January 1997

Social Justice

Ross “Rocky” Anderson, who came in second during the recent election to congress, spoke to Humanists of Utah monthly meeting in December. Here is a summary of his remarks:

Our community, like most throughout this country, has several easily identifiable social problems:

  • We have far too many homeless, with politicians who engage in demagoguery about “family values” letting the poor die on our streets from exposure to the cold. Many of the homeless are mentally ill and are provided no treatment whatsoever. And all the while, the wealthiest in this country receive housing subsidies in the form of mortgage interest deductions, even for their vacation homes!
  • We have an increase in violent crime, with little being done to stop gang violence or the ready access to handguns and assault weapons. Between 1980 and 1990, there was a 79% increase in the number of 10 to 17-year-olds who used firearms to commit murder.
  • There are too many who have no access to preventive health care, and who end up in expensive emergency care with acute medical problems. We remain the only major Western nation without a national health insurance program or a system of family health care allowance.
  • Although we have the most expensive health care system in the world, we rank 17th among Western nations in infant mortality. The rate of infant mortality for African-Americans is more than twice the rate for whites and is similar to that of the Third World.
  • Our air is polluted, leading to increased incidence of respiratory illnesses on the Wasatch Front. Yet politicians like Jim Hansen plead the case of the polluters, arguing that, because of our unique geography, EPA requirements should be relaxed.
  • We have an increasing incarceration rate, with politicians clamoring for millions more to be spent on jail and prison facilities. Nationally, we have more than 1 million people behind bars, with the world’s highest incarceration rate, at a cost of $30,000-$45,000 per inmate each year.
  • Young people in our community are abusing drugs at an alarming rate, many of them turning to heroin or crack cocaine as their drugs of choice.
  • We have very few low income housing units available, with the U.S. Congress apparently oblivious to the problem because it has repealed the low income housing tax credit program, a very successful public-private program resulting in over 800,000 units of low-cost housing being built in the past 10 years.
  • The rich are getting richer and the poor are indeed getting much poorer. The gap between the rich and everyone else has never been greater. While the richest 20% have improved their economic lot dramatically during the past 20 years, the other 80% have fallen behind, even while our economy has improved.

There are other social problems that we don’t talk about much. Problems like apathy, incivility, greed and an absence of empathy for others. In my view, these are social problems in and of themselves, as well as causes of other social problems.

So, what suggestions do I have for solving these social problems? Several years ago, I drove past a Baptist Church in South Carolina and saw posted in front of the church, “He didn’t call them the Ten Suggestions.” Since this is a meeting of humanists, let me offer my “Ten Suggestions” for solving some of our social problems (although, of course there are countless other things that we must attend to!)

  1. Face the fact that we are in the midst of global environmental crises, particularly global warming and ozone destruction from the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of our forests. We must educate ourselves and others about these problems and take decisive steps to reverse the damage we have done-and continue to do-to our Earth.
  2. Balance the budget by (1) cutting out $150 billion in corporate welfare; (2) reducing waste in defense spending; and (3) fixing Medicare and Social Security. We now spend over 15% of our federal budget on interest on the debt-more than we spend on education, housing assistance, veterans’ benefits, law enforcement, transportation, national parks, space and science and health research combined.
  3. Shift resources from our failed war-on-drugs interdiction efforts to education and treatment programs.
  4. Provide equal educational opportunities-in terms of quality. We know that the cognitive development during the first 4 years of life is determinative of what can be accomplished thereafter. Its high time we act on that knowledge by providing good preschool programs so children are truly capable of obtaining an excellent education.
  5. Stop building prisons. Implement restorative justice programs, which are aimed at restoring the community, victims and offenders. Place nonviolent offenders in community programs, with requirements that they work, support their families, pay restitution and contribute to their own room and board.
  6. Provide affordable, effective family planning services to everyone. Our goal should be no unwanted children. And remember, high school dropouts are 6 times as likely to be unwed parents as graduates.
  7. Make joint custody after divorce the rule rather than the exception. Far too many children are adversely impacted their entire lives because of the essential loss of their father after divorce.
  8. Face up to the waste in our medical insurance system and save the billions of health care dollars siphoned off by insurance companies. Essential medical services should be a right of all Americans.
  9. Remove the corrupting influence of money from our political system. We should set campaign spending limits, eliminate PAC contributions, eliminate “soft” money corporate contributions to political parties, and require access to free and equal time on television and radio for candidates.
  10. Finally, we must teach our children well. We must give more than lip service to the notion that integrity, service to our community, and empathy for others are the true measures of success in life.

Humanists of Utah was proud to host Mr. Anderson’s first public address since the election.

–Wayne Wilson

Teaching About Religion

I’m pleased to announce that as president of Humanists of Utah I have been asked to serve On the Advisory Board of Utah’s “Three R’s “Project,” a new initiative designed to increase public understanding of religious diversity. Our nation is founded on the principal that we must understand and respect our deepest difference if we are to have meaningful civil discourse and effective problem solving.

The Three R’s Project will be funded by a $250,000 grant to the Utah State Office of Education from the George S, and Dolores Dorè Eccles Foundation. That grant will be used to teach teachers and schools how to teach about religion so that Utah students can build a sense of respect for peoples of all beliefs and non-beliefs. The Three R’s (Rights, responsibility and Respect) Project, based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, will put together policies and practices that protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths and no faith. The project will work with teachers to help them learn how to teach about religions and cultures without proselytizing. The goal is education without indoctrination.

This is a major educational challenge and I appreciate being asked to represent the humanist philosophy in this project.

–Flo Wineriter

About Religion

I’m fully supportive of teaching about religion in public schools because I believe it will eventually result in a higher level of tolerance for all religious expressions including the right to reject religious beliefs, The humanist goal of respect for human dignity requires more than tolerance, it requires understanding diversity and acceptance of the right to be different, even the right to be wrong. Teaching about religion will, hopefully, increase public recognition of the values of diversity.

Full disclosure of the history of the world’s religions will encourage critical thinking about individual liberty compared to blind obedience to authoritarianism. Keeping citizens ignorant of the role of religion in the history of the human race has perpetuated the power of religion to indoctrinate. The more any idea is subject to public discourse, the sooner that idea must stand on its merits rather that its superstitions, By discouraging public discussion, religions have helped to develop a public attitude that to question the validity of gods is not only sinful but unpatriotic. I think this is one of the major reasons talk-radio has not promoted spirited debates about religion. It’s still taboo. Talk radio hosts and their listener participants carry on endless heated discussions about politics, economics, welfare, liberal versus conservative, etc., but debate about religion is neither encouraged nor permitted. Religion and death remain outside acceptable areas of discussion. Perhaps including teaching about religion in public education will break this barrier of silence.

–Flo Wineriter

Evolution and the Creative Web of Life

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“It may be argued that…[Charles Darwin’s] theory of evolution is the most important contribution to biology in the history of science.” It is “supported by overwhelming empirical evidence and convincing logical argumentation,” observes James Birx in his useful article, “Evolution, God and Humanism,” in Religious Humanism, XXX, No. 1 and 2.

In Western intellectual thought, the idea of evolution first appeared during the Presocratic age (600-400 BCE). The earliest philosophers as naturalistic cosmologists rejected traditional legends and myths as well as personal opinions and religious beliefs. Several of them even anticipated to a certain degree the evolutionary framework.

Thales claimed that life forms first appeared in water, changed through time, and later were able to adapt to and survive on dry land. By maintaining water to be the cosmic substance, he intuited the essential unity of all reality, a great insight! Anaximander, the father of comparative morphology, critically compared and contrasted our species with fishes. He maintained that the line leading to our own species had once passed through a fish-like stage of development. Heraclitus held that the essential characteristic of all reality is change itself. Being or reality is actually cosmic becoming manifested as the cyclical recurrence of all things. Rejecting all human-centered views of the universe, Xenophanes recognized both the biological and historical significance of fossils as the remains of once-living but different species. Today it may be argued that the fossil record is the single most important body of empirical evidence to support the fact of organic evolution.

Perhaps the most relevant of all the Presocratic thinkers, Empedocles claimed that, at the beginning of life, the surface of this planet was covered with free-floating organs of different sizes and shapes: all kinds of heads, arms, legs, and trunks were moving about. These organs haphazardly came together, farming organisms (collections of organs), which were usually monstrosities with multiple heads and strange combinations of arms and legs. Such monstrosities died off, but occasionally an organism formed that could adapt to its environment and survive long enough to reproduce. This bizarre explanation does contain some of the essential principles of the Darwinian theory: multiplicity, variation, adaptation, survival, and reproduction.

Since these ideas anticipated evolution, why did science have to wait 2000 years for Darwin to present his theory? The reason is Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of creek antiquity. Although the father of biology, he was an essentialist and a teleologist, not an evolutionist. He held that every plant and animal has its own unique essence that is eternally fixed in nature.

Later on and before Darwin’s time, other thinkers in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times who anticipated the evolutionary framework were Lucretius, Giordano Bruno, Avicenna, and Leonardo da Vinci,

Bruno claimed that the universe is eternal, infinite, and endlessly changing. He even speculated that life forms, even intelligent ones, exist among the stars and planets. His cosmology went far beyond the conceptual views of Nicolas Cusa, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. It may be argued that his ideas ushered in the modern worldview free from a closed, finite, earth-bound and human-centered interpretation of nature. For overcoming dogma and superstition, he was burned at the stake.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century evolutionists preceding Darwin were Carolus Linnaeus, who placed the human animal in the same primate order with the apes, monkeys, and lemurs; Georges Buffon; LaMettrie; Diderot; Helvetius; d’Holbach; Condorcet; Lamarck, Robert Chambers, and Phillip Gosse.

Organic evolution is now documented by empirical evidence from geology, paleontology, biogeography, anthropology, and genetics as well as comparative studies in taxonomy, biochemistry, immunology, embryology, anatomy, and physiology. Grounded in science and reason evolution has descriptive, explanatory, and predictive powers free from supernatural claims and dogmatic religious beliefs. It is always subject to modification and expansion in light of new discoveries in science and widening perspectives in philosophy. “For humanists,” says Birx, “the challenge of evolution is to save and enrich and fulfill human life, despite pervasive problems and the inevitability of death. It is science and reason, not theology and mysticism, that offer human beings a long and fulfilling and joyful life within a cold and violent universe uninterested in our emerging species with its personal goals and entrenched illusions. Despite ultimate abstract speculation on God, Charles Darwin’s lasting legacy is the power of science and reason. Invoking Nietzsche’s affirmation of life, both secular and religious humanists should celebrate that creative web of life which Darwin has helped us to understand and appreciate in terms of organic evolution.”