Living and Dying: Humanism and US History
This past summer, (2000) Sen. Joseph Lieberman introduced a congressional resolution calling for more emphasis on the teaching of American history. In making his presentation Sen. Lieberman said: “When we lose the memory of our past, when we lose our understanding of the remarkable individuals, events and values that have shaped this nation, we are losing much of what it means to be an American.” Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown University followed up by saying: “Without some such sense of history, the citizens of the United States can scarcely long exist as a united people.” And Theodore Rabb, chairman of the National Council for History Education said, “Unlike many people of other nations Americans are not bound together by a common religion or a common ethnicity. Instated, our binding heritage is a democratic vision of liberty, equality and justice. If Americans are to preserve that vision and bring it to daily practice, it is imperative that all citizens understand how it was shaped in the past.”
It is my belief that this nation was founded and developed by political leaders who were students of the western European Enlightenment movement. Today our nation is the world’s leading example of the social society envisioned by those realistic and practical philosophers of the 16th and 17th century. Humanists today are leading the movement to restore human understanding of the principles of The Enlightenment, “life, liberty, equality and justice for all.”
Howard Radest, Humanist Leader of the American Ethical Union, says Humanism has failed to communicate with a large number of people because we haven’t developed interesting stories. In the 1999 annual issue of Humanism Today, Radest wrote: “The clue to an alternative approach to human relationship is the notion of `stories.’ Far from being mere fictions, stories help human beings put their experience together, suggest directions for finding meanings in our lives, reflect the experience of particular times, places, and peoples. So, stories enable the rest of us to gain access to strangers and make them somewhat less than strange”, he says, “Humanists have failed to create, communicate, and celebrate their own stories”.
Radest suggests the story of Humanism is Human Dignity. We need to create or discover the stories that exemplify the development of Human Dignity, then tell and retell those stories.*
I propose that one place we may begin to develop the story of Humanism is the 15th century in Western Europe when humans began the process of realizing they were in bondage to popes, kings and other authoritarians. That awakening became know in history as The Enlightenment.
In his latest book, “From Dawn to Decadence”, historian Jacques Barzun refers to this as the beginning of “Modernism” and reflects the beginning of Human Emancipation from the authority of governments controlled by religion. It had its roots in the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The branches of Modernism are reason, individualism, and rationality. From those roots and branches humans have learned to live with relativism, complexity and uncertainty. They have acquired freedom, dignity, and confidence.
In the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of The Humanist magazine Edward L. Ericson, the Humanists of the Year in 1990, writes about the need for Humanism to Reclaim the High Ground. In the article he defines a humanist as one who holds that the source of our values, including our moral and inspirational values, is to be found within human nature and experience. He goes on to say, “The core of the humanist philosophy is naturalism–the proposition that the natural world proceeds according to its own internal dynamics, without divine or supernatural control or guidance, and that we human beings are creations of that process.”
With those introductory remarks I will now move into the body of my presentation, “Humanism, a Rational Approach to Life and Death”
The earliest records relating to the Humanist philosophy are found in Greek manuscripts written around 600 BC when a few Greek scholars questioned the popular belief that supernatural forces influenced human life. The Greek philosopher, Protagoras, around 450 BC wrote “Man is the measure of all things. As for the gods, I do not know whether they exist or not. Life is too short for such difficult inquiries.” That statement is an expression of justified pride in human potential and expresses confidence that the human mind can be the most reliable source of solving the problems of human existence and discovering the means of leading a worthwhile, fulfilling and valuable life. Then, as now, the majority of thinkers believed that various `gods’ had an interest-in and an influence-on the affairs of the human race and the workings of nature. Then, as now, a few thinkers questioned that majority concept and proposed that perhaps individuals should accept responsibility for what happens in their life. Some of them taught that death is neither a reward nor a punishment, but simply a natural event. The Greek philosopher Epicures (342-270 BC) summarized this attitude writing in the third century BC, “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consist in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing makes life enjoyable.”
In southern Europe and the Middle East a stimulating atmosphere of free and open discussion about science, religion and the meaning of life continued for about 800 years. During that period a magnificent library was constructed in Alexandria, Egypt. It contained over 700,000 volumes, dedicated to the collection, preservation and study of ancient Greek culture. It was a beacon of learning, illuminating the intellectual life of the classical world. Unfortunately the clash of cultures eventually resulted in its destruction. It was partially burned by the troops of Caesar, and later totally destroyed by Muslim forces in 641 AD.
Thus began the era we now refer to as the Dark Ages, a period when the only people permitted to read and write were the students in religious monasteries. For the next thousand years the authoritarian Christian Religion controlled the major sources of knowledge, consequently it also dominated the cultural, social and political climate. Discussions of serious philosophical questions were limited and questioning the authority of religious leaders strongly discouraged.
To help us in understanding emotionally the impact and the significance of the humanism we enjoy today let me take a few minutes to summarize the depressive human conditions that existed during that period.
The academic term for the Dark Ages is the Middle Ages, the period in Europe dating from the collapse of the Roman Empire, around the 5th century, to the 15th century. The fixing of exact dates for the beginning and end of the Middle Ages is arbitrary;The term implies a suspension of time and, especially, a suspension of progress-a period of cultural stagnation. During this period western Europe essentially declined to a primitive culture. People lived in a state of perpetual crisis and ignorance.
The loose confederation of tribes coalesced into kingdoms, but virtually no effective machinery of government existed, and political and economic development came to a stand still. Regular commerce had ceased almost entirely. Peasants became bound to the land and dependent on landlords for protection and the rudimentary administration of justice. Feudalism emerged.
The only universal European institution was the Catholic church. The church saw itself as the spiritual community of Christian believers, in exile from God’s kingdom, waiting in a hostile world for the day of deliverance. At the center of the very limited educational activity stood the Bible, and all secular learning became regarded as mere preparation for understanding the holy text. Not only did the papacy exercise direct political control over the domain lands of central and northern Italy, but through diplomacy and the administration of justice in the extensive system of church courts it also exercised a directive, authoritative power throughout Europe.
With new migrations and invasions-the coming of the Vikings from the north and the Magyars from the Asian steppes-violence and dislocation caused lands to be withdrawn from cultivation, populations to decline, and the monasteries became outposts of civilization.
This was also a century of Crusades. These wars, begun in the late 11th century, were called by the popes to free Christian holy places from the control of the Muslims.
The catastrophic appearance in the 1340s of the Black Death, killed about a fourth of Europe’s population.
When most people did not read or write they lacked the information to think seriously and discuss openly the questions about the deeper meanings of life and death. Consequently I’m certain they were inclined to accept, without question, the decisions of religious and political leaders. This made it rather easy for the masses to be convinced that their leaders were given inspiration and knowledge by magic conversations with supernatural powers. It is important to remember that the contents of “The Bible” were transmitted orally for hundreds of years. When the stories were eventually hand written the general population remained illiterate so very few people could read them. Consequently for centuries religious authorities indoctrinated their subjects with authoritarian dogma.
The dogma and myths included such ideas as: the earth is flat, the sun and stars rotate around the earth, and some people were inferior and born to be slaves to their superiors. Such religious myths dominated Europe until the Renaissance.
The `Age of the Renaissance’ has no clear beginning but historians usually recognize the mid 1400’s as the Renaissance period. The essence of the Renaissance was the questioning and testing of the authority of the church in secular affairs. It was the first stage of the cultural evolution which led to the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. The prime quality of the Renaissance has been defined as “independence of mind”. Its ideal was a person who, by mastering all branches of art and thought, need not depend on any outside authority for the formation of knowledge, tastes, and beliefs. Such a person was considered ‘`the complete man.”
The principle product of the Renaissance was the reestablishment of humanism, the ancient Greek conviction that humanity is capable of mastering the world in which it lives. It was a decisive break with the middle ages when men and women were considered to be helpless pawns of supernatural Providence and universal sin.
Renaissance humanism was marked by a fundamental shift from the theocratic or god-centered world view of the middle ages to the anthropocentric or man-centered view. Its original manifesto may have been Pico’s treatise “On the Dignity of Man”. That essay is connected with the stirrings of the scientific attitude, the principle that nothing should be taken as true unless it can be tried and demonstrated.
The Renaissance established the grounding for the eventual recognition of individualism.
The later stages of the Renaissance witnessed Martin Luther posting his famous 95 Theses questioning the ethical practice of the Catholic church selling indulgences. This encouraged other religious leaders to challenge the dogma that “whoever has the right to rule also has the right to determine religion.”
A the human brain was slowly freed from the centuries of oppressive ecclesiastical bondage people began to ask questions and the thirst for knowledge dramatically increased. The Humanist philosophy of individual dignity once again enjoyed increasing recognition. When Gutenberg developed a movable type process that made it possible to print books faster the thoughts of those rebelling against authoritarian controls spread rapidly.
Many people now see Gutenbergs invention comparable in its day to the development of the Internet today. In fact, the Discovery Television channel listed Gutenberg as the most influential person of the second millenium. In the period between 1450 and 1500, more than 6000 separate works were printed. Information became public property and increasing numbers of people began to read, to think and to discuss serious subjects; science, politics, religion, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. In the year 1558 Macchiavelli’s book “The Prince” was published and it is thought to have been the original publication of a completely secular book. It was the first printed book which did not mention a deity.
Free thinkers exercised increasing influence and, led by Martin Luther, openly challenged the right of religious leaders to control human thought. A French philosopher, Pierre Charron (1541-1603) summarized the dominant theme of the new age when he wrote in his Book of Wisdom, “The proper science and subject for mans contemplation is man himself.”
Freed from domination of the religious authorities intellectuals expanded the scope of their inquiry and began to challenge as well the secular authority of emperors, kings, feudal lords and military leaders. This began the age of Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment, is a term used to describe the trends in thought and letters in Europe and the American colonies during the 18th century prior to the French Revolution. The phrase was frequently employed by writers of the period itself, convinced that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and a respect for humanity.
This is the historical period of time when we learned that the earth is not flat, the sun does not rotate around the earth, the earth is not the center of creation and no person should be a slave to another.
Of the basic assumptions and beliefs common to philosophers and intellectuals of this period, perhaps the most important was an abiding faith in the power of human reason. The age was enormously impressed by Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation. Other brilliant minds thought if humanity could so unlock the laws of the universe, why could it not also discover the laws underlying all of nature and society? People came to assume that through a judicious use of reason, an unending progress would be possible-progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values. 18th-century writers taught that knowledge is not innate, but comes only from experience and observation guided by reason. Through proper education, humanity itself could be altered, its nature changed for the better. A great premium was placed on the discovery of truth through the observation of nature, rather than through the study of authoritative sources, such as Aristotle and the Bible.
Although they saw the church-especially the Roman Catholic church-as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past, most Enlightenment thinkers did not renounce religion altogether. They opted rather for a form of Deism, accepting the existence of God and of a hereafter, but rejecting the basic Christian theology of creation, sin and divine damnation. Human aspirations, they believed, should not be centered on the next life, but rather on the means of improving this life. Worldly happiness was placed before religious salvation. Nothing was attacked with more intensity and ferocity than the authority of the church, with all its wealth, political power, and suppression of the free exercise of reason.
More than a set of fixed ideas, the Enlightenment implied an attitude, a method of thought. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the motto of the age should be “Dare to know.” A desire arose to reexamine and question all accepted ideas and values, to explore new ideas in many different directions.
One of the major events of this period of history was the execution of King Charles the First of England. He was put on public trial for claiming the divine right to rule. He refused to enter a plea, saying the court had no authority over him. The court found otherwise. He was declared guilty and beheaded Jan.30, 1649. That was a significant event in the downfall of the concept of `the divine right to rule’ and a major step toward establishing the revolutionary concept of separation of church and state.
This was the period of time during which the Scotish philosopher David Hume wrote his Treatise on Human Nature and his “Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” in which he says human ethics are not rules dictated by a `god’ but rather are the result of human experience. The English, poet & philosopher Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in his Essay on Man wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”
Probably the most notable figure of The Enlightenment is the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). He wrote his essays on the nobility of human nature in which he proclaims basic human rights such as the right to think freely and the right to express one’s views without public censorship or fear of repression.
His friendships with prominent government officers and scholars made him one of the most influential men of the 17th century. His essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690, is considered one of the classical documents of empirical philosophy. He concluded that the principle subject of philosophy is the extent of the mind’s ability to know. Locke is perhaps best known for his contributions to political thought. He wrote two major treatises of government that have had lasting influence on the political structures of England, France and the United States. In those works he set forth the principle that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens.
In his `Letter Concerning Toleration’ Locke expresses the view that no one should dictate the form of another persons religion. That was another major event in the movement to separate the powers of church and state.
John Locke’s writings were a major influence on Thomas Jefferson who put those Humanist principles into the famous American revolutionary document “The Declaration of Independence” and a few years later Jefferson relied on Locke’s philosophy in helping to draft one of the finest secular documents in world history, a document that would establish a humanistic form of secular government the “Constitution of the United States.” Finally, a form of government that did not equate disbelief with treason.
Let me cite one more of the masterful minds of The Enlightenment that is recognized for his contributions to the basic principles of Humanism. Paul Henri d’Holbach. In 1772 he published one of his major works “Natural Ideas Opposed to the Supernatural”. In it he writes: “In vain should we attempt to cure men of their vices, unless we begin by curing them of their prejudices. It is only by showing them the truth, that they will know their dearest interest, and the motive that ought to incline them to do good. Instructors have long enough fixed men’s eyes upon heaven, let then now turn them upon earth…Let the human mind apply itself to the study of nature, to intelligible objects, sensible truths and useful knowledge….To learn true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelations, or gods: They have need only of reason.”
That statement by Holbach is foundational to the ethics of contemporary Humanism.
The basic morality of Humanism is based on `Situational Ethics’ rather than `Traditional Ethics’ often referred to as `Family values’. Traditional Ethics, presupposes that there are certain basic rules, ordained by god, that govern all human conduct. Situational Ethics, on the other hand, are flexible, determined by the particular situation as well as concern for the welfare of the persons involved. Situational ethics also considers the likely outcome, `the consequences’, of an action.
Traditional Ethics ,”Family Values”, rest on four assumptions:
- That there is a real distinction between right and wrong.
- That no consideration of consequences can over ride that distinction.
- That right and wrong are based on strict rules. And
- That such principles are clear and unambiguous….
In contrast, Situational Ethics maintains that:
- Right and wrong are not always clearly defined,
- That consequences of actions must be considered.
- That there frequently will be situations in which established rules can be discarded. And
- That many moral principles are ambiguous and uncertain.
The author of the major study of Situation Ethics, James Fletcher, received the Humanist of the Year Award in 1974. In his book describing Situation Ethics he gives the following example to justify consideration of consequences. He looks at a passage from the stage play and movie “The Rainmaker”. The scene where the morally out raged brother of a lonely, girl threatens to shoot the Rainmaker because he made love to her in the barn during the night. The Rainmakers intention is to restore her sense of womanliness and her hopes for marriage and children. Her father, a wise old rancher, grabs the gun away from his son, saying, “Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s good.”….This episode illustrates the Humanist belief that we can choose between allegiance to established norms, based on traditional ethics, and Human well being, based on situational ethics.
Humanist Ethics seeks to bypass intense dogmatic differences and to negotiate disagreements, appealing to the civil virtues of rational dialogue and tolerance. It is our belief that most problems can be solved by negotiated compromises that respect individual rights, encourage personal responsibility and recognize societal needs.
In accepting his “Humanist of the Year” plaque Dr. Fletcher said: “We should drop the sanctify-of-life ethic and embrace a quality-of-life ethic”. His recommendation has since become closely identified with the Hospice movement and the Pro Choice movement.
That is a brief outline of historical Humanism. Here is a brief summary of today’s Humanist philosophy.
Humanism is a philosophy that puts the emphasis on humans solving the problems of life without the dogmatic authority of secular or religious institutions.
Humanism is committed to rational thought and responsible behavior that will enhance the quality of life on this earth.
Humanists believe that human beings are part of the natural world with all other forms of life and that nature is indifferent to our individual existence.
Humanists are convinced that the meaning and purpose of life must be found in living not in dying.
Humanists believe that moral values are neither divinely revealed nor the special property of any religious tradition, that they must be found by humans through the use of their natural reason, and that our beliefs about what is right or wrong in human behavior must be constantly subjected to the deepest reflection in light of our evolving understanding of our nature and the world in which we live.
Humanists have faith in the human capacity to choose good over evil without the expectation of reward in another life.
Humanists encourage moral excellence, positive relationships and human dignity; compassion, cooperation and community.
I am a Humanist because it offers a positive, intelligent, rational approach to solving the many problems of the human condition without resorting to character assassination, to brutality or condemning anyone’s lifestyle. I am a Humanist because it encourages a `zest’ for living.
Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, referred to “zest” as “the most universal and distinctive mark” of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.
Omar Khayyam described a `zest’ for life when he wrote:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend;
The 20th century mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said one can find a zest for life by `following your bliss’ which he described as acting according to the dictates of your own heart rather than the expectations of society.
The leading psychologist of Humanism, the late Dr.Abraham Maslow, popularized the formula for individual fulfillment with his “Hierarchy of Needs”: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self fulfillment. Dr. Maslow was honored as Humanist of the Year in 1967.
I have fairly well covered the Humanist attitude about living, I would like now to turn to the Humanist thoughts about death.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked 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, its 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 worlds leading religions use the fear of a supernatural power as the enforcer of moral values. Humanism suggests that moral values should be based on respect for human values, 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, and the U.S. Bill of Rights. 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 it’s the result of people having lost their humanism.
A few years before I became active in organized Humanism I got involved in the Hospice movement. I enrolled in the training course to be a Hospice Volunteer and after completing the course I was invited to be a member of the group organizing a Utah Hospice program. The original Utah hospice organization included several nurses, a doctor, a dentist, a couple of advertising executives and myself. At that time I was a broadcast journalist and public affairs representative for KSL.
Our primary goal was to introduce the hospice philosophy to Utah and to train both medical professionals and non-medical lay people in the art of volunteer hospice care. At that time Hospice training was basically teaching volunteers the principles of `rational compassion’, that is recognizing human pain and suffering, then helping patients and their families to deal realistically with it. Today its called Palliative Care. That’s much different than simply feeling sorry for people.
The Hospice philosophy recognizes that death and dying are difficult situations for everyone. We are a death denying culture, we avoid talking about death and tend think about it only in vague terms, consequently we are confronted with over powering decisions when we or a loved one faces the reality of dying.
Hospice helps people to realize that death is a natural process and that the end of life deserves thoughtful consideration and care. The goal of Hospice care is the best quality of life possible during a persons final weeks, days and hours. Hospice believes people have the right to spend their final days in a familiar, friendly environment, their own home if possible. The Hospice program teaches the value of meaningful communications with the person in the process of dying and the family members. Hospice believes that people should not have to suffer severe pain during the final days of their life and encourages the medical profession to provide adequate pain control medication. Hospice encourages taking care of the whole person, the body, mind and emotions not simply the disease.
During the 25-years of my involvement with Hospice I’ve been a lay volunteer, a trainer, a workshop leader and a pastoral counselor. But I must say that I have received much more than I have given. My hospice service has stimulated me to be more compassionate, to learn more about the art of listening, given me tools to deal more realistically with death and dying, and to more fully appreciate the daily experiences of life.
For example about two years after my wife and I took the hospice training program our doctor discovered my wife had an incurable cancer. Our hospice training was really put to test as we learned to think about how to live each day with the knowledge of a very limited future together…We got first hand experience in the art of honestly expressing the full range of human feelings…the art of caring about each other…the benefits of doing things we really wanted to do now rather than postponing them. Her death was a great loss for me but our experiences with Hospice helped her to deal with her pending death and helped me to accept her death realistically and to deal honestly with the frequent feelings of sorrow and loneliness that would erupt unexpectedly for many years.
A few years after my wife’s death, my 86-year old mother was faced with a serious health situation that made death or incapacitation her only options. With the benefit of discussions we had had about living wills, advanced medical directives and special powers of attorney , she chose to die. She was released from the hospital and spent her final days of life in the comfort of my home, surrounded with the love of her children, grand children and great grand children…
A couple of years after my mothers death my two-year old great grandson was seriously injured in a home accident. Doctors at the Primary Children’s Hospital tried every possible way to restore his consciousness but finally said it was futile, that his brain has been deprived of oxygen so long after the accident that if he survived his life would be a vegetative state. My granddaughter talked with me and decided to remove her son from the life support system. She held him for a while then asked if I would like to hold him. I had the privilege of holding his small body in my arms, with his face resting on mine, as his body exhaled its final breath.
I relate these personal experiences as examples of the value of the Hospice Philosophy and Hospice training. I have no way of knowing how I would have handled these family deaths if I had not been involved with the Hospice Program. But I do know that the `rational compassion’ I developed as a result of being a Hospice volunteer has been inspiring and a source of emotional strength for me.
In summary then, how does my Humanist philosophy , my Hospice training and my experience with family deaths effect my feeling about death and dying? I grieve and sorrow and cry, I remember with regret the times when those relationships were marred by misunderstanding and anger but I also remember with joy the happy times, the moments we shared beautiful experiences, the quiet times of thoughtful tenderness and times of boisterous laughter. I try to remind myself that life is not an orderly process of moving from point A to point B, but rather life is chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous. Is the possibility that life may continue after death appealing? You bet. But is it probable? I don’t think so. As a Humanist I celebrate life and I recognize that death ends a life but not a relationship.
In conclusion I want to return to the thoughts of Howard Radest with which I began this presentation, he suggests that Humanism needs to create, communicate and celebrate stories about human dignity, then tell and retell those stories.
A vital element of creating such stories is clarifying our goals, understanding what it is Humanism hopes to accomplish.
Much of the success of religion can be attributed to its effort to provide answers to the basic mysteries of life: where did we come from, why are we here and where are we going. Religions tell stories that provide answers to those questions, then tell those stories over and over and over. Religions have been repeating the same answers to those same questions for at least five-thousand years.
Can we create meaningful stories about the dignity of being human that will have emotional impact? Can we create stories that will endure, that will appeal to generation after generation, for five-thousand years?
The Enlightenment was the beginning of human emancipation from mythology and authoritarianism. The enlightenment leaders proclaimed that every human being should have an equal opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that the primary role of government is to assure social and political conditions that protect that equality. I think that is the primary story Humanism should glorify and tell over and over.
Abraham Maslow clarified the stages of how humans find meaning in life. I believe that’s another story Humanism should tell over and over.
Every person has worth and dignity and we should say so over and over.
Every person has the right to a pain free, dignified death. That message deserve frequent repetition.
I believe Humanism does has meaningful stories to tell about living and dying and we should tell those stories over, and over and over.
Firestone of Religious Rhetoric
If talking about UFOs or constipation would get votes, then presidential candidates Bush, Gore, Cheney, and Lieberman would be flaunting this tactic. Instead, the 2000 campaign is firing away with in-your-face religious/God rhetoric to obtain votes. So omnipresent is this rhetoric that the Anti-Defamation League, whose focus is fighting anti-Semitism, has written Joseph Lieberman to urge him to curb expression of religiosity in his campaigning. Examples of his rhetoric are: “I stand before you today as a witness to the goodness of God,” and “As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purposes.”
Al Gore’s rhetoric is that he supports “faith-based partnerships,” which includes involving sectarian groups. Referring to gang violence and deteriorating social conditions among inner-city youth, he said, “Those who are quick to feel disrespected often have a spiritual vacuum in their lives, because they feel disconnected to the love of their Father in Heaven.”
Said George Bush, “We should promote these private and faith-based efforts because they work,” promising to dedicate $8 billion to such groups in the first year of his presidency through a program of tax rebates and direct grants.
Of course, religion, like any other institution such as education, marriage, or profession, has potential to benefit our growth and development. However, to imply or explicitly state that without religious boundaries, we are an ethically and morally corrupt nation, is an erroneous argument.
The bogus logic of this religious campaigning can be summarized in this syllogism: religions are good, people are religious, therefore, religious people are good. However, reality is: good people are not all religious, and religious people are not all good. “Good,” for the purpose of this piece, is defined as practicing ethical and moral values.
For instance, Presidents Bill Clinton and John Kennedy’s sexual infidelities poke a hole in the syllogism. Religion did not save them. Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart spouted the same religious rhetoric while committing public hypocrisy. Prisons house the largest percent of God believers, children cheat more often in parochial schools than in public schools, and religious crusades and ethnic cleansings are products of both dogmatic believers and dogmatic nonbelievers (Gordon Gamm, Colorado Humanist, Jan./Feb. 2000).
Naturally, it goes without saying the converse also applies: some religious people are good, and some good people are religious.
Whatever the source, people practice ethical and moral values most genuinely when these are internalized, which means we act “good” no matter where we are, who is watching us, and what tempts us to act otherwise. Anything less is less, less meaning we “act for the wrong reason,” less meaning we act from fear of after-death hell and damnation, or fear of imprisonment, or fear of what others think about us. At the same time, acting for the wrong reason is not necessarily all negative if these acts benefit self, loved ones, co-workers, and community at large.
That said, some people require rules, policies, laws, and religions to keep them honest and responsible. If “artificial” societal, political, and religious barriers or boundaries did not exist, some of us would more easily succumb to deceiving, manipulating, lying, cheating, stealing, abusing, and so on. Without established, organized, penalizing courses of conduct, “higher principles” or “laws of the spirit” are mere terms belonging to fantasy novels and Hallmark cards.
Religion often seems to be no respecter of certain decisions. Driving above the speed limit is probably one of the most frequently broken laws, as well as driving through red lights and changing lanes in an intersection. Without “no-noise” ordinances, more of us would be hiking music up to Nine-Inch Nails concert volume all night long or allowing a dog to bark at 3 a.m. We would more likely jay walk, park in front of people’s driveways, park in spaces allotted for the handicap, and litter like children.
When faced with these commonplace, but less clear-cut situations, the religious and non-religious may act no differently. 1) A store clerk gives you too much change. 2) A credit card company makes a mistake in your favor. 3) A dinner was not charged in your restaurant bill. 4) You can take full credit for a project although others did the work. 5) A co-worker discloses a terrific idea that you can pirate. 6) You did not follow through on an assignment or promise, but can blame it on someone else. 7) Someone calls with whom you do not wish to talk, and you can ask your child to say you’re not home.
Whether religious or non-religious, people often feel worse about getting caught and getting penalized than committing the immoral or unethical deed.
Despite Utah being one of the most church-going states in the U.S., recent United Way (UW) data casts stones upon our perceived, squeaky clean state (August 29, 2000: KSL-TV). For example, as many as 4,000 are homeless in the greater Salt Lake area, and 28,051 children live in poverty (defined in 1998 as a family of four earning $16,530 or less). At least 50,000 Salt Lake County residents over age 12 are considered substance abusers. One in eight Utah women experiences physical abuse, one in three endures emotional abuse in a relationship, and one in three suffers sexual abuse before age eighteen. The crowning figure that religious Utah is not all good is that child sexual abuse here is double the national average.
These damning statistics of our perceived “happy valley” Utah refute, at least in part, the campaign rhetoric implying that religious people have a monopoly on ethical and moral behavior. Hopefully, a new rhetoric will spawn where a colleague or neighbor can say he is non-religious or atheist, and you won’t hear, “Oh, he couldn’t be. He’s too good a person.” With 26 million non-religious Americans, a lot is riding on the do-the-right-thing internalization tread where temptation does not split apart conscience and character.
This article was also published by the Salt Lake Tribune on 9/24/2000
Some Observations On
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
This month the Discussion Group discussed Paul Kurtz’ Humanist Manifesto 2000. This document is 15 pages long, and all of it is important. It is impossible to summarize it in the short space of this article and still do it justice. However, a one-page summary can be found at the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) web site at www.secularhumanism.org. In this present article, I am going to deviate from the usual format and present a summary of the discussion group comments made in the meeting:
There are many desirable ideas in Manifesto 2000, but it may be too large, detailed and abstract. A shorter document expressing the humanist viewpoint more succinctly might attract the interest of more people. Perhaps a Manifesto should address the question of how first and third world countries could get together to work on environmental problems.
The publication of Manifesto 2000 came as a surprise to the leaders of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Four major Humanist Manifestos and Declarations had already been published in the twentieth century: Humanist Manifesto I, Humanist Manifesto II, A Secular Humanist Declaration, and a Declaration of Interdependence. The AHA had announced it was planning to organize leading thinkers representing all the humanist organizations to write a new updated Manifesto. Kurtz’ document appeared possibly to be an attempted preemption of the AHA effort, which had intended to involve the CSH. Concern was expressed over what appears to be attempts by Kurtz in recent decades to set himself up as the spokesman for humanism. While it is recognized that he has been a most eminent humanist, it is being asked: Is there a power play going on here? The CSH has an authoritarian power structure and has been secretive about releasing membership data, while the AHA has been more open and democratic. The AHA has a committee developing a Humanist Manifesto III with instructions to make it short and declarative.
It is unfortunate that there is so much divisiveness among humanists. The various humanist organizations agree on the most substantive issues and ought to be working together more than they are to promote humanism, although there have been some attempts at cooperative efforts. The differences among the groups have perhaps been given too much emphasis. There is a need for an umbrella organization that could embrace the various orientations within humanism, such as religious humanism, secular humanism, etc. Yet humanists are very individualistic and may sometimes over-emphasize the importance of differences. Perhaps too much ego is involved. “Personality” or even power-seeking seem to be important factors in the divisiveness.
A similar schism has also existed among American Atheists in recent decades. There have been strong differences between the followers of Madeline Murray O’Hare and others, with O’Hare taking a quite authoritarian posture. Unfortunately, however, now she and two other family members have been murdered by criminal extortionists. That tragedy had nothing to do with any in-fighting within the organization.
Membership in humanist organizations has been declining in recent years. Currently there are about 65 chapters in the AHA. Humanists of Utah is one of the most active and has one of the largest memberships. The AHA headquarters will soon be moved to Washington, D.C.
On a more positive note, under the stimulus of AHA Board member Herb Silverman of South Carolina, a cooperative project involving the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Atheist Alliance International was recently launched to explore new avenues of cooperation. Other organizations representing free thinkers will be invited to join and to support a joint publicity program to “Promote, Attract, and defend the Community of Reason.”
Humanism has a great deal of difficulty getting its views publicized. Although Manifesto 2000 received some media attention, it was not much. Perhaps a point of attack for humanists could be to get more attention called to Thomas Paine-a great champion of the American revolution. He deserves a monument, or perhaps his face could be put on a stamp. Some effort is already being made by the AHA Board to create more public awareness of his accomplishments.
Historically, some revolutions, such as the American and French Revolutions, have served to bring attention to humanist ideas. The Declaration of Independence is humanistic and the U.S. Constitution is totally secular. However, after a revolution, once a government takes over, it tends to forget the original values that sparked it. We need to articulate more clearly the ideas of the Enlightenment.