December 1999

AHA Board Meeting

Flo Wineriter, our chapter president and the AHA national treasurer, attended the fall AHA board meeting that was held in Washington D.C. November12-14. Tony Hileman, who was hired as the AHA National Director at the June conference, was elevated to Executive Director at the board meeting and announced he is designing a public relations program that will increase public awareness of our organization and build membership. The new executive director said his long-range plans include developing closer alliances with other Humanists and Free Thought organizations. The board visited the new AHA office, a modest facility that now gives AHA a presence in the nation’s capitol.

Fred Edwards, who has been both the AHA Executive Director and Managing Editor of The Humanist for several years, is now the Executive Editor and will devote full time to our national magazine. Fred reported he is working on a complete redesigning of the magazine that will result in a more attractive appearance and more relevant content.

Flo said board members are excited with the organizational changes and expect the American Humanist Association will be much more visible and influential in the new millennium


Pop Culture and the Television

John Schaefer, Curator of Education at the Salt Lake Art Center and director of the Salt Lake Ethics Project, led a lively discussion at the November general meeting of the Humanists of Utah. He pointed out that while we often consider ourselves in Utah to be different from everybody else, we really are more like everyone else in the world than we think.

The average child watches 5 hours and 15 minutes of television every day. After the age of four, most of this time is NOT public television. Public Television is compelling; unfortunately most of the other available broadcast material is not compelling. The television is the “myth-maker, the heart of our society; we couldn’t be in worse hands in my opinion.” Schaefer utilized several video presentations to facilitate the discussion. The first clip demonstrated how a “magician” could predict which playing card 95% of the viewing audience will identify by watching a simple flipping through of the card deck. By deftly pausing a split-second longer on any given card, that card will imprint on the majority of people’s minds. The artist can then “magically or psychically” identify the card that the average person on the street only “thinks” about.

There are many ways to control the mind. People in the television industry are aware of many of these methods. Schaefer is currently teaching a Media Literacy class at West High, helping young people to understand (interpret) what is spewing from the boob tube. The people who control the television media are all the same: they have a single goal of making money. They are not necessarily malicious towards us, they only want to make money.

Schaefer posed the question, “I ask children, teachers, anyone: ‘what is the purpose of the news on channels 2, 4, 5, and 13?’ and without exception they always reply, ‘to get information, to learn about the weather, to find out what’s going on.'” This is not the correct answer. The purpose of the “news” is to sell things. 99% of society does not know this. For example, crime is down drastically, but the reporting of crime on the local news is up almost 400%. This is a skewed look of who we are. Senior citizens get most of the information about society from the TV. Consequently many older people are afraid to leave their own homes. The “news” is a television program; its main purpose is to sell things, not to pass along information.

Television commercials are about the dumbing down of the masses. If you don’t have skepticism when viewing TV, you are in trouble. Four hours after a tornado hit Salt Lake City, it became an “event” complete with a name: Tornado Terror, complete with a logo. It became a TV show, it became a vehicle to sell.

Some of television is rich, full of content, and compelling. Most of the material on PBS is of this nature. Unfortunately there are no media literacy classes below the level of college in Utah. Schaefer believes that this subject should start being taught at the Kindergarten level. After all, since we spend so much time with the TV, we should understand what it is doing to us.

–Wayne Wilson


Transcendentalism or Empiricism
Which Will Triumph?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Physics has very little to say about the conjunction of science and religion, beyond what it has already said: namely, that the entire material universe is ultimately obedient to a small number of physical laws. The origin of those laws remains an open and possibly unanswerable question: whether or not energy and law were designed by a heavenly creator–in other words, a cosmological god or god-equivalent force, as conceived in the world view of deism. This line of reasoning leads back to the problem that interested the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists like Einstein, who said that what interested him most is whether God must obey his own laws.”

With this statement the eminent world authority on biodiversity and the evolution of social behavior, Edward O. Wilson, introduces his article, “The Two Hypotheses of Human Meaning,” in The Humanist, September-October ’99.

Biology and the social sciences have everything to say about the relation of science and religion because they address with growing clarity the origin of mind and the relation of mind to culture, and thence the origin and meaning of religious belief itself. The central question in the relationship of science and religion is: Are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental? Do they exist apart from human contrivance awaiting discovery, as the laws of physics do? Or are they instead contrivances of the human mind and culture arising from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution? This latter empiricist worldview of the human condition increasingly is being addressed by biologists and social scientists, as well as some liberal theologians whose attention has been focused on the study of mind and evolution by the advance of science.

Spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and are apparently necessary parts of the human condition, even if they assume an atheistic or deistic rationale. The inability of secular humanist thinkers to satisfy this instinct, even with evidence and reason on their side, is part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But truth is not settled by a poll. Does the power and universality of the instinct mean that religious behavior and spirituality are transcendental? Or does their strength merely mean that we cannot see their origins clearly and distinctly, that we have to rely on novel analytic methods to grasp how the whole system works? If science, the most efficient means of acquiring and verifying objective knowledge ever devised, cannot take the citadel, the religious part of the mind, where will this failure leave theology and the great world religious traditions? Intact, with continued validation by means of authority through alleged divine authorship. But if it can take the citadel, where does that leave theology? Still culturally astride one of the most important domains of human behavior but forced to base its authority more upon empirical evidence and reason than upon claims of divine guidance plainly contradicted by the evidence.

As much as the great majority of people might wish otherwise, the evidence points increasingly to the correctness of the empiricist world view and away from the existence of a supreme designer who had anything to do with the origin of the human species–except, perhaps, as a bemused spectator of a grand experiment begun twelve to fifteen billion years ago when the physical laws of the universe were first manifested, a spectator who makes no response to our travail and prayers. The empiricist world view will be hotly disputed, and it should be. But it would be foolish to deny its existence and say, as a few scientists have, pandering to popular opinion it sometimes seems, that science has its domain and that all existence can be cleaved, as Pope Alexander VI did in 1493 in his recommendation to the Castilian monarchs.

Meanwhile, we would do very well to bring into concert the most powerful voices in the world today–those of science and religion–to achieve what we can agree are some morally compelling goals. One such is the preservation of the natural environment, which well-informed scientists and religionists both are agreed is being destroyed by human action.

And what of the contest between the empiricist and transcendentalist views? What is new in our understanding of the world is that these two views are competing hypotheses and that it is within our power to prove one or the other to be correct but not both. Some thoughtful writers say such an important issue cannot be that simple. But the time has come to say yes, it can be that simple. Science should not flank, as it has been doing, the case of spiritual and moral authority. This distinction is the central intellectual question of humanism. The clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses–transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the 21st century’s version of the struggle for human souls. The winner of this struggle will be empiricism with the recognition that while we evolved to believe one truth, in the end with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth.

We can say to the transcendentalists that there is a thousand times more to the human condition–more history, more complexity, more nobility–than you thought. There is more to being human than dreamt in your philosophy. And humanity has opened the way to base spirituality and ethics on a more rational, benign foundation. As a biological species we got where we are alone, we will flourish or die as a species together alone, and our reverence is therefore better directed not to tribal gods and iron age mythologies–which were conceived in the brutal Darwinian past and still carry the stench of arrogance and oppression that made them possible–but to each other, our species, our intellect, our planet, and our future together.