July 1999

Censorship is Power

It was a difficult culling process, but Dr. Aden Ross cited six serious examples of ‘Censorship in Utah’ when she spoke to more than 70 people attending our June meeting. Saying there are myriad examples of local censorship, she chose just six of the most egregious just in the visual arts in recent years. She began with citing the photograph of a nude woman entered in the 1992 Utah Women’s Art Project. When the exhibit reached the Springville Museum of Art, two women publicly complained, saying nudity does not represent the maternal, family oriented, moral woman of Utah. The director, Vern Swanson, said he agreed, removed the photos from the exhibit, and hid them in his office. The photos were returned to the exhibit when it left Utah and were highly acclaimed when the exhibit became part of the national showing of women in the arts.

Aden’s final example happened in 1995 at Utah Valley State College. An abstract sculpture displayed on the campus was criticized by the vice president for college relations, Gill Cook. His personal displeasure was so intense that he had the sculpture cut into pieces with a blow torch and hauled away. Dr. Ross reminded her audience that this sculpture was public property, purchased with their tax dollars.

Why is such censorship tolerated in Utah? One reason might be Utah’s’ cultural lag: the reluctance of many Utahns to recognize the national and world changes from 19th century ideas to the 21st century attitudes. Our difficulty in differentiating nudity and obscenity. The changing definition of family. The evolution of attitudes toward divorce, single parents and homosexuality. Ross said it reminds her of a statement by Marlene Dietrich, “In America sex is an obsession, in the rest of the world it’s a fact.”

Subtle forms of censorship in Utah have effectively removed classic literature from school libraries, changed exclamatory dialogue from classic stage plays, removed magazines from news stands and placed plain brown paper covers on others.

Dr. Ross said she believes censorship in Utah and in the nation is not so much about art, music, or literature but it is about power, the power to control the culture.

–Flo Wineriter

What Is Man? A Humanist View

Presented at an Inter-faith Panel December 2, 1963

I hope the figure will not be misunderstood when I say that I feel about as I imagine a lion would if he were in a den of Daniel’s. I assume that such a lion would be frantically lunging toward the windows, seeking escape.

In the brief time that has been allotted to me, I have chosen to say three things about the humanist’s conception of man: he is a child of nature, he is a myth-maker, and he is morally concerned and responsible.

Humanists accept the world view that has been encouraged by the development of modern science. That is to say two things: humanism is naturalistic as opposed to supernaturalistic, and it believes that we should answer all such questions as the one we have before us tonight on the basis of empirical observations–just as we would the question, what is a squirrel?

Man is a child of nature. He is a product of the processes of evolution. He is kin to the animals; indeed, he is an animal, having developed from pre-human animal forms. Moreover, humanists regard man monastically. They reject the dualistic account which conceives man as having an in-dwelling spook within the body–a modern British philosopher has written, not approvingly, of the concept of the “ghost in the machine.” I have used the word “spook” deliberately because I did not want to use either of the two more ambiguous terms, “spirit” or “soul.” Humanists are willing to talk about the spirit of man, the soul of man; but they do not mean by these terms what the dualists mean. For the humanists, man is simply a responding, behaving organism. To say of an individual that he is a great soul or a kind spirit is to speak of the pattern and duality of his intelligent behavior. Humanists regard “soul” as having ethical rather than metaphysical import.

In common with all of the children of nature, whether mosquitoes, mice, or mountains, the individual man exists but a little while. He is mortal. Humanists accept this fact, without then trying to talk themselves out of it. This means that the values available to man are to be enjoyed here, in this life, or not at all.

If time allowed, we should discuss the intelligence of man, his imagination, his creativeness, his freedom, his essentially social nature, his brotherhood ( no man is an island), his awareness of time, and of death. As I observed earlier, all these matters should be discussed on the basis of empirical observation–and, in that sense, the discussion should be scientifically grounded. I must content myself with very brief development of two points.

First, man is a myth-maker. He conducts his day-to-day affairs largely in terms of a world view that is structured by myth. His purposes and his values cluster around activities inspired by myth. Of course we are wont to speak of early Greek and Roman religious beliefs as so much mythology, and of their gods and demigods as mythological characters. But, please, let me speak frankly and realistically here tonight. For example, either the Catholic purgatory or the Mormon paradise is a myth. And either the Catholic mass or the Mormon temple work is mythologically oriented. It is the humanists’ conviction that they are both, equally, mythological in significance. For the humanists it is a toss-up as to whether one should speak of the angel Moroni or of the Virgin Mother as a myth. The same is true of Hades, hell, and heaven. Of course, humanists acknowledge the great importance of these myths in the lives of men, as these lives are lived. Indeed, these myths give rise to or qualify many of the most important values of many men. However, this is not to say that myths are as indispensable to the life of the spirit as, for instance, air and water are to the life of the body. For they are not.

I should make two distinctions. First, myth is not to be confused, identified, with simple fiction. “Little Red Riding-Hood” is fiction: the story of the Garden of Eden is a myth. Gulliver’s Travels is fiction; Noah is a myth. King Lear is fiction; Jonah and Job are myths. Myth is, among other things, fiction not so regarded. This distinction is important. We encourage our young children to distinguish the real from the imagined; but we do not, or should not, discourage their continued writing of fiction. The distinction is important in another way, since myths are so much more fertile than mere fiction, as generators of ritual and the nurturing of values.

In the second place myth must not be confused with symbol. Marriage, for instance, involves symbols; the ceremony is symbolic; but marriage is not a myth. Animals pair and copulate; humans marry; and the difference is an affair of symbols. Human life is shot through with meaning; mere animal life is not. The cultural anthropologist defines man as the symboling animal, and refers to the products of this symboling activity as symbolates. It is through symbols that meaning enters into and transforms the quality and dimensions of human life.

Myths are but an aspect of this symboling activity. The marriage of Jacqueline and John Kennedy was real, though effected by and involving symbols; the marriage of Figaro is fiction; that of Adam and Eve is symbolic.

In the first place, man is under the strict discipline of nature. Everything in life, nay, even life itself is based upon conditions–and if life, then long life, and health. In ignorance we ignore dietetic laws; in ignorance we may formulate injurious dietetic principles. There is no substitute for iron in the blood; nor for proteins and carbohydrates in the diet, and vitamins, etc. One of the functions of intelligence is to decipher and then observe these conditions of life and health. Equally, sanity, mental health, happiness, friendship, and peace, are conditional. War is as truly an effect as is diabetes. Each is symptomatic of failure to observe the conditions which make for peace in the one case, and health in the other. Given the fact of the importance of causal conditions, and given intelligence and desire, man finds himself under natural commandments to behave in certain ways. These are hypothetical imperatives (to use Kant’s phrase): if you want to live, to live long and well, and joyously (and who doesn’t), then do such and such.

In the second place, man is self-disciplined to a remarkable degree. I do not mean that he is perfectly disciplined, He is guilty of stupid, lawless, brutal, immoral behavior. But this is true under any theory of man that is honest. Theists with their belief in God as the source of moral obligation and duty, and with their doctrine of supernatural rewards and punishments, can show us a human race no better disciplined than the race to which the humanists point. So let us merely say that man is self-disciplined. His intelligence, his emotions, his devotions, and his needs are at the bottom of this. There is no higher authority known to man than the authority of his own ideals. On the basis of this authority and with these ideals as his standards, he even picks and chooses among the many gods that are offered for him to serve. Modern man is even inclined to read the Bible with discrimination. Ideals are the work of man’s intelligent imagination.

–Waldemar P. Read

The Village Atheist Syndrome

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Some humanists say Vern and Bonnie Bullough suffer from a dysphoria called the Village Atheist Syndrome, described in their article named after it. The Bulloughs say the village atheist is a figure who is often found in fictional and non-fictional works. He or she is a nonbeliever who proclaims atheism in small communities made up of devoted and unquestioning believers. In outward appearances the persons afflicted are no different from anyone else. They hold respectable positions in society, have normative family affiliations, and do most of the things other people of their age or economic condition do.

A few psychologists have suggested that the syndrome could be classified as a form of obsessive compulsive behavior. A good place to observe this type of behavior, say the Bulloughs, is in board and committee meetings of humanist and free thought organizations. Sometimes in such settings the individual becomes so dominating, we might even say irrational, that the proceedings are totally disrupted. Certain words, for example, “God” or “religion” seem to set them off, sometimes with a reaction so severe that it seems to be an apoplectic attack. The symptoms also seem to become more severe with age, although beginning at age 80 there is a gradual decline in the response pattern.

The most obvious symptom, the authors go on, is an inability to compromise, to get along with others. This is first noticed where the village atheist is attempting to get his/her way. It has been suggested that a genetic factor may be involved in the development of this syndrome. If so, it must be carried on one portion of an X chromosome and is a recessive trait in females, where it can be overshadowed by the genetic inheritance on the paired X chromosome unless this, too, carries the trait. It would be dominant in males because it is not carried on the Y chromosome. This observation would explain why the syndrome is more prevalent in men and also why women with the syndrome suffer such severe dysphoria. Apparently when individuals with a proclivity for the syndrome find themselves among what they had believed to be like-minded free thinkers, they find themselves shocked and appalled to find that others disagree with them, often on major issues. This disagreement is marked by antisocial behavior, a clear mark of the village atheist syndrome. There is an almost total intolerance of “religious” belief by those afflicted. This hostility to religion is often accompanied by a feeling of superiority in their ability to function without religion. Sometimes this superiority is outright arrogance, which only the possessor of truth can have. At other times the arrogance seems accompanied by insecurity because the sufferers seem almost to lose control of their reason if a fellow humanist or free thinker does not view religion in the same way they do. In severe cases they seem almost to foam at the mouth, their voices rise, and their whole body shakes.

The pathogenesis of this syndrome seems to be as follows: There are many similarities in the backgrounds of persons with the syndrome. Often in the communities in which they live, they are the only professed free thinkers. They have gained a reputation for their free thinking, and although the locals cannot understand how they believe as they do, their place in the community as a dissident is recognized. They are often the lone voice; and, while few bother to listen to them, they are tolerated, and often the stands they take are adopted by others. The atheist often feels isolated from others and is suspicious of them. As humanists we tend to admire the person who is willing to stand up and be counted. When the village atheist joins a group of free thinkers, he is not sure how to act. Once you have disagreed with such a person on an issue, even in a minor way, it is almost impossible for him or her to trust you again. In a group of nonconformist humanist free thinkers, the village atheist is denied the position of nonconformist they held in their own communities, and so has to resort to ever more outrageous behavior to achieve it. The person afflicted also spends considerable time hunting up obscure facts and loses him/herself in detail and ignores the larger picture. This behavior is self-destructive and destructive to the free thought group.

A significant percentage of those with the village atheist syndrome were born into religiously orthodox traditions. Usually they themselves were very religious. As they found more and more errors and superstitions in their religion, they became real experts on various systems of belief. Rejecting religion was difficult for them, since usually it meant breaking with their family and loved ones; in many cases the trauma was severe. Viewing what their own commitment to free thought has cost them, they find it difficult to accept those who arrived at a free thought pattern more casually. Not infrequently the new convert to free thought, like any other convert, is convinced that he/she has the truth and believes erroneously that others would also believe as the atheist does if they were presented with the facts. When the others don’t, and the atheists are forced to keep quiet with the others about such issues, they often become embittered about religion. Although they might compromise in their own communities, giving nominal lip service to community customs, to compromise as a free thinker because other free thinkers do not agree with them is an idea that is overwhelming to them. Much of their hostility is directed at their fellow free thinkers, particularly those who claim that humanism is a religion.

How can the syndrome be treated? The first step for free thinkers is to recognize that all of us are carriers of some elements of the syndrome. Second, we should recognize the emotional trauma that some of us had to go through to become humanists and free thinkers. We should also recognize that not everybody is willing to undergo such a process but, rather, prefer to drift, to retain old contacts, and to gradually change their beliefs without making any sudden or dramatic break. This is demonstrated by the decline in religious commitment all across the spectrum and the willingness of a larger and larger number of churches to emphasize fellowship and good feeling rather than doctrine. It might be easier in the future for many to break away from traditional religion. Whether or not this happens, we need to have the very elements that exist in the village atheist in order to survive. But we also need to learn to cooperate with each other. We need to emphasize the diversity of the humanist camp. There is room for all kinds of organizations with slightly different approaches and backgrounds, as well as organizations which hold us together for the common good, such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union or the North American Committee for Humanism; and we need to keep a core belief, that humans are the key to their own future, and the problems we create have to be solved by us. Moreover, there is a need to curtail some of the isolation under which many humanists live. The Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association have sponsored traveling seminars which have made it possible for those living far away from a humanist free thought group to meet and discuss important topics. The various humanist and atheist communities of Los Angeles have organized an annual get together where they can socialize and exchange ideas. Humanists can form centers, similar to the Jewish Community Centers, where free thinkers can get together for more social occasions and joint programs occasionally. We need joint educational programs for the young, since growing up in a free thinking family tends to isolate them from community activities. We need humanist coffee houses, book stores, social events, dating services, homes for senior citizens; and we need to put a humanist imprint on dealing with the world’s problems. If we join other existing secular organizations, we should put a humanist imprint on them. Very importantly, we need to recognize the village atheist syndrome in ourselves and in others and offer each other support that will help us on the way to recovery. “We want,” say the Bulloughs, “and need most of the characteristics which go into the village atheist syndrome, but we need to curtail the destructiveness that results from those who have the most serious dysphoria.”