May 2004

Ouch! Your Free Speech is My Pain

Ken Wallentine, who works for the Administrative Council for the Utah Department of Public Safety, addressed the Humanists of Utah general meeting on April 8, 2004. His presentation was sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment has a long and storied history in our country. Our courts have dealt with many cases involving this right. Some of the issues that are at issue include: hate speech and fighting word profanity and offensive speech, expressive “speech,” incendiary political speech, soft money for political campaigns, and obscenity and censorship.

There are two principal views on limitations of free speech. First is the pro-regulation faction that argues limits are necessary to protect traditionally prosecuted minorities and to foster a positive learning environment. Anti-regulation, the second group, argues that free speech and equality are not at odds and that in fact, free speech is the strongest weapon against prejudice and oppression.

The Supreme Court defined the Chaplinsky Test as “any offensive, derisive, or annoying word to another person who is lawfully in a public place.” So called “fighting words” is language that by its “very utterance will inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace. The test is what men of common intelligence would understand would be likely to cause an average addressee to fight.” On the surface these definitions sound clear and easy to interpret; however, in real situations all is not clear. Consider the historical event of the American Nazi Party requesting and being granted a permit to march through Skokie, Illinois, the home of many elderly Jewish survivors of Hitler’s death camps. Another famous incident is when Gregory Johnson burned a US flag. The Supreme Court said, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Not everyone agrees, including Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has been trying for years to pass an Anti-Flag Desecration amendment to the Constitution.

Many people believe that the millions of dollars that are used as “soft” money in support of political parties and, indirectly, candidates is an abuse of free speech. Political donations to individual candidates are regulated, but donations to parties and political action committees are less tightly controlled. Thus millions and millions of dollars are spent on campaigns ,eliminating, in the view of many, fairness and equal exposure of candidates and ideas.

The concept of obscenity is also contested in the ring of free speech. The biggest problem in regulation of obscenity is defining what it is and what it is not. Many court cases have struggled with the concept which often centers around “community standards.”

In conclusion, any discussion of free speech always raises more questions than it provides answers!

–Wayne Wilson

Bush Administration Distorts Science

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Federal agencies with global reputations for scientific excellence depend upon the objective input of leading scientists and the impartial analysis of scientific evidence to develop effective policies. The Bush Administration, however, has repeatedly suppressed, distorted, or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals. These actions go far beyond the traditional influence that Presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies and compromise the integrity of scientific policymaking.”

The above conclusion is made in a comprehensive report, “Politics and Science in the Bush Administration,” which was prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman by the Committee on Government Reform-Minority Staff of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003. The report presents findings about the performance of the Administration in presenting scientific information to the public on 20 very important issues that face the country and the world-abstinence-only education, agricultural pollution, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, breast cancer, condoms, drinking water, education policy, environmental health, global warming, HIV-AIDS, lead poisoning, missile defense, oil and gas, prescription drug advertising, reproductive health, stem cells, substance abuse, wetlands, workplace safety, and Yellowstone National Park.

A quite typical handling of scientific information is found in the Administration’s treatment of the subject of global warming. According to the report, despite Bush’s statement when he rejected the Kyoto Protocol that “my Administration’s climate change policy will be science-based,” his Administration has repeatedly manipulated scientific committees and suppressed science in this area. It opposed the re-appointment of a leading U.S. climatologist to the top position on the preeminent international global warming study panel, Dr. Robert Watson. Under his leadership, The International Panel on Climate Change had produced a report predicting an increase of 2.5 to 10.5 degrees Fahrenheit in average global temperatures by 2100 and concluding that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” These conclusions were confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences.

After the release of the 2001 report, ExxonMobil lobbied the Bush administration for Dr. Watson’s ouster. ExxonMobil opposes the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming and gives over a million dollars a year to groups that question the existence of global warming.

The report says, “The Bush Administration has also suppressed scientific evidence on global warming. In September 2002, the section on global warming was removed from an annual report on the state of air pollution. Then in June 2003, the Administration published a supposedly ‘comprehensive’ report on the environment without any information on climate change.”

Politics, not the complexities of science, led to the deletion of the section on global warming. The White House even objected to the reference to a National Academy of Sciences report on the human contribution to global warming. These sections were replaced with a reference to a study funded by the American Petroleum Institute questioning climate change evidence. It even sought to replace the scientifically indisputable statement that “climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment” with a statement about “the complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components.” In the end, EPA officials chose to eliminate the section on global warming entirely.

The report states the Administration has repeatedly manipulated the advisory committee process to advance its political and ideological agenda by appointing unqualified persons with industry ties, appointing unqualified persons with ideological agendas, stacking advisory committees, and opposing qualified experts. It has distorted and suppressed scientific information by including misleading information in presidential communications, presenting incomplete and inaccurate information to Congress, altering web sites, and suppressing agency reports. It has interfered with scientific research by scrutinizing ongoing research, obstructing agency analyses, undermining outcome assessment, and blocking scientific publication. There is not room in a short article like the present one to cite all the considerable evidence to substantiate all the above charges.

The report points out that the President’s right to make federal agencies “should not extend to manipulating scientific research, controlling the advice provided by scientific advisory committees, or distorting scientific information presented to decision makers and the public.” Leading scientific journals have raised worries about the state of scientific independence. Nature has expressed concern that the Administration has made poorly supported decisions “in which scientists would normally play an advisory role.” Scientific American has objected that on issues like global warming and missile defense, the President “has come down against the scientific consensus.” The Administration, Science has written, “invades areas once immune to this kind of manipulation.” And the British journal Lancet warns of “growing evidence of explicit vetting of appointees to influential [scientific] panels on the basis of their political or religious opinions.”

Roger G. Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service told the Los Angeles Times, “Tinkering with scientific information, either striking it from reports or altering it, is becoming a pattern of behavior…It represents the politicizing of a scientific process, which at once manifests a disdain for professional scientists working for our government and a willingness to be less than candid with the American people.”

Religion Bashing

~Letter to the Editor~

I was a little disturbed upon reading last month’s article titled simply “On Easter.” Disturbed not so much by the content of the story but by the fact that it appeared in our Journal. True, we do not believe in the supernatural and all of its ramifications but it should not be our main agenda, nay, it should not be on our agenda at all. We have many positive thoughts to dwell on. And I’m as much opposed to Christian bashing as I am to Mormon bashing, or Gay bashing.

I believe that anyone who ridicules, makes fun of, badmouths, or hurts another religion or any other group in any way, shape or form is not a true humanist. After all don’t we “preach” happiness, freedom, and progress for everyone irrespective of nationality or religion? Don’t we “preach,” as Flo Wineriter so beautifully said, “Humanists encourage moral excellence, positive relationships, and human dignity; compassion, cooperation, and community.” Religion bashing somehow does not fit.

Humanism will suffer as long as articles like “On Easter” are published in our Journal.

–Rolf Kay

On Gay Marriage

Dear Eric,

In response to your article in the February 23rd University of Maryland Flyer, let me first say I am a non-gay married female, mother of three non-gay men. The issue of “gay marriage” is fraught with irrational fear and invective. Now it is time not only to listen to others who have different views, but learn. Our right of free speech is a system for speaking our opinions, but more importantly, for finding the truth. Finding truth means we must seek out contrary views and, whether we like them or not, be prepared to learn from them, and to change. This process is indispensable to the preservation of liberty (Walter Lippman, “The Indispensable Opposition”, The Atlantic Monthly, 1939). It is from the standpoint of constructive dialogue, then, that I invite a second look at your arguments opposing gay union.

  1. You state, “I believe that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. Simple as that.” This is an unsupported opinion. Belief is fine, but for a well reasoned, convincing argument, you need facts. I could declare,”I believe in UFO’s, plain and simple”, but why would you take me seriously? No one would expect you to.
  2. “Marriage is a sacred institution.” This is an erroneous concept. Marriage is a civil institution. Couples may imbue their marriage ceremony and lifestyle with whatever religion they like, but their marriage will not be legal without a civil license. God does not issue such licenses, even through churches. So God cannot be construed to “ordain” marriages, as you claim.
  3. “In Genesis, God said,”–In fact, we don’t know what God said, only what the Bible claims he said. The Bible is a notoriously unreliable source on which to base an argument. Many claim it was written by people who said they had the word of God. Is God everybody’s God? Can everyone receive His word? If so, what language is he speaking? Are God’s exact words translated by completely reliable people into different languages, or could a typo conceivably slip in? If so, is it still God’s word? Many claim to have direct links to God or that God speaks to them. In a recent case here in Salt Lake City, a man told the judge God had told him to kill a woman and her baby, which he did. The judge did not buy the part about God., and convicted the man. The judge might have seen fit to reply, “God tells me I should put you away for a very long time…”You see my point: that people may misuse the Bible for their own purposes. (For some enlightening reading on the word of God, read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Part II, written from a Paris jail during the French Revolution.) The Bible suggests commitment and “union” but makes no actual mention of marriage. In fact, marriage practice first appears around medieval times, a purely social construct intended to preserve wealth and inheritance between prominent, moneyed families. Clearly, nothing is “sacred” about preserving and passing on wealth.
  4. “Traditional marriages are healthier happier, safer, wealthier and longer lived”–you don’t say so, but I presume you mean in contrast to gay marriage. This is an unwarranted claim. You need some evidence, such as a comparative group, to back up your statement. The only comparative group would be gay marriages. Only by studying that group after a considerable passage of time could a reasoned evaluation be made. But because we don’t have a body of same-sex marriage to contrast with traditional marriage, you cannot justify claiming any superior qualities of traditional marriage over same-sex ones. Unhappily, many apparently strong traditional marriages collapse, as did Ronald Reagan’s, Newt Gingrich’s, and others. Realistically, it is inevitable that many gay marriages will prove just as fragile as many traditional ones, beset by domestic abuse, divorce, and unfaithfulness, just as heterosexual marriages are.
  5. In my view, society would benefit most, not from forbidding the legality of gay union, but recognizing more committed partnerships, with two responsible, loving people building a monogamous life together, working and paying taxes, regardless of sexual orientation. Because we don’t recognize gay marriage, gay partners can’t enjoy basic rights other married people do. They can’t inherit property as heterosexuals can; can’t receive medical care under a partner’s insurance. The present law, therefore, undermines the hard work, commitment and effort of a considerable segment of society, some ten per cent.. The reasons given to justify denying these Americans the civil rights other Americans enjoy–citing words of God, quotations from Genesis, perceiving violation of sanctity or sacredness–simply do not stand the light of day.
  6. “Marriage is for the purpose of procreation.” This immediately disqualifies countless traditional marriages where the couples a) can’t or b) decide not to have children. Are childless marriages less valid for not having children, and should they be revoked? Incidentally there is no evidence whatever children raised in gay households become gay. So we are not protecting children by forbidding gay unions.
  7. The fear that traditional marriage will be undermined, or more passionately, “wounded”, by recognizing gay marriage, is totally irrational. The fact that two same sex people love each other, co-habit and justifiably seek legal rights does not harm, threaten or insult my marriage or any straight marriage I know. Someone’s gay union does not tempt me to run off and live with a gay partner.
  8. There is no evidence that anyone can compel anyone else to become homosexual– and you, by the same token, cannot make anyone straight. My concern, Eric, is that you seem to want to, with all your heart. Why? You live in a democracy. No one justifiably interferes with your quiet enjoyment of life, and you have no need, or right, to interfere with anyone’s. You don’t have to approve of others’ religions, politics, or behavior, but you do have to tolerate them. It may be hard for you to bear, but that is your civic responsibility. You are an American. Our Constitution bestows civil rights. It does not take them away. In the words of Herbert Muschamp: “We do not embrace reason at the expense of emotion. We embrace it at the expense of self-deception.”
  9. Keep listening and thinking.. Keep the dialogue open.

–Heather Dorrell

What To Do About Religion

How do we talk about religion or the religious, and how do we criticize or express concerns about the beliefs and actions of a religion or certain members without being regarded as “anti-religious?” I am afraid that explaining we are nonbelievers and not anti-religious is a distinction lost on a majority of the people who adhere to a theistic religion. This majority, I would speculate, reaches nearly 100% among fundamentalists. So, how do we couch written and spoken observations and criticisms?

In the time I have been a member of Humanists of Utah, a number of our members have admonished us not to become anti-religious and to instead concentrate on our humanist ideals. For the most part, I think this is a good idea. We do need to get the word out as best we can, what humanism is all about.

But to be honest, being nice to the zealots of the world is getting harder and harder for me. In the last few years, we have seen an increase in challenges to many aspects of our secular society. Challenges to choice (i.e. abortion rights) and challenges to separation of church and state (where fundamentalists want to stick the Ten Commandments all over public property, and they push to get evolution out of schools, or creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution). The list goes on and on.

A lot of this stuff is getting my hackles up. Furthermore, some of the mean-spirited religious who are intolerant and hurtful or who present their theistic beliefs as science while denigrating real science deserve little respect.

During the last two LDS General Conferences, I went down to observe what was happening. It was quite a scene, with loud mouthed street preachers waving temple garments around and yelling at conference goers, degrading their beliefs and promising them they were hell bound if they didn’t change. There was a contingent of the gay and lesbian community there, decked out in black and white with a coffin and a number of signs declaring certain statistics about Mormon suicide rates. There was also the group of evangelical Christians there to counter the nastiness of the street preachers by greeting the LDS members with handshakes, telling them to have a nice day.

While watching the spectacle, I engaged one of the Evangelicals in conversation. I told him that it is a tough situation, that while the right to free speech is of great importance, people should be allowed to worship without being harassed. I told him that I was agnostic and not there to defend LDS theology. He agreed that people shouldn’t be harassed, and said he thought Mormon beliefs were wrong but that it was a matter of “methodology” and that the street preachers’ methods weren’t likely to convert many Mormons.

We then had a civil discussion about several philosophical and various religious topics. This discussion was interrupted when one of the bellicose preachers started yelling right in my face from four feet away. Actually he was yelling through me at three young LDS boys who were laughing at him. His predictions of hellfire or whatever it was isn’t what irritated me, it was having a loudmouth yelling in my face. So I told him, “If Christ were here, he would rather be re-crucified than stand next to you assholes.”

I don’t plan to be anti-religious by challenging people’s basic theology, but if they yell at me or call me names or accuse me of being a “God hater” or in league with the devil, I will respond. Also, when they try to tell me (or the rest of the world) that all of geology is wrong and that “the flood” laid down the entire stratigraphic column with features like the Grand Canyon being carved in a few days, I plan to challenge these absurdities. If some see this as anti-religious, then so be it.

–Bob Lane

Humanist Commitments

The following are excerpts from the opening statement on the web site of the Humanist Institute. Click here for the complete statement and information about the institute.

Over the years, many individuals and many organizations have labeled themselves “humanist.” A consistent theme is the centrality of ethics, for both individuals and for societies. Humans are responsible for their destinies in an evolutionary universe. Our ethical choices stem from our genetic structures as well as from the cultures that we have created. Reason and critical intelligence are the best guides in these choices, and the sciences are our best source of knowledge. Artistic and emotional experiences are important in expanding our visions and our joys, and in suggesting new possibilities for human flourishing–and in expanding the common good.

Humanists make their ethical choices by weighing the consequences. From earliest statements, humanists have included caring, social well-being, empathy, and compassion among their ethical values.

While some humanists work to build nontheistic religious communities, all modern humanists would agree that gods, devils, and spirits are creations of human imagination. Whether or how humanism can or should function as an ethical and nontheistic religion remains a matter of intense debate and experiment. Developing, expanding, and extending these values is the central humanist commitment.

–Robert B. Tapp
Dean, Humanist Institute

Christianity Without God

~Book Review~

This book by Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, packs a lot of religious history into 146 pages! It is a thoughtful exploration of conventional Christian doctrine that supports modern humanism. It is scholarly but a fast, rewarding read. This quote from page 98 reflects the flavor of the author’s message.

“It can be argued that Christianity without the theistic God is no longer Christianity but humanism. For this reason the word ‘humanism’ is strongly disliked in conservative Christian circles. As the term humanism is used today, it usually does imply non-theism, but it did not do so when it was first used. The term originated during the Renaissance and basically refers to all philosophies and sets of attitudes which acknowledge positive value in the human condition and which concede to humankind the right to be free, to think for itself, and to be responsible for its own destiny.”

–Flo Wineriter

Stardust Returning Home

NASA’s Stardust spacecraft has begun its two-year journey back home to Earth after surviving an out-of-this-world sandblasting by cometary particles. On January 22, 2004, Stardust successfully passed through the particle- and gas-laden coma surrounding comet Wild 2. During the hazardous traverse, Stardust flew within 240 kilometers (150 miles) of Wild 2, gathering samples of comet particles and snapping detailed pictures of its pockmarked surface. “Things couldn’t have worked better in a fairy tale,” Stardust project manager Tom Duxbury said of the encounter.

The particles collected from Wild 2 are stowed in a sample return capsule on board the spacecraft and will be returned to Earth for in-depth analysis on January 15, 2006.

To read more about Stardust’s amazing encounter, go to Planetary Society’s web site

–The Planetary Report
March/April 2004