December 1997

The Life and Times of Vardis Fisher

Richard Andrews, founder of the Utah Chapter of American Atheists, addressed the November general meeting of Humanists of Utah. Andrews was a long time personal friend and correspondent of Opal Fisher, the widow of Vardis Fisher.

Vardis Alvero Fisher was born in Annis, Idaho, in 1895. His parents were sent by Brigham Young to settle the Upper Snake River Valley. Since there were no schools nearby, Vardis was taught by his mother in his early years. When he was 12 years old, he and his brother were sent to town attend school. They lived with an aunt for one year and then moved into a house of their own.

It was in Annis that Fisher met his first wife, Leona, whom he married in 1917. After graduating from High School, he attended the University of Utah. He attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. Here he first experienced how the non-Mormon world lived. After several trips back and forth between Salt Lake City and Chicago involving various teaching positions, Fisher received a Ph.D.(magna cum laude) from the University of Chicago.

Fisher wrote numerous books and articles during his lifetime. Among them is a series of 12 books known collectively as the Testament. These volumes chronicle the history of life, beginning with Darkness and the Deep (evolution of the ancestors of humans) through Orphans in Gethsemane (describing the human condition in the 20th century–with our male-dominated, Judeo-Christian Western society, its families, its values, and its wars). The other 10 volumes in the series are: The Golden Rooms (life in caves and use of fire), Intimations of Eve (matriarchy and moon worship), Adam and the Serpent (patriarchy replacing matriarchy), The Divine Passion (worship of the sun and women’s lot in a male-dominated world), Valley of Vision (King Solomon–a “different” view), Island of the Innocent (contrasts Greek culture with Judaism), Jesus Came Again (the most controversial of the series because it treats Jesus as a human), A Goat for Azazel (delineates the pagan origins of Christianity), Peace Like a River (treats female subjugation), and My Holy Satan (describes the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition).

Fisher was a most prolific author. Other titles of interest include: Children of God, which demystifies the Mormon story of Joseph Smith; The Mothers, chronicling the Donner Party; and Tale of Valor, which describes the Lewis and Clark expedition. He also wrote Mountain Man, which was the primary source for the Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson. Besides his novels and historical chronologies, Fisher wrote regular, and sometimes controversial, columns for the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Statewide.

By any standard, Vardis Fisher led an extraordinary and exemplary life.

–Richard Andrews
Founder, Utah Chapter of American Atheists

Accept Gay Teachers

Richard Teerlink, Humanists of Utah member, had the following letter to the editor published in the Salt Lake Tribune on November 19, 1997:

In response to John C. Josephson’s letter (“Homosexuals Should Not Teach,” Forum, November 11, 1997), I would like to say that we gay teachers have always taught and we are not about to go away.

I have taught thousands of students in my career. In my A.P. biology and chemistry classes, I taught some of the very best. Upon my retirement this spring, I was honored to receive the Kearns High School K-crest award for my 30 years of dedicated service at that school. As a college student, I was a camp counselor for two summers for the Boy Scouts of America at Camp Steiner. Did I corrupt the morals of these young people? I think not, but you are encouraged to ask my students and their parents for their opinion.

We gay people make up roughly 2-10 percent of the human population. We are ubiquitous. You will find us in about the same proportions in every culture, race, church, family, nation, political party and, yes, even schools in Utah Valley. I find this to be strong evidence that sexual orientation has biological origins. It is ludicrous to me that someone believes that I have the power to change any person’s sexual orientation.

Chances are some of your best coaches, teachers, principals, and scout leaders were and are gay. It’s a fact. Get used to it.

Thank you for allowing me to tell my students after all those many years who I really am.

–Richard Teerlink
Letter to the Editor
Published in The Salt Lake Tribune
November 19, 1997

Facing Life and Death

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“What place does human life, my life or your life, or that of society, have in the grand scheme of things?” asks Paul Kurtz in his book The Courage to Become. People wonder whether the aspirations and achievements of humans can find safe haven in the universe at large. They yearn for immortality for themselves and their loved ones. “Alas, the testimony from everyday life hardly supports the vain hope that human life has any special ontological anchor in reality, or that humans will exist in some idyllic state of immortality. Life can be wonderful, but the brutal fact is that each individual at some time must die.”

The Copernican and Darwinian revolutions have dethroned us from the conviction that we are the center of a universe that was created for us, and the belief that we are fundamentally different from all other species. Many refuse to accept the full implications of these discoveries.

“If there is no discernible purpose to human existence, and nature is ultimately indifferent to our fondest hopes and deepest aspirations,” queries Kurtz, “what is left for us? If we are all dead in the end, why does anything matter? Experiencing failure, illness, conflict, the death of friends or family, or other tragedies only intensifies a person’s longings for answers to these root questions. Do they have any deeper meaning? Or is it all ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

There are three major responses to the quest for meaning, two of which are anti-humanist.

First is the theistic response, which begins by denying our finitude and defeat by death. It holds forth the prospect that there is a hidden purpose to reality, and an ultimate meaning to human existence. It involves a leap of faith, goaded on by what Kurtz calls the “transcendental temptation:” the human tendency to believe in a world beyond, and to seek a solution to human finitude by postulating a transcendental reality that will save us from the finality of death. Extremely pessimistic about human power, this approach is grounded in denial; it seeks to persuade us that we do not have the power to control our destinies, that we are weak and dependent creatures, and that we can only be rescued in the end by a divine or higher power. It denies that the universe is impersonal and is based on a belief that there is a spiritual key to our destiny. Theists invent tales and parables that promise eternal life. They yearn to be released from the trials, tribulations and tragedies of life by convincing themselves that God has created the universe and will save us from oblivion.

The second response to the question of the meaning of life is skeptical nihilism. Nihilists agree with humanists that there is no evidence that God exists, no separable immortal soul, and no divine scheme of salvation; but they infer that there is no humanist foundation for human ethics or social justice either. All values ultimately are subjective, a question of caprice and taste. Nihilists are often depressed by what they meet with in life. All of our projects will fail inevitably, they say, for in the end we all must die. There is no real hope for humankind. The reality principle can inhibit motivation and undermines the enthusiasm for living and the gusto for achievement. All knowledge is subjective and all values are relative. Because there are no truths, passion and the will-to- power eventually prevail in the human domain. Nihilists have little or no faith in the abilities of us humans to solve our problems or the possibility for human progress. They lack confidence in the worth and significance of the human prospect and become irremediable pessimists.

The third response is Humanism. That is “What it means to be human: pluck and audacity, the will to survive and thrive.” It focuses on the need for self-reliant striving. “Humanism seeks to portray the human condition in realistic terms, though very few individuals are able to face the brute character of existence: the fact that the universe at large is blind to our deepest expectations and darkest fears, that there is no teleological purpose discoverable in the nature of things, and that there is no conscious exaltation or grieving by nature, per se, if any particular organism or species fails, or succeeds, in its ventures, survives or dies.

The ‘patron saint’ of Humanism is the ancient mythological character Prometheus, who challenged the gods on high, stole fire, and bequeathed to humankind the arts of civilization so that we might take destiny into our own hands and overcome the limits of our animal natures.” This exultant humanism is an expression of optimism. Humanists advise to be courageous, to use our best talents, especially our rational power, to understand the natural causes of things, and to focus on ways of resolving problems. They are determined to persevere and overcome adversities. They exude a positive outlook and may even at times be exuberant. They affirm the possibility of the good life here and now; they believe that human suffering can be ameliorated and that the problems of life can be overcome by human efforts. They advise both individual enterprise and cooperative action to mitigate evils and attain social justice. They feel we are part of a community of persons; our highest ideals are realized within the parameters of society and culture. The goal of human life is not only to survive, but to flourish, to fulfill our dreams and aspirations. We are free to create our futures, and to leave our mark upon the world.

Our vistas require a quality of character that is pivotal to all human enterprises: the quality of courage. It is the courageous person who can best bear adversity in spite of it all. Bacon observes, “It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire and many things to fear.” Shakespeare said, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Emily Bronte expresses, “No coward soul is mine, no trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere.” Our prospect depends on what we will or will not dare to do, how we will respond to challenges that we meet with, and how we will face death. Dylan Thomas sums up the humanistic attitude towards death: “Do not go gentle into that good night . . . Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”