March 2000

Annual Membership Meeting and Banquet

“And a grand time was had by all,” summarizes the attitudes of those who attended the annual Business Meeting and Banquet on February 10th at Distinctive Catering. Following a fine dinner, reports from the Board of Directors showed that our chapter continues to grow, survived the Y2K issues, and has a viable presence on the Internet and an increasing public presence.

Our membership grew to nearly 150 this past year. Our average meeting attendance is around 50 and we have had a few meetings with more than 100 attendees. The Discussion Group attracts 15-20 people every month.

Our website now contains all of the issues of The Utah Humanist dating back to 1994. Former journal editor/publisher Bob Green donated diskettes containing his work in establishing our newsletter as one of the better humanist publications.

Our chapter is co-sponsoring a junior and senior high school science fair being held at Weber State University. The Board approved $300 from our conference fund specifically for the Social and Behavioral Sciences category at the fair. This puts our proverbial money where our mouth is in supporting science. It also gives us positive publicity in the program for the fair.

The quorum elected all of the nominees for the Board. Tonya Evans was nominated from the floor and also elected to a position on the Board. Thanks were expressed by the group to outgoing Board members Brenda Wright and Earl Wunderli for their service.

The finale to a memorable evening was an interactive drum concert by George Grant. Everyone should express thanks to Rolf Kay for again organizing a great event

Wouldn’t An Atheist Or Humanist Cheat If There Was No One Watching To Hold Them Accountable?

Michael Medved, a talk show host, posed this question on his show. He assumed that if there was no omnipotent, everywhere present, score-keeping God, we would cheat on our spouse or neighbor if we thought we could get away without penalty. He informed his audience that he went to Yale Law School with Bill Clinton. Consequently, it seemed ironic that he would ask the question because no matter what one thinks of Bill Clinton as President, his God beliefs did not appear to inhibit his many infidelities. Neither did it stop John Kennedy.

One could construct an experiment to discern whether a God believer, an atheist, or a humanist would be more likely to cheat. A clerk at a grocery store could pretend to not know that she had returned too much change to each of these categories of believers and then ascertain who would be most likely to return the misbegotten change. The results could then be compared.

The evidence we have from history doesn’t suggest that the rewards of heaven or the fear of hell have been very effective social controls. The institution that holds the largest percent of God believers is our prisons. Children in parochial schools cheat more often than children in public schools. Religious Crusades and ethnic cleansing have been the handiwork of dogmatic believers as well as dogmatic nonbelievers.

Ethical humanists internalize their values. They do the right thing because it befits their character. People of character honor their commitments, keep their promises, treat others fairly, and do service for their community because it is consistent with their valuing themselves. Being honorable has its own rewards, as people in the community respect honorable people, and they serve as good role models for their children. On the other hand, people who make public pronouncements about their self righteousness are often suspect. Jimmy Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and Newt Gingrich are examples of public hypocrites who use religion as a cover.

We can leave it to others to determine whether people are more likely not to cheat because it is inconsistent with their character or because an invisible superpower may punish them after they die.

–Gordon Gamm
reprinted from the January/February 2000 edition of 
The Colorado Humanist

The Meaning of It All
Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist

~Book Review~

Richard P. Feynman, and two others, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with profound consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” Quantum electrodynamics is the basis for Michael Crichton’s new novel Timeline, where history is studied by direct observation and not just available artifacts.

Humanists claim to be guided by science and the scientific method, but how many of us really know what this means? Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the large technical jargon that scientists use. Carl Sagan, another great 20th Century scientist, was very concerned that science is viewed as a kind of elite club and perceived to be out of reach to most people.

The Meaning Of It All, Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist (Perseus Books, 1998) is a transcript of three lectures that Feynman presented in April 1963 at the University of Washington in Seattle as part of the John Danz Lecture Series. The titles of the lectures are: The Uncertainty of ScienceThe Uncertainty of Values, and This Unscientific Age. The entire book is only 122 small pages of fairly large print and yet it describes very eloquently in layman’s terms the nature of science, the relationship between science and religion, what science can and cannot do, etc.

The book is obviously a verbatim transcription from an audio recording of the lectures. In places the punctuation is poor, some sentences are incomplete, and some of the constructions are awkward. Nevertheless this is an important book that I recommend to all humanists. It will help you in understanding what science is and what it is not.

–Wayne Wilson

Humanism Against Itself: The Religious Debate

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“In 1933 The humanists who joined in Manifesto I set out to reconstruct faith in the modern world,” says Howard Radest in a chapter with the same title as this article in The Devil and Secular Humanism. “Without apology they described their enterprise as ‘religious humanism.'”

In 1980 some humanists led by Paul Kurtz issued A Secular Humanist Declaration, which explicitly rejected the idea of a “religious humanism.” They accused those who retained the adjective of intellectual confusion, sentimentality and even opportunism. The Declaration identified religion with: “The reappearance of dogmatic authoritarian religions; fundamentalist, literalist, and doctrinaire Christianity; a rapidly growing and uncompromising Moslem clericalism in the Middle East in Asia; the re-assertion of orthodox authority by the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy; nationalistic, religious Judaism; and the reversion to obscurantist religions in Asia.”

“Religion was the enemy and humanist flirtation with it ensured confusion at best and surrender at worst,” laments Radest. “Clearly the climate of the humanist neighborhood had changed…The polemic and the anger…were addressed to the enemy within. Humanism seemed intent on destroying itself.”

He says that the 1980s found humanists as antagonistic toward their fellow humanists as to Fundamentalists and right-wing Christians. Since then another manifestation of fragmentation in the humanist movement has been the attempts by other groups to distinguish themselves from the American Humanist Association. These have included Ethical Culture, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Committee for Democratic and Secular Humanism (organized by Kurtz). Rationalism, free thought, and atheism went their separate ways. Countervailing attempts to bring humanists together were the Conference on Science and Democracy and the North American Committee for Humanism, which had only minor success. Manifesto II, published in 1973, Radest argues, was a long and puzzling essay, lacking the clarity, directness, and assurance of the 1933 document and was symptomatic of the unresolved issues.

Meanwhile America was pushing toward secularization. Religion on the left had developed a moralistic tone and center. The pulpit addressed itself to social criticism as much as it did to salvation. Its efforts were often in the secular world and its energies devoted to social reform. Biblical scholarship, the “higher criticism” and archaeology revealed the worldly sources of cult and text; and science held sway in the academy and the marketplace. There was a widely felt need to bring religion into the modern world.

This cultural pattern was an appropriate home for the appearance of humanism. Edwin Wilson, an important leader in organizing the humanist movement, recalled that it first came to self-awareness as a movement among Unitarians. In a meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference in Des Moines in 1917, The Reverends John Dietrich and Curtis W. Reese found that they both had been presenting ” a revolution from theocracy to humanism, from autocracy to democracy.” “The humanist movement was born at that moment,” said Wilson.

Radest opines that the reason humanists are polarized is that “we avoid working on the question, ‘What is humanism up to,’ and instead play a game of ‘either/or…our thinking is distorted by the fact that we like to choose sides. Humanists, more than most, are given to an argumentative game by temperament and by history…we lose ourselves in the joys of argument and forget that it is only argument. In the heat of argument it is easy to turn ‘faith’ into a caricature of itself and then identify all faith with superstition. When such a mood seizes us, we embrace its complement, a simple-minded secularism that denies any value to a move beyond the immediate…it is all too human to invest ourselves in our arguments and then to be unable to retreat. Losing the argument comes to feel like a loss of self…we are given to the game of ‘either-or’ precisely because the ambiguities of experience have become nearly intolerable. The authors of Manifesto I could speak with confidence about the world to come. They had not yet seen science perverted into holocaust and nuclear destruction. They had not yet seen democracy turned into populist conformism…In the midst of chaos, it is much more satisfying to separate into sheep and goat, saved and damned.”

Like everyone else, humanists, he continues, tend to revert to a mythic past where matters were simpler, clearer, and more assured. So it is that when humanism meets Fundamentalism, it responds in Fundamentalist style with a “raucous humanism.” The angers of Fundamentalism and the confusion of sects confess to a widely shared anxiety of spirit…both Fundamentalism and raucous humanism are only symptomatic, and the game of either-or attends only to the symptoms. When we are lost…we seek out a villain…within the debates is hidden the question: How shall human life be purposeful and joyful in a universe where human life seems only a chemical and biological incident? Humanism is not yet. This arises from the fact that the game of either-or and not the accidents of history blocks the reconstruction the signers of Manifesto I proposed.

Radist suggests that, although humanism is worldly and secular, the qualities of experience to which humanism must address itself are those that have legitimately been called religious. He says humanism is “where the action is, all of the action, including that which has historically been religious action.” For the humanist the “sacred,” the name given to that which is untouchably precious, departs from its separate universe to inform this one, the only one we have. Thus both sacred and secular are transformed under the aegis of a humanist naturalism.

Whether the reader agrees with Radist’s analysis or not, he broaches an important question for humanism.