March 2015

Darwin Day

Our eighth annual celebration of Charles Darwin, honored the great mind of the evolutionary theorist, natural historian, and geologist, with an intellectual journey into the stars. Our speaker, Paul Ricketts, spoke on February 12, the 206th anniversary of Darwin’s actual birthday. Mr. Ricketts took years of study with the University of Utah Physics and Astronomy Department and distilled it into a cogent and humorous discussion which he started with gorgeous photographs of many of the large gaseous nebulae which condense into stars. He then brought us out of the star nurseries and into our own galaxy and the galaxies surrounding ours. Single protons (helium) are fused together with other protons and neutrons into larger and larger molecules. Mr. Ricketts walked us through stars, giants, supergiants, even megasupergiants and finally dying stars called white and red dwarf stars and supernovae. Stars like our own Sol don’t have enough mass to combine any molecules larger than carbon. The really big stars can make elements as large as iron.

This fascinating discussion kept our audience enthralled because Mr. Ricketts was able to distill the abstract concepts of astrophysics into simplified, yet intriguing ideas. With such a brilliant mind, Paul Ricketts truly made Darwin Day an intellectually engaging experience.

—Lauren Florence, MD


Culbert L. Olson

Secular Humanism and Culbert L. Olson, Past President of The United Secularists of America and previous Governor of California. (1939 to 1943)

Religion and Humanism background: Humans have two characteristics that separate us from all other animals. We have heightened self-awareness and a spoken, written language. We are the only animal species that have built civilizations. We have based these civilizations on stories. Whatever story the group believes will define their civilization. To have a good story it must have one essential ingredient. It must be a story that most of the group desire to be true. Of all the stories mankind has desired to be true the most consistent is the story of an eternal life. Humans want to believe that life goes on after death. Humans do not want to believe that when they die they no longer exist. That all their plans and dreams come to an end. Since human beings want this to be true they choose to believe it. The various religions then, have used this as a basis of constructing many different stories of how one gets to eternal life after death. Most often these stories are written down in bibles or books.

A particularly interesting story was written by Joseph Smith in the early 1800’s, The story promised eternal salvation to anyone who would believe and be baptized in the “recently revealed” new religion. The story included a visitation of God and Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. It included golden plates delivered by an angel, which told the story of the lost ten tribes of Israel, which went on to become the American Indians. It is hard to believe unless you want it to be true. Many early Americans at the time wanted it to be true. There had not been any such straight forward visitations from God or new written scripture since the time of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. Many were thrilled with the prospect of new revelation and new written scripture, the Book of Mormon, or “Mormon Bible”.

With this background we can relate to the life of Culbert Olson whose parents where taken with Joseph Smith and his new revealed religion. They joined the church in New York and followed first Joseph Smith to Kirtland Ohio and Nauvoo, Illinois and eventually Brigham Young to Utah. Culbert was born into a Mormon family in Fillmore Utah in 1876. He was raised in a Mormon family. However, Culbert by nature was a skeptic.

Human nature can be divided into two major groups skeptics and true believers. Quoting from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers. “Skeptics are children of the scientific revolution or enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. (as if we have a choice-comment my own). Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative, and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith.

True believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside—from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority. True believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truth to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again,” redeemed by faith, and apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave”.

Culbert’s parents, particularly his mother were true believers. Culbert in his own words was skeptic. “It may be that I was naturally a skeptic, for, notwithstanding the religious influence of my early youth, I did not join in the emotion that other children seemed to enjoy in their emotional response to the passionate sermons of the church teachers who told of revelation from God and the appearance of an angel to the prophet, seer, and revelator and founder of the church. Reason forced me to conclude that the founder was a bold, ambitious impostor whose revelations did not make sense. My conclusion was not reached easily because of my desire to conform with the religion on my Mother whom I dearly loved – the kindest, most humane and self-sacrificing person I have ever known.”

Of the two world views rational skepticism is the only one that will lead to human advancement and peace on earth. True believing and religious faith leads to tribalism and wars. Science and reason lead to verifiable truths that we can all trust. If an argument ensues we must hold that he who has the most mutually verifiable facts wins the argument, otherwise we just back off twenty paces and see who is the best shot.

Culbert became a secular humanist. After his governorship of California, he was elected to the President of the United Secularists of America. One of the credos of secular humanism is that all human beings matter, and matter equally. All human beings have rights, and are not to be treated as a means to an end. To quote Culbert, “We should believe in the brotherhood of man, not the fatherhood of God.”

In this context we understand Governor Culbert L. Olson’s vision for California in 1939 during the Great Depression. As he described in his inaugural address, “we point the way forward- toward the achievement of the aspiration of the people for an economy that will afford general employment, abundant production, equitable distribution, social security and old age retirement, which our country, with its ample resources, great facilities and the genius of its people, is capable of providing.”

We can understand his feeling when the California state legislature passed two bills in 1941, one to give free transportation to students attending Catholic schools, while the other would release Catholic children from public schools in the middle of the day in order to attend catechism, leaving the schools and other students idle until the Catholic students’ return. Olson signed into law the first bill, however he vetoed the second (“early release”) bill.

In a 2006 study, recently updated in 2014 by University of Minnesota sociologist Penny Edgell found that non-believers were the most mistrusted minority in the United States. Non-believers, secularists, atheists are seen as immoral because they are without fear of hell or hope of heaven. In a 2007 study 68% of Americans said they would not vote for an atheist candidate for president. This was certainly true in 1939 when Culbert Olson was elected Governor. He was open about his non-belief and refused to say “so help me God” in his inauguration oath. He said “God as never helped me and never will”. Instead he used the term “I affirm”. There are other known atheists in office today but none were open about it during their election campaigns.

All of this leads us into a very interesting life of Culbert Levy Olson. A brilliant lawyer, a compassionate man, a good legislator and politician, and a non- believer. Secular humanism is not inconsistent with compassion and leadership. (If you can get elected).

—Craig Wilkenson, MD


Spirituality

I found Flo Wineriter’s discussion of religion and spirituality (January Utah Humanist) very interesting. He paraphrases Emile Durkheim’s suggestion that the original purpose of religion was to put people in touch with one another (not just or necessarily with god). Durkheim’s observation was made more than a hundred years ago but more recent scholars have advanced the idea further. A recent book by Bruce Hood entitled Supersense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable presents a scientific basis for our supernatural beliefs. According to Hood psychologists now agree that there are two discrete mental systems for processing sensory input. The first is a primitive, intuitive method which finds patterns in nature and tries to decide if they represent threats to us. This method of thinking provided much help to primitive humans, allowing them to recognize dangerous animals or other threats. Supernatural thinking was a side effect that evolved with human culture. The second mental system developed later and evolved with rational intelligence. Both systems continue to work in modern humans with the rational brain inhibiting the more primitive, intuitive brain.

The important message of Hood’s book is that both systems of thinking survive today in contemporary humans. That is why even very intelligent people often exhibit superstitious beliefs in things like lucky charms or ritualistic behavior before important events. So we are all prone to hold irrational thoughts, though obviously some are far more prone than others.

What I take from the book is that spirituality is hard wired into the human brain. Our rational minds can evaluate spiritual experiences and discount their truthfulness, but we may still feel their effect. Like feedback loops, They may be telling us physiologically to rejoice in being part of something larger (our social unit, our tribe, our “religion”). But as evolved rational intelligent people we should be able to take these feelings for what they are: thrilling primitive emotions like anger or lust, a permanent, though dubious part of being human.

Actually I like the word “spiritual”. Nature can be spiritual to me. Scientific discovery can be spiritual. Sex can be spiritual. It just doesn’t happen to involve invisible, omnipotent, or omniscient agents operating behind the scenes. Something that is spiritual to me is deeply thrilling in a positive way.

—Rob Duncan


President’s Report

I want to thank all the board members and chapter members for helping make our Darwin Day celebration a success. An extra thank you goes to Bob and Julie Mayhew for helping order, pick up, prep, and deliver the catering items. Again thanks to all who helped in the kitchen and with setup and clean up and to Leona for overseeing the merchandise sales.

Paul Ricketts from the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Utah was our Speaker. His presentation, “The Lives of Stars,” was quite enjoyable. It is most satisfying to me to learn a few new things about how stars form, live and die. I am sure those who attended felt the same way, as we went a little long with a lot of questions at the end of his presentation.

It was a long day and it wore me out, but it was definitely worth it, as it always is. I’m already thinking about what theme to choose for next year. Any suggestions?

Our speaker for March comes to us from the University of Utah’s Women’s Resource Center. With that in mind, I thought I’d say a thing or two about women.

I have for a long time agreed with the assertion that humanity would be a lot better off if women were empowered. That is to say, be given the authority to run their own lives as they see fit. Specifically to have control over their reproductive lives. To not be considered property, and to have the opportunity to get an education. To have equal pay for equal work. I may be forgetting something important, but I think those three things would improve, quite obviously, life not just for women but all humanity. Plus isn’t it just the fair thing to do. Fairness, now there’s a concept that is only rarely applied today.

One thing that I’m sure would happen, would be a cut in the population growth rate. Slowing population growth is essential in my mind, to solving many problems such as pollution and a growing scarcity of resources. Additionally, education and better pay for women will improve the lives of the women and their families. I know, I know, I’m stating the obvious, but it bears repeating.

It’s rather sad, frustrating and infuriating that so many cultures are still so male dominated. That our primitive behavior of male dominance based mainly on greater physical strength still prevails in the modern world. But it’s not just physical strength, as the insertion of religion into the equation solidifies male dominance. As a young teenager I fell into those feeling of dominance. But as an adult I never felt like I needed to be “The Boss” in a relationship. I love to cook and never felt like domestic chores were solely women’s work.

I guess the hard question is how to change these old entrenched proclivities. And if we are making progress in some of these areas, I feel that it’s moving far too slow.

Last month I stated that I was going to start a series on guns and gun violence. However, our newsletter deadline arrives a little sooner this month. So that project I will endeavor to start next month.

Bye for now, hope to see you at our meeting on March 12th.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU