May 1996

Theodicy? The Idiocy!

An airplane faltered, then fell from the sky;
Eighty-nine died. A collective sigh,
“It’s God’s will.”
A terrible flood, but all were saved
by rescuers strong, fearless and brave.
“It’s God’s will.”
A child was starved, beaten, then died.
They buried her deep, and adults cried,
“It’s God’s will.”
A little one found-he wasn’t quite dead.
The people thanked heaven, and then of course said,
“It’s God’s will.”
Millions can suffer in earth’s darkest holes,
Yet millions keep saying that god’s in control.
The greatest good or the greatest ill,
“Why don’t you know? It’s all god’s will.”
“God’s will” is the phrase they mindlessly use,
So no matter what happens, god can’t lose!
Absurd contradictions their intellects kill.
We humanists work with a human will.
Sifted through reason, the finest of screens,
This is what god-talk really means:
All of us born to a world cold and stark;
Most remain “children crying in the dark.”

–Adrienne Morris

Tess is a Happy Humanist, and an Advanced Placement English teacher with a flair for writing and stimulating her students to THINK.

THEODICY: The defense of god’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.

Bonnie Bullough

In Memoriam

Bonnie Bullough, a native of Delta, Utah, and nationally recognized humanist, died in Los Angeles, April 12, 1996. She was the author, co-author or editor of more than 30 books on nursing, sexuality and feminism. She was a professor of Nursing at USC at the time of her death. She has been active in the CODESH for many years and a Laureate in the International Academy of Humanism. She was a leader in the September 24, 1993, Mormon/Humanist Dialogue in Salt Lake City. Bonnie is survived by her husband Vern L. Bullough, three sons and a daughter. A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles May 21.

Assign School Board a Report

Rational dialog in our community would be greatly improved if decision-making bodies like the Salt Lake City school board would prepare written explanations of controversial decisions, analogous to the written opinions of judges and the written committee reports of legislators.

Among their benefit, written explanations would require the decision-maker to articulate its assumptions, evidence and reasoning, thereby clarifying its own thinking. Written explanations would also better enable the public to understand decisions. In the case of the school board’s recent decision on gay/lesbian clubs, for example, there have been several reported grounds for it, including the desire to send a signal to Washington and concern about teachers’ extracurricular workloads. That the decision was anti-gay, however, which is the most obvious basis for it, has been denied by some board members. Obviously, the board’s decision needs to be clarified.

At least one board member has asked for public understanding. In an effort to be understood, some members met with students from East, West and Highland high schools to explain their decision. But the board could increase everyone’s understanding by preparing a written explanation now, even though it would be after the fact.

–Earl Wunderli
Letter to the Editor
Published in The Salt Lake Tribune
March 12, 1996

Evils of Humanism?

I feel it is important to respond to comments regarding atheists and secular humanists made by Jay Liechty, congressional candidate in the third congressional district of Utah, in the Deseret News April 1, 1996. The story quoted Liechty as blaming all the ills of this nation and the world on atheists and secular humanists.

As president of the Humanists of Utah I would like to point out that it was not the humanist philosophy that imposed the censorship on the public distribution of knowledge resulting in the one-thousand years of intellectual ignorance known as The Dark Ages. It was not humanism that conducted 300 years of crusades resulting in the torture and death of millions of people for their religious beliefs. It was not atheists who imprisoned Galileo and refused to recognize the truth of his theories of the universe for 350 years. It was not secular humanism that ridiculed and condemned the scientific experiments of Isaac Newton. Atheists and humanists did not burn witches at Salem, shoot Joseph Smith at Carthage nor slaughter travelers passing through Mountain Meadows.

The return to “Traditional Family Values” promoted by Mr. Liechty is really a code phrase for a return to Authoritarian Imposed Religious Values. Humanism supports critical thinking about values that will hopefully result in rational values that will help all humans to accept diversity and ethically live in peace and tolerance. Secular Humanism is committed to rational thinking and responsible behavior; it believes humans have the intellectual ability to solve problems without the imposed authority of either secular or religious institutions. Humanism encourages moral excellence, ethical relationships and human dignity; compassion, cooperation and community. Humanism believes in the innate goodness of every human being. Humanism also believes individuals must take responsibility for their actions and will suffer the natural consequences of immoral, unethical and criminal behavior.

–Flo Wineriter
Letter to the Editor
Published in the Deseret News
April 13, 1996

Are We Programmed to be Moral?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Are men and women really built for monogamy? What is the evolutionary logic behind office politics–or for that matter politics in general? Why did natural selection give us the vast guilt repository known as the conscience? Why do we so easily exclude large groups of people from the reach of our sympathy? Considering that we have an unconscious mind, is intellectual honesty possible? Whose interests do parents who inflict psychological damage on their children have at heart?

In recent years new light has been shed on such important questions–and on just about everything that matters–through the work of evolutionary psychologists. A new view has emerged, called “the new Darwinian paradigm,” which has radically deepened the insight of social scientists into the social behavior of animals–including us. The dominant view of psychologists during most of this century has been that environmental factors were the predominant influences on human behavior, but now discoveries relative to the new paradigm show compelling evidence that there is a deeper evolutionary basis for much that has been considered environmentally caused. B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, the sense that a human being can become any sort of animal with proper conditioning, is not faring well.

Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, which was reviewed by our study group this month, says that today’s Darwinian anthropologists “focus less on surface difficulties among cultures than on deep unities. Beneath the global crazy quilt of rituals and customs, they see recurring patterns or themes in culture after culture in the structure of family, friendship, politics, courtships, morality…a thirst for social approval, a capacity for guilt.” Differences between groups of people or among people within groups appear as products of a single human nature responding to widely varying circumstances.

Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life? Can it help them choose their goals? Can it help distinguish between practical and impractical goals–or which goals are worthy? Does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic moral impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate? To all these questions Wright answers, “Yes.”

John Stuart Mill, in his concept of utilitarianism, wanted to maximize overall happiness. This is accomplished by everyone being thoroughly self-sacrificing, that is, to consider the welfare of everyone else exactly as important as one’s own welfare. Darwin embraced Mill’s principle but he encountered an important problem in doing so. He saw how deeply his ethics were at odds with the values that natural selection implies. To ponder it, says Wright, is to realize that the purpose of a single, slight “advance” in organic design, “–longer, sharper teeth in male chimpanzees, say–is often to make the other animals suffer or die more surely. Organic design thrives on pain, and pain thrives on organic design.”

Darwin did not agonize much over this conflict between natural selection’s morality and his own. He rejected nature’s values as a basis for morality. Wright observes, “It is remarkable that a creative process [natural selection] devoted to selfishness could produce organisms [human beings] which, having finally discerned this creator, reflect on this central value and reject it.”

The new Darwinian paradigm, nevertheless, points out what seems to be a genetic propensity for humans to deceive themselves. We like to think of ourselves or of the group we belong to as moral, even when we are not. We are prone to grow indignant about the behavior of distinct groups of people (nations, say) whose interests conflict with a group to which we belong. We tend to be inconsiderate of low-status people and very tolerant of high status people, when there is little evidence that the latter have any particular proclivity towards conscience or sacrifice.

Wright says, we have the technical capacity for leading an examined life, but we are only potentially moral animals, not naturally moral ones. “To be moral animals, we must realize how thoroughly we aren’t.”