Humanism and the Political Process
Our October general meeting featured a panel discussion among chapter members Joyce Barnes, Andrew Schoenberg, and Earl Wunderli. The meeting was organized and moderated by chapter Vice President Hugh Gillilan. Each of the panel members made a short formal presentation and then a discussion with everyone present followed
Earl spoke first and presented his political philosophy. He began by noting that an individual’s personal philosophy in a large way determines that person’s political ideas. We should not be surprised that those in power in the LDS church oppose abortion for example.
Earl then elucidated a baker’s dozen positions that he, as a humanist, holds:
- We must be educated.
- I love what our founding fathers did. I love the checks and balances of our three branches of government.
- I don’t like referenda. Even though we the people govern ourselves, I prefer that representative government, through legislatures, hammer out our laws.
- I also oppose term limits
- I support campaign finance reform.
- I embrace the free enterprise system. I believe the free enterprise system works in maximizing wealth and individual freedom and opportunity.
- I would like to see our emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
- We must get our population under control, not just worldwide but in this very valley.
- As a humanist, I look at everyone as a fellow human being and decry the prejudices, too often derived from dogmatic religion, against Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, and others, including humanists.
- On abortion, I favor the woman’s decision over the government’s, but I would also hope that improved education, including sex education, would reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.
- On the right to die and assisted suicide, I want the option for myself and therefore believe that everyone should have it.
- On biotechnology, I believe we must approach cloning and genetic engineering slowly, especially as they’re practiced on humans.
- I’m against a flag burning amendment. Flag burning is “speech” and has been rightly so defined by the Supreme Court, and I would not support this tampering with the First Amendment.
“These are some of my political opinions as a humanist, and I look forward to the discussion.”
Joyce Barnes spoke from the point-of-view of a career educator and one who has worked with special education children for many years. She noted that the way we treat our fellow humans with special needs is a good measure of our civilization. Ms. Barnes has also been active in the League of Women Voters for many years. She related a number of her experiences dealing with politicians and issues. She noted that sometimes results are not immediate, but honesty and perseverance often have their just rewards.
“I have found,” said Joyce, “that the best lobbyists are not those with the greatest amount of money to spend, but those who are most passionate about their cause. The Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities has only three paid staff, yet this organization is one of the most effective on the hill. The real lobbyists·are the members-parents whose children are disabled–individuals with disabilities–and agencies who save people with disabilities–they collect no dues, but they do give freely of their time, their knowledge, and their stories. One legislator who met with a group from the Coalition said, ‘Please don’t talk to me about the children; talk about the money.’ He couldn’t say no to the parents who were holding pictures or their children; he could say no to a dollar sign.”
She discussed the mediation program where parties from both sides of an issue (divorce, child custody, or crime) sit down with trained negotiators to settle the problem without using up court time and resources. Data show that resolutions reached during mediation are highly effective and long lasting.
Andrew Schoenberg began his remarks by answering the question: “Who am I?” He said, “I am a world citizen, a US citizen, a Unitarian, a humanist, a World Federalist, a Professor, and a member of numerous Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).”
Andy then defined some of the problems we face and explained why we should be concerned. Among the issues he addressed were: population, exponential growth of destructive technology, power politics, and unjust distribution of goods. He noted that consumption of fossil fuels will soon exhaust supplies of readily available oil.
Andy encouraged us all to do our part. First, we must become informed and then do something about issues that are important to us. We can join NGOs and support political candidates that espouse positions consistent with our beliefs. We can write letters to the editor and speak on talk shows, etc. to let our opinions be known.
We all need to change our behaviors to be more earth-friendly. We can buy smaller, more efficient cars, use fluorescent light bulbs, and make our homes more energy efficient. Everyone needs to do their own.
Humanism and the Political Process
Given the possibility that three humanists talking about their political philosophies might not offer many disagreements, I thought I would begin by quoting some of the political positions of a person with a non-humanist world view to illustrate how one’s philosophy does indeed shape one’s positions on political questions. In the April 1995 issue of Sunstone magazine it was reported that Apostle James E. Faust of the Mormon Church, in a November 1994 BYU devotional, said: “Today many of us are trying to serve two masters: the Lord and our own selfish interests. …The influence of God…urges us, pleads with us, and inspires us to follow him. In contrast the power of Satan urges us to disbelieve and disregard God’s commandments.” Clearly, Elder Faust’s philosophy is God-centered, leading, he believes, to these positions on political questions:
On abortion: “Abortion is one evil practice that has become socially accepted in our country,” and “many of today’ s politicians claim not to favor abortion, but oppose government intervention in a woman’s right to choose an abortion.”Apparently he would have the government limit a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
On population control: “How cleverly Satan masked his evil designs with” the phrase “sustainable growth,” which refers to slowing the population growth rate to protect the world’ s resources and the environment. “Those who argue for sustainable growth lack vision and faith.” The scriptures, according to Faust, say, “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (citing the Doctrine and Covenants). “That settles the issue for me. It should settle the issue for all of us. The Lord has spoken.” On homosexuality: “There is some widely accepted theory extant that homosexuality is inherited. How can this be? No scientific evidence demonstrates absolutely that this is so. Besides, if it were so, it would frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness. …The false belief of inborn sexual orientation denies to repentant souls the opportunity to change, and will ultimately lead to discouragement, disappointment, and despair. [Any alternative to] a legal and loving marriage between a man and a woman helps to unravel the fabric of human society” and is “pleasing to the devil.” Now I have no doubt that James Faust is a decent, intelligent, educated, sincere, and honest man, but other decent, intelligent, educated, sincere, and honest people differ with him, and a question I have long pondered is why. I have come to only a partial answer: Their basic assumptions differ, and this shapes their entire outlook. But this is only a partial answer, because what I don’t understand is why their basic assumptions differ. Why does one person see God in everything and another person fail to see God in anything? But that’s a discussion for another time. For this evening, we take as a given the humanist philosophy in order to trace its political implications.
Humanism has, for me, made sense of this world and shaped my attitudes and actions in innumerable ways. I will list a baker’s dozen political opinions that I have. My political attitudes may not be very different from those of most of you in this room, but whether this is true is something we’ll find out soon enough, and is essentially the purpose of this panel discussion.
First, if we are to preserve our “participatory democracy,” we must be educated. Education is a theme I come back to time and again when I think about solutions to society’s problems–whether crime, the environment, population, teenage pregnancies, drugs, etc. and is perhaps my highest political priority. I look at education as an investment and not as a cost, and favor more rather than fewer of our tax dollars going; to education because I think the return on investment is so high. My hope is that over time we will invest less of society’s resources at the back end in welfare, police, jails, and courts, and more at the front end in educational improvements, some as simple as smaller classes and up-to-date textbooks. There are emphases in education that I would favor as a humanist over what religionists might favor. We may agree on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but I would also stress more science, reasoning, sex education, and values clarification, or ethics.
Second, I love what our founding fathers did. I love the checks and balances of our three branches of government. They all work, although I believe the judicial branch works the best, in part because judges use a reasoned approach based on the evidence, much like humanism. I love the Bill of Rights with its guaranteed freedoms of speech, press, and religion. Except on some moral issues, I think of laws and other expressions of public policy not as right or wrong, but as better or worse. We must continually seek better public policy as we understand more about ourselves and our world. These are judgments that WE must make as a self-governing people, which is one reason why education is so important, and this panel discussion so timely.
Third, I don’t like referenda. Even though we the people govern ourselves, I prefer that representative government, through legislatures, hammer out our laws, as messy and imperfect as this is. We need this give and take in drafting laws.
Fourth, I also oppose term limits. As attractive as term limits sometimes seem for getting rid of bad legislators, I don’t like mechanical solutions, and here I would put my faith in “we the people,” and in the educational system to create a sufficiently informed electorate to act wisely.
Fifth, I support campaign finance reform, including limiting out-of-state funds in state elections, although I do not see reform as a panacea, and it’s a mechanical solution. Possibly even better would be more disclosure and reliance on the free press and voters to correct any excesses.
Sixth, I embrace the free enterprise system. I believe the free enterprise system works in maximizing wealth and individual freedom and opportunity. The system must be regulated, however, to control its excesses, achieve social justice, and protect the environment, and this is a legitimate role for government. Also, we cannot expect the free enterprise system to address some of the fundamental problems in society, and I support the government’s funding of medical and other research in an effort to cure and prevent the scourges of humankind, develop new sources of energy, protect the environment, and so forth. I also support government programs for the poor, although I would hope that education would reduce the need. I mention government programs for the poor because a libertarian recently told me he doesn’t like the government taking from him and giving to someone else, but I disagree with him so long as we the people are the government and therefore take from ourselves for the poor.
Seventh, with respect to what to do with those who break the criminal law, I see no alternative to incarcerating persons who pose a threat to society, but given our respect for the human dignity of everyone, I would like to see our emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Even so, as for capital punishment, I suppose I want to preserve the option for cases like the white men in Texas who recently dragged a black man to his death in back of a truck, but I suppose this is more an emotional than an intellectual position. I do believe that capital punishment should be used sparingly.
Eighth, we must get our population under control, not just worldwide but in this very valley. I believe we should revisit tax exemptions for children, especially for children beyond the first two, since two children will, eventually, replace the population without increasing it. Indeed, instead of just removing the tax benefit associated with more than two children, there might have to be a cost for more than two children, such as a tax for their schooling, which implies, of course, a huge cultural change, not only in Utah but throughout the nation.
Ninth, as a humanist, I look at everyone as a fellow human being and decry the prejudices, too often derived from dogmatic religion, against Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, and others, including humanists. I support equal rights for all but a continuation of affirmative action for the time being.
Tenth, on abortion, I favor the woman’s decision over the government’s, but I would also hope that improved education, including sex education, would reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.
Eleventh, on the right to die and assisted suicide, I want the option for myself and therefore believe that everyone should have it. I believe we can solve the problem that older people might be forced into this choice.
Twelfth, on biotechnology, I believe we must approach cloning and genetic engineering slowly, especially as they’re practiced on humans. They hold so much promise for human welfare that I would not want the credibility, responsibility, and benefits of science to be undermined by actions that might appear as rash to, or offend the sensibilities of, a great many citizens, which could set back funding for research for years.
Thirteenth and finally, I’m against a flag burning amendment. Flag burning is “speech” and has been rightly so defined by the Supreme Court, and I would not support this tampering with the First Amendment.
These are some of my political opinions as a humanist, and I look forward to the discussion.
Humanism and the Political Process
I have found, since agreeing to talk this evening, that putting action into words is much harder than the other way around!
In preparation for this evening, I re-read Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism, and am using many of his quotes. He talks about humanism as “a many-faceted philosophy” and my involvement in humanistic activities, including politics, is many-faceted, too. In fact, I often refer to my life as a patchwork quilt.
Lamont says “Human beings can solve their own problems–using courage and vision,” and as an educator and as a mediator, my intent is to help others find ways to solve their own problems. Courage and vision are qualities we all need, all the time. But sometimes we need others to help us discover, or rediscover them.
Another quote: “The individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare the community.” When I became involved in politics, my goal was to contribute to the welfare of the community; working with the Democratic Party was a beginning; as a lobbyist for the school district, my goal was to increase funding for special education and multicultural programs. As a member or The League or Women Voters of Salt Lake, my goal is to increase citizen participation in government.
Self-development? The hardest part of all–as Voter Service Chair for the League, I must be non-partisan. Keeping my mouth shut has forced me to listen (maybe it’s not self-development, but self-discipline.) Listening and reflecting has led to changes, positive changes, in my attitude, but still, I’ll be glad when this election is over!
“Unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions…” Don’t most humanists do this? Even though there is unending questioning, it doesn’t mean we always change those assumptions and convictions? We may strengthen our beliefs because they have been tried and tested.
“A humanist society will invest in education and general cultural activity…proportionate to what present-day governments allocate to armaments and war…” When I worked for the Granite School District, a poster outside my office read, “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and bake sales are held to cover the cost of a B-l bomber.”
I have found that the best lobbyists are not those with the greatest amount of money to spend, but those who are most passionate about their cause. The Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities has only three paid staff, yet this organization is one of the most effective on the hill. The real lobbyists·are the members–parents whose children are disabled–individuals with disabilities–and agencies who save people with disabilities–they collect no dues, but they do give freely of their time, their knowledge, and their stories. One legislator who met with a group from the Coalition said, “please don’t talk to me about the children; talk about the money.” He couldn’t say no to the parents who were holding pictures or their children; he could say no to a dollar sign.
Politics is dirty at times, but without politics some worthwhile projects would go unfunded. The courts are now accepting and using mediation as a way to help couples solve disputes about divorce, child custody, and visitation. The money which helps pay court appointed mediators comes from grants available from the federal government. Parents pay when they can; payment is on a sliding scale. Research shows that children whose parents successfully mediate their disputes are less likely to be truant or to be involved with drugs or alcohol. So our society profits in at least two ways: children finish school and are productive, and thus are less dependent on additional government services such as social services, corrections, or welfare.
The mediation projects with the juvenile and adult courts are working quite well. Mediating with the offender and the victim can be very traumatic for both parties, but the success rate is high, and recidivism, particularly with juveniles, is low. This Restorative Justice Program is one that is heavily dependent on volunteer mediators–but those who are employed to manage the program are paid by tax dollars, allocated by legislators who responded to lobbyists.
Lobbying can be fun–and funny, too. One of my favorite stories involves Senator Warren Pugh, who would never agree to meet with me, despite everything I tried. A coworker overheard me complaining and said to call the Senator the next day. I did, and to my surprise he agreed to see at once. When I asked my colleague how she managed it, she told me her husband was a member of the local Chamber of Commerce and had a good working relationship with Senator Pugh. He simply asked the Senator to meet with me, because his wife said she wouldn’t sleep with him until the Senator scheduled an appointment with me! When I told this story at a dinner honoring the Senator on his retirement, he asked me to write it up because it was one of his best memories.
Another book I re-read for this evening is The Humanist Alternative, edited by Paul Kurtz, which contains essays by several outstanding authors. He quotes Roy Fairfield: “The Humanist-in-Action will recognize the need for humor (lest he take his cosmic situation and presence too seriously,) the need for accepting paradox (to be of use, on must take abuse [and I vigorously disagree]; the closer one gets to achieving social and political power, the less power one has to maintain one’s real humanness,) the imperative or relating to irony (no man ever what he may seem to be) and the urgency of expressing oneself somehow, so that one’s outer manifestations sculpt the clay of one’s inner identity.”
One last quote, from Paul Kurtz: “The humanist recognizes that man is basically a social agent, and that liberty means nothing unless there is a degree of equality.” In mediation, both parties are equal–the one I recently participated in involved an 11-year-old boy who was the offender, and an 89-year-old woman who was the victim. After only two hours or mediation, during which both told and listened to the other’s story, the boy decided how he could make restitution, and the woman (his neighbor) had accepted. They ended in each other’s arms in tears. The mediator explained to them that they had just experienced “grace”–and those of us in the room agreed. The boy’s mother gained insight into the effect her son’s actions had on her neighbor’s sense of well-being and safety, and the elderly woman found that the “evil intent” of the boy simply did not exist–he was careless, but didn’t intentionally cause the·harm on her property and was willing to restore what he’d damaged.
Politics isn’t always beautiful–but it is effective and brings about changes that help our society and our citizens.
One of the most frequently asked questions when I give talks on the history and philosophy of humanism is, “If you don’t believe in God and life after death, what’s your incentive for leading a moral life?” My answer is, “My respect for others and respect for myself.”
One of the basic teachings of humanism is recognizing the dignity of every human being and taking responsibility for how we treat every person we encounter. The daily acts of road rage, the gang shootings, and school yard fights; the political character assassinations, abuse of family members and the brawls in professional sports are not caused by a lack of belief in God, but by a lack of belief in the rights of people.
When people in positions of power and influence demand sexual favors from associates, it’s not because they don’t believe in a supernatural power, it’s because they lack a sense of responsibility that goes with leadership. The ethical teachings of the world’s leading religions use the fear of a supernatural power as the enforcer of moral values. Humanism suggests that ethics can and should be based on knowledge and reason, respect for human values that have been outlined by such documents as the Hammurabi Code, the Magna Carta, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and numbers six through ten of the Ten Commandments.
Humanists may not believe there is life after death but we do believe in honoring this life. We conclude that the moral problems of this world are not the result of people having lost their religion, but the result of people having lost their humanism.
Published in The Salt Lake Tribune 10/5/98
Why People Believe Weird Things
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
In Mattoon, Illinois, in 1944 a woman reported that a stranger entered her bedroom and anesthetized her legs with a spray gas. The local newspaper ran the headline, “Anesthetic Prowler on Loose.” Within a few days several other similar cases were reported. The headline this time was, “Mad Anesthetist Strikes Again. ” The perpetrator became known as the “Phantom Gasser of Mattoon.” Soon cases were occurring all over town, the state police were brought in, husbands stood guard with loaded guns, and many firsthand sightings were reported. After a fortnight, however, no one was caught, no chemical clues were discovered, the police spoke of “wild imaginations,” and the newspapers began to characterize the story as a case of “mass hysteria.”
“This story has the same components as an alien abduction experience,” says Michael Shermer in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things. “Strange things going bump in the night, interpreted in the context of the time and culture of the victims, whipped into a phenomenon through rumor and gossip–we are talking about modern versions of medieval witch crazes.”
The components of these crazes in their modern pseudoscientific descendents are still alive: 1) Victims tend to be women, the poor, the retarded, and other societally marginal people. 2) Sex or sexual abuse is typically involved. 3) Mere accusation of potential perpetrators makes them guilty. 4) Denial of guilt is regarded as further proof of guilt. 5) When a claim of victimization becomes well known, other claims appear. 6) The movement hits a critical peak of accusation, when virtually everyone is a potential suspect and almost no one is above suspicion. 7) Then the pendulum swings the other way. As the innocent begin to fight back through legal and other means, the accusers sometimes become the accused and skeptics begin to demonstrate the falsity of the accusations. 8) Finally the movement fades, the public loses interest, and proponents, while never completely disappearing, are shifted to the margins of belief.
Modern examples of witch crazes are the “satanic panic” of the 1980’s and the recovered memory movement of the 1990’s. In the latter case, adults who had been engaged in psychotherapy claimed to have recovered repressed memories of sexual abuse in their childhoods. In 1989 a girl accused her father, George Franklin, of killing her childhood friend, and he was imprisoned. The only evidence was her 20-year-old alleged recovered memory. When she later claimed he had committed other murders which the evidence proved he could not have committed, he was released after having been incarcerated over six and a half years.
Another troubling aspect of crazes and the sexual abuse hysteria sweeping America the past few years is that some genuine offenders may go free in the backlash. “Is it really possible that thousands of Satanic cults have secretly infiltrated our society and that their members are torturing, mutilating, and sexually abusing tens of thousands of children and animals? No. Is it really possible that millions of adult women were sexually abused as children but have repressed all memory of the abuse? No. Like the alien abduction phenomenon, these are products of the mind, not reality. They are social follies and mental fantasies, driven by a curious phenomenon called the feedback loop,” explains Shermer.
Witch crazes are social systems that organize through feedback loops in which outputs are connected to inputs, producing change in response to both (like a public address system with feedback or stock market booms and busts driven by flurries of buying and selling). The underlying mechanism is the cycling of information through a closed system. There are internal and external components of the loop which periodically occur together. Internal components include the social control of one group of people by another more powerful group, a prevalent feeling of loss of personal control and responsibility, and the need to place blame for misfortune elsewhere; external conditions include socioeconomic stresses, cultural and political crises, religious strife, and moral upheavals. The system self-organizes, grows, reaches a peak, and then collapses. A few claims of ritual abuse are fed into the system through word of mouth in the 17th century or the mass media in the 20th. An individual is accused of being in league with the devil and denies the accusation. The denial serves as proof of guilt, as does silence or confession. Accusation equals guilt (as in any well-publicized sexual-abuse case). The system grows in complexity as gossip or the media increase the amount and flow of information. Witch after witch is burned and abuser after abuser is jailed, until the system reaches criticality and finally collapses under changing social conditions and pressures. In medieval witch hunts, theological imaginations, ecclesiastical power, scapegoating, the decline of magic, the rise of formal religion, interpersonal conflict, misogyny, gender politics, and possibly even psychedelic drugs were all components of the feedback loop, driving it forward. People agreed that skeptics and lawyers who defended witches were themselves witches, “Satan’s accomplices.”
Curiously, the medieval witch craze occurred at the very time when experimental science was gaining ground. We often think that science displaces and decreases belief in superstition. Not necessarily so. Modern believers in paranormal and other pseudoscientific phenomena try to wrap themselves in the mantle of science by asking scientists to investigate alleged strange happenings, but they still believe what they believe. However, such believers have put themselves in a double bind. As one observer at a 17th century witch trial noted, “Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft persists, why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God.”
His apartment, neat though crowded with videos and computers, was a hub of activity. I made an appointment to talk with Michael Clyde about his thoughts on humanism, and on some of his personal background, but as one friend would phone, and then another would knock at his door, I quickly gave up. Simply observing Mike was enough.
The first friend that came to see him was learning how to shoot. He had a membership application to a local gun club, and had come to ask Mike to co-sign it for him. As Mike read through the document, asking him to vouch for his friend’s responsibility and personal background, a conversation began.
Mike believes in learning how to use a gun properly and responsibly. Having been in the Air Force ROTC for three years, he has come to learn a great respect for weapons, and their responsible use.
Another friend who dropped by, a musician and computer enthusiast, also had many things with which to relate with Mike. Mike has played percussion for years, and works as a computer technician. He knows over 15 computer languages, and would have obtained a computer science degree if a bad car accident had not prevented him.
Mike has two sisters and three brothers, the oldest of which died in a motor cycle accident two years ago. Allan, his father, graduated from BYU with a physics degree, and from Berkley with a Ph.D. in particle acceleration. Mike was excited to tell me this, and proudly talked of his father’s involvement in the Bevetron accelerator, and the fact that his father was involved in what became the Stars Wars defense project.
Michael joined the Humanists of Utah last year. When I asked why, he had much he wanted to say, “People tend to believe religion has the answers for how we should interact…[but] fanaticism is unreasonable. Humanism says we should act with sensibility …and as rational beings. We should be the most we can be, and evolve to be better. The problem with religion is the practice of intolerance. Humans should learn to live together.”