.

I want a humanism that sees the human, not at the pinnacle of an evolutionary chain of being, but as part of this natural world. I want a humanism that loves this Earth, our home. I want a humanism full of rhyme and poetry, unafraid to play. All thought and no play makes humanism exceedingly dull. I want a humanism that can be stated in terms of caring, loving, promoting, building, doing, and being. What does the humanist love? The record suggests that the humanist loves abstractions.

Let abstractions be damned! I want a humanism that is about men and women, about the struggle to live decently in this world. I want a humanism that gives us a road map for the future, that points us towards a planetary perspective; that fosters, not correct thinking, but joy in living; that encourages the creative power of every human being; that affirms life in all its expressions; that elicits possibilities for a humane future; that has no argument with the world.

I want a humanism that loves differences, that is joyful, that celebrates this life and this world.

–W. Edward Harris, Unitarian Minister
Published in Religious Humanism, Vol. XXVI, No. 3

 

Utah Libraries Accept Offer

February 1993

The Humanists of Utah project to increase public awareness of humanism has been a major success. Last fall the Chapter was awarded a grant of $2,000.00 by the Fund for Chapter Expansion to finance the proposed project. The deadline for using the money was December 31, 1992. The project began with a letter to 80 public libraries in Utah asking if they would accept a subscription to the Humanist and display it in their reading room. They were also asked if they would accept and put into circulation a copy of Corlis Lamont’s book The Philosophy of Humanism. The response was better than expected. About 80% of the libraries replied to our survey letter. Some of the libraries already subscribe to the Humanist and some already have copies of Lamont’s book in circulation. Of the remaining institutions, 40 agreed to receive and display the Humanist magazine and 38 requested copies of The Philosophy of Humanism to add to their circulation shelves. The survey also revealed that the library at Utah State University has a nearly complete publication file of the Humanist magazine.

The success of this project will hopefully expose thousands of Utahns to humanism during the next three years. It could result in a major increase in the number of Utahns who become active members of AHA and perhaps result in the formation of more local chapters for Humanists of Utah.

The American Humanist Association and the Fund of Chapter Expansion has been very complimentary of the success of our project.

–Flo Wineriter

 

 

Proposed Ten Principles of the Humanist Community
San Jose, California

April 1993

The Humanist Alternative To Traditional Religion

First Principle: We humanists offer ennobling ideals that don’t insult your intellectual and emotional integrity, because we ask more modest, but more interesting, questions–focused on human, rather than theological, concerns.

Second Principle: Humanists have no social or religious creed, but do have a distinctive character–an approach to life that cherishes a diversity of traditions.

Third Principle: We believe in people. We honor the possibilities of human personality–in the individual and in the entire human species.

Fourth Principle: Naturalistic humanists hold that the scientific project of explaining everything in the universe without recourse to non-natural entities is sound. The God of the gaps in dead. We see the world as seamless.

Fifth Principle: Accepting our finitude and the transient nature of life itself, Humanists cherish the fleeting moment even more. “Now” is all you ever have.

Sixth Principle: The image of humanity as a child of the stars is a scientific metaphor that puts the human species “in its proper place”—This planet is my home, all life forms are my body. I am the key to all future human possibilities. In this context I write a story with my life, using my unique gifts to their fullest.

Seventh Principle: Humanist communities can be regarded as either “secular,” “religious,” or both—depending on how these words are defined.

Eighth Principle: Some clergy oppose access to sex education, birth control, abortion and assisted suicide; interfere in sexual issues; curb artistic expression. We won’t let them foist their partisan mores on us; we will resist their use of the State to intrude into our lives.

Ninth Principle: We acknowledge that intelligent people of goodwill may disagree with us. Therefore, we enter into honest dialogue with people of varied beliefs and unbeliefs, cooperating with them for the greater good.

Tenth Principle: In supporting these or any other principles, we acknowledge that new circumstances and insights could make us reconsider them.

 

Earth In The Balance

by Senator Albert Gore, Jr.
~Book Review~

February 1993

The new Vice-President argues that only a radical rethinking of our relationship with nature can save the earth’s ecology for future generations. In Earth In The Balance published by Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992, Gore says one of our major problems is the Platonic assumption, adopted by most of the world’s major religions, that humans are separate from the world of nature. Gore makes a strong plea for us to recognize that we are not put on this earth supernaturally but rather we are part of the natural world and we have a responsibility to protect and enhance that relationship. He says as long as people see themselves as separate from the earth they will find it easy to devalue the earth. He also cites the population explosion as “the clearest single example of the dramatic change in the overall relationship between the human species and the earth’s ecological system.”

I was excited to realize that we now have a Vice-President of the United States promoting basic humanism!

–Flo Wineriter

 

Abraham Maslow and Self-Actualization

December 1993

It is a pleasure to meet with you this evening, and I have welcomed this good excuse to delve again into the life and writings of Abraham Maslow. Some years ago I enjoyed teaching a class at the University of Utah called “An Introduction To Humanistic Psychology” and Maslow was at the very heart of that enterprise. I’ve brought along tonight three handouts used in that class. The first portrays the context of Maslow’s contribution to humanistic psychology, what I chose to call the Humanistic Psychology Tree. [See handout #1]

At the roots of the tree you can see the many forces and individuals that nurtured the later development of humanistic psychology. At the trunk are listed the major voices of the evolving movement, and in the branches are listed some of the manifestations of the further elaboration of humanistic psychology–some of which are already drifting into obscurity. In the upper right hand corner of Handout #1 is a designation “Transpersonal–4th Force,” which in recent years has had great exposure, but (my bias) has lost much of the substance of the early stalwarts in humanistic psychology. The thrust has been mystical, “spiritual,” and too often anti-intellectual–(again, my bias.) At the worst it has talked of astral-projection, levitation, and crystals. At the best it has talked of the one-ness of humanity, realities beyond the immediately rational, and the richness of human intuition amidst the wonders of the cosmos. But lest we get lost in the ethereal let’s come back to earth by looking first at the life of Abraham Maslow and then some of his major interests including self-actualization.

Maslow was born in 1908 in a slum district of Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish parents who had immigrated to the United States from Russia. The fact of Maslow’s Jewish parentage was a burden to him throughout his life because he, like so many others, often felt the pain of anti-semitism. He also felt handicapped by the lack of nurturing from his parents. Writing of his mother, for instance:

Since my mother is the type that’s called schizophrenogenic in the literature–she’s the one who makes crazy people, crazy children. I was awful curious to find out why I didn’t go insane. I was certainly neurotic, extremely neurotic, during all my first twenty years–depressed, terribly unhappy, lonely, isolated, self-rejecting, and so on–but in theory, it should have been much worse.

Maslow started college at New York City College, dropped out on probation (he said he never could apply himself to courses that didn’t interest him), went to Cornell briefly, and then went back to New York City College again. The second time around, he reveled in New York City as an intellectual metropolis. His heroes were famous lecturers and writers. He listened to debates between Bertrand Russell and Reinhold Niebuhr, learned about the history of philosophy in free lectures by Will Durant, and attended two classical music concerts a week at Carnegie Hall. He felt he gained important insights and maturity in his own personal psychoanalysis.

In 1928 he married and also shifted his academic pursuits to the University of Wisconsin, drawn by its liberal reputation. There he completed his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. There, also, he began his career in psychology. Politically during this time he was an idealistic socialist. His heroes were Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs, and Norman Thomas.

After graduate studies at Wisconsin were completed, he began his teaching career at Brooklyn College and was back in the intellectual ferment of New York. He interacted with the cream of Europe’s intellectuals who had fled Nazi Germany–Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka of gestalt psychology fame; Kurt Goldstein, who did seminal work with brain-damaged soldiers, and saw self-actualization as a key factor in human behavior. (There are those magic words, Self-Actualization.) He also interacted with Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian with a great emphasis on family life, personal development, and individual freedom; Eric Fromm, another neo-Freudian with a great concern for humanistic social institutions, non-dogmatic religion, cooperative social organizations, and an effective Socialist spokesman; Ruth Benedict, the noted anthropologist; and Alfred Adler, still another neo-Freudian, who focused on what he called, “Will To Personal Power,” which fits well with Self-Actualization. Now how would you like to hob-nob with folks like that?

Maslow himself became a prolific writer, adhering works now regarded as classics in psychology, including: Principles of Abnormal Psychology, with Beta Mittelman (1955); Toward a Psychology of Being (1962); Values and Peak Experiences, (1964); and The Psychology of Science, (1969). His many books and articles continue to be a gold-mine of information and inspiration to which one can return again and again for additional nuggets.

Maslow died in 1970 of his third heart attack at the age of 62.

Let’s turn now to some major themes in Maslow’s writings–themes which came to be known as Third Force Psychology (The first two forces were Freudianism and Behaviorism). The term Third Force Psychology has also been used as a synonym for humanistic psychology.

We can begin with Maslow’s now famous theory of basic needs, usually portrayed visually as needs layered within a pyramid drawing. [See handout #2] At the bottom of the pyramid are our physiological needs–rock bottom survival needs for air, water, food, shelter, sleep, and sex. The second layer contains safety and security needs–our need for a sense of security in a predictable world with a relative absence of threat to ourselves. The third layer designates love and belongingness needs–our need for warm, interpersonal sharing, love and affection, and affiliation. The fourth layer designates self-esteem and esteem by others–our need for a sense of confidence and competence, achievement, independence and freedom. At the top of the pyramid are self-actualization needs–our need for growth, development, utilization of potential, i.e., to become more and more what we are capable of becoming.

Maslow deemed these needs to be species-wide, apparently unchanging, and genetic or instinctual in origin: needs both physiological and psychological. Also, and this is an important point, Maslow said the pyramid represents a hierarchy of needs, with the strongest at the bottom moving toward the weakest at the top. Maslow said that as lower needs are met, the higher needs emerge, a process he called “metamotivation”, and which we can call growth, the self-actualization process, or movement toward “full humanness”. (Parenthetically, we can note that much of the world’s population has always been preoccupied with satisfying the basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid, and has not had the luxury of being concerned about the needs higher on the pyramid. When one is starving, there probably is little concern for self-actualization.)

It was Maslow’s contention that we can learn the most about humans by studying exceptionally healthy, mature people–the “growing top” of humanity. Such persons Maslow selected from his acquaintances and friends, public persons, living and dead, and selected college students. His initial definition of self-actualization was: “the full use and exploitation of talent, capacities, potentialities, etc. Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and doing the best that they are capable of doing.” Maslow felt he saw such qualities in such notables as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Adams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, and Aldous Huxley.

Among the characteristics of self-actualized persons would be the following–and these are quotations taken from Frank Soble’s book, The Third Force: The Psychology Of Abraham Maslow

“The psychologically healthy individual is highly independent, yet at the same time, enjoys people.”

“They are sometimes seen by others as being remote and detached because, while they enjoy the company of others, they do not need other people. They rely fully upon their own capacities.”

“They are governed far more by inner directives, their own nature, and natural needs than by the society or the environment. Since they depend less on other people, they are less ambivalent about them, less anxious, and also less hostile, less needful of their praise and their affection. They are less anxious for honors, prestige and rewards.”

“They tend to form deep, close personal friendships, deeper than those of the average adult.”

“…self-actualizing people enjoy life more–not that they don’t have pain, sorrow, and troubles, just that they get more out of life. They appreciate it more; they have more interests; they are more aware of beauty in the world. They have less fear and anxiety, and more confidence and relaxation. They are far less bothered by feelings of boredom, despair, shame, or lack of purpose.”

And the final quotation:

“They never tire of life. They have the capacity to appreciate the sunrise or sunset, or marriage, or nature, again and again.”

A related area of study for Maslow was what he called “peak experiences”–moments when individuals feel at their very best, moments of great awe, intense happiness, rapture, bliss, ecstasy. He would ask people to describe “the single most joyous happiest, most blissful moment of your whole life.”

Maslow felt that persons having “peak experiences,” or moments of self-actualization, typically feel better, stronger, and more unified–the world looks better, more unified, and honest. He found peak experiences to have most of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to religious experiences from nearly every creed and faith. “Is it not meaningful also”, he asked, “that the mystic experience has been described in almost identical words by people in every religion, every era, in almost every culture?” Such questions by Maslow set the stage for later expressions of transpersonal psychology.

The final theme area of Maslow’s that I will mention was his study of values. An important aspect of his Third Force theory was the belief that there are values or moral principles common to the entire human species, cross culturally, which are biologically based and which can be scientifically confirmed and are exemplified by the best persons in every society. These are sweeping assertions! For your consideration, these values are listed in a third handout [see handout #3]. They are deemed to be part of the self-actualization needs. Maslow thought the one over-arching, ultimate value for mankind was the realization of human potentiality, becoming fully human, everything that each person can become.

He vigorously denied that everything is subject to cultural relativity, and he deplored science and especially psychology opting out of the study of values. He said, “humans need a philosophy of life, religion, or a value system, just as they need sunlight, calcium, and love.”

Maslow coined the term, Eupsychia, to describe the implementation of self-actualization values, i.e., the creation of a society of maximal self-actualization for all persons. I think this quotation of Maslow’s is a good note to close on:

“That society is good which fosters the fullest development of human potentials, of the fullest degree of humanness.”

–Hugh Gillilan

Dr. Gillilan, A.B., 1955, Ohio University; M.A., 1959, Northwestern University; Ed.D., 1970, University of Utah, is in private practice as a Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist. From 1961 to 1969, he was minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. He has taught at Westminster College and the University of Utah. A member of several professional associations, he is currently President of the Utah Psychological Association.