Chapter of the Year!
The Humanists of Utah received this award at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association held in Portland, OR, May 1-3, 1992. This new award was based on membership growth, local activities and public recognition. Our chapter’s name will be the first to be inscribed on a large plaque hung in a place of honor at the AHA headquarters in Amherst, New York. The chapter also received a check for $250.
The chapter president, Flo Wineriter, accepted the award and challenged the other chapters to double their membership in one year, rather than the AHA goal of two years, because the Utah chapter would! Bob Green, the chapter Vice-President also spoke, briefly recounting his short journey from an “uncertain Mormon” to a “certain humanist.”
For a chapter only chartered in 1991, this was a significant honor. A number of older chapters were also under serious consideration for this first of its kind award.
AHA Conference Report
The 51st Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in Portland, Oregon, May 1-3, gave two chapter officers an opportunity to participate in several stimulating Humanist workshops and to hear some interesting presentations of Humanist subjects.
One of the conference highlights was the 1992 Humanist of the Year banquet when author Kurt Vonnegut was named the recipient of the annual award. Vonnegut is a former president of Poets, Editors, and Novelists (PEN) and is well known for his activism on behalf of progressive social and political causes. His response when receiving the AHA award was bitingly critical of the government bureaucracy’s slowness in responding to the nation’s critical social problems.
The Distinguished Service Award for the year was given to Ed Doerr, a member of the AHA board of directors, former chairperson of the AHA board and currently the executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty. Doerr was recognized for his energetic and continuous work on behalf of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He writes, talks, and travels continuously to awaken U.S. citizens to the never ending effort of many religious and political leaders to break down the wall that prevents government and religion from developing a cozy relationship.
The most exciting event for President Wineriter and Vice-President Bob Green, was the chapter award ceremony when they were called to the speaker’s platform and presented the 1992 Chapter Award.
The executive director of AHA, Fred Edwords, led an inspiring discussion on the goals of humanism and ways to stimulate public awareness of the humanist agenda and increased membership in AHA and local chapters. He emphasized the reality that there are many atheists and agnostics who are not intellectuals and urged us to broaden our image to speak to their interests.
Attending the conference renewed our enthusiasm to expand local interest in humanism and work towards doubling our Humanists of Utah membership in the next year.
Isn’t it a bit arrogant of our legislators to enter into the sacred realm of religion by deciding they will have prayer in public meetings? This means the government is in supreme control of a religious ritual.
It is not the duty of our civil government to impose a religious act of worship on the public at large. Prayers are the private sentiments each American should decide for himself or herself.
I believe as Roger Williams did: Forced religion stinks in Gods nostrils.
Freedom of religion can never service if the majority can use the machinery of the state to spread its beliefs. The majority simply doesn’t rule in matters of faith.
Let us all settle for a “moment of reflection” before our public meetings. That way we will prevent both faith and government from constantly antagonizing each other and get on with the business at hand.
Published in the Salt Lake Tribune Public Forum
May 25, 1992
Morality, Religion, and Humanism
The following is a summary of a presentation given by University of Utah Professor, William N. Whistler, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy at the May meeting of the Humanists of Utah.
I would like to suggest some philosophical ideas that are compatible with humanism. You are a group with whom I have a great deal of sympathy, so I am arguing for your position.
Modes of Inquiry
There appears to be a resurgence of American Pragmatism during the last few years. Charles Pierce was the first to expound on it. In an essay entitled “Fixation of Belief” he examined various modes of inquiry people use to substantiate their belief system. He argued for the view that there is one reliable method wherein we can justify our basic beliefs. Pierce identified three methods, the first which he felt was the best. First, there is the tenacity mode. This is the “head in the sand” thinking. People tenaciously hold onto their belief system even in the light of other evidence presented to them. They have already made up their mind, so there is no need to question any further. Then there is the authority mode. These type of thinkers believe in God, or do not believe in God, because some authority says so. It is an uncritical type of approach to belief. The third and best mode according to Pierce is the empirical mode. This approach is open-minded and gives us the most reliable evidence. It is scientific in nature, because people can change their mind in light of new evidence discovered. This mode is open-ended, self-correcting, and independent of any institutional authority.
The empirical mode of thinking has a tradition which goes back to Plato and his independent way of pursuing truth. Plato taught that moral rightness should not be determined just because the gods command, nor because they love piety. Instead, our standards for truth should be chosen independent of religion or of the gods. It is a personal quest.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Kant, a German philosopher, believed in God and at the same time was a pure rationalist. He felt that religion could be justified by reason alone because mankind has a moral nature. And because of this innate quality, man could arrive at some Universal Moral Laws. Kant also believed humans to have an innate dignity and worth, and all we need to do in order to reach a moral belief system is to use our powers of reason.
During the 20th century there have been different movements which prove compatible with Humanism. In the Existential Movement, there emerged an idea which espoused the notion that human beings are a source of value in and of themselves. This concept elevated mankind to a higher status than before.
John Dewey believed there was reflective morality and an unreflective morality. Reflective morality happens when people get to the point where they not only have a belief system, but they begin to think critically about those beliefs; they get to wondering if their beliefs have any grounding. Reflective morality moves beyond authority, because one personally examines life critically. We create our own personal values through critical reflection.
Dewey also believed in sincerity, in that, if we believe we are a source of value, then we will avoid self-deception. Self deception is either totally blaming our present condition on our environmental conditions, which is not taking responsibility; or it is believing we are the absolute masters of our fate, because we always have choices. Dewey felt we are in the process of becoming, and as a result, we can’t say exactly what we are essentially. So it is bad faith to say “I am an honest person,” because honesty is not a permanent characteristic. We are always in a condition of what we can become. The struggle to be a good person is a never-ending process, for there will always be more choices to make tomorrow.
Dewey also believed people need to have a cooperative quest for truth which should be based on diversity of opinion and mutual trust. There needs to be an open marketplace for ideas where the approach is both open-minded and broad-minded; with a breadth of outlook and wide sympathy. (I must interject here that there is room for Religious Humanism, and it can be compatible with science. However, we cannot make gains with any type of dogmatic tenacity.)
A Set of Virtues
The exercise of good judgment is critical to thinking properly. Good judgment is when we apply a set of virtues in pursuing a problem. We need virtues such as open-mindedness, sincerity, and fairness. We should also weigh conflicting information in order to gain insight so we can make wise decisions. We need to be flexible in our depositions when we think of how we confront moral issues. Moral courage is crucial in developing a moral philosophy because the minority, who are usually on the cutting edge of change, will always be bucking the majority, who usually maintain the status quo.
It is important that a particular end, like happiness, also be considered in developing a belief system; and that both ends and means are seen as being vitally important.
Critical Thinking Brings Doubt and Fear
When we use the process of critical reflection, then it opens the door to doubting, and once that door is opened, it comes into play, because we see our accepted beliefs begin to crumble; and we dread the consequences. In some cases, critical thinking itself might be sinful, because our accepted belief considers it immoral to question. This is tenacious type of thinking.
We need to discover what kind of casual factors create and encourage people not to think critically. We should ask ourselves “Why is there a resistance to critical thinking?” Education is the answer to help others learn the value of critical thinking.
I would like to leave you with the idea that it is a fallacy to believe that the subject of philosophy is the private domain of professional philosophers. It is not. Philosophy is within the reach of everyone.
What is Rational Recovery?
Rational Recovery (RR) is a non-profit organization of self-help groups that use the principles of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) as developed by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. RR is a national organization and an outgrowth of the Humanist movement. The basic philosophy of RR is based on the self-reliance of the individual and his or her ability to use rational thinking as the mainstay in a program of sustained abstinance from alcohol and chemical addiction.
RR was founded by Jack Trimpey, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and recovered alcoholic. Mr. Trimpey noticed in his clinical practice that not all clients respond well to the traditional Alcoholic Anonymous 12-step program, as practiced by almost all treatment programs in the substance-abuse field. Furthermore, some clients even seemed to resent having treatment based on reliance upon a higher power (supernatural force), and the powerlessness of the individual. RR now has over 300 chapters around the U.S. and is growing at a rapid rate.
Freedom of Religion
Today in America, freedom of religion is slipping away from us. We are losing it because we have not taken care to preserve it. We are losing it because too many Americans do not understand what freedom itself means and how it works. Freedom is a loaded word, a symbol like the American flag. We know it is good and that we should defend it, but how can we be sure we are really defending it if we don’t know what it is where it comes from?
Democracy and Freedom
Is it democracy that makes us free? Democracy is an essential feature of the American form of government. Instead of a king making law by edict, we vote on how we are governed, and the will of the majority prevails. It is called majority rule, and is widely felt to be the strength of democracy as a form of government. It was the main idea presented in the American Declaration of Independence. “We, the people…” forms the government, and its ultimate authority is derived “…from the consent of the governed.”
Today democracy and majority rule are commonly invoked to justify the mingling of religion with government. The assertion is that if the majority want to mix state and church then that is how it should be. That is “the American way.” If the majority of Americans want prayer in the public schools then we should have it. That is majority rule. It does follow from the simple definition of democracy, but American democracy is not that simple.
Democracy alone is not enough. It lacks an essential element, an element that makes this country a free country, an element that is lacking in other democracies of the world. There is a difference, but what is it?
The answer again is the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” it states, that all Americans must have “inalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” History shows that Americans refused to adopt the Constitution of United States until it contained a “Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments.
The Bill of Rights defines the official civil rights of every individual American. This is where the U.S. Constitution provides us with the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. But just what does “inalienable” mean here?
For the answer to that question, we refer to the U.S. Supreme Court whose function is to interpret the Constitution. In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education versus Barnette (319 U.S. 624) the Supreme Court ruling contained the following explanation: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”
There you have it. Civil rights take precedence over majority rule. That is what an inalienable right means and it is a fundamental principle of American government. In the American brand of democracy the American government guarantees and protects the civil rights of the minorities as defined by the Bill of Rights, even if a majority are not willing to do so. That is what makes America a free country, and distinguishes it from other simple democracies. This is what we must understand about freedom in order to preserve it. A lynch mob is majority rule. Majority rule is not “the American way” when civil rights are at stake.
Freedom of Religion
Our first right guaranteed in the first line of the first article of the Bill of Rights, is the right to freedom of religion. Again, if we as a people do not understand what freedom of religion means, and where it comes from, it can be taken away from us by our own government, and we won’t even know it. There are crucial principles to be understood:
- Freedom of Conscience
- Governmental Neutrality
- Separation of State and Church
- Freedom From Religion
The basic idea of freedom of religion is that no one, especially the government, is allowed to force religion on anyone else or prohibit anyone from practicing a religion. To force others to support a church or profess belief in a church’s tenets is as much a violation of their civil rights as is preventing them from practicing their religion.
One component of freedom of religion is freedom of conscience. This is the freedom to hold and express our ideas sincerely. It s our civil right to accept or reject any religion or religious idea, and to do so openly and honestly without fear or coercion.
Americans used to be proud of that. The unity we felt as a nation, in spite of our plurality of religious ideas, found expression in our original national motto. E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “One Out of Many”. We called it Pluralism and valued it as a strength derived out of our freedom; from the historic divisiveness of religion. Pluralism is the willingness to put aside religious differences and work together for mutual prosperity. It is what the words “one nation, indivisible” in the original version of our Pledge of Allegiance referred to, before the divisive words “under God” were inserted.
Pluralism depends on social tolerance of a variety of opinions about religion. The pre-Revolutionary American colonies had been intolerant. Each colony had its own official church supported by tax money. Failure to attend was against the law and other churches were outlawed. Tolerance is the elimination of all such discrimination by government.
To guarantee freedom of religion, the First Amendment specifies two restrictions on government must not promote the establishment of religion or prohibit its free exercise. These two restrictions often tend to oppose each other, so the key to freedom of religion is striking a neutral to religious ideas and institutions, granting them no special privileges or exemptions. This is what is meant by separation of state and church.
In the majority opinion of Wallace versus Jaffree (83-812, 1985), Supreme Court Justice John P. Stevens wrote, “The individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.” Freedom of conscience thus guarantees that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to freedom from religion.
A civil right to freedom from religion is also supported by the establishment clause. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” If the purpose was simply to proscribe favoring one religion over another, as some religionists maintain, it should read “..respecting the establishment of a religion.” If it said “a,” the assertion would be that government is forbidden from favoring Islam, say, over Pentecostalism. The lack of the indefinite article “a,” however, makes it clear that it is religion in general, as opposed to non-religion which may not be established.
Ironically, it is the very religious that are leading the campaign to deprive us of freedom of religion. Every time they get the government to support and promote their churches and doctrines our freedom of religion is reduced. With tax-exempt funding they lobby the government, claiming the right to do so under the Free-speech and Free-exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. Powerful and ambitious, they have been increasingly successful at persuading government to impose religion and religious ideas on us.
To accomplish this they have to twist the meaning of freedom of religion in the minds of the public officials and the public at large. Government cannot promote the tenets of specific religions such as prayer and “God”, without violating the American values of freedom of conscience and pluralism. On the other hand, the ultra-religious cannot overtly challenge these values without drawing attention to their subversion of civil rights.
Instead they pay lip service to the words “freedom of conscience” and “pluralism” and then ignore their meanings and applications. The faithful in and out of the government are easily deceived by this. They readily accept this approach at face value and fail to notice the inherent contradiction.
Another tactic is distortion. They have perverted the meaning of tolerance to their advantage. They have managed to convince most of the American public that criticism of churches and religious ideas is persecution.
As a result, anyone who publicly criticizes a church or a religious idea is characterized as intolerant, discriminatory, rude, and therefore a bigot. The nation’s media cater to this distortion and are quick to sensor statements directly critical of church leaders or the ideas they promote. It is as if churches have a First Amendment right to freedom from criticism.
This is turning the First Amendment on its head. Tolerance is the elimination of real acts of persecution by government. In every other area of endeavor, criticism is properly considered a valuable tool for filtering the nonsense out of flawed ideas. The editorial pages of our newspapers are filled with criticism and even ridicule. Both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience protect the right of individuals to criticize religious ideas. Criticism is not persecution.
Another distortion, one that has recently appeared in Utah newspapers, is that tolerance means that people should tolerate the use of religion by government. This is also backwards. It is the government that is constrained to be tolerant of the people’s freedom of religion. That means neutrality. That means staying out of religion altogether.
Religious extremists have also been successful in distorting what separation of state and church means. They do it by undermining the idea of neutrality, injecting a bias in favor of religion.
They tip the balance in favor of the Free-exercise and Free-speech Clauses at the expense of the Establishment Clause. This movement of distortion has come to be known as government accommodation of religion.
Accommodationists attach a qualifier to the word “neutral.” They refer to a “benevolent neutrality” or a “respectful neutrality” of government towards religion, and claim that to be the true meaning of separation of state and church.
Of course, if government is any more respectful or benevolent towards religion than non-religion, it is not being neutral. Any special privileges or exemptions for churches or religious ideas are incompatible with the requirement for neutrality. The terms “benevolent neutrality” and “respectful neutrality” are simply oxymorons.
The Supreme Court ruled on this issue on June 5, 1985, when it rejected Alabama’s moment of silence for voluntary prayer in the public schools (Wallace versus Jaffree, 83-812, 1985). The court concluded that Alabama’s purpose was to “convey a message” that the state was endorsing prayer as a “favored practice.” “Such an endorsement is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” The word neutrality is clear enough, but in view of the trend toward distortion of the word, Justice Stevens found it necessary to add the word “complete.”
Theism vs. Freedom
The most sinister distortions originated in the early 1950’s as a part of the McCarthy Era paranoia. In that climate of fear, religionists seized the opportunity to subvert the position of freedom as the central, essential value of American government, and to substitute theism in its place. Belief in “God” was advanced as the litmus test to distinguish true Americans from “godless communists.” Red baiters across the nation associated patriotism more with theism than with freedom.
The claim itself is entirely specious. Socialists and communists distrusted both religion and government. They rejected religion because they did not want it to be used as a tool of government. The United States instituted separation of state and church for the same reason.
Separation of state and church and the secularization of government are characteristics that the United States and Soviet Union have in common. Both nations were established in rebellion against theocratic states. Other countries, like England, Ireland, and Iran, have officially established state religions. In those countries, churches control the enactment of laws, and the governments officially claim to derive authority from the gods of their established churches.
The authority of the U.S. government is derived from “We the people…” The U.S. Constitution is completely secular and devoid of any reference to a god. Given that the Greek roots of the word atheist mean “without” (a) “god” (theos), the U.S. Constitution is literally an atheistic document.
While religion is indeed an effective tool for controlling people it ought to be apparent by now that its use by government presents a real threat to individual freedom. The threat presented by the Moslem fanatics in Iran is readily apparent, but Americans conveniently forget that we fought two World Wars against Christian troops from Germany. The words Gott mit uns (God [is] with us) adorned the belt buckles of both the Kaiser’s troops and Hitler’s storm troopers.
Nonetheless the campaign to establish “God” belief as the paramount American value and to associate patriotism with theism was largely successful. The subversion of freedom to a secondary position has been accomplished in many people’s minds.
Distorting the meaning of freedom of religion was the first tactic, ignoring its supporting principles was the second, and usurping the place of freedom with theism was the third. The fourth tactic was to get laws enacted based on those distorted precepts. By serving as legal precedents those laws effectively legitimized the distortions.
A series of such laws were passed in the early 1950’s (the McCarthy Era). For example, on June 14, 1954, the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance to make it read “one nation under God.” America is supposed to be one nation under a constitution, but this law now instructs everyone that our Constitution is officially secondary to the word of “God.”
Public Law 140, signed by President Eisenhower on July 11, 1955, was another one (31 U.S.C. 324a). It required that all coins and currency bear the motto “In God We Trust.” Originally, all American money was secular. It wasn’t until 1864 that “In God We Trust” first appeared on an American coin at the instigation of a Baptist minister. Theodore Roosevelt discontinued the practice, but it was subsequently reestablished for certain coins. American paper money had remained completely secular up to 1955.
This was followed by Public Law 851 signed by President Eisenhower on July 30, 1956, which replaced our traditional national motto E Pluribus Unum with “In God We Trust” (36 U.S.C. 186). In making belief in a generic god a precondition for patriotism, the American tradition of pluralism was effectively declared null and void. The First Amendment has not been repealed, but this new legal precedent had the same effect as far as freedom of religion was concerned.
Mr. Allen then talked about the history of the prayer cases in Utah, much of which has been in the news, and space doesn’t permit printing that part of his presentation. He did state that it is very possible that the forces for the amendment permitting public prayer are strong enough to change the law. He stressed that it is very important for everyone to do everything possible, to oppose this by writing to legislators, newspapers, and circulating petitions to send to your legislator. To help this, petitions have been sent to Chapter members.