Discussion Group Report
Why People Believe Weird Things
By Richard Layton
“This story has the same components as an alien abduction experience,” says Michael Shermer in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things. “Strange things going bump in the night, interpreted in the context of the time and culture of the victims, whipped into a phenomenon through rumor and gossip–we are talking about modern versions of medieval witch crazes.”
The components of these crazes in their modern pseudoscientific descendents are still alive: 1) Victims tend to be women, the poor, the retarded, and other societally marginal people. 2) Sex or sexual abuse is typically involved. 3) Mere accusation of potential perpetrators makes them guilty. 4) Denial of guilt is regarded as further proof of guilt. 5) When a claim of victimization becomes well known, other claims appear. 6) The movement hits a critical peak of accusation, when virtually everyone is a potential suspect and almost no one is above suspicion. 7) Then the pendulum swings the other way. As the innocent begin to fight back through legal and other means, the accusers sometimes become the accused and skeptics begin to demonstrate the falsity of the accusations. 8) Finally the movement fades, the public loses interest, and proponents, while never completely disappearing, are shifted to the margins of belief.
Modern examples of witch crazes are the “satanic panic” of the 1980’s and the recovered memory movement of the 1990’s. In the latter case, adults who had been engaged in psychotherapy claimed to have recovered repressed memories of sexual abuse in their childhoods. In 1989 a girl accused her father, George Franklin, of killing her childhood friend, and he was imprisoned. The only evidence was her 20-year-old alleged recovered memory. When she later claimed he had committed other murders which the evidence proved he could not have committed, he was released after having been incarcerated over six and a half years.
Another troubling aspect of crazes and the sexual abuse hysteria sweeping America the past few years is that some genuine offenders may go free in the backlash. “Is it really possible that thousands of Satanic cults have secretly infiltrated our society and that their members are torturing, mutilating, and sexually abusing tens of thousands of children and animals? No. Is it really possible that millions of adult women were sexually abused as children but have repressed all memory of the abuse? No. Like the alien abduction phenomenon, these are products of the mind, not reality. They are social follies and mental fantasies, driven by a curious phenomenon called the feedback loop,” explains Shermer.
Witch crazes are social systems that organize through feedback loops in which outputs are connected to inputs, producing change in response to both (like a public address system with feedback or stock market booms and busts driven by flurries of buying and selling). The underlying mechanism is the cycling of information through a closed system. There are internal and external components of the loop which periodically occur together. Internal components include the social control of one group of people by another more powerful group, a prevalent feeling of loss of personal control and responsibility, and the need to place blame for misfortune elsewhere; external conditions include socioeconomic stresses, cultural and political crises, religious strife, and moral upheavals. The system self-organizes, grows, reaches a peak, and then collapses. A few claims of ritual abuse are fed into the system through word of mouth in the 17th century or the mass media in the 20th. An individual is accused of being in league with the devil and denies the accusation. The denial serves as proof of guilt, as does silence or confession. Accusation equals guilt (as in any well-publicized sexual-abuse case). The system grows in complexity as gossip or the media increase the amount and flow of information. Witch after witch is burned and abuser after abuser is jailed, until the system reaches criticality and finally collapses under changing social conditions and pressures. In medieval witch hunts, theological imaginations, ecclesiastical power, scapegoating, the decline of magic, the rise of formal religion, interpersonal conflict, misogyny, gender politics, and possibly even psychedelic drugs were all components of the feedback loop, driving it forward. People agreed that skeptics and lawyers who defended witches were themselves witches, “Satan’s accomplices.”
Curiously, the medieval witch craze occurred at the very time when experimental science was gaining ground. We often think that science displaces and decreases belief in superstition. Not necessarily so. Modern believers in paranormal and other pseudoscientific phenomena try to wrap themselves in the mantle of science by asking scientists to investigate alleged strange happenings, but they still believe what they believe. However, such believers have put themselves in a double bind. As one observer at a 17th century witch trial noted, “Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft persists, why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God.”
Discussion Group Report
Why Me? Why Now?
By Richard Layton
With these words Kenneth Phifer opens his article, “Why Me? Why Now?” in Religious Humanism, Winter ’85. When he was attending divinity school, his close friend Bill died. He asked why this decent, kindly, wonderful human being had to die at so young an age after having gone through terrible agony prior to his death. Prayer did not help. Phifer left school not long afterward because the old answers would no longer do. He fled to Florida and started life all over again. He is now a humanist who says he affirms and rejoices in this existence despite the bad things that happen.
He quotes Santayana: “…everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal existence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence.” These words are a lode-star for Phifer in the struggle to answer the questions that accompany the bad things that happen to us.
We can handle almost anything if we know the reason for it. But often there is no explanation, at least no satisfactory one. We may jest, as Robert Frost did: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee\And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.” There are no satisfactory answers to the conundrum: why would a loving deity bring such woe on its creatures? Epicurus said, “If God is all-powerful then surely God is not all-loving; if God is all-loving, then surely God is not all-powerful.”
All we can rely on in the end is human experience. The most we can honestly say is that disaster strikes randomly. The sun rises on the wicked and the good. It is probably true, as Albert Schweitzer believed, that the universe itself is flawed.
“Experience and humility advise us that there is no ‘Ultimate Meaning’ within which to shelter our woes. Whatever meaning there is in events of hardship is not so much found in them as brought out of them. We do this by understanding the measure of our responsibility for and the degree of our victimization in the harm that occurs. Only by avoiding paralyzing guilt and choking despair can we transcend disaster. Only by accepting our failures can we hope not to repeat them. One of the hard lessons of maturity is that it is we who must forge meaning out of madness, caring out of chaos, laughter and love out of loss.”
And how do we cope with what seems so utterly overwhelming. W. C. Fields was once caught by a friend on what Fields thought was his death-bed, though it was not, looking into the Bible. Since this was not a book Fields often turned to, his friend asked him what he was doing and received the response: “Looking for loopholes.” Most of us do. Our first reaction to something dreadful happening to us is to say, “This cannot be happening.” We look for a way out. The test comes when we realize there is no way out.
In dealing with the pain of grief, Phifer advises that we plunge headlong into the terribleness that is now part of our life. Don’t hold back. Don’t try to avoid it. Take it all on. Take it all in. In Eda LeShan’s words, “Make friends with anguish…Welcome each wave of pain and ride it out, with nothing holding back.” To put loss and pain behind us, we must first submerge ourselves in the depths of our anguish.
It is also necessary at times to set pain aside and live as if it did not exist. We need some moments free of the turmoil that disturbs us. We need to affirm life in its rightness even as we bear the curse of its wrongness. Sometimes we need to forget the wounds that lie open in us.
One of the things that is right with the world can be found by relating to other people. May Sarton’s “Winter Thoughts” tell us that, when hard times come to us and our greatest “temptation is to withdraw,” then, above all other times, we must keep firmly in our minds that it is when we let slip the ties between ourselves and other people that “we begin to freeze up into despair.” Norman Cousins, out of the depth of his struggle against a horrifying disease, teaches us that it is not death or suffering that is the real tragedy of life. It is depersonalization, the loss of contact with others, the absence of that human warmth that more than anything else makes life worth living. If we can renew and strengthen old ties as well as build new ones in what Schweitzer called “the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” we will discover hope. Hope does not have to do with life being easier but with life being richer in meaning; it is our dream of and connection with the future. We should ask, How can I take this life-shattering trauma and make it a basis for growing?
“If we can grow in our pain,” says Phifer, “if we can learn compassion through our agony, if we can keep faith with our fellow travelers and our ideals, we will help tip the balance of existence from sadness to joy. This is the great challenge and often enough the great triumph of every human life.”
Discussion Group Report
Was Democracy Just a Moment?
By Richard Layton
The collapse of communism from internal stresses says nothing about the long-term viability of Western democracy. Marxism’s natural death in Eastern Europe is no guarantee that subtler tyrannies do not await us, here and abroad. History has demonstrated that there is no final triumph of reason, whether it goes by the name of the Enlightenment, or, now, democracy.”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans, because of their (comparative) equality, exaggerate “the scope of human perfectibility. Despotism, is more to be feared in democratic ages,” because it thrives on the obsession with self and one’s own security which equality fosters.
Kaplan maintains that the democracy we are encouraging in many parts of the world will lead to new forms of authoritarianism; that democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before, and from obscure sources; and that many future regimes, ours especially, could resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta more than they do the current government in Washington. The Greek historian Polybius of the second century BCE, interpreted the “Golden Age” of Athens as the beginning of its decline.
The establishment of democracy in some third world countries has led to anarchy. Democracy often weakens states by necessitating ineffectual compromises and fragile coalition governments in societies where bureaucratic institutions never functioned well to begin with. The trouble with our approach to promoting democracy is that in many cases where the country is in economic straits, instead of getting the improvements they need, they get the vote, and groups of soldiers then exploit the prevalent disorder to establish tyranny.
The current reality in Singapore and South Africa shred our democratic certainties. Lee Kuan Yew, by establishing a neo-authoritarian, paternalistic, meritocratic and undemocratic corporation has forged prosperity from abject poverty, while South Africa has become one of the most violent places on earth outside war zones. Educated people are fleeing from it. China from an authoritarian base is bringing significant improvements in prosperity while India has a mixed record of success as a democracy with some poverty-wracked places in semi-anarchy. Peru has benefited from a move toward a subtle authoritarianism. Some other countries are also evolving into hybrid authoritarian- democratic regimes, and they seem to be the wave of the future.
Ironically, while we are preaching our version of democracy abroad, it is slipping away from us at borne. Along with the vast and obvious influence that corporations wield over government and the economy, more covert forms of corporate power are emerging. This is manifested by the huge multiplication of corporation-built sheltered residential communities, malls with their own rules and security forces as opposed to public streets, private health clubs as opposed to public playgrounds, incorporated suburbs with strict zoning, and other aspects of daily existence in which we opt out of the public sphere and the “social contract” for the sake of a protected setting. Dennis Judd, an urban-affairs expert at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says, “It’s nonsense to think that Americans are individualists. Deep down we are a nation of herd animals: mice-like conformists who will lay at our doorstep many of our rights if someone tells us that we won’t have to worry about crime and our property values are secure. We have always put up with restrictions inside a corporation that we would never put up with in the public sphere. But what we do not realize is that life within some sort of corporation is what the future will increasingly be about.”
The growing piles of our material possessions make personal life more complex and leave less time for communal matters. In this historical transition phase, in which globalization has begun, but is not complete and loyalties are highly confused, civil society will be harder to maintain.
We have become voyeurs and escapists. Many of us do not play sports but love watching great athletes with great physical attributes. The fact that basketball and baseball have become big corporate business has only increased the popularity of spectator sports. They provide the artificial excitement that mass existence “against instinct,” as philosopher Bertrand Russell labeled our lives, requires. And “see blood” sports have become more popular. The mood of the Coliseum goes together with the age of the corporation, which offers entertainment instead of values.
Just as religion was replaced by nationalism at the end of the Middle Ages, at the end of Modern Times’ nationalism might be replaced by a combination of traditional religion, spiritualism, patriotism directed toward the planet rather than a specific country, and assorted other emotions. “An elite with little loyalty to the state and a mass society fond of gladiator entertainments form a society in which corporate Leviathans rule and democracy is hollow,” warns Kaplan.
If democracy, the crowning political achievement of the West, is gradually transfigured…then the West will suffer the same fate as earlier civilizations. Just as Rome believed it was giving final expression to the republican ideal of the Greeks and just as medieval kings believed they were giving final expression to the Roman ideal, we believe, as the early Christians did, that we are bringing freedom and a better life to the rest of humankind. Nineteenth century Russian liberal Alexander Herzen wrote, ‘Modern Western thought will pass into history and be incorporated in it…’ Although we are the very essence of creativity and dynamism, we are poised to transform ourselves into something perhaps quite different from what we imagine.”
Discussion Group Report
The Source of Human Good
By Richard Layton
Humanist and secularist ideas have had a profound impact in the world: the development of science and the progressive application of its methods to the understanding of nature and life. The application of technology and industry for the betterment of the human condition and their contributions to improved standards of living and health. The development of secular schools and universities and the extensions of the horizons of learning to millions of inhabitants of this planet. The continued secularization of society and culture, the arts and sciences, and philosophy and politics, making them independent of religious authority or control. The progressive development of democratic ideals world-wide, those that recognize freedom of conscience, the right of dissent, and the separation of church and state. The growing respect for human rights on a global scale and the sense that we are all part of an interdependent world community.
Although in some countries, particularly in Western Europe, the humanist movement is now growing, the overall impact is still very weak. Unless strong humanist institutions are developed, says Kurtz, there is no guarantee that the secular and humanist revolution in the modern world will continue. Secularist and humanist culture in pagan Hellenic civilization was overwhelmed by the Dark Age of Christianity; the Alexandrian library, a treasury of great classics, was burned; and the infamous Holy Inquisition was eventually launched. There is no assurance that this will not happen again and that men and women will not retreat in fear and trembling into the false security of a religious cocoon. A collapse of courage and a renewed dread of death, individually or collectively, can again overtake human consciousness and it may again feel the need to postulate myths of solace to ease frustration and sorrow.
“The only way to see to it that humanist philosophical, scientific, and ethical concepts survive our age is by transforming them into conviction and commitment in the minds and hearts of ordinary men and women and by embodying them in institutional form.” Ideas take on a new vitality when they are reinforced by their institutional forms though only a nonviolent strategy can most effectively accomplish this, one based primarily on moral suasion and education.
Kurtz proposes a public education that especially develops the skills of critical intelligence, logic, and scientific methods of inquiry; an appreciation of the importance of rational inquiry and thinking skills; and a clarification of the most effective methods for evaluating truth claims, judging them by the evidence, and in light of their logical relationships, and testing them by reference to their consequences. These methods involve an open mind about questions still unresolved and some element of skepticism about claims not objectively corroborated.
“The great challenge of the immediate future is to extend the methods of critical analysis from narrow specialized fields of knowledge to all aspects of thought and action, and especially to use them in appraising the claims of religion, as well as dilemmas encountered in the ethical and political domains.” This should be the task of all the institutions of society. We should attempt to provide within the media critical dissent, an appreciation of alternative points of view, and improved quality of taste and judgment. People need to be encouraged to appreciate the findings of science in general, to cultivate rational powers of thought, to study the methods of logic, of clarifying ideas, and of reaching reliable knowledge. “The best therapy for nonsense is critical intelligence.” Skepticism is important as an antidote to gullibility.
Kurtz says that many humanists are unduly reluctant to criticize religion. Yet true believers bitterly attack them. We have reached a stage in the development of human culture where dissent is tolerated. We should never return one intolerance for another, nor mock or ridicule alternative belief states, but we should criticize them fairly. We should not assume that the Bible and claims to revelation are immune to critical scrutiny; when we examine them carefully, we find that their claims are highly questionable.
Humanism is deeply concerned with ethics and cherishes moral principles and values, but is troubled by repressive moral codes imposed by authoritarian religions. It is identified with moral freedom: the emancipation of the individual and society. This emancipation does not break down the social fabric and lead to violence, crime, licentiousness, pornography, drugs, and sexually transmitted disease, as many defenders of the social order charge. Eschewing transcendental theistic morality with absolute commandments and a focus on obedience to God to win salvation, humanistic ethics focuses on the here and now and wishes to use critical intelligence to cope with problems or make moral choices.
Kurtz advocates the establishment of Eupraxophy Centers, focusing on eupraxia, good practice. They would be both schools and laboratories for lived experience, providing for people actually to relate to each other. Some of their functions would be ethical education, counseling, creative renewal and friendship, rites of passage, enjoyment; and social polity or the discussion of concerns about society and social justice.
Resources for Youth
Religious moderates and skeptics see that present day studies of Biology, Physics, and Logic are important factors in answering questions raised by religions.
Writings that can give insights into Religious Skepticism include:
Why should a young student read about religious skepticism?
Thanks to A.W. Lindholm of Terre Haute, Indiana for pursuing the concept of recruiting thinking young people to the humanist cause.
Discussion Group Report
The Origins of Humanism
By Richard Layton
Humanism has undergone several declines and rebirths since the time of the poet Homer. The latest rebirth began in the 1890’s, as recounted by Edwin H. Wilson, who had been a founder of the American Humanist Association, editor of The Humanist, and a minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, in an article in the January-February, 1991, issue of The Humanist.
The modern humanist movement emerged from liberal religious change. The influence of the enlightenment, Darwin and biblical criticism encouraged liberal trends in Unitarianism, Universalism, the Ethical Societies, and Reformed Judaism. A growing literature reflected the influence of evolutionary thought, especially in the rejection of the Bible as the source of revealed truth. Religious radicals and independents gravitated to an organization known as the Free Religious Association, with Ralph Waldo Emerson as its first president, and Felix Adler, founder of the American Ethical Societies, and others as members. The forerunners of our evolutionary, naturalistic humanism, they were humanistic theists. Keeping theistic terms, they redefined them. A controversy broke out between east and west, between those who wanted to pin down Unitarianism to its Christian antecedents and those who wanted a free association with no dogma or creed. It culminated in the establishment of the right of the lay doubter to membership in Unitarian churches, and the principal issue became the right of ministers who no longer believed in a supernatural god or immortality to fill Unitarian pulpits.
Born in 1898, Wilson, as a young man, observed the passing on of ignorance and superstition from generation to generation in Catholic and fundamentalist churches. He began to think of the liberal church as an educational instrument for change. He heard U.S. Prison commissioner Sanford Bates state, “There is not one belief that I hold that I would not change on five-minutes notice if I ran into a new fact.”
The strategy of the liberal religious traditionalists in dealing with change was to ignore it. Humanism was a forbidden word in establishment talk. In his article, Wilson opined, “How a religious organization deals with change is one test of its ultimate integrity and its adaptation to changing needs in a changing world. Unitarians have done well with change. Tolerance and pluralism are built into its creedlessness.” While studying in the Unitarian Theological School in Meadville Pennsylvania, Wilson spent his spare time avidly reading everything about humanism he could lay his hands on. He concluded, “That is it! Humanism has time, science, and human need on its side. I’ll stick with it!”
Later, while at the University of Chicago, he was turned off by behaviorists who disclaimed any compassionate interest in how their research was used and by graduate students planning to go into private industries as advisors to profit-makers. Curtis W. Reese helped him reach the conclusion that he could best serve his goals in the liberal ministry. At this moment the beginning of an organized humanist movement occurred.
Following Reese’s publication of a series of books including Humanist Sermons, Humanist Religion, and The Meaning of Humanism, a deluge of humanist scholarship occurred. Important books published were John Dewey’s A Common Faith, Julian Huxley’s Religion without Revelation, Roy Wood Sellars’ Evolutionary Naturalism and The Next Step in Religion, A. E. Haydon’s The Quest of the Ages and Corliss Lamont’s The Illusion of Immortality and Humanism as Religion. An annual bound series of selected sermons called Humanist Pulpit was published by John Dietrich and received commendations from Albert Einstein and Charles Francis Potter. From 1927 to 1938 the Meadville students put out a mimeographed publication called The New Humanist with a regular column by Wilson. This column evolved to show how humanist ideas were expressed in society at large in many ways. Harold Buschman was the editor and Wilson the managing editor. This magazine was the true forerunner of The Humanist.
Under the inspiration of Professor Haydon, a Humanist Fellowship was organized with members from the University of Chicago, Meadville, and other adjacent schools; but with graduation and campus transience, it later disappeared. The New Humanist published “A Humanist Manifesto.” Raymond Bragg, Reese, Haydon, and Wilson circulated a revised first draft written by Sellars and incorporated many invited comments. It became a consensus document and was then published separately as Humanist Manifesto I. They looked for new and promising young writers to supplement the publication’s academic content, avoid a narrow dogmatism, keep abreast of the literature, and involve important writers in the movement. Now more than just a publishing organization, they were a fellowship of like-minded supporters of a cause generating commitment. The name of the sponsor of the magazine was changed to the American Humanist Association, and the word New was omitted from the publication’s name. The signers of the Manifesto were all secularists. They had washed their hands of the supernatural, saying, “The time has passed for theism.”
“However,” says Wilson, “secular versus religious is a false issue. By doing some homework-specifically, by reading Julian Huxley’s Religion without Revelation or John Dewey’s A Common Faith, we could do much to dissolve this divisive issue among humanists. The dictum of Terrence-‘I am a man; nothing that relates to man do I deem alien to me’-suggests a resolution within a pluralistic humanism. The North American Committee for Humanism, through its Humanist Institute and Humanist Weekends is promoting much-needed unity and cooperation among humanists. As a movement…from many backgrounds…gradually finding itself, we are now coming together for the good of all.”
Who Said It Can’t Happen Here
The Jews in Germany thought it would never happen. What started off as a small fringe group of radical fanatics, the Nazi party, was persistent in usurping the German government that was relatively liberal. What started off here in the United States as a small fringe group of radical fanatics, the Christian fundamentalists, is slowly usurping the democratic processes by boasting of their takeover of the Republican party, The Nazi party started off as a grassroots political party. Christian fundamentalism started off as a grassroots religious party.
As soon as the Nazi party gained political power, it passed strict laws against basic freedoms. Christian fundamentalists, as a minority religion, wield power in our politics and are pushing for curbs against our basic freedoms.
As the Nazi party grew in power and prestige, people jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. As Christian fundamentalism grows in power and prestige, more Christians from other denominations are jumping on the bandwagon of fundamentalism.
The Nazi party, when it gained complete control of the government, initiated a reign of terror, attacking liberalism. Christian fundamentalists have initiated a reign of terror by trying to destroy any vestige of liberalism.
The Nazi party censored the arts. Christian fundamentalists have had a big influence in censoring the arts.
The Nazi party censored books. Christian fundamentalists censor books in the classroom and some libraries where they have control, such as in the Bible Belt.
The Nazis persecuted not only Jews but homosexuals and intellectuals as well. Christian fundamentalists are persecuting homosexuals and are hostile toward intellectuals.
The Nazis outlawed abortion. The fundamentalists are trying to move the clock back to when abortions were illegal. Christian fundamentalists have been behind the campaign to restrict abortions in federally funded programs.
The Nazis persecuted atheists, leftwing political parties, and secular humanists (no matter what they were called in the early 1930’s). Born again Christians are hostile towards atheists/secular humanists.
The Nazi party formed a paramilitary force called the Brown Shirts. Most paramilitary forces in the United States are comprised of various factions of Christian fundamentalists.
The Nazi party was undemocratic. Christian fundamentalists and other orthodox groups such as the Catholic Church are anti-democratic.
Hitler had complete dictatorial power. The Catholic Church would like to have complete dictatorial power as it once had in Poland, Ireland, and Yugoslavia. The Christian fundamentalists do not hide their wish to have dictatorial power (Pat Robertson for example).
Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws that imitated the medieval law of the Catholic Church. Christian Reconstructionists want to pass anti-human laws of the Bible. They want the death penalty for heresy, non-belief, adultery, incorrigibility of children, breaking the Sabbath, fake pretensions of prophecy (I’m sure the list will grow), homosexuals, and liberals.
Hitler wanted women to stay home and make babies, and wanted men in charge of their wives. Christian fundamentalists want women to stay home and make babies and they teach men to be the head of the household.
Hitler wanted Germany to be a fascist state. Christian fundamentalists want America to be a Christian nation (How about Jews, Moslems, and other minority religions?).
The Nazi party attracted every psychopath in Germany. Christian fundamentalism attracts every psychopath in America.
I conduct group psychotherapy for the Los Angeles County Probation Department in a locked facility for antisocial juveniles. There is strict discipline so these juveniles cannot act out their antisocial behavior. I’ve grown to like some of the juveniles and told them so, but as I’ve explained to them, if they tried to harm me on the outside I would hate them.
Christian fundamentalists haven’t yet the power to act out their antisocial behavior. Most appear to be decent people. Concentration camp guards who murdered men, women, and children were good fathers and husbands. But as we know from experience, once someone has dictatorial power, their personality changes and they become very dangerous.
Nancy Moore Dies X-mas Day 1997
Flo responded with a letter of gratitude and a pledge that the funds would be used, in part, to “spread the word” in an effort to gain more members. The Board also plans to erect a plaque or other reminder in Nancy’s memory.
Nancy survived much longer than anyone expected. Sincere condolences to Paul and the rest of the family. Nancy will be sorely missed, but as long as Humanists of Utah exists there will be fond remembrances of Nancy Moore.
The Naked Ape
Discussion Group Report
Moral Values: Transcendental or Human?
By Richard Layton
Still, the split is not between religious believers and secularists, but rather between transcendalists, who think moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. “I believe,” says Wilson, “in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists.”
Transcendalists, secular or theological, tend to view natural law as a set of principles so powerful, whatever their origin, as to be self-evident to a rational person, but without a causal explanation. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence blended secular and religious presumptions in one transcendentalist sentence: “We hold these Truths to be self evident, that 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.” That assertion became the cardinal principle in America’s religion.
Such natural law theory has produced noble successes but also appalling failures. It has been used to argue for colonial conquest, slavery, and genocide. Every great war has been fought with each side thinking its cause transcendentally sacred in one manner or another.
“So perhaps we need to take empiricism more seriously.” In this view, ethics is conduct favored consistently enough throughout a society to be expressed as a code of principles. These codes play an important role in determining which cultures flourish and which decline. The crux of this view is its emphasis on objective knowledge. Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, its framers should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops. Empiricists hold that, if we explore the biological roots of moral behavior, and explain their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion a wise and enduring ethical consensus.
“The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in the idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.”
Wilson advocates the concept of “consilience,” a “jumping together” of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He points out that the evidence favors a purely material origin of ethics. The idea of a biological God, who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs, is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences. The evidence also meets the criterion of consilience: causal explanations of brain activity and evolution already cover most facts known about behavior we term “moral.” This conception can, if evolved carefully, lead more directly and safely to stable moral codes.
From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, ethical precepts are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates–the behavioral code that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.
Among traits with documented inheritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. Add to these traits the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. Genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole. But moral sentiments evolved to be selective. People give trust to strangers with effort. They are quick to imagine themselves the victims of conspiracies by competing groups and are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.
The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth, the transcendental, and discovered another, the empirical. The assumptions underlying these world views are being tested with increasing severity by cumulative verifiable knowledge about how the universe works-from atom to brain to galaxy. Some cosmologies are factually less correct than others, and some ethical precepts are less workable.
“For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose…They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive.” It will be taken from the natural history of the universe and the human species. That trend is in no way debasing. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined.
Discussion Group Report
Memes Fact or Fiction?
Discussion Group Report
Memes: The Building Blocks of Mental and Cultural Evolution?
By Richard Layton
“Yes,” says Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (further explicated in Thought Contagion by Aaron Lynch and Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie), “most of what is unusual about man, can be summed up in one word: ‘culture’…Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can rise to a form of evolution. Language seems to ‘evolve’ by nongenetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.”
It is our own species that really shows what cultural evolution can do. Besides language, fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in ways that look like highly speeded-up genetic evolution, but which really have nothing to do with it. Still, as in genetic evolution, the change may be progressive.
What is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. Is there any general principle that is true of all life? Dawkins doesn’t know but would bet on one fundamental principle, the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene is the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.
A new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face, and still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup. The new soup is the soup of human culture. Dawkins names the new replicator a meme, short for the Greek root “mimeme,” a unit of imitation. It is a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene” Memes are the building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life. They are units of information analogous to genes which transmit ideas instead of genetic information. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool, by leaping body to body via sperms and eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process called imitation. If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. If the idea catches on, it propagates itself from brain to brain.
We do not know how the idea of God arose in the meme pool. Very old indeed, it replicates itself by the spoken and written word, aided by great music and art. Why does it have high survival value? Because of its great psychological appeal. “It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.”
Just as we can think of genes as active agents working for their own survival, we might think of memes in the same way. Memes live in a computer, the human brain. The brain cannot do more than one or a few things at once. If a meme is to dominate its attention, it must do so at the expense of “rival” memes. Co-adapted gene complexes, such as a set of genes concerned with mimicry in butterflies, may arise in the gene pool and become so tightly linked together on the same chromosome that they can be treated as one gene. Analogously the god meme may become associated with other memes and thus assist the survival of each participating meme as in the case of an organized church, with its meme architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and a written tradition, a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes.
An aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey priestly rules. This is a peculiarly nasty technique of religious persuasion, causing great psychological anguish in the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective. “Unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display. The idea of hell-fire is self-perpetuating because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other’s survival in the meme pool,” explains Dawkins.
The story of doubting Thomas is told to reinforce the meme complex called faith. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of memes than a tendency to look for evidence. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry. Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves.
“We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines,” says Dawkins, “but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
Memes: Science or Science Fiction?
Judging by that method, Dawkins’ notions are no more scientific than creation myths, unsupported as they are by a single shred of objective evidence to verify the existence of “units of information analogous to genes which transmit ideas…” But to build at length upon this unsupported ideas is to make kissing cousins of pseudo-science and religion.
The one factor above all that distinguishes humanists from true believers and philosophers is their insistence upon evidence. See Carl Sagan as quoted by Brenda Wright: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Neither Dawkins nor his redactor supply that, yet the piece, like religions masquerades as fact. The difference between what Dawkins thinks and what he knows should have been made unmistakably clear.
The Future of Civilization?
One of the major results of capitalism has been the expansion of our ability to rapidly communicate around the world. Instant communications, especially via television, has given citizens of third world countries knowledge of how wealth changes living conditions. Dr. Dickman said his visits to third world countries convinced him that people living in poverty want to participate in a system that will ease their burdens of daily life. They want the “good life” they see capitalist societies enjoying and will welcome the capitalist system.
Therein lie serious problems that will challenge world conditions as we move into the next century. Citing the problems created by transportation as a primary example, Dickman said that in the United States there is one car for every two people, imagine the environmental problems, he said, if China, with a population of over one-billion had the same ratio of cars as we have in this nation.
Globalization of capitalism will be the major influence on the peoples of the world during the next 100 years. Balancing science, technology, and capitalism to evolve a sustainable society, concluded Dickman, is the challenge of the future.
Declaration of Interdependence
This We Believe: Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures to extinction, dammed the great rivers, torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain, and wind, and ripped holes in the sky. Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions. We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope. We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean air, water, and soil. We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong. And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development. We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase. So where knowledge is limited, we will remember all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.
This We Resolve: All this that we know and believe must now become the foundation of the way we live. At this turning point in our relationship with the earth, we work for an evolution: from dominance to partnership; from fragmentation to connections; from insecurity to interdependence.
—Science, Vol. 2, No. 3, 12/96
The Agnostic Christmas
This is the festival of the sun-god, and as such let its observance be universal.
This is the great day of the first religion, the mother of all religions–the worship of the sun.
Sun worship is not only the first, but the most natural and most reasonable of all. And not only the most natural and the most reasonable, but by far the most poetic, the most beautiful.
The sun is the god of benefits, of growth, of life, of warmth, of happiness, of joy. The sun is the all-seeing, the all-pitying, the all-loving.
This bright God knew no hatred, no malice, never sought for revenge.
All evil qualities were in the breast of the God of darkness, of shadow, of night. And so I say again, this is the festival of Light. This is the anniversary of the triumph of the Sun over the hosts of Darkness.
Let us all hope for the triumph of Light–of Right and Reason–for the victory of Fact over Falsehood, of Science over Superstition.
And so hoping, let us celebrate the venerable festival of the Sun.
Time Honored Truths
Humor from the Internet
Discussion Group Report
Humanist Manifesto III?
By Richard Layton
This question was deliberated upon by the Discussion Group in this month’s meeting. There was a feeling that perhaps the title word Manifesto should be replaced by a less authoritarian-sounding word. Perhaps also the document should be shortened to make it more succinct.
The reading material for the discussion was “Symposium on Humanist Manifesto II,” in the September-October issue of The Humanist, which contained statements by several leading humanists. In this article I am concentrating on comments made by Kurtz because I was very excited by his insight and perspective on the present state of the world and how a humanistic approach can help it to deal with its problems.
He is deeply concerned by the reappearance of fundamentalism worldwide: a forceful Hinduism in India, a resurgence of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the growth of the Orthodox faction in Israel, the retreat by the Roman Catholic church from Vatican II into a more conservative and doctrinaire posture on social and moral issues, and the emergence of literal biblical fundamentalists as a potent political force in the United States. The Moral Majority, followed by the Christian Coalition, has attacked secular humanism as the “most dangerous influence in America.” Religious fundamentalism has questioned the premises of the liberal welfare state, humanist moral values, and the moral revolution. Its attacks on naturalism has convinced many conservatives to the point where criticisms of Darwinism and the defense of creationism are no longer considered fringe phenomena. There have been widespread assaults on sexual freedom, the gay revolution, feminists, and minorities.
Paranormal-spiritual claims have been exploited by the media. “The public is infatuated with a polyglot cacophony of bizarre beliefs–from angels and demonic possession to sundry miracles, such as weeping icons, healing at a distance, past-life regressions, psychic prophecies, and extraterrestrial abductions,” Kurtz pints out. He laments that religious dissent is rarely heard and the agnostic-atheist viewpoint has few defenders. Also disturbing is the influential movement among intellectuals called postmodernism, led by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Fouccalt, and others.
Postmodernists reject many principles that humanists hold dear–the idea of a free and autonomous person, the Enlightenment and its reliance on reason to solve human problems, any thought of human progress or any hope that we can improve the human condition. To the postmodernists, science is one “mythic narrative” among others. They reject the idea that there are objective methods for warranting claims to knowledge. Multi-culturalist and feminist critics have challenged the idea that there are universal human rights or moral values. A new form of ethical subjectivity has resulted, followed by the renunciation of positive images of the future and the advancement of various forms of nihilism.
Encouraging signs are the fall of the Soviet Union, the fact that democratic revolutions continue to sweep virtually all parts of the globe, and the pace of scientific and technological discoveries in field after field. The Information Revolution “now makes us truly one world” and gives us “an unparalleled opportunity to leapfrog national, religious, and ideological divisions and open a fruitful dialogue with people from all portions of the globe…”Kurtz goes on to propose suggestions about what should be included in a third manifesto, centering on a commitment to naturalism, the utilization of the positive reach of technology, emphasis on the centrality of humanist ethics, recognition of the need for global institutions, and a posture of optimism about the human prospect.
One of the most frequently asked questions when I give talks on the history and philosophy of humanism is, “If you don’t believe in God and life after death, what’s your incentive for leading a moral life?” My answer is, “My respect for others and respect for myself.”
One of the basic teachings of humanism is recognizing the dignity of every human being and taking responsibility for how we treat every person we encounter. The daily acts of road rage, the gang shootings, and school yard fights; the political character assassinations, abuse of family members and the brawls in professional sports are not caused by a lack of belief in God, but by a lack of belief in the rights of people.
When people in positions of power and influence demand sexual favors from associates, it’s not because they don’t believe in a supernatural power, it’s because they lack a sense of responsibility that goes with leadership. The ethical teachings of the world’s leading religions use the fear of a supernatural power as the enforcer of moral values. Humanism suggests that ethics can and should be based on knowledge and reason, respect for human values that have been outlined by such documents as the Hammurabi Code, the Magna Carta, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and numbers six through ten of the Ten Commandments.
Humanists may not believe there is life after death but we do believe in honoring this life. We conclude that the moral problems of this world are not the result of people having lost their religion, but the result of people having lost their humanism.
Successful Summer Social
Our annual summer gathering was enjoyed by all who attended. The third try at including shrimp with the chicken entrée turned out to be the charm! The shrimp was delicious.
Conversation at the happy hour and during dinner was stimulating and lively. The highlight of the evening was the speech delivered by Don Gale, KSL Vice President and former editorial presenter. Mr. Gale artfully mixed wit and wisdom in his contrasting of the lives of his recently deceased father and his prospective view of what his four-year-old daughter’s life will be like. The past century has seen the advent of automobiles, flight, space travel and the information age. There is no reason to believe that technological advances will cease. Imagine what life will be like in 100 years. The important thing is to keep our sense of humor and to keep our political system vibrant and alive.
In one of his humorous interludes Mr. Gale noted that he has been promoted to the position of Vice President. Large corporations typically have numerous VP’s and KSL is no different in this regard. Mr. Gale pined that he is having a difficult time figuring out exactly what to do–after all the whole United States of America only has one VP, and nobody really knows what he does.
Congratulations and thanks to board member Rolf Kay for another successful social event.
Disciplined Thinking: The Scientific Method
Science is not only a body of knowledge but a “way of knowing.” How science is different from other ways of knowing is the essence of the “scientific method.” Science is a way of processing information to get to the facts without the interference of personal biases or emotions.
To humans, emotions are the spice of life. Emotions give meaning and purpose to an otherwise boring existence, but emotions are not an indicator of truth and were never meant to be so. Just because an emotion is good or pleasant doesn’t mean the action that caused the emotional response is some form of “truth’.” Neither are bad or unpleasant feelings indicators for “lies” or “falsehoods.”
Just because you passionately feel, with every fiber of your being, that thunder is the result of chariot races by the Gods in the clouds doesn’t make it factual.
What about the other ways of knowing? There are only two other ways besides the scientific way. The first is RELIGION or belief-based. Religion is based on “dogma.” Dogmatism assumes rightness because of someone’s authority and not necessarily on that person’s use of reason and logic. How do authorities come by their conclusions? By what means were they guided? What may have influenced them?
A second way of knowing is PHILOSOPHY or commonsense. Philosophy uses reason and logic in trying to explain a set of circumstances. No empirical evidence or testing is required to back up philosophical explanations.
SCIENCE is the use of reason and logic, verified as much as is possible by empirical evidence and testing. This method not only explains systems, but also allows prediction of future activities of the system. Science is not infallible but it’s greatest strength lies in its ability for self-correction.
So what exactly is this magical way of science that not only helps strip away emotions and bias, but also helps potential shortcomings of one’s own conclusions to be recognized? This methodology, condensed into steps for easy teaching, is “The Scientific Method.” These steps have also become a good “checklist” to see if a procedure was followed to “good science” standards. The steps are commonly taught as:
A THEORY is a conclusion or “story” that covers and explains each and every fact obtained from experiments; it defines a system. Predictions can then be tested against the theory. If the theory holds, great! If the theory does not hold up during subsequent testing, then the scientific method not only allows for but also demands changing or altering the theory to match the new set of facts. Some people like Einstein are smart enough to jump the experimental step and go right to theory statements. But even the theory of relativity has had to stand up under the rigors of experimental testing since Einstein uttered it.
A theory that has withstood the tests of repeatability and has remained a constant over many years, can be elevated to the distinction of being called a LAW. But even a law, to a scientist, is not dogma. If contradictory evidence is found, one of two things must occur:
This is a rare event but has happened (e.g. law of gravity–Newton vs. Einstein). Theories and laws cannot rest on a supernatural explanation. The main reason for this again is that there is no testable evidence for any supernatural powers. And as Carl Sagan stated, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This scientific method or process has many built-in checks and balances. This helps to ensure that personal emotions and unverified opinions are out and only the verifiable facts are in. Scientific study has led us to a literal explosion of knowledge, to a more factual and predictable understanding of our physical world no matter how unpleasant some of those facts and predictions may be.
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has the data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
First get your facts; then you can distort them at your leisure.
Feynman, Richard. 1974. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Edward Hutchings (Editor), New York: W.W. Norton.
Feynman, Richard and Leighton, Ralph. 1988. What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Norton.
Shermer, Michael. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
Humanism and the Political Process
Our October general meeting featured a panel discussion among chapter members Joyce Barnes, Andrew Schoenberg, and Earl Wunderli. The meeting was organized and moderated by chapter Vice President Hugh Gillilan. Each of the panel members made a short formal presentation and then a discussion with everyone present followed
Earl spoke first and presented his political philosophy. He began by noting that an individual’s personal philosophy in a large way determines that person’s political ideas. We should not be surprised that those in power in the LDS church oppose abortion for example.
Earl then elucidated a baker’s dozen positions that he, as a humanist, holds:
“These are some of my political opinions as a humanist, and I look forward to the discussion.”
Joyce Barnes spoke from the point-of-view of a career educator and one who has worked with special education children for many years. She noted that the way we treat our fellow humans with special needs is a good measure of our civilization. Ms. Barnes has also been active in the League of Women Voters for many years. She related a number of her experiences dealing with politicians and issues. She noted that sometimes results are not immediate, but honesty and perseverance often have their just rewards.
“I have found,” said Joyce, “that the best lobbyists are not those with the greatest amount of money to spend, but those who are most passionate about their cause. The Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities has only three paid staff, yet this organization is one of the most effective on the hill. The real lobbyists·are the members-parents whose children are disabled–individuals with disabilities–and agencies who save people with disabilities–they collect no dues, but they do give freely of their time, their knowledge, and their stories. One legislator who met with a group from the Coalition said, ‘Please don’t talk to me about the children; talk about the money.’ He couldn’t say no to the parents who were holding pictures or their children; he could say no to a dollar sign.”
She discussed the mediation program where parties from both sides of an issue (divorce, child custody, or crime) sit down with trained negotiators to settle the problem without using up court time and resources. Data show that resolutions reached during mediation are highly effective and long lasting.
Andrew Schoenberg began his remarks by answering the question: “Who am I?” He said, “I am a world citizen, a US citizen, a Unitarian, a humanist, a World Federalist, a Professor, and a member of numerous Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).”
Andy then defined some of the problems we face and explained why we should be concerned. Among the issues he addressed were: population, exponential growth of destructive technology, power politics, and unjust distribution of goods. He noted that consumption of fossil fuels will soon exhaust supplies of readily available oil.
Andy encouraged us all to do our part. First, we must become informed and then do something about issues that are important to us. We can join NGOs and support political candidates that espouse positions consistent with our beliefs. We can write letters to the editor and speak on talk shows, etc. to let our opinions be known.
We all need to change our behaviors to be more earth-friendly. We can buy smaller, more efficient cars, use fluorescent light bulbs, and make our homes more energy efficient. Everyone needs to do their own.
History of the Law
Why does legal history make a difference to our lives and the choices we make?
I want to share with you my thoughts about why legal history is important to practical-minded lawyers, men, and women interested in the way we use law. We do not have time tonight to start with the Magna Carta and work forward to the 20th century. Therefore, I will confine myself to two examples. One example is from the grand drama aspect of the law, the more sexy kind of issue that captures public attention. The other example is much more obscure and mundane-but I believe much more important. Let me be open about my premise from the start. Law is not the end. It is a means. Lawyers do not have their hands on the levers that make the world revolve.
My first example is the federal grand jury about which we hear so much as Independent Prosecutor Ken Starr parades witness after witness to popping flashbulbs and humming video cameras.
The grand jury is an ancient English device (independent prosecutor is not) from at least the 12th century (1166 Assize of Clarendon for Henry II) created by the monarch to aid in his investigation and prosecution. Its purpose was to help wrest power (administration of justice) from the Church and the feudal barons.
It was an accusatory body at a time when there was not presumption of innocence but trial by ordeal (water-hot or cold-hot iron-morsel). The petit jury (gfand up to 23, petit up to 12) became a trial jury-to determine guilt or innocence.
True, in 1681, the grand jury refused to indict the Earl of Shaftesbury and Stephen College for treason for their Protestant opposition to Catholic Charles II. However, Charles found a different grand jury in a different town who indicted them and they were returned from exile and executed.
In the English Colonies, grand juries inspected the public roads, and reported on public officials and public expenditure. In the most celebrated case of John Zenger, the grand jury refused to indict him for criminal libel for criticizing the colonial New York governor.
Boston grand juries refused to indict those who rioted against the Stamp Act and did indict the British soldiers quartered in the town.
Put another way-the grand juries reflected the popular sentiments of the time. Sometimes doing the demands of those in power; sometimes opposing the hand of those in power.
One of the very peculiar things about American law: We fought an armed revolution to overthrow the British, but then went on to adopt its laws and legal system.
Embedded in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.”
The Sedition Act of 1789 made it a crime to publish scandalous or malicious writings about the government, president, Congress, etc. The federalist judges (Hamilton, Adams) used the grand jury to indict the Republican spokesmen and newspaper publishers. When the Republicans gained office, Jefferson tried to get the grand jury to indict his political enemy, Aaron Burr. Southern grand juries regularly enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, and after the Civil War, during reconstruction, subdued the radical Republicans, and refused to indict the members of the KKK.
The point is that legal institutions are staffed by human beings, and both are responsive to the shifting perceptions and values of a point in time. We ought not to be guided by some romantic nostalgia of earlier times that probably never existed the way we want to remember them.
Let me turn to my other example that is much more obscure and mundane. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and much of northern Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa are beautiful rolling lands dotted with lakes. Once they were heavily forested, too. They were thick with native white pines and hardwood oaks, maples, and other trees. They are not so any more. The trees and forests are second growth. Many are scrubs and soft woods usable best for pulp to make paper. We know what happened-the millions and millions of native hardwood forests were consumed in approximately 50 years from approximately 1875. Moreover, our best estimate is that 2/3 of the cut timber was wasted. The question we are interested in is why it happened.
Our typical response is to say that greedy land and lumber barons-developers-looted and pillaged the land by capturing government and creating laws to sanction their avarice. Passing such moral judgments upon our ancestors warms the ego. There are, of course, enough anecdotes and examples to fill our historical image with dour, black suited, mustachioed men with their hands hidden in their top coats, so we imagine they are grasping something hidden.
The historical record is more complex. It is filled with trivial, undramatic, and uninteresting events that-cumulatively-help explain why people of immediate vision destroyed a natural resource that could have benefited our population for centuries. We find that people in this area at this time in history:
–Professor Richard Aaron
Is Morality Man-Made?
My subject this evening is morality in general, and how we should think about it. I won’t be talking except incidentally about the correctness or incorrectness of particular moral principles. So If you came here to find out whether the president should be having sex with White House interns and if so, what kind of sex, I’m afraid you will be disappointed by what I have to say. But just like me, you have an intellectual interest in the whole important and often difficult phenomenon of moral belief and practice, I hope that you won’t be disappointed.
Before getting into my subject I ought to say something about the title of this talk and also something about where 1 am coming from in my views of morality. First, for the most part I am using the word “man” generically; that is, in asking whether morality is man-made I mean to be asking whether it is made by human beings and not whether it is made by human beings of the male gender. I do think that many historically important moral convictions are reasonably taken to unfairly favor males over females and to be due to males having been dominant in Western culture, but this is not what I want to talk about
As to were I am coming from. For many years I have regularly taught an introductory course in moral philosophy at the University of Utah. The philosophy department calls it Introduction to Ethics. Several years ago, one of the students in this class was a philosophy major who was a bit older than most of the other 50 or so students who were enrolled. He was bright and articulate and often contributed to the discussion in the first couple of weeks of the quarter. About three weeks in he came to tell me that he was dropping the class. He said that he found that many of the same topics would be treated in an advanced ethics class that he was taking. Then he added, “Besides I really feel uncomfortable in a class full of twenty-year-old Mormon kids.” I had to repress the inclination to respond, “But what about me? I feel the same way.”
These Mormon kids were clean cut, attractive, pleasant and generally intelligent young people. What made me uncomfortable was their bland assurance that morality was totally unproblematic, that there was no difficulty at all in knowing what was morally right and what was wrong, what was morally good and what was evil. Having taught and thought deeply about morality for many years, I, unlike them, find the whole subject to be immensely problematic. This may be due in part to my having a more skeptical turn of mind than those twenty-year-old students.
I do not, however, doubt that moral convictions, however problematic they may be, play an immensely important role in human life and conduct. People often do things that they would prefer not to do because they think that they are morally obligated to do them, and they often refrain from acting to satisfy strong desires because they think such actions would be wrong. We know this of private behavior, and we see it on the public stage. Right now with the United States again threatening major military actions against Iraq, you may recall that at the time of the buildup for the Gulf War, we were hearing stories about Iraq’s “elite Republican Guard” divisions and predictions that many Americans would be killed by them if war came. And many Americans opposed the war. James Baker, who was then Secretary of State, sought to unite Americans behind the President by saying, “It’s about jobs.” No doubt many wars are really about the control of resources and the relative well being of different groups, but Baker’s pronouncement hardly produced a ripple in American popular sentiment. It was only when we came to be persuaded that Saddam Hussein was a moral monster that the war and the sacrifices and deaths that it seemed to promise became acceptable. I use this example simply to remind you of what I believe that you already know. I’ll be doing a lot of such reminding in this talk, but-I hope-not so much that you will find everything that I have to say old hat.
Okay, then. Is morality man-made? Or to put the question I would like to consider more clearly, CAN morality be man-made?
You might be tempted to respond to this question like the guy who was accosted by the missionary of some Christian sect and asked whether he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it?” he said, Why I’ve seen it with my own eyes!”
Well, what might we have metaphorically seen with our own eyes? I think that we can have in mind a number of different things when we contend that morality is man-made, some of them not so much about where morality comes from as where it does NOT come from. One thing we might mean-especially if we are secular humanists-is that particular sorts of behavior are not wrong BECAUSE they displease God and other particular sorts of behavior are not morally required of us BECAUSE they are what God wants us to do. Many of my young Mormon students wouldn’t have agreed with this, but I of course do. And as you probably know so have most, though not all, serious theologians, individuals whose religious commitment was central to their lives and thought.
I won’t go into the reasons why most theologians would have rejected the view that God’s will is the source of moral distinctions. But it is, I think, interesting to note that the belief that morality is not made by God is found even in the early pages of the Old Testament. We read in Genesis that God tells Abraham, the legendary founder of Hebrew monotheism, that he is travelling to see whether the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are really as bad as He has heard and that if they are He will destroy those cities. Abraham responds [New English Bible, Genesis 18. 23], “Wilt thou really sweep away good and bad together? Suppose there are fifty good men in the city; wilt thou really sweep it away, and not pardon the place because of the fifty good men? Far be it from thee to do this-to kill good and bad together; for then the good will suffer with the bad. Far be it from thee. Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” God says in response that if he finds fifty good men he will pardon the whole place for their sake and starts off again. But Abraham won’t let it go. He speaks again, saying, ‘May I presume to speak to the Lord, dust, and ashes that I am: suppose there are five short of the fifty good men? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for a mere five men?” God says if there are forty-five he won’t destroy it. Abraham insistently goes on-what if there are forty, then suppose there are thirty, then twenty, then ten? And at the end God says that “for the sake of the ten I will not destroy it.”
I think this is a lovely story, portraying Abraham, dust, and ashes that he is, as being much more gutsy and audacious than in other accounts of him. But the point of my telling it now is that the story clearly portrays morality as existing independently of God’s choices. Had God chosen to destroy Sodom even if there were ten good men in it, he would have been acting unjustly. So if in saying that morality is man-made we mean that it is not made by God, we see that there is at least some rather minimal acceptance of this contention in the Bible itself.
Another thing that we might be DENYING in saying that morality is made by man is that all or a significant portion of our knowledge of what is right or wrong must be acquired from ancient hallowed teachings that are said to be divinely inspired or perhaps from more recent pronouncements of individuals with special access to the divine understanding of things, whether the individual is taken to be a living prophet, or is Adam Swapp blowing up a Mormon chapel or Pat Robertson denouncing homosexuality or a Muslim ayatollah putting a price on Salmon Rushdie’s head or an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem telling his followers that they have a duty to kill their prime minister Itzahk Rabin because he wants to trade away for peace the land that God gave the Jews.
Whether or not we agree with the moral pronouncements of such individuals, it seems obvious that their beliefs about how people should behave-however sincerely held-are not due to some special knowledge of what is right or wrong in human behavior but are at best expressions of their own moral convictions and at worst attempts to manipulate others or self-serving delusions.
And the ancient texts which are so widely cited in support of particular moral principles appear to be time-bound products of particular cultures.
The Old Testament is frequently taken to teach the law of retribution, which is often invoked in support of the death penalty. We do find it saying “whatever hurt is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound” [Exodus 21.23. But this primitive and brutal doctrine is contradicted by many rules which offer a far more nuanced, complex and detailed account of what is right and wrong in human behavior. The sacred text which shows us Abraham urging the judge of the universe to be just is in fact filled with requirements and prohibitions governing every aspect of human life, requirements and prohibitions that are regularly presented as being binding because they are commanded by God and are backed by his threats of punishment for those who break His laws and promises of rewards for those who are obedient
A striking feature of this system of rules is how detailed it is. Many of the rules have to do with cult requirements. Some of the other rules appear barbaric to much twentieth century moral sensibility. Others appear to be enlightened And many others appear to be simple good sense. God’s people are told to be concerned for the poor, the orphaned, the widow, the aliens in their midst. God is presented as saying, for example, that you shall not mistreat the widow or fatherless child (otherwise, “I’ll kill you with the sword, your own wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” [Exodus 22.24]. But he is also invoked as the backing of basic military hygiene. God’s people are told that when they are camped against an enemy they must set up a particular place to defecate and “with your equipment you will have a trowel, and when you squat outside, you shall scrape a hole with it and then turn and cover your excrement! Though somewhat primitive, this is the sort of the sort of thing that one might find in an army manual as being necessary for the health and well-being of troops in the field. But in the book of Deuteronomy, this is given a peculiarly biblical twist. The statement of the rule concludes, “For the Lord your God goes about in your camp to keep you safe and it must be kept holy”
These many rules are presented as being a part of the eternal order of things, some of them as being literally engraved in stone. But they are quite obviously the laws, practices, and customs of a particular people with a particular state of economic and social development at some distant time. There are rules concerning the treatment of slaves, other rules that treat an unmarried female as her father’s property until she is married. A man who has intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin is required to properly compensate the father for the damage done to this property. After marriage the female becomes the property of her husband. There are rules about keeping vicious animals and other rules requiring people to keep their wells covered so that no one will fall in. But the God who is presented as giving these commandments to a people wandering for years in the desert has nothing to say about insider trading on the stock market or air traffic control.
The culture-bound character of these commandments seems to become even more apparent when the rules of the Old Testament are compared to another mid-Eastern code, the code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was king of Babylon roughly a thousand years (2067-2025) before any of the Old Testament was written down. His code was promulgated for use in law courts throughout the great empire that he ruled. The most complete text of the code was found engraved on an eight foot high stone slab, the back side of which has a low relief of the mighty king who stands in an attitude of prayer before the seated sun god, Shamash, who is handing the laws of the kingdom to him. While this is reminiscent of the much later account of Moses receiving the laws of his people from God on Mt. Sinai, the tablet itself ascribes the laws to Hammurabi, saying. “These are the just laws which Hammurabi the able king has established and (thereby) enabled the land to enjoy stable governance and good rule.”
When we look at these “just laws” we find, as we would expect, some overlap with the later Hebrew commandments. But there are also pronounced differences, and it is apparent that these laws are set out for a society that is much more advanced economically than that of the later Hebrews and socially more complex.
They distinguish between nobles, free men and slaves, and apparently between nobles of different rank. A man who puts out the eye of a free man, for example, is to have his eye put out. If he puts out the eye of a serf, he has to pay a fine, and the fine is reduced by half if the eye he has put out is that of a slave. Again, if a man strikes the daughter of a free man and she dies, his daughter will be put to death. But if it is the daughter of a serf or a slave girl, he only has to pay a fine. Unlike the Old Testament, many of the laws here require mutilation as a penalty. A son, who says to his parents, “You are not my father,” or “You are not my mother,” is to have his tongue cut out. A son who strikes his father is to have his forehand cut off. Misconduct on the part of a wet nurse can result in her having her breasts cut off. There is apparently a good deal of this in the Koran as well, but I’ve noted only one commandment in the Old Testament requiring mutilation: a woman’s hand is to be cut off if she comes to the assistance of her husband who is wrestling with another man by grabbing that man’s testicles.
Apparently adoption was a common practice in Hammurabi’s Babylon as many of the laws deal with it. Other laws regulate the charges of surgeons and veterinarians, payments for the storage of grain, and the quality of a craftsman’s work. Here too, however, there is nothing here about insider trading on the stock market or air traffic control, though we do learn that a priestess who opens a bar is to be drowned.
In briefly discussing these two codes I have been trying to support the conclusion that taken as a whole, each is man-made, equally time-bound products of particular cultures existing at a particular time and have no legitimate claim to transcendent authority.
So when I recently saw on the evening news the Salt Lake City Council meeting at which the ordinance protecting gay city employees from discrimination was repealed and heard a gentleman assure the Council that the ordinance had to go because “God does not approve of homosexuality,” my response was to think that what the gentleman took to be a divine ordinance was really man-made and to wonder whether he might have seen the matter differently if he had realized that it was.
So where are we? I’ve been looking at the Old Testament and the laws of Hammurabi very much as anthropologists or sociologists look at the customs, morals, and values of the societies and cultures that they study. A staple of twentieth century social anthropology has been the attempt to show how the values of cultures differ and how their different features have developed historically.
I would expect that none of you-perhaps no twentieth century Americans-would have any trouble thinking of Hammurabi’s code in this way. Let that priestess open her bar with impunity, but not of course in Utah. Other possible audiences of this talk obviously would be unwilling to agree to what I’ve said of biblical commandments. But what of you? Would you agree with my characterization of Old Testament commandments?
I was hoping that being the intelligent people that you are, you would agree. Now I want at last to move to the philosophical point of this talk by considering the question of whether El morality, including our own, can be thought to be man-made in this way. I will contend that it cannot.
If you encountered a course in moral philosophy somewhere down the line, you’ll recognize that what I have to say is connected to what the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanual Kant unfortunately but very influentially labeled as the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. I think we can understand what is at issue better if we avoid Kant’s terminology.
Consider rules of behavior that are obviously man-made, whether consciously or not, such as rules of etiquette. I want you to be thinking of behavior that violates these rules but doesn’t shade into what you would consider immoral. So if you find yourself thinking of the individual in my example as being depraved or morally blameable in any way, please construct for yourself an example in which your negative judgment is entirely within the realm of etiquette.
Suppose, then, that you find yourself at some public banquet. And imagine that the individual that you have been seated next to belches loudly, eats with his hands and doesn’t hesitate to reach over to your plate, run his fingers over your shrimp scampi and then lick them. And since he likes the taste he does it again.
What should we say of such a person? He’s crude, boorish, and offensive. Not someone we feel comfortable sitting next to, not someone to be invited to our parties, not someone we want our sweet little girl to date or our impressionable son to hang out with. Clearly not someone we’d ask to be a member of our club-if we happen to belong to a club.
But even as we feel such revulsion at this crude slob, we can recognize that the rules of behavior-rules of etiquette-that he’s trampling on are quite arbitrary. We can recognize that there are, or might be, times and places where such behavior is not only acceptable but required, places for example where a failure to belch loudly would be taken to indicate dislike of the meal, places where we’d by thought to be unsociable and standoffish if we didn’t do the sorts of things he does.
Indeed we recognize that even in our own society different folks have different strokes that behavior that is thought proper in one segment of it differs radically from what is thought proper in other parts. The British with their finally tuned class system are masters of such distinctions.
Recognizing that behavior patterns that we are comfortable with are arbitrary and man-made doesn’t change the fact that these are indeed our patterns. It doesn’t keep us from being acutely uncomfortable when dining next to that boorish young man. It doesn’t stop us from telling him that he ought not eat with his fingers (if we want to associate with decent folks like us or favorably impress his boss). But it does keep us from making any absolute judgments about those whose standards of etiquette are different from our own. We know that when in Rome we should do as the Romans do in matters of etiquette even if doing so feels odd or uncomfortable if we want to get along with the Romans.
Social anthropologists have often treated moral convictions as if they are just like rules of etiquette and have often drawn the conclusion that our culture is just one among many and its set of moral values similarly just one among many, neither better nor worse from a detached scientific perspective. Merely different, just as what counts as proper table manners is merely different from culture to culture.
I do not believe that morality can be thought of in this way. Earlier in this talk when I was contending that the commandments of the Old Testament simply formulated the beliefs of a particular people at a particular time I meant to dismiss the general claim that we should live and judge in accordance with them. My discussion was a way of arguing that we shouldn’t take that ancient book, as interesting as it is, to be an authoritative account of what is right or wrong in human behavior. And when I said that the gentleman at the City Council meeting who spoke against homosexuality was expressing a man-made doctrine, not the view of God, I meant to be dismissing his claim. To say that these views are man-made is to say that they are not what they claim to be. And if you agreed with me you too were being dismissive of them. But of course, like you, I have my own strong moral convictions. I believe, for example, that it is unjust, morally wrong, to indiscriminately destroy the innocent with the guilty as Abraham’s alleged to have said to God (though the Old Testament approvingly reports this being done over and over again) I believe, too, that gay city employees should be protected from discrimination. This belief is strongly reinforced when I observe homophobic families in Utah County attempting to keep Wendy Weaver, a respected and honored teacher for many years, from continuing as a teacher because she has discovered herself to be gay. I think that those families are wrong and that what they are doing is morally wrong. And I cannot think this and think at the same time that my own moral convictions are merely man-made. I take them to be rightly applied to the actions of those who do not share them as well as to the actions of those who do. You might or might not agree with me about the destruction of the innocent or the protection of gays. But whether you do or don’t, you too must take your own moral convictions to be true and not to be some arbitrary man-made rules, principles that you have acquired by growing up in a particular environment and being socialized into the ways of a particular family, religion, or culture. People might have quite different moral convictions in other places. But in the case of different moral principles we cannot say, for example, as can say of differing standards of etiquette, in Serbia do as the Serbs do.
We cannot say that “moral values are standards of right and wrong that have evolved through the process of people living together”. This view gives us something less than morality, something much closer to etiquette. At most it gives us the standards of the gang, the sect, the region, or the culture.
If you have been with me this far and agree that we must all take our moral convictions to be expressing truths which neither we nor any one else has made, you’ve arrived at what I take to be the deepest philosophical problems of morality, the question of how these principles can be built into the nature of the universe, as it were, and the question of how we come to know them.
As I look at the history of Western moral philosophizing since the time of Socrates in ancient Athens, I see a significant portion of it as a series of failed attempts to prove that some particular moral principles are correct and binding on all human beings. Since we can’t go through the history of moral philosophy, I’ll conclude by saying a bit about one of the earliest and most impressive of these failed attempts. I’m thinking of Plato’s great masterpiece, which is usually and misleadingly translated as the Republic. The work is a dramatic dialogue between someone named Socrates, who is essentially Plato’s stand in, and a number of individuals whose less than adequate views are used to develop Plato’s position. Plato starts here with the question, What is justice? What he is asking is how should human beings act in all of the various circumstances in which they might find themselves in their lives. The first serious answer to the question is offered by an open and agreeable young man who says with confidence that one should help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies. This is a moral principle which I suppose the ethnic cleansers of Bosnia would have embraced and which, according to classical historians, was what most Athenians of the time would have lived by, thinking as they did in the words of a saying of the period, it is better to be envied than pitied. Socrates’ adroit questions bring out contradictions in the young man’s view which result in his coming to conclude, much to his own surprise no doubt, that it is never just to harm anyone.
At this point a professional teacher and professional wise man breaks in, sneering that Socrates has been talking absolute nonsense and that justice is whatever benefits the strongest and most powerful individuals. He’s thinking of the rules of behavior that pass for justice, what the common people call just and unjust, as being established by the rulers of the community who are of course the stronger and most powerful, and as being established to benefit themselves. The wise man says that the behavior of the strongest and most powerful individuals, which is completely unjust according to these rules, results in their living the best and happiest lives. Many contemporary feminists would think this to be pretty close to the truth, but Plato does not. And in response to Socrates relentless and tendentious questions the professional wise man is very unwillingly forced to conclude that the just person is happy and the unjust person is wretched His unwillingness is due to the fact that his reputation is on the line but also no doubt to his being sure that individuals get ahead by acting selfishly, cruelly or dishonestly. This ends book E the Republic. At the beginning of book three two noble young man, identified as half brother of Plato, ask Socrates if he is willing to settle for a verbal victory, or really wants to persuade them of what the professional wise man has been forced to concede. These noble young men half believe and very much want to believe that justice-doing the right thing-invariably pays, but since they are not sure that it does they challenge Socrates to really prove to them that the just man is invariably happy. [WHAT THE CHALLENGE IS?] The discussion starts again with Socrates-or Plato-trying to show that doing well-doing the right thing-invariably results in one’s living well. Because of the terms of the challenge Socrates is forced to set aside the advantages that might sometimes come from having the reputation of being good person, and he’s forced as well to make no appeal to rewards and punishments after death, for as the two brothers say we really know nothing of what might happen after we die.
Since I don’t have time to go into the details of Plato’s argument, I’ll simply say that Plato gets to the conclusion that he’s seeking by a series of transparently bad arguments. How, indeed, could he get there otherwise, when the conclusion that doing the right thing invariably pays flies in the face of everything that we know of the world.
I’ve spent this much time on Plato’s Republic in order to lead up to one of the dominant themes of Western moral philosophy from the time of Plato until the seventeenth and really the eighteenth century. This is the belief that we are all ultimately egoists-that the dominant concern of every human being is his or her own well being, his or her own happiness and that rationality requires that we act always on this concern. Given this belief much moral philosophizing during all of this long period is devoted to trying to establish just what Plato was trying to establish, that morality invariably pays. This obviously became easier to argue when one could appeal to Christian beliefs in the hereafter in which every good deed would be rewarded, every evil action punished and the suffering innocent amply recompensed for their earthly sorrows.
In the eighteenth century morality comes to be seen by many thinkers as being concerned with the well being of other people. But we are still left with the question of how this morality comes to be a part of the nature of things and how we can come to know what it really requires of us.
The Three R’s: Rise of the Radical Right
It’s beyond Republican versus Democrat and it’s beyond Conservatism versus Liberalism, Lily Eskelsen told the Humanists of Utah at the May 14th general meeting. Extremism of the Radical Right poses a very frightening element in the political discussion searching for real solutions to the problems facing our nation. Eskelsen said her professional career gave her many opportunities to work with both major political parties in finding acceptable middle-of-the-road compromise solutions to the serious educational problems that needed addressing in recent years. She fears the agenda of the radical right is a position that threatens the very fabric of our nation’s political structure. She sees the agenda of the radical right as the dismantling of our constitution, the demolition of public institutions, and the destruction of public service.
Lily Eskelsen reviewed some of her experiences appearing before legislative committees and talking with individual state lawmakers about the state’s educational problems. She said she always felt respected and recognized that conservatives and liberals have honest disagreements but both were genuinely interested in getting the facts, analyzing problems, and finding beneficial solutions. Conversely, she says, the political radical right has a frightening agenda, it is not seeking solutions, and it wants to annihilate opponents, destroy public education, repeal all social programs, and completely change the conscience of America.
Eskelsen says she hopes voters will recognize the dangers posed by the radical right and will support those reasonable candidates who have a desire to enter the political arena of debate and find constitutional solutions to our many serious problems.
Morality and Economics
It’s great to be here tonight, especially given the amount of religious zealotry in Salt Lake this week. If there are any Southern Baptists lurking about, you too, are welcomed, I’m sure. Although a Baptist definition of hell may well be attending a humanist meeting in a Unitarian church.
Had I known that I would be playing opposite the Southern Baptist convention I would have changed the nature of my talk, preferring to speak about the adoption of their new family platform–namely wives graciously submitting to their husbands. Ironically that message is rather close to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s speech a month ago whereby he asserted the need to re-institute the father as head of the family. (I’m sure he meant that was to be done graciously, too).
So we have two religious authoritarian structures espousing the same fundamental view of subordinating women to the leadership of men, arriving at such an insulting conclusion by intuiting just what God really had in mind for the sociology of the family. I guess that as long as men do the intuiting and men continue to have the revelations, such demeaning views of women will continue…graciously or otherwise.
Despite the similar conclusions reached by the Southern Baptists and Mormons regarding the family, (Bagley’s cartoon in this morning’s Salt Lake Tribune did a nice job with this), their respective theological underpinnings are light years apart, making the collision of two absolute religious truths in one city seem laughable and pathetic. It has gotten to the point that I just don’t answer my door anymore.
You may wind up being a bit irritated with me tonight because (in some convoluted way) I’m picking up the Baptist trademark and will ask you their rhetorical question: “What Would Jesus Do?” If you don’t like the program tonight, blame Flo Wineriter.
I gave a sermon a while ago on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Flo said he felt it was controversial enough to present to the humanists, but I had to do one thing. He asked me to make it longer.
You can sweet talk a minister into practically anything by asking him (or her) to lengthen a sermon. In 23 years of ministry I have never heard anyone say, “I wish that sermon was longer,” until Flo Wineriter came along and got me here tonight with his brilliant tactics.
I was actually slated to be here last month, but the date fell on Jerry Seinfeld’s last show. I couldn’t miss it. It was against my religion. Flo made some great accommodations for me, but the last Seinfeld episode turned out to be an enactment on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was an ingenious finish to the television series, dramatizing just what we’ll discuss tonight -the tension between self-interest and the public good.
Jerry Seinfeld and his coterie of simple-minded and aimless friends represented nine years of a lifestyle mired in self-interest. Reviewing all their seasons of acute insensitivity towards others, although often portrayed in a humorous vein, they were put in jail in the season’s finale, guilty of undermining the public good with their selfish attitudes. In fact, they were found guilty of violating the “Good Samaritan Law,” failing to come to the rescue of a fellow citizen in trouble.
So I want to pose the question tonight: What does it mean to do good in this post-industrial, post modern, high tech, sound bite world of ours? Humanists believe, in fact it would be creed if we let it…we believe in the perfectibility of humankind. It is within our nature “to do good,” and morality is not wrought through fear of any divine retribution when we die. (I better be good or else.) For humanists, the desire to do good is innately human, and the lack of goodness in society reflects not the basic human heart, but the sociological conditions and strains and hassles which preclude our acting as generously as we would like.
I am reminded of a man a few years ago who started coming regularly to the church, and seemed to be relatively pleased with his new religious discovery in the Unitarian church. He made an appointment to see me, and I figured it was to become a member. What followed was one of the more anguished religious discussions held in my office. He was LDS, but loved the religious philosophy of Unitarianism and humanism. He knew it well: reason was a welcomed part of religion; literal interpretations of some incredible myths did not deserve such prominence; the religious quest was basically an individual’s journey.
But the issue for him was morality. He admired our ability to be moral folks without a policeman in the sky checking up on us. But, he couldn’t trust himself to be moral without a God He left the Unitarian church and never came back.
The question I want to pose actually goes further than morality without a God or afterlife rewards. (Phrased another away–why be good for nothing). My question deals with being moral in the context of today’s society which actually perpetuates self-interest. Our whole economy is based on self-interest, from the world of sports to health care, from Wall Street to cutting taxes to the end of welfare, from industry eluding clean air and water laws to a marked decline in philanthropy, from the exploitation of a third world labor force, to the rape of wilderness for oil companies to make profits, for developers to make profits…everything expendable for the almighty dollar .
In hoping to discuss the tenuous relationship between economics and moral theology, I’ll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about economics. As a Unitarian minister, many will contend I know next to nothing about theology, so this will prove an interesting evening…or as Flo said, “controversial.”
I want to introduce the subject by deferring to a professor of economics at Wake Forest, Donald Frey, who asks with disarming innocence how we can lead a moral life in an economic system which is built on the principle of self-interest.
I think that’s a good question. Let’s be honest live in a society that values economic personal gain. There’s no escaping that. As a result, however, personal gain has been valued so much in our society that self-interest is viewed as “good,” and beneficial to the wider community.
The argument goes as follows: Self-interest lies at the heart of human nature. (Survival of the species, self-preservation, looking after one’s own interest)…call it what you want, self-interest means acting in accordance with human nature. Since self-interest is natural, it is understood, then, that rational people further their own interests. This makes sense and is economically sound. [But the major point I want us to consider tonight is that self-interest is now morally justified.]
Let me explain: If rational people act to ensure their own interests, then it would be irrational to act in ways that would make you “worse off.” That is, giving something up in order that someone else be made better off. This is not natural. Why should I jeopardize my own welfare for the sake of another?
This kind of reasoning, placing oneself ahead of the public good, is morally justified. The prevailing morality is one in which people take responsibility for their condition.
By extending an economic hand to the poor we undermine the whole moral system whereby individuals are expected to make their own breaks. Morally, it’s every person for him or herself because this reveals a natural way of how humans survive.
This may sound as though it comes straight from the mouth of Newt Gingrich or Reagan or the late Barry Goldwater, but it actually represents the foundation of our economic system dating back to Adam Smith, with the assertion that “the propensity arising in human nature to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is influenced by self-interest.” That is defined by “what I want and you shall have this what you want.”
What is specifically ruled out, if you’ll notice, is “benevolence,” “charity,” and even “humanity.” I personally believe that humanity stands in contrast to “self-interest” despite the fact that Adam Smith contends that self-interest is not only “unavoidable” but lies “at the center of all human pursuit.”
Adam Smith’s laissez faire approach to economics perpetuated a peculiar moral system whereby self-interest was (somehow) consistent with the general good. When Smith was challenged (morally) that society was better served by those willing to sacrifice as opposed to self-seekers, he invoked his theory of the “invisible hand.”
The invisible hand produces a common good out of purely individualistic motives by somehow, mystically, harmonizing the acts of all men to serve the best interests of society. That is, you do what is best for you, I do what is best for me, and the invisible hand will allow our respective self-seeking to become advantageous to the whole society.
I believe this was the first prototype for voodoo economics, and makes about as much sense as the old Reagan “trickle-down” theory. An outspoken critic of the invisible hand was none other than Charles Dickens. His novel Hard Times served as a chronicle of hardships suffered by people at the hands of an economic system built on personal gain. One of the characters draws a stinging conclusion: “The Good Samaritan was a bad economist.”
That’s the essence of our discussion tonight. The moral precepts of a Jesus parable and the morality in which we find ourselves today, dictated by our economic system, are light years apart. And quite frankly, I believe that most humanists would side with Jesus who believes self-interest economics to be morally bankrupt.
So I’m going to throw out to this august group of humanists exactly what our Baptist friends are posing: What Would Jesus Do–but in this case it pertains to a moral responsibility to those who are less fortunate.
Jesus did not trust the invisible hand, I’m sure. Let’s take a look at the parable of the Good Samaritan for I’m sure it may have been a while since you last gave it a glance.
First off, I’m attracted to the parable because Jesus uses a lawyer as his foil, and outwits the lawyer perhaps the first lawyer joke recorded in time. At any rate, lawyers have endured unflattering reputations for a long, long time.
In the Gospel of Luke we read: “A lawyer stood up and put Jesus to the test, saying ‘teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'”
Jesus then asks him in a legalistic manner, “How do you read what the law says?” And the lawyer goes through the motions and recites the standard bit: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says something like, “Good for you, you gave the right answer.” But the lawyer pushes to the heart of the matter: “Who is my neighbor?”
This is where Jesus outsmarts him. The question, “who is my neighbor?” essentially demands a description of the kind of people we need to love. If I have to love my neighbor to gain eternal life, then okay, but who is he? How do I fulfill my requirements while not being too extravagant with my love?
It’s this line of reasoning that leads our contemporary society to draw boundaries: Immigrants aren’t my neighbor; pregnant black teenage girls on welfare aren’t my neighbor; the guys in the homeless shelter aren’t my neighbor; the millions of kids without health insurance aren’t my neighbor. Who is this neighbor I need to love in order to satisfy God?
Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question. Jesus doesn’t get into describing what an appropriate object of neighborly love might look like. Instead, he shifts gears…as if to say, “You have not asked the right question.” He then proceeds with a parable about a man who fell among robbers, was stripped, and beaten, left for half-dead. A priest went down one side of the road and ignored the man. A Levite went down another side of the road and ignored the man. (This is pretty much like the way we walk through downtown Salt Lake avoiding panhandlers or even folks lying in the street.)
But a Samaritan saw the man and had compassion, bound his wounds, poured on oil and wine, put him on a donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.
Now we get to the economics. On the following day, the Samaritan has to leave and so he gives the innkeeper some money and says “take what you need in order to care for him and if it costs more, I’11 pay you when I return.”
According to natural law and good economic advice this action is irrational. The Samaritan gives up something in order that someone else be made better off. It’s bizarre behavior. Economically it makes no sense. And so Christians contend, especially the Christian right, that that parable doesn’t apply to contemporary life…just good stuff like St. Paul’s exhortation that wives must obey their husbands. But economically, don’t tell me I need to sacrifice my own money gained by the sweat of my brow in order to help the outcast, down-trodden good-for-nothings who ought to get a job. Of course we neglect the plight of the poor. This is the way of the real world.
Jesus tells the parable because the lawyer wants to calculate (just like us) how to avoid being overly generous. If we can define “neighbor” narrowly, we won’t have to give up too much of our own. But Jesus’ response in the form of the parable is that anyone in need is the neighbor to whom our good will must go out.
The Good Samaritan is a Bad Economist. Imagine rushing out of your house a tad late to catch a plane for a business trip to Chicago, and on the sidewalk in front of the house next to yours, a person has fallen and is moaning. If we attend the person we’re guaranteed to miss the flight and the all-important business trip becomes a moot point.
How many of us would proceed to the airport convinced that surely someone else will come along soon? Perhaps if there’s time at the airport, we can dial 911. Funny how economics shapes our morality.
Caring for others is tough economically. Interrupting your business trip because someone has fallen by the roadside would be as foolish as asking voters to identify with the poor. Economically it makes no sense and is morally justified as being good for the greater society.
People of color and immigrants can moan all they want in the squalor of their inner city existence. It makes no good sense to give them a piece from the rapidly shrinking economic pie. They are not our neighbor, and thus we need not be generous for the purpose of living within God’s favor.
With all this talk about Jesus, I still have to take the humanist perspective because I believe…probably along with most of you…that the practice of religion is undeniably self-centered. Like the lawyer in the parable, people tend to focus on their own salvation. Like the man in my office who couldn’t trust himself to be moral without a Supreme Being ready to judge him, the practice of religion really gives people what they want to further their own self-interest. My eternal life, my piece of heavenly real estate.
Jesus’ moral philosophy, which transcended individual self-interest, was radical enough to qualify his membership into any humanist Group. He stated what humanism in its highest form tries to convey, namely, that there exists compelling reasons to be better than our natural inclinations. Self-interest may be a part of human nature to the detriment of how we treat one another, but there is still a universal understanding of compassion, beneficence, and humanism which motivates us to be better than we’re supposed to be.
The sole purpose of the universe is not to satisfy our needs, although we often act that way. I think our culture intentionally maintains the illusion that self-interest advances the public good, while denying the evidence that self-interest destroys community. (All we need to do is look around and know that’s true.)
If humanists have a hard time with the teachings of a nice Jewish boy like Jesus, perhaps they will be more receptive to the lessons of a great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, a contemporary and friend of Martin Buber.
Heschel agreed with the underlying premise we’ve been kicking about all evening–self interest is a human reality. But, Heschel contributes a most significant fact: We Have A Choice.
We can cater to that reality of self-interest, (and society will easily let us do that)…or we can transcend it. In his words, “sacrifice one’s own interest for the sake of the holy.”
Holy is not meant as a reference to God or any religious creed or dogma. Simply that compelling sense that for some inexplicable reason deep within us, we ought to strive to be better than our natural inclinations.
We’re talking about a very universal principle, one which many religions subscribe to, but it gets wiped out in religious practice.
The Jews wandering the desert, hungry, live off the sweet morning dew draping desert plants. They are instructed to take only according to their need, never take more because the consequences would be grave for the larger community.
Buddhist monks are given a begging bowl. They may beg enough food for one day, and must trust that their neighbor will supply them with food the next. Just eat as much as you need, never more. How scary to be placed in that situation.
In the Christian tradition, aside from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the community of people is likened to a single body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I need not thy help, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. If one member suffer anything, all members suffer with it.”
I think it all comes down to this for Southern Baptists and Mormons, Unitarians and humanists, Jews and Presbyterians, for everyone–let’s stop defining who our neighbor is, and begin defining the moral limits of self-interest. Economic personal gain may indeed constitute the essence of human nature, but that doesn’t make it moral–no matter how hard we try to justify it with the invisible hand, contracts with America a la Newt Gingrich, Proposition 13 in California. Economic self-interest and morality lie at opposite ends of the spectrum.
I think humanism needs to take a more definitive position, echoing Heschel’s contention that we have a choice. humanists can articulate the need to “transcend our own greed” using humanism’s vocabulary, but we need to address the issue.
Our society is enmeshed in too many perplexing situations, and we need to hear the voice of humanism advocating a morality of transcendence. We need to examine Affirmative Action, national Health care, Welfare reform, private school vouchers, immigration laws, bilingual education…and we as humanists need to tackle the issue head on “That the Good Samaritan is a Bad Economist.
Driven by economics, Americans still ask: “Who is my neighbor? ” Driven by self-interest we remain deaf to the mandate: “Anyone in need is the neighbor to whom our good will must go out.”
Self-interest lies at the heart of human nature. Can humanists articulate the need to transcend self-interest?
–Rev. Tom Goldsmith
Shakespeare and Religion
Professor Brooke Hopkins opened his presentation November 12th at the Humanists of Utah general meeting commenting that the writings of William Shakespeare indicate he was strongly influenced by the ‘sacred’ but not the ‘religious,’ as we commonly understand the word. Professor Hopkins said this is his tentative intuitive conclusion after studying and teaching the Bard at the University of Utah for the past 22 years.
The question of Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs has intrigued scholars for hundreds of years. The late Unitarian Minister, Dr. Paul Beattie, wrote, “Shakespeare never embodied the central Christian teaching regarding ‘law and sin’ in a play; nor did he write a play about Christianity. He may have been a Christian, or he may not. He may have been consciously or unconsciously a pagan. We will probably never know for certain.” Professor Hopkins agreed, saying Shakespeare was probably a humanist. Students of Shakespeare agree that though he may not have dealt with religion, he was concerned about human morality.
Hopkins said one of Shakespeare’s remarkable plays, A Winter’s Tale, portrays the degree of holiness or sacredness he felt toward life. The renewal of the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes following 16 years of suspicion and remorse and the revelation that Leontes’ wife Hermione was alive 16 years after he had her imprisoned seems to reveal his deep compassion, respect and concern for the enigmatic human condition.
Hopkins quoted lines from several Shakespearean orations that cite ordinary but miraculous ‘breath,’ rather than transcendent soul or spirit, as the holy force that is the essence of life. “Shakespeare, concluded Professor Hopkins, “celebrated the living human flesh and the great sacred nature that created breath.”
The Historical Contest Between Religion and Government
Professor J D Williams told a record Humanist of Utah audience that the struggle for religious political influence in this nation began with the landing of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock. Speaking to more than 130 people attending the March 12th meeting, Professor Williams explained that the colonies and the original states were theocracies that required church membership to be a government officeholder. As late as 1780, five states continued to have established religions.
The first state to challenge the close ties between government and religion was Virginia where, in 1773, a 22-year-old Princeton graduate James Madison wrote, “Is an ecclesiastical establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society.?” That question sparked a fiery debate that continued for 12 years. One of the prominent supporters of maintaining the Virginia theocracy was Patrick Henry. When Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Ambassador to France, asking what to do about Patrick Henry, Jefferson replied, “What we have to do, I think, is devoutly pray for his death.”
In 1785 Madison published his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” which effectively killed Patrick Henry’s proposed legislation to continue to provide tax dollars to Virginia churches.
The successful political struggle to disestablish the entanglement of religion and government in Virginia inspired Jefferson, Madison and others to seek the same freedom of conscience for every citizen in every state, and they did so with what was to eventually become the First Amendment to the Constitution. Professor Williams said many scholars agree that the First Amendment intended to do the following:
J D quoted from the famous letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists’ Association in 1803 saying that the First Amendment had created “a wall of separation between church and state.” He also quoted Supreme Court Justice J. Robert Jackson, writing in Everson vs. Board of Education in 1947: “This freedom was first in the Bill of Rights because it was first in the forefathers’ minds; it was set forth in absolute terms, and its strength is its rigidity. It was intended not only to keep the states’ hands out of religion, but to keep religion’s hands off the state, and above all, to keep bitter religious controversy out of public life by denying to every denomination any advantage from getting control of public policy or the public purse.”
Professor Williams concluded his presentation with the reminder that Freedom of Conscience is the most precious freedom guaranteed by our living constitution.
Humanism and the Political Process
I have found, since agreeing to talk this evening, that putting action into words is much harder than the other way around!
In preparation for this evening, I re-read Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism, and am using many of his quotes. He talks about humanism as “a many-faceted philosophy” and my involvement in humanistic activities, including politics, is many-faceted, too. In fact, I often refer to my life as a patchwork quilt.
Lamont says “Human beings can solve their own problems–using courage and vision,” and as an educator and as a mediator, my intent is to help others find ways to solve their own problems. Courage and vision are qualities we all need, all the time. But sometimes we need others to help us discover, or rediscover them.
Another quote: “The individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare the community.” When I became involved in politics, my goal was to contribute to the welfare of the community; working with the Democratic Party was a beginning; as a lobbyist for the school district, my goal was to increase funding for special education and multicultural programs. As a member or The League or Women Voters of Salt Lake, my goal is to increase citizen participation in government.
Self-development? The hardest part of all–as Voter Service Chair for the League, I must be non-partisan. Keeping my mouth shut has forced me to listen (maybe it’s not self-development, but self-discipline.) Listening and reflecting has led to changes, positive changes, in my attitude, but still, I’ll be glad when this election is over!
“Unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions…” Don’t most humanists do this? Even though there is unending questioning, it doesn’t mean we always change those assumptions and convictions? We may strengthen our beliefs because they have been tried and tested.
“A humanist society will invest in education and general cultural activity…proportionate to what present-day governments allocate to armaments and war…” When I worked for the Granite School District, a poster outside my office read, “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and bake sales are held to cover the cost of a B-l bomber.”
I have found that the best lobbyists are not those with the greatest amount of money to spend, but those who are most passionate about their cause. The Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities has only three paid staff, yet this organization is one of the most effective on the hill. The real lobbyists·are the members–parents whose children are disabled–individuals with disabilities–and agencies who save people with disabilities–they collect no dues, but they do give freely of their time, their knowledge, and their stories. One legislator who met with a group from the Coalition said, “please don’t talk to me about the children; talk about the money.” He couldn’t say no to the parents who were holding pictures or their children; he could say no to a dollar sign.
Politics is dirty at times, but without politics some worthwhile projects would go unfunded. The courts are now accepting and using mediation as a way to help couples solve disputes about divorce, child custody, and visitation. The money which helps pay court appointed mediators comes from grants available from the federal government. Parents pay when they can; payment is on a sliding scale. Research shows that children whose parents successfully mediate their disputes are less likely to be truant or to be involved with drugs or alcohol. So our society profits in at least two ways: children finish school and are productive, and thus are less dependent on additional government services such as social services, corrections, or welfare.
The mediation projects with the juvenile and adult courts are working quite well. Mediating with the offender and the victim can be very traumatic for both parties, but the success rate is high, and recidivism, particularly with juveniles, is low. This Restorative Justice Program is one that is heavily dependent on volunteer mediators–but those who are employed to manage the program are paid by tax dollars, allocated by legislators who responded to lobbyists.
Lobbying can be fun–and funny, too. One of my favorite stories involves Senator Warren Pugh, who would never agree to meet with me, despite everything I tried. A coworker overheard me complaining and said to call the Senator the next day. I did, and to my surprise he agreed to see at once. When I asked my colleague how she managed it, she told me her husband was a member of the local Chamber of Commerce and had a good working relationship with Senator Pugh. He simply asked the Senator to meet with me, because his wife said she wouldn’t sleep with him until the Senator scheduled an appointment with me! When I told this story at a dinner honoring the Senator on his retirement, he asked me to write it up because it was one of his best memories.
Another book I re-read for this evening is The Humanist Alternative, edited by Paul Kurtz, which contains essays by several outstanding authors. He quotes Roy Fairfield: “The Humanist-in-Action will recognize the need for humor (lest he take his cosmic situation and presence too seriously,) the need for accepting paradox (to be of use, on must take abuse [and I vigorously disagree]; the closer one gets to achieving social and political power, the less power one has to maintain one’s real humanness,) the imperative or relating to irony (no man ever what he may seem to be) and the urgency of expressing oneself somehow, so that one’s outer manifestations sculpt the clay of one’s inner identity.”
One last quote, from Paul Kurtz: “The humanist recognizes that man is basically a social agent, and that liberty means nothing unless there is a degree of equality.” In mediation, both parties are equal–the one I recently participated in involved an 11-year-old boy who was the offender, and an 89-year-old woman who was the victim. After only two hours or mediation, during which both told and listened to the other’s story, the boy decided how he could make restitution, and the woman (his neighbor) had accepted. They ended in each other’s arms in tears. The mediator explained to them that they had just experienced “grace”–and those of us in the room agreed. The boy’s mother gained insight into the effect her son’s actions had on her neighbor’s sense of well-being and safety, and the elderly woman found that the “evil intent” of the boy simply did not exist–he was careless, but didn’t intentionally cause the·harm on her property and was willing to restore what he’d damaged.
Politics isn’t always beautiful–but it is effective and brings about changes that help our society and our citizens.
Humanism and the Political Process
Given the possibility that three humanists talking about their political philosophies might not offer many disagreements, I thought I would begin by quoting some of the political positions of a person with a non-humanist world view to illustrate how one’s philosophy does indeed shape one’s positions on political questions. In the April 1995 issue of Sunstone magazine it was reported that Apostle James E. Faust of the Mormon Church, in a November 1994 BYU devotional, said: “Today many of us are trying to serve two masters: the Lord and our own selfish interests. …The influence of God…urges us, pleads with us, and inspires us to follow him. In contrast the power of Satan urges us to disbelieve and disregard God’s commandments.” Clearly, Elder Faust’s philosophy is God-centered, leading, he believes, to these positions on political questions:
On abortion: “Abortion is one evil practice that has become socially accepted in our country,” and “many of today’ s politicians claim not to favor abortion, but oppose government intervention in a woman’s right to choose an abortion.”Apparently he would have the government limit a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
On population control: “How cleverly Satan masked his evil designs with” the phrase “sustainable growth,” which refers to slowing the population growth rate to protect the world’ s resources and the environment. “Those who argue for sustainable growth lack vision and faith.” The scriptures, according to Faust, say, “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (citing the Doctrine and Covenants). “That settles the issue for me. It should settle the issue for all of us. The Lord has spoken.” On homosexuality: “There is some widely accepted theory extant that homosexuality is inherited. How can this be? No scientific evidence demonstrates absolutely that this is so. Besides, if it were so, it would frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness. …The false belief of inborn sexual orientation denies to repentant souls the opportunity to change, and will ultimately lead to discouragement, disappointment, and despair. [Any alternative to] a legal and loving marriage between a man and a woman helps to unravel the fabric of human society” and is “pleasing to the devil.” Now I have no doubt that James Faust is a decent, intelligent, educated, sincere, and honest man, but other decent, intelligent, educated, sincere, and honest people differ with him, and a question I have long pondered is why. I have come to only a partial answer: Their basic assumptions differ, and this shapes their entire outlook. But this is only a partial answer, because what I don’t understand is why their basic assumptions differ. Why does one person see God in everything and another person fail to see God in anything? But that’s a discussion for another time. For this evening, we take as a given the humanist philosophy in order to trace its political implications.
Humanism has, for me, made sense of this world and shaped my attitudes and actions in innumerable ways. I will list a baker’s dozen political opinions that I have. My political attitudes may not be very different from those of most of you in this room, but whether this is true is something we’ll find out soon enough, and is essentially the purpose of this panel discussion.
First, if we are to preserve our “participatory democracy,” we must be educated. Education is a theme I come back to time and again when I think about solutions to society’s problems–whether crime, the environment, population, teenage pregnancies, drugs, etc. and is perhaps my highest political priority. I look at education as an investment and not as a cost, and favor more rather than fewer of our tax dollars going; to education because I think the return on investment is so high. My hope is that over time we will invest less of society’s resources at the back end in welfare, police, jails, and courts, and more at the front end in educational improvements, some as simple as smaller classes and up-to-date textbooks. There are emphases in education that I would favor as a humanist over what religionists might favor. We may agree on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but I would also stress more science, reasoning, sex education, and values clarification, or ethics.
Second, I love what our founding fathers did. I love the checks and balances of our three branches of government. They all work, although I believe the judicial branch works the best, in part because judges use a reasoned approach based on the evidence, much like humanism. I love the Bill of Rights with its guaranteed freedoms of speech, press, and religion. Except on some moral issues, I think of laws and other expressions of public policy not as right or wrong, but as better or worse. We must continually seek better public policy as we understand more about ourselves and our world. These are judgments that WE must make as a self-governing people, which is one reason why education is so important, and this panel discussion so timely.
Third, I don’t like referenda. Even though we the people govern ourselves, I prefer that representative government, through legislatures, hammer out our laws, as messy and imperfect as this is. We need this give and take in drafting laws.
Fourth, I also oppose term limits. As attractive as term limits sometimes seem for getting rid of bad legislators, I don’t like mechanical solutions, and here I would put my faith in “we the people,” and in the educational system to create a sufficiently informed electorate to act wisely.
Fifth, I support campaign finance reform, including limiting out-of-state funds in state elections, although I do not see reform as a panacea, and it’s a mechanical solution. Possibly even better would be more disclosure and reliance on the free press and voters to correct any excesses.
Sixth, I embrace the free enterprise system. I believe the free enterprise system works in maximizing wealth and individual freedom and opportunity. The system must be regulated, however, to control its excesses, achieve social justice, and protect the environment, and this is a legitimate role for government. Also, we cannot expect the free enterprise system to address some of the fundamental problems in society, and I support the government’s funding of medical and other research in an effort to cure and prevent the scourges of humankind, develop new sources of energy, protect the environment, and so forth. I also support government programs for the poor, although I would hope that education would reduce the need. I mention government programs for the poor because a libertarian recently told me he doesn’t like the government taking from him and giving to someone else, but I disagree with him so long as we the people are the government and therefore take from ourselves for the poor.
Seventh, with respect to what to do with those who break the criminal law, I see no alternative to incarcerating persons who pose a threat to society, but given our respect for the human dignity of everyone, I would like to see our emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Even so, as for capital punishment, I suppose I want to preserve the option for cases like the white men in Texas who recently dragged a black man to his death in back of a truck, but I suppose this is more an emotional than an intellectual position. I do believe that capital punishment should be used sparingly.
Eighth, we must get our population under control, not just worldwide but in this very valley. I believe we should revisit tax exemptions for children, especially for children beyond the first two, since two children will, eventually, replace the population without increasing it. Indeed, instead of just removing the tax benefit associated with more than two children, there might have to be a cost for more than two children, such as a tax for their schooling, which implies, of course, a huge cultural change, not only in Utah but throughout the nation.
Ninth, as a humanist, I look at everyone as a fellow human being and decry the prejudices, too often derived from dogmatic religion, against Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, and others, including humanists. I support equal rights for all but a continuation of affirmative action for the time being.
Tenth, on abortion, I favor the woman’s decision over the government’s, but I would also hope that improved education, including sex education, would reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.
Eleventh, on the right to die and assisted suicide, I want the option for myself and therefore believe that everyone should have it. I believe we can solve the problem that older people might be forced into this choice.
Twelfth, on biotechnology, I believe we must approach cloning and genetic engineering slowly, especially as they’re practiced on humans. They hold so much promise for human welfare that I would not want the credibility, responsibility, and benefits of science to be undermined by actions that might appear as rash to, or offend the sensibilities of, a great many citizens, which could set back funding for research for years.
Thirteenth and finally, I’m against a flag burning amendment. Flag burning is “speech” and has been rightly so defined by the Supreme Court, and I would not support this tampering with the First Amendment.
These are some of my political opinions as a humanist, and I look forward to the discussion.
Discussion Group Report
The Fundamentalist War Against Humanism
By Richard Layton
“So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.” So declared Gary North, a featured speaker at the Continental Congress on the Christian World View III in Washington D.C. on July 4, 1986. North was one of a number of persuasive writers and preachers, who, though viewed as radical outcasts even by conservatives, have begun to influence the thought of leading fundamentalist apologists.
The Congress “twas no mere social get-together for friendly faith-partners,” say Frederick Edwords and Stephen McCabe in “Getting Out God’s Vote: Pat Robertson and the Evangelicals” in the May/June, 1987, issue of The Humanist. These fundamentalists are vociferously advocating Christian Reconstruction, a concept first advanced by Rousas J. Rushdoony in his book By What Standard? Christian Reconstructionists adhere to what they call “dominion theology.” It calls on them to dominate society, take control, and institute God’s covenant as the basis of law and government. A critical aspect is postmillennialism, the notion that the second coming of Christ will be after the millennium, a thousand years of Christian utopia. The idea is that that Christians must set up God’s kingdom by claiming dominion over the world and reconstructing society to make the world ready for Christ’s return. The opposite doctrine, premillennialism, is the belief that the second coming will precede the millenium. Christ will come first and he, not mortals, will set up the thousand-year utopian reign. This idea was put forth in Hal Lindsay’s doomsday best seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth.
Rushdoony says the premillennials have a duty under God to conquer in Christ’s name. This change in thinking from premillennialism to postmillennialism has made possible the religious right and the political mobilization of millions of otherwise fatalistic fundamentalists. Pat Robertson is denying that a nuclear war will usher in the second coming. “What’s coming next? I want you to imagine a society where church members have taken dominion over the forces of the world…no drug addiction…pornographers no longer have any access to the public whatever…the people of God inherit the earth…these things can take place now in this time.. and they are going to because I am persuaded that we are standing on the brink of the greatest spiritual revival the world has ever known!”
The Christian Reconstructionist influence on conservatives has increased. With the influx of Calvinistic ideas into their convention, Southern Baptists have been influenced to shed their once sacred individualism, move into political action, and turn their seminaries from academically free institutions of higher learning to trade schools for evangelists and conservative social reformers. Others have been taken in as well. The Coalition on Revival represents a unification of Reconstructionists with charismatics, other evangelicals, black revivalists, creationists, and fundamentalists behind a theocratic political agenda. The goal is to hammer out a unified social policy for all conservative Christians to be promoted actively from the pulpits of various denominations, through legislation, and by other means. Their position paper declares that, “the Bible is therefore a guidebook both for man’s spiritual/religious life and for society’s legal life; and that it is therefore to be followed by civil law as it sets standards for societal conduct.” They are trying to use the U.S. Constitution as a vehicle for taking over the public schools and every other major aspect of political life.
“Clearly,” say Edwords and McCabe, “the latter-day influence on American fundamentalists, evangelicals, and others has changed the politics of a nation. We are already in the third presidential campaign in a row that bears unmistakable witness to the power of politicized conservative religion. We are at this point because we failed to read the Reconstructionists’ own honest words about their aims. In Germany they failed to read, and believe, the plan set forth in Mein Kampf. Our only hope is that the majority of Americans will, through the reverend Pat Robertson’s brazen presidential bid, see the obvious implications of the religious right’s agenda and therefore decide that this country doesn’t need theocracy.”
A tactic that is used by religious conservatives to undermine the secular posture of our government established by the U.S. Constitution is to accuse secularists of causing “moral decline.” LDS church president Gordon B. Hinckley, in a speech to the Provo Community Centennial Service on August 4, 1996, said, “I believe that a significant factor in the decay we observe about us comes of a forsaking of the God whom our fathers knew, loved, worshipped, and looked to for strength. There is a plainly discernible secularization that is occurring. Its consequences are a deterioration of family life, a weakening of self-discipline, a scoffing at the thought of accountability unto the Almighty, and an unbecoming arrogance for any people who have been so richly blessed through the goodness of a generous Providence as we have been.”
God, the early American Christian settlers with their Judeo-Christian moral concepts, and other ethnic groups who believed in and worshipped God, says Hinckley, were the foundation of what Lady Margaret Thatcher called “the goodness and strength of America,” much of which persists and keeps hope for our country’s future alive in spite of the “growing moral deficit” growing out of “secularizing America.”
In our country during the past seven decades we have created rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters, improved provisions for the care of the homeless, passed civil rights laws, bettered economic and social opportunities for minorities (although there is still much need for improvements in these), helped preserve the peace in Bosnia and other areas, established an extensive social welfare net, and made some other ethical achievements showing that in some respects we are a more caring society than we used to be. Historians estimate that between the years 1880 and 1940 60,000 black people were lynched in the United States, and that problem is no longer with us. In view of the facts that nearly all of these killings were carried out by avowed Christians and that the pilgrim settlers persecuted people whose religious beliefs differed from their own, is the faith of our fathers what we really want to return to? In many respects we have become a more moral people.
Many people are intimidated by the academic aura that tends to go with humanism. They feel that you can only call yourself a humanist if you are sufficiently educated or clever to enjoy taking part in scientific debate and philosophical discussion. This is a grave mistake.
Humanism is about living: about living life well in so far as one can; about living and working with fellow men and women for the good of society, now and in the future. You do not have to be an academic to feel that these things are important.
There are so many ordinary, down-to-earth, hands-on humanists wanting to talk and exchange experiences and they do not get enough opportunity
We can expect to hear great speakers and powerful speeches. Let’s try to make these occasions memorable for all humanists.
(Condensed from International Humanist News, Vol.6, #1, by Jane W. Wilson, Vice President International Humanist and Ethical Union)
Memo to US Congress: Thou Shalt Not Bear False History
This article is quoted from The Alternate Approach, newsletter of the Secular Humanist Association of San Antonio. It was written by Robert S. Alley, a member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at the University of Richmond. Alley’s published books include: James Madison on Religious Liberty, The Supreme Court on Church and State, and Without a Prayer: Religious Expression in Public Schools.
While many members of Congress decry the lack of historical knowledge among our youth, the evidence is overwhelming that there is fundamental ignorance of American history in Congress itself.
The most recent evidence of that fact came to national attention last March when U.S. House members rallied to the side of Judge Roy Moore, an Alabama judge who was ordered on church-state grounds to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. The congressional defense was translated into House Concurrent Resolution 31, a non-binding measure that praised Moore and insisted: “The public display, including display in government offices and courthouses, of the Ten Commandments should be permitted.”
The proponent of H.Con.Res.31 included Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), who took to the House floor to contend that foes of Judge Moore’s Ten Commandments display were wrong in saying they wished only to protect the Constitution. Scarborough argued this was true because, “The father of the Constitution, James Madison, stated while he was drafting the Constitution: `We have staked the entire future of the American civilization, not on the power of government, but upon the capacity of the individual to govern himself, to control himself and sustain himself according to the Ten Commandments of God.'”
That alleged Madison quotation has been cited frequently over the past 50 years, but never with a primary source. There’s a reason for that: It is proper to state that Madison cannot be found to have said anything even vaguely similar to the words attributed to him.
David Mattern, an editor of the Madison Papers, in 1993 commented on the so-called Madison “quote.” “We did not find anything in our files,” he concluded, “remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views he expressed time and again in public and private.”
Scarborough moved from his bogus Madison material to George Washington. The Florida Republican claimed the father of our country had stood up at his Farewell Address and said, “It is impossible to govern rightly without God and the Ten Commandments.”
As a minor note, Washington did not deliver his address standing up, but rather sent it to a newspaper for publication. Further, Washington did not write the words Scarborough cited in his Farewell. Equally interesting, the editors of the George Washington Papers inform me that a computer check of the entire corpus of the first President’s writing reveal not a single reference to the Ten Command-ments.
To make matters worse Scarborough, having disseminated two completely false statements, had the audacity to say that Thomas Jefferson agreed with the two comments that were never uttered.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) took the floor to argue that religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams intended “to protect the church, not the state.” This is patently false and misses the entire thrust of the Williams experiment in freedom of conscience brought to colonial Rhode Island atheists, Jews, agnostics, and all manner of dissenting Christians. He was banished from Massachusetts where the church was protected by the state.
Rep. Bob Riley (R-Ala) returned to the fabricated statement attributed to Madison and followed with yet another alleged quote, this time from Jefferson. According to Riley, Jefferson said, “(T)he Bill of Rights are built on the foundations of ethics and morality found in the Ten Commandments.” The editors of the Jefferson Papers at Princeton assured me they found no evidence that the Sage of Monticello ever said any such thing.
When the pro-Moore members of Congress concluded their time at the microphone they had referred to Thomas Jefferson five times, James Madison four times, George Washington twice, and John Adams once. Of those 12 references, 10 are completely false. Of the remaining two, one is a garbled misquote from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, the other a reference to John Adams that seems genuine. Finally neither of the two quotes that have some degree of verifiability mention the Ten Commandments.
Relying almost exclusively on these egregious historical distortions, Republicans in Congress castigated their opponents as supporters of moral corruption. Rep. Scarborough, the most historically ill-informed of the lot, offered-with his voice in high-pitched piety-arguably the most ridiculous sentence in the debate. Citing the Madison and Washington quotes, he said, “Now, if the revisionists do not like that, that is fine, but please, do not insult Americans’ intelligence, please do not try to do a verbal burning of our American history books.”
Regrettably, the House passed H.Con.Res.31 by a whopping 295-125 margin. And many among that majority on March 5 had come to office decrying the sad state of public education. How would they know?
Cowardice and Religiocity
The room fell deathly silent as she spoke. “Being religious is not cowardice,” she emphasized.
We were sitting in a discussion group meeting of the Humanists of Utah, discussing the roots of humanism. My friend, disillusioned with religion and therefore curious about humanism, had grown more and more frustrated as first one religion, then another, was knocked in straw man fashion: Being religious is the coward’s way out. She waited, and finally she could stand it no longer: “Being religious is not cowardice.”
The words were a new relaxation of thought for me. For years, I have debated what it was to be religious, especially when relating to humanism. Humanism has always taken a view of “nontheism,” a seemingly careful word stating its disassociation from theism: careful in respect of not necessarily wanting to declare an atheist (nonbelief in God) attitude, but wanting to make clear its concern with the belief in God. To say it bluntly, humanists are skeptical, often cynical, of any supernatural claim, and rightly so. This has lead to much concern, therefore, with “religion.”
Religion in the Western world is most often associated with Christianity. Much of the Renaissance and modernistic thought has stemmed from concerns with Christian dogma, fundamentalism, and the historic Crusades. Christianity, in the actions of her church, has clearly shown more of a detriment to society than anything positive and beneficial.
But is religion just Christianity? What of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or the Pagan belief of the ancient days? But more than just these belief systems, what of the organizations that use these belief systems as their basis?
It seems clearly, that in humanism, the concern has not been with religion as a whole, or the belief systems, but with the negative actions that stem from parts of these belief systems. Dogma erupts, and instead of an evolution of beliefs, and adaptation to new, scientifically verified, information, people cling to outdated, erroneous, belief systems, that, though they may have worked sufficiently in years past, fail miserably in the present.
The concern, therefore, becomes “Does religion focus on human beings, and the most efficient method to solve problems?” The answer increasingly has been no. The nature of humanism, and its moral focus on human beings, is the hope of today, and a focus for our directions tomorrow.
Because of this, the original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto stated: “Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.”
Case in point: They talked of religious humanism.
The concern, as expressed in the first Manifesto: “There is great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century.”
The concern is not fundamentally with the term “religion,” but with “doctrines and methods which have lost their significance.” I think the dogmatic rejection of the belief in God does this as does any other outdated religious belief. Humanism needs to move beyond its petty struggles of cynical realism, and move to the affirmation of human life in this world.
This does not mean letting go the ethic of nontheism that is so crucial to focusing on this mortal, mundane, life. It does mean focusing on the greater good. Religion, historically, has always strived towards this. Being “religious” is a description of our great moral senses, and of our yearning to strive for betterment.
In the words of Edward O. Wilson, prominent biological scientist, humanist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner:
“.I had no desire to purge my religious feelings. They were bred in me; they suffused the wellsprings of my creative life. I also retained a small measure of common sense. To wit, people must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the universe and make ourselves significant within it? Perhaps science is a continuation on new and better-tested ground to attain the same end. If so, then in that sense science is religion liberated and writ large.” (Consilience, Edward O. Wilson)
The desire to reach beyond the sky is at the heart of religion and the heart of humanism: a common bond that humanism needs to associate with, not pull away from. Instead of denying “religion,” humanism exists to not just redefine religion, but to help see what religion really is, and therefore, who we as individuals, and as a human society, really are.
As Dr. Wilson so adroitly stated, “The moral imperative of humanism is the endeavor alone, whether successful or not, provided the effort is honorable and failure memorable.” Therefore, the endeavor is intrinsically religious.
Humanism is the religious endeavor that fights down the cowardice towards change, towards action, and towards objective, freethought. Humanism is religious courage.
Discussion Group Report
By Richard Layton
Just as traditional monotheistic religions have called for commitment to God as a supernatural person, Henry Nelson Wieman, (1884-1975) who was probably the most famous philosopher of religion associated with Unitarian Universalism, believed that “our ultimate commitment” should be to the process of creative interchange. Contrary to atheists, Wieman argued that we are not the source of our own good; creative interchange is the source of human good.”
David C. Oughton in “Wieman and One of His Disciples” in the winter-spring, 1997, issue of Religious Humanism explains Wieman’s concept of “creative interchange”: It is a way of integrating diverse perspectives so that people can understand each other, learn from each other, be corrected by each other, form a community with each other, and live in peace with each other. Wieman called it “the creativity that creates the human mind and personality after the first days of infancy, creates human culture and history, and creates the universe as known to the human mind. The universe as known to the human mind has been in the process of creation for thousands of years and is now being recreated more radically than ever before.”
Creative interchange operates in four stages: 1) getting the perspective of the other person (or philosophical system or alien culture) more or less fully and perfectly–generally very imperfectly; 2) integrating (mostly subconscious) of this new perspective with what one had before, this always with all degrees of perfection; 3) Consequent expansion in range of what one can know, value, and control; and 4) consequent widening and deepening of the community of mutual understanding and mutual support of the participants.
Weiman made a distinction among three approaches to religion: 1) Those who say that the object of supreme devotion is a supernatural personality (traditional theism) or cosmic consciousness (Whiteheadian theology) or Being itself (Tillich), 2) those who deny the existence of a supernatural personality and believe that there is no reality worthy of supreme devotion (atheism) or 3) those who maintain that “God” is not a personality but an actual process of creativity operating on the human level (religious naturalism).
Wieman argued against the first two positions and maintained the third. He opposed theism when it directs our ruling commitment to a supreme person. He claimed there is no evidence of a personal power that exercises supreme control over the universe or human living and even if there were such a sovereign person, human action guided by a commitment to such a person would not enable us to escape the greatest dangers, correct the greatest evils, or attain the fullest content of positive value. He also rejected religious humanism when it directs our ruling commitment to an ideal because even the highest human ideals are confined and perverted by special interests and prejudices. All ideals must be subject to correction and further development by religious commitment to creative interchange.
Contrary to atheists he argued that we are not the source of human good; creative interchange is the “source of human good.” We must counteract the counterforces that block or obstruct creative interchange–prejudice, all forms of ignorance, and all other evils that obstruct the creative process. There are no guarantees that creative interchange will bring this world to peace and justice, but it has that potential. It is the only hope.
The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill, is only 275 pages but the author tells the engrossing story of how a tribe of desert nomads changed the cultural course of history for the western world. Cahill explains how Judaism established the belief that life is linear rather than cyclical, promoted the significance of the individual, the family and the tribe, and developed a moral code of compassion, love, justice and conscience, the seven-day week, and a philosophy of progress. In a concluding comment the author says, “There is no way that it could have been ‘self evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.” (page 249) The Gifts of the Jews is a fast read that rewards you with a deep appreciation of our treasured human values.
Another new publication that deserves your time is Consilience by Edward O. Wilson. The noted Harvard biologist argues for the fundamental unity of all knowledge and shows why the goals of the Age of Enlightenment are surging back to life. Says Wilson; “The originators (of the Enlightenment) clashed over fundamental issues. (But) they shared a passion to demystify the world and free the mind from the impersonal forces that imprison it.” (page 21) Consilience is not a fast read but it is rewarding.
I recommend for your thoughtful reading two interesting books concerning dealing with the medical verdict that death is likely within a few months, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom, and All My Dreams Came True by Abigail Judd Bishop. Tuesdays With Morrie is the recorded reflections of a journalist who spent every Tuesday visiting with his former college professor during the final months of the retired professor’s suffocating from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
All My Dreams Came True is the daily thoughts, feelings and activities of a 42-year-old Salt Lake City women dying from the effects of a brain tumor. Abigail Judd Bishop kept a detailed diary during the final three months of her life. Abigail died December 22, 1996. Her family graciously shares that diary with us.
These two books give the reader important insights into the dying process from the viewpoint of the observer and the patient. Both books give you a profound appreciation for living each day to its fullest.
Abigail Judd Bishop is the deceased daughter of Utah Humanist Virginia Judd Leonard, a member of our chapter. Tuesdays with Morrie should be available at most book stores.
Understanding Other Religions
Flo Wineriter, Humanists of Utah chapter president, had a letter published in the Sunday, March 8, 1998, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.
It is encouraging to read in the Public Forum the intelligent discussions of religious concepts generated by LDS Apostle Boyd Packer’s address on the question “Is Mormonism Christian?” Public discussion of differing religious beliefs has been historically discouraged for a variety of reasons. The result, unfortunately, has been unintentional bigotry, suspicion and condemnation of those who hold religious convictions different from our own.
To grow beyond tolerating the beliefs of others to accepting the right of others to their beliefs requires an intellectual understanding of our differences. That will not happen with the continued indoctrination in isolation of religious concepts. We need enlightened public disclosure of the various religious beliefs concerning the nature of God, Satan, sin, salvation, redemption, heaven, hell, the purpose of life and death. Public and private religious discussions need not degenerate into proselytizing debates of who’s right and who’s wrong but can be conducted in a knowledge-seeking atmosphere.
I believe the “Three R’s” program is promoting this approach to religious education in Utah’s public schools. Perhaps the Salt Lake Tribune could make a meaningful contribution to this dialogue by publishing a series regarding the variety of religious concepts in the Saturday Religion section.
I look forward to the day when we cease to just “tolerate” those who have different beliefs but actually “accept” one another because we understand our different religious beliefs.
…and just for fun:
On a somewhat lighter note, Rolly and Wells of the Salt Lake Tribune held a “limerick contest” in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Board member Earl Wunderli won the contest with this limerick printed on March 13:
Who abides by the soft drink alternative,
But who, in 2002,
Would provide any brew
To our guests as a social preservative.
Mormons vs. Baptists
Observing the somewhat delicate, preliminary sparring between the Mormons and the Baptists, who will “invade” and proselytize Salt Lake City this summer, is very amusing. It is delicate, of course, because money is involved. H.L. Mencken said it best: “Every religion of any consequence teaches that all the rest are insane, immoral, and against God. It is seldom hard to prove it.”
Discussion Group Report
Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream
By Richard Layton
“The basic difference between what are socially considered to be bad and good people is not one of kind, but one of degree, and of the ability of the bad to translate dark impulses into dark actions,” says Robert I. Simon, the Director of the Program in Psychiatry and Law at Georgetown University School of Medicine in his book with the same title as this article. “Bad men such as serial sexual killers have intense, compulsive, sadistic fantasies that few good men have, but we all have some measure of that hostility, aggression, and sadism. Anyone can become violent, even murderous, under certain circumstances. Our brains are wired for aggression, and can short-circuit into violence.
“There are dragons, and no one can run from them for very long.” Sticking one’s head in the sand or retreating into various addictions can be as painful or more disabling than the original dragons/problems. Psychiatrists aim to empower their patients by helping them to discover alternative, more problem-solving techniques. Autonomy and responsibility for one’s own life replace previous helplessness and destructive repetitions.
We must all struggle with the dark forces. In the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical thinking held that aggression and violence were caused by foreign, evil spirits besetting an individual. Now those of us who ascribe aggression and violence to sickness fall prey to the same flawed perception of man as did those earlier clerics. The great majority of violence and mayhem in this world is done not by the mentally ill but by individuals and entire societies not considered to be sick, at least not by any known measure of mental illness. Many among the Nazi executioners went home after a day of exterminating women, children, and old men and resumed quite comfortable and normal lives in the bosoms of their families. We must stare our own demons in the eye and learn to control them. The grand catastrophes of mankind and the evils of our everyday lives reveal that the greatest danger comes from denying that there is a beastly part of our humanity. Much of life’s work and play involves the necessary channeling of aggressive impulses, which permits us to take responsibility for our actions by facing and acknowledging all our feelings.
There is substantial agreement among professionals on the general aspects of what constitutes good mental health. Healthy people like and accept themselves, do not depend excessively on others for approval, and are not severely wounded by others’ criticism. A solid, integrated sense of self, neither grandiose nor despised, exists with relatively continuous, reasonably pleasant memories. Healthy people do not have to diminish other people to maintain a positive self-view. They acknowledge and accept personal shortcomings, and seek help from others when it is needed. They have internalized loving, nurturing parental figures who provide sustenance during times of crisis and inner support at times of failure (I would add to Simon’s observation that those who did not have such parents may find such support from important other people in their environment). They intrinsically reject suicide as a solution to life’s vicissitudes. There are values and standards that throughout life provide them with a moral rudder. These people are fair and adaptive, not harsh and punitive or cruelly and unbendingly righteous. Present is a clear but reasonably flexible sense of right and wrong. In the face of human suffering, healthy persons do not insist on compliance with trivial formalities. They accept guilt when appropriate without experiencing panic or immobilizing depression. Their consciences work in harmony with other aspects of the personality and are not full of holes that permit acting out destructive behaviors inconsistent with their value systems.
Their value systems emphasize proficiency at their work while aiming at realistic goals. They have no debilitating perfectionist or pie-in-the-sky goals that guarantee failure. They value cooperation and collaboration with others and enjoy competition but not by humiliating their competitors. Life is not a dog-eat-dog struggle but a positive challenge. Psychologically healthy persons enjoy their relationships with others. They can place appropriate trust in others as well as be trustworthy. Support and empowerment of friends and acquaintances is their hallmark. They curb feelings of envy and jealousy in deference to the importance of maintaining friendships. They do not desire domination of others. They esteem other persons in their own right and appreciate that we all must bear the vicissitudes of the human condition. They seek no personal advantage. While healthy people pursue their own self-interests, they do so with empathetic regard to the consequences their own actions might have on others. They each maintain good personal boundaries, knowing where he or she stops and another individual begins. They feel regret or guilt if others are unnecessarily hurt by their actions. They do not shift blame to others. Healthy persons can accept the darker side of their humanness. They can enjoy childish pleasure but at the appropriate time and within measure.
Strong indicators of emotional health are the abilities to withstand anxiety without falling apart or launching into drastic action; to delay gratification and tolerate frustration, when appropriate; to think before acting; to modulate impulses; to sublimate basic impulses. Healthy persons can love, that is, value and care for another person. Feelings of jealousy, anger, hate, and rejection are tempered by an overriding concern for the person who is loved. Sexuality in a relationship is empowering through a mutually loving, physical, and mental exploration of one another. The emphasis is less on finding the right person than being the right person. Work is a source of creative emotional growth and psychological refreshment rather a primary way of obtaining or maintaining self-esteem. It is folded into a broader fabric of life rich in sustaining relationships, recreation, hobbies, and spiritual quests. Healthy individuals can experience awe, joy, and wonder in relation to the world. Emily Dickinson wrote, “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” They find a sense of fulfillment and are not beset by regret and bitterness. Reality is perceived reasonably clearly and is harmoniously melded with the pleasure principle. They can accept professional help with their emotional problems. William Sloane Coffin succinctly stated, “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay.”
“It is our human condition to struggle against the dark demons,” says Simon. “It is the undaunted human spirit that strives to harness these demons in the pursuit and fulfillment of our human destiny.”
The Many Names of Humanism
The number of names applied to Humanism astounds me. Looking at some of these names provides insight into the way others interpret the meaning of Humanism. Recently these names were showcased at the Atheist Alliance convention, sponsored by the St. Louis Rationalist Society Many groups were represented: The Freedom From Religion Foundation, The Eupraxophy Center, The Council for Secular Humanism, The Rationalist Society, The Freethinkers, The Atheist Alliance, and The American Humanist Association.
Each of these groups espouses a secular philosophy consistent with Humanism. The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Annie Laurie Gaylor gave a presentation on her book Women Without Superstition, emphasizing women in history who promoted a secular viewpoint. Humanists are free from religious bonds and sexual bigotry and can empathize with these secular women.
Eupraxophy is a world view independent of religion. The word is derived from several components to form the new word, Eupraxophy. Secular Humanism and Humanism are nearly interchangeable at this point. The rationalist view point is one of a very Humanistic ilk; viewing the world in a rational way is paramount to the Humanist experience.
Freethought probably entails the most significant contribution to the Humanist experience. Without freethought, many would not examine the world with an open mind, share ideas in new ways, and contribute to the well being of those around them. Atheism also embodies Humanistic ideals; a world guided by humans and human thoughts has little place for a god belief.
I think that the titles we accept for ourselves accentuate our priorities. As a member of the San Francisco Atheist Alliance group, Ray Ramano created a very realistic portrayal of Judas as a man, attempting to be the manager of Jesus and the Apostles’ finances and public appearance dealings. He put so much feeling into the character that the entire audience paused for a brief period, in shock, before applauding his performance. To take such an historic person and contrast the day to day problems is very Humanistic, but the emphasis on treating Jesus as a human rather than a god, requires an atheistic viewpoint, as well.
Herb Silverman, the candidate without a prayer, described his experiences running for Governor and Notary Public in his state. South Carolina had a restrictive law that effectively prohibited atheists from running for public office. Herb presented a very humorous portrayal of his experiences. The primary focus of his efforts were to free a portion of the secular population to become contributing members of the political system. He founded the Secular Humanists of the Low Country.
Steve Schafersman spoke on the American Humanist Association’s venture into the Web. Many popular freethought books are being scanned and provided on the web for all who wish to read them. Steve also spoke of the efforts to censor the web and the intention to use filter engines to censor bad ideas. This has backfired as libraries and schools eliminated sites discussing breast cancer, for example. Steve founded the Houston Skeptics group. His work emphasizes his preference for Skeptic as a label.
The many names of Humanism can be a bit confusing, but we all hold similar views with varying emphasis. Choose your name, join the fun and work together with all of these organizations to help provide support for a secular Humanistic accepting world.
How to Use a Barometer
Some time ago I received a call from a colleague, who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student.
The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected. I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”
The student had answered: “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”
I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised when the student did.
I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer that read:
“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x = 0.5 x axt2, calculate the height of the building.”
At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.
“Well” said the student, “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”
“Fine,” I said, “and others?”
“Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.”
“A very direct method.”
“Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”
“On this same tact, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession.”
“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.'”
At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.
Ethnicity of Jesus
These “proofs of Jesus” are widely circulated on the Internet. No offense or defamation is intended towards any of the ethnic groups mentioned.
Three proofs that Jesus was Jewish:
Three proofs that Jesus was Irish:
Three proofs that Jesus was Puerto Rican:
Three proofs that Jesus was Italian:
Three proofs that Jesus was African American:
Three proofs that Jesus was Californian:
Three proofs that Jesus was a Woman:
Marilyn vos Savant, who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame for “Highest IQ” has a regular column in the Parade Magazine supplement to the Sunday newspaper. In the December 7th issue she was asked why she “always answers questions based on logic.” The question further asked, “Do you believe that intuition, emotion, and other ways of making decisions are as valid as logic?”
Marilyn replied, “Good logic always takes emotion into account as an important factor, so our feelings are never neglected. But intuition-the sensation of knowing without the use of reasoning-is as lightweight as a first impression, and I wouldn’t use it to make a decision unless I had no other information at all.”
That’s All There Is To It
An Essay by David Evans
I’m a member of the American Humanist Association.
Since the year or so I’ve been a formal member, I’m often asked, “Why would you want to be a member of an organization like that? Aren’t they all communist?”
When I began to seriously think about humanism back in 1995, a good friend of mine decided that I was going to be a communist. He’s decided that I’m a socialist, too.
It doesn’t seem to matter what I say to him. It doesn’t matter how much I try and convince him, “I’m not a communist, a socialist or any other ‘-ist’ except humanist.” Because I’m a humanist, his reasoning seems to conclude that I must be some godless communist.
I found a funny poem that I like (by Curt Sytsma), and I tried to send it to him. He never responded.
A few months after I joined the American Humanist Association, I joined the Humanists of Utah, the local chapter here.
I tried taking my friend to a meeting once. I don’t think it went over well. The Democratic nominee for Congress, Ross Anderson, was the speaker that day. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but I really enjoyed the talk. My friend thought Ross was a socialist communist.
Another close friend of mine (friend number two) learned from friend number one that I was a godless communist. Since I had just returned from a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he found that to be a bit incredulous. I still find it incredulous. Since he had just returned from a mission, too, I told him I wasn’t an Atheist, or any other type of “-ist” (though I didn’t yet mention being a humanist).
My friend dropped the subject at my word.
A while later I explained why friend-number-one had felt I was a godless, atheistic communist. “I’m a member of the American Humanist Association.”
What’s that?” he asked.
I pulled out my membership card for the Humanists of Utah. On the back, it says: “Humanism is a natural way of life that promotes living joyfully and compassionately in the present, using innate intelligence, science, the humanities and experience as the methods for discovering truths . . . and to be an association where all can have a sense of belonging to a larger community that supports a positive philosophy of reason, integrity, and dignity.”
He said, “I don’t see anything about Atheism or Communism in that. In fact, I agree with it. Integrity and Reason: how can you argue with that?” I was relieved that he felt that way.
That night we went to his house to watch a video. His father came in, as he always does, to talk to us. His father and I are good friends, too. We talk mostly about books. My friend (friend-number-two) had a copy of History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson, on his bed. “Oh, the Jews,” his father said. “Their history is rough. Their almost as stubborn as those awful secular humanists.” Or something like that; I don’t remember. The irony becomes almost humorous.
I’ve noticed that many of the fundamentalist Christian bent don’t like humanism. They think that humanism is the greatest evil that can happen in the United States. After all, the United States is supposed to be a Christian Nation, right?
No, the U.S. is not a Christian Nation. The Bill of Rights was written so that any religion, belief or faith could be respected in the U.S. However, part of the point is so that a religion, belief or faith does not interfere with the state as well. It is called “Separation of Church and State.” There’s a statement that reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That makes the United States a secular nation. Secular means not under control of the Church; it also means of this mortal world. It does not mean anti-religious. It is not the opposite of religion. It merely focuses on the affairs of this world, and leaves religion to itself (unless religion is infringed upon, or religion is infringing upon others).
My girl friend at the time wasn’t too big on humanism either. That was back in October of 1996, when I joined the humanists. She didn’t want me to join. “Why?” I asked. She didn’t say anything except that she didn’t want to keep me from doing something I wanted to do. We talked about it later on. She asked me, “Is humanism a religion?”
No, humanism is not a religion. I told her that there are those who call themselves religious humanists. These individuals want a secular alternative to religion, and therefore decide to practice humanism in a religious way. They could be called a religion. But humanism, in general, is not a religion. It’s an organization for the promotion of the philosophy, attitude and culture of humanism. If humanism is a religion, then so is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, or the American Civil Liberties Union. That clearly is absurd. So the answer is no, no, no.
My mother asked me the other day where I was to be going that night after I left her house. (I was working on their computer, and not yet finished, I told her I had to leave.) “I’m going to a meeting with the Humanists of Utah.”
“You don’t believe in them, do you?” she asked, rather shocked, and probing. As if I’m a member of some evil cult.
Why can’t people just ask what I believe? They always have to ask, Are you Mormon? Or, Are you Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu? Do you believe in God?
I don’t mind these questions. But I do mind when someone tries to qualify my goodness, and my morality, by a question like “Are you Mormon?” Or an accusation of “You are humanist, therefore you are Communist, therefore you are amoral.” That simply irks me to no end. That’s ignorance. That’s not taking the time to find out what the individual stands for, let alone the organization they’re a member of.
I’m a humanist. I’m a good a person, and I support good things. Things like human dignity; responsibility for my own actions; life; scientific thinking and learning; respect for others beliefs and the things, people and organizations that they support; and for (as my friend Flo put it) Intelligent Compassion. Intelligent Compassion is not just tolerance. Tolerance almost seems like saying, “I’ll just have to put up with you.” Compassion is a good thing, but too many have compassion willy-nilly and get goaded into something they shouldn’t. Intelligent Compassion however shows that you’re not gullible, but at the same time concerned for your fellow human beings and for Nature as a whole.
I stand for all these good things, and I’m a humanist, and that’s all there is to it.