January 2002

What Do We Tell the Children?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Not always true, says Nicholas Humphrey in the Journal of Social Research, Vol. 65. “Words can hurt people indirectly by inciting others to hurt them: a crusade preached, racist propaganda from the Nazis, malevolent gossip from a rival…. They can hurt people, not so indirectly, by inciting them to take actions that harm themselves: the lies of a false prophet, the blackmail of a bully, the flattery of a seducer…. And words can hurt directly, too: the lash of a malicious tongue, the feared message carried by a telegram, the spiteful onslaught that makes the hearer beg his tormentor say no more.” Words have a unique power to hurt.

Should we be campaigning for the rights of human beings to be protected from verbal oppression and manipulation? No, says Humphrey; but what about moral and religious education, especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed–even expected–to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong?

Children, he argues, have a right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas–no matter who these people are. And parents have no God-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

“In short they have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon…”

On the positive side, children also “have a right to be succored by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world–to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis–as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.”

How can we have the nerve to argue that the modern scientific view of the world is the only true view there is, when the post-modernists and relativists have taught us that more or less anything can be true in its own way? And even if it is truer, who is to say it’s the better one? Isn’t it possible that particular individuals would be better served by one of the not-so-true worldviews? Might not the more traditional way of thinking actually work better for them? Do we really want everyone living in a dreary scientific monoculture? Don’t we want pluralism and cultural diversity? And what about other people’s rights, not just children’s. Don’t parents have their own rights, too, as parents?

Look around close to home. We ourselves live in a society where most adults, not just a few crazies, subscribe to a whole variety of weird and nonsensical beliefs that, in one way or another, they shamelessly impose upon their children. The problem is not just that so many adults positively believe in things that flatly contradict the modern scientific world view, but that so many do not believe in things that are absolutely central to the scientific view. A survey published last year showed that half the American people do not know, for example that the earth goes around the sun once a year. More than half do not accept that human beings have evolved from animal ancestors. While we should be careful about relying too much on the results of surveys without examining the methodology, including the wording of questions used in them, there are a number of surveys that show evidence of a great deal of scientific illiteracy in the population.

There are small, but significant, communities where not only are superstition and ignorance firmly entrenched, but where this goes hand-in-hand with the imposition of repressive regimes of social and interpersonal conduct–in relation to hygiene, diet, dress, sex, gender roles, marriage arrangements, etc. Examples are Amish Christians, Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Muslims…and radical New Agers, which are alike in providing an intellectual and cultural dungeon for those who live among them. A mother who believes that holding a crystal to her head is the best cure for depression is hardly likely to withhold such a matter from her offspring. Anthropologist Donald Kraybill, who made a close study of an Amish community in Pennsylvania, writes, “Groups threatened by cultural extinction must indoctrinate their offspring if they want to preserve their unique heritage.”

“All sects that are serious about their own survival do indeed make every attempt to flood the child’s mind with their own propaganda, and to deny the child access to any alternative viewpoints,” states Humphrey. In the United States this kind of restricted education has continually received the blessing of the law. Parents have the legal right to educate their children at home, and nearly one million families do. But many more who wish to limit what their children learn rely on the thousands of sectarian schools that are permitted to function subject to only minimal state supervision. A U.S. court recently recognized that “the whole purpose of such a school is to foster the development of their children’s minds in a religious environment” and therefore that the school should be allowed to teach all subjects “in its own way,” which meant, as it happened, presenting all subjects only from a biblical point of view, and requiring all teachers, supervisors, and assistants to agree with the church’s doctrinal position.

Human Rights in Utah

Professor Boyer Jarvis provided the inspiration for this issue with his December 13th address on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also linked through our web site. Born out of the horrors of the last world war, the Declaration remains a vision of hope for humans everywhere.

It took far too many years for the Utah Legislature to finally recognize the birth day of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Utah was one of the last states to do so, and first only as “Human Rights Day” (see the chronology elsewhere on this page). Today, however, Ogden has an African-American mayor, George Garwood, Jr., the first black mayor in the state of Utah.

But all is not well. Recent dragnets at the Salt Lake Airport were criticized for alleged racist tactics. Planned Parenthood of Utah still has to contend with threats, although they have not had to deal with an anthrax threat since 1998.

Utahns of the Democratic persuasion will remember 2001 as the year that legislators cut up the map of Utah and stitched it back together into an electoral Frankenstein, hideously deformed and lacking the breath and vigor of life. “Love it or leave it” letters to the editor provided a drumbeat of intolerance in our local daily newspapers.

And then there is the War on Terrorism, a demonstration of Surrealism as the operative philosophy for conducting foreign policy and trimming civil liberties.

Human rights? Have you used yours lately? Do you really have some? How do you know?

–Richard Garrard

African Humanism Come of Age

From a welcome address presented by Leo Igwe, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement at the 1st African Humanist Conference, October 8-10, 2001 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria:.

“Fellow Humanists, Ladies and Gentlemen. I feel honored to welcome you all to this conference on behalf of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and other humanist and free thought societies in Nigeria. This conference is of enormous historical significance. For this is the first major humanist event to take place in sub-Saharan Africa. And more especially, this is the first international celebration of humanism right here at the home of Homo sapiens. For so many years now, like a bird outside its nest, humanism has been wandering and hovering in other lands. But today, with this conference, the humanist bird has come to perch and perch forever in Africa. Humanism is back to its nest. Humanism is back to its home. Humanism is back to its root. So, it is most fitting and proper that such an historic event is taking place in Nigeria, a nation and a people that mirrors the travails and triumphs, the prospects and possibilities of the black continent early in this 21st Century. Africa has a long history of humanity but a short history of modern humanism. And by participating in this conference, we are partaking in that history, we are rewriting that history, we are enriching that history.”

History of Martin Luther King Day in Utah

  • In 1986, Utah declared an official state holiday called Martin Luther King, Jr./Human Rights Day.
  • In 1991, the Utah State Martin Luther King Jr./Human Rights Commission (MLK Commission) was established by Executive Order.
  • In 1993, the MLK Commission was successful in urging the renaming of 6th South Street in downtown Salt Lake City to “Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.”
  • In 1995, 24th Street in downtown Ogden was renamed “Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.”
  • In 1999, Governor Leavitt reauthorized the Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Commission.
  • In 2000, the legislature voted to change the name of the holiday from Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
  • In 2000, Governor Leavitt signed the bill officially naming the holiday Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Prison Services Project

Humanists of Utah is planning to direct Chapter Assemblies Grant funds-and volunteer help, if available-to the prison literacy program, “Booked,” run by the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Service Division. “Booked” was formed in 1992 to foster literacy in prisons and jails with the aim of reducing recidivism. An estimated 79% of all criminals are functionally illiterate. Of those, about 60% leave prison only to be re-incarcerated for new crimes, but of those inmates who manage to earn a college degree, 80% stay out of prison.

At the Salt Lake County Metropolitan and Oxbow Jails, over 1,000 have earned their GED’s or High School Diplomas through the Booked program. The County extends a strong hand of reinforcement to these academic achievers. The ones who attain a High School Diploma are granted 90 days sentence reduction. For completion of every six-week course, the County reduces the sentence by five days. And the County gives them a completion certificate.

“Booked” is seeking tutors to teach literacy courses in the program: suitable volunteers with math, art, science, parenting, basic reading, anger management, computer overview, English as a second language, and coping skills. The County will arrange course scheduling and class sizes to suit volunteers’ needs. It requires that tutors have at least a high school education and take a training course to become familiar with the kinds of problems and pressures likely to arise in tutoring prisoners.

Since the early 1990’s jails and prisons have shown in their numbers an alarmingly high proportion of minor drug offenders. The War on Drugs has often produced disproportionate sentences, for example, many years of imprisonment for marijuana-related offenses. As a result hopes are numbed, while futures are suspended and personal contributions to society lost. The Board agrees that becoming involved in the literacy program allies with Humanist beliefs and principles of faith in human capacity, rational thought, enhancing quality of life, human dignity and compassion.

–Heather Dorrell

HoU Donates $2500 to Prison Literacy Fund

June 27, 2002

Chapter President Heather Dorrell spearheaded an application to The American Humanist Association for a grant to promote humanism in Utah.

The application was enthusiastically accepted with a note that Booked, a prison literacy project was just the sort of thing that chapters should be supporting to put humanism in a favorable public light. The AHA granted a little more than $1000 and Humanists of Utah added funds from our treasury to bring the total gift up to $2500.

A ceremony was held June 27, 2002 where project lead Lisa Hilden gratefully accepted the monies and roundly praised our chapter for its generosity. She stated, “Humanists of Utah, in conjunction wither their national organization donated $2500.00 to Prisoner Services Booked program. Humanists of Utah was founded in 1991 and is a chapter of the American Humanist Association. They are a non-profit corporation organized to advocate ethical, rational, and democratic humanism among their membership and the larger community. The money donated to Booked will be used to purchase supplies, textbooks, and exercise equipment for Salt Lake County Jail prisoners. Prisoner Services thanks the Humanists of Utah for their support and Generosity.”

Chapter President Heather Dorrell Presents Check to Lisa Hilden
From left to right Dennis Hunter, Prison Official, Sgt. Jaren Tame, Lisa Hilden, Board Member Florien Wineriter, Heather Dorrell, Chapter Treasurer Leona Blackbird. Board member Rolf Kay is hiding behind Sgt. Tame.

More Images:

Sgt. Tame, Mr Hunter, Board Member Rolf Kay, Ms. Hiden, Ms. Dorrell, Mr. Wineriter, Ms. Blackbird, and Board Member Wayne Wilson
Mr. Hunter, Sgt. Tame, Ms. Hilden, Mr. Wineriter, Ms. Dorrell, Ms. Blackbird