February 1992

Humanists of Utah in the News

The January 18th 1992 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune featured in the Religion section an article by reporter Peter Scarlet on the Humanists of Utah. A Photo of Bob Green, Flo Wineriter and Ed Wilson standing in front of the First Amendment monument at the new Free Speech park recently erected at the Salt Lake County Government Complex accompanied the article.

We are greatly gratified that the article was very well written, and contained much important information about Humanism and our chapter, as related from the personal view points of Bob and Flo. It also quoted from The Utah Humanist and the Humanist Manifestos.

Utah Humanists Say Reasoning Gives Life Dignity, Meaning

Bob Green was a practicing Mormon a year ago when he read the Humanist Manifesto, which emphasizes reasoning and science over supernatural beings and dogmatic religious beliefs.

“When I read it, I recognized it as what I believe and have long believed,” Mr. Green said. “Before, I tended to compartmentalize science and religion in separate spheres in my mind.”

He quit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and now belongs to the First Unitarian Church. He is also the managing editor of The Utah Humanist, the monthly journal of Utah’s chapter of the American Humanist Association.

“Humanism engages me intellectually and actively. It’s relevant to life and knowledge. My belief and my knowledge have come together,” he said.

Florien J. Wineriter, acting president of Utah’s AHA chapter, said humanism is more of a philosophy than a religion. Humanism can take many forms, and a variety of adjectives is used to describe it, he said. There are religious humanists, secular humanists, free-thought humanists, and rational humanists.

“There is controversy within AHA between those calling themselves secular and religious humanists. The Utah chapter doesn’t use an adjective. We take all humanists under our umbrella,” he said.

Secular humanists tend to be strong atheists, Mr. Wineriter said, while religious humanists see religion – a search for reason and purpose – in human life.

“Humanism affirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human being and asserts that persons are responsible for the realization of their aspirations, and that they have within themselves the power of achieving them,” Mr. Green wrote in the January 1992 issue of The Utah Humanist.

“Humanism is free from any belief in the supernatural and is dedicated to search for meaning and values for individuals on Earth through reliance on intelligence and the scientific method, democracy and social sympathy,” he added.

Messrs. Wineriter and Green said they are more closely aligned with religious humanism than secular humanism. Both are members of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church. Unitarianism historically stresses the importance of human reasoning and the oneness of God.

“I have a hard time identifying myself as religious or secular. I just identify myself as a humanist, with a small ‘h’,” Mr. Green said.

“I more closely identify myself iwth religious humanism,” Mr. Wineriter said. He cited the religion section in the Humanist Manifesto II, a 1973 consensus statement of policy by AHA.

“In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideas. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine ‘spiritual’ experience and aspiration,” the manifesto states.

But it isn’t traditional religion. The manifesto sees traditional “dogmatic and authoritarian” religions that place “revelation, God, ritual or creed above human needs and experience” as negative. It substitutes humans for God and nature for deity. It emphasizes scientific reasoning.

“The human condition is the result of human activity. Our values and rules were developed by people, not superimposed by deity,” Mr. Wineriter said. Both men said humanism’s ideals date back to the Renaissance, and era that identified the Classical Age of ancient Greece and Rome.

Humanism may not be a religion, but humanists have things they venerate with the same devotion evangelical Christians view the bible.

“We consider the Bill of Rights a divine document. Not in the same sense that we think it was divinely inspired, but in that it reflects the best of man’s thinking on what it means to be a human being. It is one of the evidences of our abilities as human beings,” said Mr. Wineriter.

As humanists, Messrs. Green and Wineriter said reason – not religion – is sufficient motivation for ethical behavior.

“Our morals and ethics are the result of centuries of experience,” said Mr. Wineriter. “Humans respond to the idea of not stealing because we all benefit by not stealing.”

Utah’s year-old AHA chapter meets on the second Thursday of each month. One of the organization’s long-term goals when it gets more members and resources, Mr. Wineriter said, will be to take up social causes it supports. There are about 200 people on the chapter’s mailing list, but only 40 with paid up memberships.

—Peter Scarlet
The Salt Lake Tribune

Defining Humanism

When Bob Green and I were being interviewed last month for an article on humanism the reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune asked if we could summarize humanism in one sentence! It was a challenge that left us both feeling inadequate. A few days later I was reading an article by Howard B. Radest, Dean of the Humanist Institute, in which he comments extensively on the difficulty of defining humanism. Radest says, “The living stuff of humanism hides beneath a skilled playing of words. My humanism is the source of the richest meanings in my experience, but I am dumb despite a torrent of words when it come to conveying that richness.” After reading his comments I felt less uncomfortable about our fumbling response to the Trib reporter, Peter Scarlet.

I would like to quote a little further from Radest’s article “Intimacy: Humanism with a Human Face,” published in Humanism Today Volume 6, page 105.

There are moments when humanism reaches into deeper places of my experience … In the marriage ceremony we succeed in speaking directly to the joyous and fearful experiences of love of mutual support and respect, of marriage as a development and not a sacrament, of responsibility that is both intimate and communal, and of the nurture of the one and the other. Suspended in that moment of celebration are those endless disputations about What humanism stands for, and in their place is an experience of what humanism is.

I can report in the same way about memorials and funerals. The occasion is different and yet the same threads of human connection appear. The emphasis changes. In the presence of death I realize my loneliness and feel broken away, broken apart. My need is not for some never-never and false promises, but for the actually present connection, the touch of a hand, sound of a voice, glance of any eye that pulls me back from loneliness and beings to heal the brokenness. Here again, the humanist demonstrates the ability to care and to support.”

Humanism, a philosophy that affirms human worth in every aspect of life, is too broad, too important to summarize in a single sentence. Our thanks to the Salt Lake Tribune for increasing public awareness of the humanist movement in Utah.

–Flo Wineriter

Truth via Religion or Science

Nancy’s Corner

Current Trends in Contemporary Philosophy that Affect the Foundations of Humanism was the topic of discussion at the Utah Humanists meeting on January ninth. Dr. Clifton McIntosh, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah was the featured speaker.

There is an intellectual movement in existence which is fundamentalist in nature that poses a threat to Humanism because its premise is that “Religious belief is as valid as scientific belief when it comes to discovering truths.” The movement’s purpose is to diminish the important steps science utilizes in arriving at truths about the world. The movement asserts and teaches the following:

  1. That religious experience is as valid as scientific experience.
  2. That there is no evidence that science tells us truths about the world
  3. That only good people have religious experiences, others do not

As humanists we must remember that there are two central foundations of humanism:

First, a belief that there is no rational basis to conclude that religion can bring forth knowledge.

Second, that knowledge is possible and will emerge only by using the Scientific Method. Science is of primary importance to humanists. Science can be wrong, of course, but the mistakes are usually corrected. Ethical and respected scientists do not fall into the trap of pre-determining or choosing what will work.

Science is going to succeed in bringing us the best accounts of the world because religious experience is limited and subjective. There are no checks and balances in religious experiences. Everyone’s experience is considered as valid as the other person’s. Religion is very individualistic and has a multitude of differences. We must evaluate specific belief systems according to their own standards, not by ours.

The difference between a religionist’s claims and a scientist’s claims is that the scientist just doesn’t take an experience of the senses and leave it at that. He/she goes one step further and wants to know how the experiences of the senses works. Scientists use methods that measurable. Professor McIntosh states that the burden of proof is on the religious epistemologists to prove their beliefs are true. For example, they must develop a valid and measurable test to prove God’s existence. It cannot simply be said that God exists because somebody had to create this world. There cannot be a double standard of proving truths.

Scientists work from the frame of reference that all ideas are not equivalent, that all ideas are not the same, and that all forms of life are not equally as good.

The two questions we should ask ourselves are:

How do we define truth?

What are the truths about the world?

Figuring out what truth actually is becomes difficult because the Scientific Method takes time, and many variables come into play. The upshot of all of this is twofold:

First: Science must always remain skeptical in order to progress.

Second: The scientific method is superior to religion when it comes to discovering truth and knowledge about the world. It is best that we periodically test our assumptions, not just to believe them because of personal experience.

Because there is a decreasing interest in science by students, the challenge of the 21st century will be encourage our young people to value science and the Scientific Method so we may discover truths about this world which will lead to a better and more rational life.

–Nancy Moore

Evolution and Humanism: A Personal View

Tertullian, a second century Christian, in struggling to defend his view of orthodox Christianity, wrote that the questions that make people heretics are: “Where does humanity come from, and how? Where does evil come from and why?” For me, these are important questions. The search for answers has led me to embrace many heresies, one of which is evolution.

The Theory of Evolution

The word “theory” gives a false view of evolution to many. It suggests that evolution belongs to the realm of the hypothetical and untested. Evolution is often denigrated by the statement: “Evolution is only a theory.” Most scientists would agree that a theory is a more or less verified explanation accounting for a body of known facts or phenomena. Examples of this would be atomic theory (matter is made up of tiny particles), plate tectonic theory (the continents drift slowly across the surface of the earth floating in liquid rock), and Copernican theory (the earth goes around the sun rather than vice-versa). These theories, evolution included, are considered well established by the scientific community. Since science never produces absolute certainty – the door is always left open for new ideas, observations and explanations – we can only appraise its truth in probabilities. From my assessment of the scientific literature, most scientists would place the probability well above 90%.

When I say that evolution is well established, I mean that it has been vigorously tested, and there is a large body of evidence to support it. I challenge any person who has not carefully examined the huge accumulation of evidence to do so.

The idea of evolution is so important that it should be the responsibility of every person who seeks to live an enlightened life to examine the evidence themselves. This is an area where blind faith is particularly dangerous.

The principal critics of evolution are fundamentalist Christians, and their arguments are as much anti-science as they are anti-evolution. The fundamentalists have worked hard through the 20th Century to keep the teaching of evolution out of public schools. In a legal sense they have failed as of 1992. To my knowledge there is no legal or administrative barrier to the teaching of evolution anywhere in the public schools of Utah. Most popular textbooks treat the topic adequately.

Here in Utah evolution is an important segment of the biology curriculum. That doesnt mean evolution is well taught everywhere. Many teachers fudge because of their own inadequate training, personal reservations, or priorities. Encouraging teachers to teach evolution is a worthwhile goal of humanism.

How Evolution Works

DNA is a chemical found in living cells, and has the coded instructions for how to carry on the workings of life, and how to make a new individual in the process of reproduction. DNA is a stable compound, and rarely makes a mistake in copying itself when cells reproduce. Mistakes in copying, and changes in the DNA do occasionally happen. These alterations produce new variations in the organism as the new instructions in the DNA are carried out. These mistakes are called mutations, and most produce debilitating effects. Once in a very great while a new mutation will change the DNA code to make a new trait better than the old one. This prolonged accumulation of beneficial mutations accounts for the ponderous slowness of evolution. Whether a trait is better or not is completely relative to the organism’s environment. Traits that aid the ogranism in the struggle for survival are passed on through DNA to their offspring. New traits that are maladaptive are passed on to new generations less frequently because individuals with these traits are less likely to leave as many offspring and consequently these traits disappear. This process, called natural selection, was the discovery of Charles Darwin in the 19th century. The role of mutations and DNA in evolution are 20th century discoveries. Modern science has extended and verified the work of Darwin.

The History of Life on Earth (a very short version) or From Hydrogen to Hamlet.

In the beginning was the Big Bang. It sent the element hydrogen rushing everywhere in the universe. The hydrogen condensed by mutual gravitational attraction into stars. Some stars were unstable and these supernova blew themselves apart. This vast release of energy caused the transmutation of hydrogen into heavier elements. Our corner of the universe is rich in these heavier elements, and our star, the sun, is a second generation star made partly from the exploded bits of supernova. The earth also condensed out of this primordial star dust which explains the presence of the relatively rare elements of sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Add to these the ever abundant hydrogen, and naming them by their first letters, we have the stuff of life: SPONCH. Scientists have discovered over the last 30 years that SPONCH does interesting things if we put it in the simulated conditions of the primeval earth’s environment (or the present conditions of the planet Jupiter). The SPONCH, using the sun’s abundant radiant energy, assembles itself into the basic molecules of life: amino acids (the components of proteins), hydrocarbons (the components of fats), sugars (the components of carbohydrates and DNA), Purines and Pyrimadines (the components of ATP, DNA and RNA).

How the first reproducing cell came to existence is speculative since the fossil record from over 4 billion years ago is sparse, and the molecular bits and pieces decomposed long ago. The first undisputed artifact of life to appear in the fossil record is a single celled photosynthetic prokaryote dating back 4 billion years. The progress of life from this time on is documented in the fossil record: an unambiguous history of evolution.

In a layered column of sedimentary rocks – such as the one visible from the rim of the Grand Canyon – the oldest rocks lie at the bottom, and the youngest at the top.

The fossils in the rock layers chronicle that which lived on the earth in each successive period of time. No matter what rock column you observe from any part of the earth, a similar pattern is seen. This sequence of appearances is called the law of faunal succession. The greedy exploration for oil and other minerals has given us extensive data on this matter.

In what order did animal life appear? First there were single celled protozoans; then sponges, jellyfish, worms, tunicates, lancets, lampreys, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates, apes; and last of all humans. Each step adds tiny modifications (mutations) slowly moving toward greater complexity. Donald Johanson documents the last step, from primates to humans, in his excellent book, Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind.

What a Journey: We are star-dust that has become aware of itself!

Is Evolution Consistent With Judeo-Christian Theology?

Some of my students attempt a truce between their religion and evolution by saying, “Well, that’s how God created us.” I generally do not pursue that statement in class; it would compromise that important principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that creates a separation of Church and State. As a public school teacher I am on firm ground teaching evolution because it is good science, but I am out of bounds if I attack a students religious faith. The idea that evolution is God’s instrument of creation makes sense if you use Albert Einstein’s definition of God. He said, “God is the sum total of the laws of the universe.” Obviously this is not the personal God most people believe in: one that hears and answers prayers, comforts and supports us in hardship, and consoles us in the death of a loved one.

The personal God of Christianity combines with evolution about as well as oil and water. If God is merciful how can He be the author of evolution with its 4 billion years of suffering and death generated by the struggle for survival? And remember that the adaptable shall inherit the earth, not the meek. If God is omnipotent, why were 99% of His creations doomed to extinction, like the dinosaurs and trilobites? What is the meaning of the dinosaurs? Were they a 175 million year doodle on the drawing board of creation? And why does God like beetles, flies and mosquitoes so much, since He made so many kinds of them?

I also believe it is useless to try to reconcile the book of Genesis with evolution. It says that the Fall of Adam brought death and suffering into an otherwise perfect creation. But evolution shows that death and suffering were here long before Adam. How can we reconcile death and suffering with God’s supposed goodness and omnipotence? And did Adam have parents? If so, it is reasonable to presume that they were as human as Adam? Do they qualify for salvation through the redemption of Christ? What about Lucy, that 4 million year old anthropoid from East Africa? What about house flies, beetles and dinosaurs: do they get resurrected too?

Where do you draw the line? I understand that many main line Christian denominations have tacked evolution on to their theology, but I don’t understand how they make it consistent.

The Meaning of Evolution

Some people look at the sequence of the appearance of life forms on earth, and conclude that nature from the beginning intended to make a human, the end product and pinnacle of evolution, endowed with power to lord it over all the rest. I believe such a view is teleological, self centered nonsense. It ignores the fact that mutations are random accidents. If we trace the line that leads to dinosaurs, tumbleweeds, house flies, dung beetles, and tape worms, also end products of evolution, would we conclude that they are also the pinnacle of evolution? The metaphor for evolution of a ladder climbing rung by rung toward humankind is poor.

A better metaphor is a single massive tree with millions of end branches, each a present day species, of which humankind is only one tiny twig.

Here lies one of the most profound meanings: all life is one. All humans are brothers and sisters, and even the whales and roses are our cousins. Humankind is not separate from nature: we arose from nature, and are a part of nature and are still governed by the laws of nature. All life is worthy of our respect, and other life forms have as much right to live on this planet as we do.

Evolution is purely opportunistic and unplanned: it uses whatever useful changes that come along. The statement “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase coined by the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, is misleading because it suggests evolution always provides the best possible alternative. A better description is survival of the fitter, since evolution will use any change, no matter how imperfect, that fosters survival and will discard all others. Richard Dawkins describes these oblivious wanderings of evolution of in his book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

Some people encountering the idea of human evolution despair that it demans humankind. It does humble us somewhat, just like the Copernican theory kicked humankind off the center of the universal stage. Others belittle evolution by saying: “How could humankind be just an accident, just a chance permutation?” Some will ponder the future of humankind and conclude that if we appeared by chance we could disappear by chance. These thoughts give rise to feelings of uncertainty and existential anxiety, so it is understandable that many people feel a need to deny evolution, or at least dilute it a bit.

The knowledge of evolution does not diminish my esteem for humankind. We are the same astonishing creature that poets and scientists have always marveled and puzzled about. We are still unique among all the species that evolution produced on this planet: we are the ones who can understand and contemplate the process that gave us life. It is reasonable to believe that evolution elsewhere in the universe may also have given rise to sentient beings, but at present there is not a particle of evidence to support that conclusion. What if indeed we are the most organized form of matter in the universe? What a destiny! What a Responsibility! Evolution suggests to me that there is not an ultimate purpose for my existence, but I have discovered within me a marvelous power: I can create my own purpose for existing, and I’m exuberant with the possibilities!

Getting an accurate picture of who we really are is an important task. The work of anthropologists, paleontologists, sociologists, psychologists, biologists, etc. is essential. Evolution cannot provide a model for human ethics since it is amoral. We need the knowledge culled from the study of humankind to help us wisely construct our ethical systems, erect our institutions, shape our attitudes, sort our values and solve our problems. Our best hope for a system of ethics that will work will be rooted in our experience and our knowledge about human nature.

Is evolution still occurring, some wonder? Most likely, but it is so ponderously slow we cannot count on it to get us out of our present difficulties. Unfortunately, evolution has left us far from perfect creatures. Cultural evolution, the kind of changes we make with our hands and our brains through technology is a much faster kind of evolution. Technology is always a mix of good and bad, and it is moving at an exponentially increasing pace. It is exhilarating, but dangerous, like riding a tiger. Lately, humans have learned to tinker with their own DNA. We may be on the verge of directing our own evolution!

The lesson of the dinosaurs suggests that even if we are the top of the heap for 175 million years, our survival is not guaranteed. We have one characteristic that makes us so successful: our brains. It’s a cinch we’re out of here unless we use them.

Most humanists do not need a recounting of the multitude of difficulties we must surmount if we are to survive. One of the ways to create meaning is to take on these problems, and do something about them!

–Richard Teerlink