The Nazi Virus
Professor Ronald Smelser, speaking to the September 8, 1994 meeting of the Humanists of Utah, noted the appropriateness of his presentation. The United States military had just that day officially ended its occupation duties in Germany. He said the question now concerning many around the world is whether the Nazi philosophy will return as a major force in German politics. Dr. Smelser cited the recent display of anger against foreigners in Germany, the violence of Skinheads, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, as evidence that pockets of fascism remains. He emphasized there is a German law against promoting Nazism, and that law has been respected and enforced and he sees no indications of its being repealed.
One major problem that needs close monitoring is the population of Germany: 239 people per square kilometer! In the United States there are 60 people per square kilometer and in Utah only six. To get an idea of the population density of Germany, imagine nearly 800 million people living in Utah.
Professor Smelser gave a detailed historical overview of events leading to the assumption of power by Hitler and the German acceptance of the Nazi philosophy. He recalled that before and after the First World War several Utopian schemes were gaining popularity in Europe. Nazism combined the theory of racial superiority with political socialism to win public support. Hitler used the Millennial techniques of a “chosen people” establishing the “kingdom of god” to promise a thousand years of peace and prosperity. In reality Hitler, caused a decade of “hell on earth.”
This Nazi technique is like a virus, says Smelser; it lies dormant and could be triggered if the resistance of the host body politick is lowered sufficiently. There is evidence of a Nazi virus stirring in the world today. The challenge is to keep the body politick healthy enough to keep the virus isolated.
Humanist Religion for the Troubled
All of us who are troubled–and who is not?–should try to accept ourselves as part of nature in an indifferent universe from which we should not expect too much. We should try to be our own providence and our neighbors’, helping them to help themselves and others.
So many of us are troubled nowadays! We wonder what religion or philosophy can offer us. I confess that I have been one of these, so this subject has been close to my mind and heart for a long time. I have found answers that help me, and I wish to encourage you through my own experience and knowledge.
I shall not try to analyze why we are troubled. That is a task for psychiatrists and sociologists. May I merely remind you that, in general, we have difficulty adjusting ourselves, first to the new atomic age with danger of destruction of civilization and life itself, and second, to our artificial, industrial, urban society, which still is somewhat strange to us. Third, and more fundamental, we have trouble finding our relationship to the vast, impersonal, and indifferent universe that science reveals to us. We feel lost, and life seems to have no purpose or meaning for many of us. This is our basic trouble. I wish to consider with you what really modern religion can say to us about our relationship to this universe and the meaning of life.
Neither orthodox Christianity nor theism satisfy some of us any longer in the light of modern scientific knowledge. They are out of scale with the world of science. They present only a make-believe, dollhouse world in comparison with the vast world of science. They offer an escapist theology.
Moreover, orthodoxy and theism also present an unreal picture of the world as ruled by a power of righteousness and justice. Science, many great philosophers, and my own experience and observation all agree in finding too little evidence of such power and purpose. We see far too much evil and undeserved suffering in this world, both natural and man-made. I conclude, with science, that this is, at best only a neutral or indifferent universe. So conventional religion’s view of the world seems false.
Righteousness and justice exist to some extent, it is true. But they exist only as we ourselves create and sustain them. They are human, social concepts and qualities. They are the products of civilization. We do not find them in nature or the lower orders of life. So modern religion depends on humankind and our society as the only known creators of purpose and meaning. Thus modern religion must be human-centered, not God-centered. So we call this religion humanism.
We who are humanists do not necessarily deny the possibility of an impersonal, abstract God such as Henri Bergson’s l’elan vital, or life force, innate in nature. We simply say, with many scientists, that this is unknown and perhaps unknowable. We add, to mature people it also is unnecessary for living the good life.
We humanists feel awe at the majesty and the mystery of the universe. But we consider this too amorphous to be called God. We believe that the central mystery of the universe is part of the not yet understood natural, rather than supernatural or divine. We believe that we should spend our time and thought not on mystery but on what we can know something about: humankind in this life and this world, here and now. The late John H. Dietrich, well-known Unitarian minister in Minneapolis, quoted Cardinal Newman’s definition of religion as “a knowledge of God and our own duties towards Him.” Then Dietrich defined humanist religion as “the knowledge of man and our duties towards him.”
Humanism is not new. It has a long and distinguished history. It includes two of the oldest and greatest religions, Buddhism and Confucianism. Both Buddha and Confucius ignored God and immortality. They emphasized ethics, not theology. They stressed this life and this world, not salvation hereafter. But it is ironical that some forms of Buddhism, like Christianity, later developed superstition.
Many of the leading philosophers of the world have been humanists, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among these are philosophers of naturalism from Aristotle to John Dewey; philosophers of materialism from Democratus to Santayana; rationalists from Descartes to Bertrand Russell; positivists like Comte, Mill, Spencer; and recent existentialists such as Sartre and Camus.
Let us confess at once that we who are humanists in religion are at a great disadvantage in comparison with orthodox Christians. Especially is this true when we face trouble. For the orthodox beliefs in divine Providence and future life are perfectly fitted to human needs. They offer us a God-father, or father image, as psychologists term it. We all sometimes yearn for this, particularly when we are troubled. This is why Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”
Indeed, humanists believe, this is what happened. In our immense need for security and meaning in life and death, some great thinkers have rationalized our longing into comforting theistic beliefs. This is why orthodox religion maintains its strength in our scientific era. I cannot help but respect theories that so satisfy the yearnings of the human heart, and sometimes I wish that I could believe them. At such times, I agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote more than two thousand years ago, “in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
But we must, first of all, be honest with ourselves as well as others. Integrity is a basic virtue. If we are educated and modern, we should not stultify ourselves by believing what seem to us rationalizations, however comforting. We humanists consider science, not needs or wishes or divine revelation, the surest means to truth. Science is not infallible, but it is the only self-correcting method of seeking truth.
Our first duty is to be realistic in facing life as our best scientific knowledge reveals it. Science, as well as much philosophy through the ages, reveals a neutral or indifferent universe in which evolution has developed life in a continuing process or complex of processes, subject to natural catastrophes, accidents, luck, and interruptions. We are simply a part of nature. This is a cold prospect. But as I shall point out, we have ways of warming it.
Along with this acceptance of our place as a part of nature, we also should try to develop an attitude of not expecting too much from life. In an indifferent universe, we are lucky if we have more good fortune than bad. Whether we have cancer or a heart attack is usually beyond our control. It is as matter of chance. We can, by intelligence, knowledge, foresight, and effort, do much to achieve success. But other factors beyond our control can nullify the best that we can do. This was beautifully expressed by the ancient existential author of Ecclesiastes: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor net riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill but time and chance happeneth to them all.” So we must not expect automatic success–or even the success we believe that we deserve.
Nor can we expect happiness in this life or any other. The Declaration of Independence asserts our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but not to happiness itself. Thomas Jefferson knew as well as others that happiness can be assured to no one. Henry Thoreau, who lived an idyllic life over a century ago beside Walden Pond, said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Statistics on the increase of mental and emotional illness indicate that this is even truer today. For many of us, life is a struggle, psychologically much more than economically.
On suffering bereavement or misfortune, people sometimes exclaim, “Why does this happen to me?” The answer is, why not? Who am I, who are you, who is anyone, that we should be exempt from the inevitable tragedy of an indifferent universe? Dreadful things happen to some of the finest and dearest people whom we know! Natural catastrophes (which insurance companies term “acts of God”) and sheer accidents kill many thousands of good people every year. We usually consider war the greatest killer and tragedy. But at the end of World War I, an influenza epidemic killed 22,000,000 people–four times as many as died in that war! During the Korean and Vietnam Wars many more Americans were killed at home in automobile accidents than on the battlefield.
Many of us are disturbed, not only by the evil inherent in the nature of things, but also by the evil in human nature. Anyone who lives in a modern city sees juvenile delinquency, violence, and crime increase every year. We sometimes refer to cities, indeed even to schools, as “jungles” because predatory human animals prowl and prey on one another. Even some of our leading citizens are ruthless. Big business men resort to illegal and exploitative practices in order to limit the free competition; to which they give such fervent lip-service. A large American automobile company hired a private detective to dig up some dirt on Ralph Nader, the champion of auto safety, in order to blackmail him into silence or discredit him before the public. They failed, but still with us are illegal and criminal practices known as “white collar crime.”
Christian theologians call this evil in human nature original sin or total depravity. They attribute it to God or Satan. Indeed, we all sometimes refer to the devil in us, and we have reason! But this evil in human nature, according to humanists, is not the devil but the animal in us. Sin or evil is simply part of our animal heritage, through evolution. We have not yet surmounted it in our very incomplete evolution from animal towards angel.
For example, our human qualities of selfishness and greed are simply extensions of the instinct of self-preservation, which appears throughout the animal world. Yet some animals sacrifice their individual lives for the good of their society or species. Our animal heritage is a mixed bag of good and evil that we call human nature.
We are not totally depraved, of course. Nor will we ever become angels. But evolution has brought us a notable distance from the other animals, although we sometimes doubt it. Human improvement is measurable if we compare human society of the Stone Age with our own. This period of 20,000 years is only a day in the sight of God or scientists. So even though evil is inevitable in an indifferent universe, may we not reasonably have faith that good increases with further evolution?
Moreover, only those who believe that divine providence created and controls the universe can logically protest evil. For providence should be able to do anything, including creating a world much better than this. But we who believe that the universe is simply the product of evolution and accident should be astonished that the world is as fine as it is. Should we not accept it with appreciation?
Our basic attitude of accepting an indifferent universe and not expecting too much are only the first essentials for facing trouble realistically. We can be consistent with science and have constructive beliefs. For one thing, if in this indifferent universe we can find no inherent purpose or meaning, then we face the challenge, opportunity, and responsibility to create purpose and meaning for ourselves. Nature has provided us with the raw materials, including intelligence, and we can build. At the Darwin Centennial in 1959 at the University of Chicago, the humanist Sir Julian Huxley declared that we now have reached the point where we can consciously and intelligently direct our evolution–if we will. This is our responsibility, and responsibility is the second of the chief virtues, after integrity. This responsibility for our further evolution should be the meaning and purpose of our life. If we wait for George or God to do it, we shall never find purpose or meaning for ourselves. Charles Francis Potter, founder and leader of the First Humanist Society of New York, wrote that we must “make a religion out of human improvement….The improvement of human personality, individually and socially, is a sufficiently challenging task, a sufficiently worthwhile object to make a religion.”
Further, if in this imperfect world we cannot believe in a divine providence that takes care of us, we at least have one another. If we cannot love or worship God because we do not know what God is, not being able to follow Jesus’ first commandment, we have all the more responsibility to follow Jesus’ second commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves–or at least to help them when they need us. For helpfulness, along with integrity and responsibility, is a third chief virtue. But it behooves us to be helpful even more, for we do not believe that God will do anything for anyone. We who are humanists have a special obligation to be our own providence–and that of our neighbors who need us. This point needs repeated emphasis: we must be rugged individualists and at the same time our brothers’ keepers; better yet, let us be our neighbors’ brothers.
This does not mean that we should do things merely for people. Rather, we should do things with people. We should help people indeed, but help them to help themselves. Charles Francis Potter proposed this as a new Gold Rule. It seems to me better than Jesus’ rule of “doing unto others as if we were the others,” as Elbert Hubbard rephrased it. Potter’s rule is that we should “so help others…that they can help themselves and others.”
Sociology reinforces the Christian insight of St. Paul that “we are members one of another.” Sociology demonstrates that society is essential for culture and humanness: without human relationships, we cannot become human. Psychologists observe that unwanted, isolated infants do not evolve beyond the animal level until after they have been rescued and receive special care and attention. Indeed, whole societies isolated from other societies remain static and primitive. It was no accident that the most primitive society ever found by anthropologists was in Tasmania and they did not know that any other people exist. So while we make society, society also makes us. Not merely all Christians but all humankind are “members one of another.”
Indeed, not only people but all things, situations, and events are inextricably bound together. The eminent philosopher Alfred North Whitehead emphasized that nothing in the universe can be sufficient unto itself. Everything is the product of evolution, of the total past. Everything, in turn, participates in the creation of the future. Whitehead wrote, “The concept of an organism includes, therefore, the concept of the interaction of organism….Actuality is through and through togetherness.” So by the very nature of things we are forced to depend upon one another. And we have one another–if not divine providence.
Further, if science does not support belief in immortality, we have all the greater responsibility to make this life and this world worthwhile, here and now. Theodore Roosevelt was an Episcopalian, but he had the humanist attitude when he said, “We have a responsibility to do what we can with what we have, where we are, now.” In doing this we will find science to be a great help. For it has found ways to prevent or cure disease and suffering, improve sanitation and living conditions, enlarge and disseminate knowledge and culture. The Unitarian Universalist and the Friends Service Committees are among the finest examples of the use of science to minister to people, regardless of creed, color, or condition. These committees operate privately financed programs for technical assistance both at home and abroad. Their purpose is to help people to help themselves by showing them how to do things. They plan and organize pilot projects in education, democratic procedures, interracial living, health and sanitation. Instead of sending missionaries to get people into a heaven of our own devising, Unitarian Universalists and Quakers provide scientific aid to make this life more worthwhile for many who most need help. Humanists should strongly support these enterprises. Everything that makes life better for more people, here and now, should be our first concern. We should indeed “make a religion of human improvement.” This humanist ideal was summed up in the simplest terms a century ago by Robert G. Ingersoll, the great Victorian humanist. He said, “My creed is this: happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”
I have proposed action and commitment to certain values as ways to give purpose and meaning to our lives. For action and commitment lift us out of ourselves or enable us to transcend ourselves, as Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists have emphasized. Action and commitment overcome our feelings of alienation and futility. Sartre well summed up this point in his essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism”: “It is not by turning back into himself, but always by seeking an aim beyond himself,…that man can realize [or fulfill] himself as truly human.”
Finally, besides action there is also what philosophers call being. We should use our inevitable trouble and misfortune to enrich our own experience and being. Emerson wrote in his essay on “Compensation,” “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor. As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” I would add, we similarly gain strength from trouble if we accept it as an inevitable part of life and then transform it into valuable experience that enriches our being.
One fruit of this should be compassion for everything that lives. This is the fourth of the chief virtues. By compassion, I mean understanding and sympathy, not mere pity. We should try to be able to say with Clarence Darrow, the famous Chicago lawyer who was a fine humanist, “I have always felt sympathy for all living things, and have done the best I could to make easier their lot….I believe that I have excused all who are forced to live a while upon the earth. I am satisfied that they have done their best with what they had.”
In summary, I suggest that all of us who are troubled–and who is not?–should try to accept ourselves as part of nature in an indifferent universe from which we should not expect too much. We should try to be our own providence and our neighbors’, helping them to help themselves and others. We can thus transcend ourselves, and make this life as good as possible, here and now. If we do the best we can with what we have, we really live. And we shall be as well prepared as possible for anything–or nothing.
–Wallace P. Rusterholtz
Taken from Religious Humanism, Vol. XXV, No.2 Spring 1991, published by The Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Inc. The author is a retired college professor who has been an active layman in the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He has published several articles in that journal.
Humanists of Utah Statements of Belief and Purpose
At the annual membership meeting in February of this year, President Flo Wineriter appointed a special committee and charged it to “create some public relations materials that will succinctly define humanism.” Former Board member Nancy Moore agreed to chair this ad hoc committee consisting of all present Board members with the exception President Wineriter.
Much information was circulated among committee members. Finally, a meeting was set for Saturday, September 17, 1994, at Nancy’s home in Provo.
In preparation for the meeting, we studied and thought and wrote down our own ideas for everyone to read. During our discussion, we first discarded the word “Mission” and rejected anything negative. Then, we put the phrases and words together that we could all agree on and the result is our new Statements of Belief and Purpose of the Humanists of Utah. At the Board meeting held September 22, 1994 the Statements were approved and adopted as written.
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.
The purpose of Humanists of Utah is to offer an affirmative educational program based on developing one’s natural inner strengths in order to practice the art of living; to promote meaningful activities and compassionate service that champion humanism; 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.
October 12th is an important date in the history of reason challenging myth and magic. On that date in 1692, Governor William Phipps of Massachusetts issued an edict that spectral evidence would no longer be admissible in the courts. The effect of this edict was to require that evidence admitted in court be observable by ordinary senses, measurable, and hence replicable. This date marks the end of the horror of the Salem witch trials and a victory for reason in our courts.