April 2005

How Secularism Became a Dirty Word

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Four score and 15 years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and founded not on the authority of God but on the rights of humankind and the bedrock of human reason. Now we are engaged in a crucial test to determine whether a nation so conceived as the first secular government in the world can endure.” So Susan Jacoby began a speech at the Freedom from Religion Foundation convention in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 30, 2004. A copy is found in Freethought Today, December, 2004.

She said Americans are woefully undereducated about the secular side of the nation’s heritage, beginning with the rationalist Enlightenment values that shaped the revolutionary generation. Nearly four years into a presidency that has mounted the most radical assault on the separation of church and state in American history, she said, secularism is in even greater trouble in the United States.

It is ironic, she continued, that this situation would occur when people around the world are witnessing extraordinary and terrifying new demonstrations of the power of religion to do harm when it is united with political and state power. The Taliban reduced Afghanistan to a near-medieval society. Both Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists played a role in sustaining the seemingly intractable conflict in the Middle East. It is difficult to negotiate agreements when representatives of each side are convinced that God himself has given them the right to occupy the same piece of land. A celibate pope in Rome declares that condoms do not discourage the spread of AIDS, a belief that is medical nonsense.

The framers of the American Constitution protected government from religious interference by prohibiting any religious test for public office, omitting any mention of God from the Constitution, and reserving supreme governmental authority for “We the People.” And separation of church and state also protects the church from governmental interference in church governance. What an achievement in a world not far removed from a time when Protestants and Catholics massacred one another over doctrinal differences and a world in which Christians were still massacring Jews for the crime of deicide?

The fundamental question, one that was not joined in the 2004 presidential campaign, is why on earth would we want to change an arrangement that has served both religion and government so well for more than two centuries? “Why,” Jacoby asks, “are Americans and their elected leaders not proclaiming from the rooftops that secular government, coupled with complete religious liberty, is the cornerstone of a decent society? Why do we tolerate the preaching of a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, who bases his support for the death penalty on his belief that government derives its power not from men but from God–and since God has the power of life and death, so too should governments? Why are we still fighting fundamentalist Christian attacks on the teaching of evolution in American public schools–nearly 150 years after Darwin?…

“Where is a modern candidate with the courage of Abraham Lincoln, who when ministers in his home town of Springfield, Ill., called him an ‘infidel’ and excoriated him for not joining any church, replied that he would make haste to join a church–if he could only find one that did not require belief in elaborate supernatural doctrines and instead simply preached the word, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself?’… Where is a candidate with the forthrightness of John F. Kennedy, who in his 1960 speech to the Houston ministers famously declared, ‘I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.'”

It is too easy to blame financial and political power of the religious right exclusively for the demonization of American secularism. It evades the role of larger forces in American society and absolves secularists themselves of their responsibility to educate the public about the neglected noble secular heritage of this republic.

An essential factor in the stigmatization of secularism is the larger American public’s unexamined assumption that religion per se always exerts a benign influence on society. The ultra-conservative apostles of religiousness have exploited that assumption brilliantly and tarred opponents of faith-based adventurism as enemies of all religion, as relativists, which is an unfairly demonized word. It takes a drastic example of religion’s potential to do harm, as in a Christian Scientist’s denial of a blood transfusion to his dying child or the transformation of a plane into a lethal weapon in the name of radical Islam, to shake the American faith in religion as a positive social force.

The problem is not religion as a spiritual force, but religion melded with political ideology and political power. Since the religiously correct do not acknowledge danger in mixing religion and politics, evil acts committed in the name of religion must always be dismissed as the dementia of criminals and psychopaths.

“What America lacks today,” says Jacoby, “is a public figure who talks about the danger of religious interference with government in the uncompromising terms used by Robert Green Ingersoll, the foremost exponent of freethought and the most famous orator in late 19th century America… He declared that the founders ‘knew that to put God into the Constitution was to put man out.'”

Actually many Americans today do retain a healthy respect for everything that the separation of church and state has given our country. The highly respected Pew Forum on Religion found in a 2001 poll that, while 70% of those questioned endorsed tax support for faith-based social services, 80% would exclude religious organizations that hire only members of their own faith. Yet George Bush pushed ahead with executive orders exempting church groups from the usual prohibitions against religious discrimination in hiring.

“Candidates should not try to hide their support for separation of church and state, but should proclaim it on every possible occasion,” Jacoby argues…”As anyone with a scintilla of historical memory knows, fundamentalist white southern Protestants were the strongest supporters of segregation in the 50s and 60s…King and other African-American ministers were able to use their moral values for social action precisely because their churches were independent of government control. Would they have been free to do so if they had been dependent on faith-based funding that came from the government?”

Ingersoll quoted what he said was “the best prayer I have ever read,” Lear’s soliloquy on the heath when he stumbled upon a place of shelter. The prayer ended, “…And show the heavens more just.” Jacoby said of these words that they are “the essence of the secularist and humanist faith here on earth, and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust and ardent creed worthy of the first secular government in the world.”

Marion Craig

Essay Contest Winners 2005

Results are in for the second annual Marion Craig Essay Contest. This year we received many more entries than last year. All were well written and showed remarkable thinking skills by the young people who submitted them. Congratulations to the Essay Contest Committee of Flo Wineriter, Cindy King, Bob Lane, Bob Mayhew, and Mike Huston for a job well done in running this contest.

Two Riverton High School students were the winners. The First Place award of $500.00 was earned by Megan E. Smith, Second Place winner of $250.00 is Halie Boardman. Both awardees are seniors. Mrs. Rush, English teacher of first place winner Megan Smith, will receive $250.00 for classroom supplies from the Humanists of Utah.

The essay contest invited high school students in junior and senior English classes in the Great Salt Lake Valley to write an essay of 1500 words or less on one of five subjects: What is rational thinking? How does the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution affect government involvement with religion? What is the role of ethics in our society? Homeland security versus personal rights, and What is our stewardship to our planet?

Ms. Smith’s essay on Rational thinking

Rational thought is reasoned thought. Reasoned thought is logical thought. And logical thought has the ability to draw conclusions based on knowledge. This knowledge comes from science and art, or simply culture. Culture and history show the problems of the past, and perhaps a solution. The solution comes through weighing the options, thinking of the consequences, and coming to the conclusion that is the best for the individual. Thus, rational thought promotes the common good for the individual, by making changes in government and society for their benefit.

Socrates and Aristotle’s ancient philosophies influenced much of the western world as well as the modem world today. Aristotle believed that no one could be happy without fulfilling his or her “function.” He called humans the “rational animal,” and since humans’ ultimate goal is to be happy, they must live a life governed by reason in order to be happy. In order for behavior to be considered “governed by reason”, it has to be moral and be for the common people’s good. Socrates’ ultimate goal was to show human’s how to think and act with reason so they can be happy by acting morally and ethically correct.

Conscientiously, or rationally, a human cannot be happy when seeing other humans suffer. There are some who would not recognize their suffering as suffering, or possibly recognize them even as human beings. Biologically, humans are genetically similar, no matter what their race. Across races, humans are certainly more genetically similar to each other than to apes. Thus, the rational human recognizes those suffering as fellow humans, has pity on them, and feels humans owe it to each other to treat one another as equals. This is a fundamental principle of rational thought.

In order to treat each other as equals, as rational thought leads to, the government must treat them as equals, and allow everyone a part in government. This is something that the Founding Fathers understood very well. They gave the people new rights they never had before under other governments. They could vote, bear arms, have the right of free speech, etc. Thomas Jefferson originally wished to allow the African Americans to vote, but because of “non”-rational thinkers who did not understand the fundamental principle formerly mentioned, they took that portion out of the Declaration of Independence. Because of more recent rational thinkers, women, all races, can now vote.

In the Age of Reason, also called the “Age of Rationalism”, books such as Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre de Laclos, Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade, and Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind by Condorcet, stressed how life could be changed, and how the common or accepted belief mayor may not be correct. These books encouraged skepticism, and questioning. In some novels during this time, it provokes the rational thinking individual to separate from the common beliefs of the culture.

Rational thinking involves making one’s own opinions, not conforming to others. One needs to find what is right for one’s self. By doing this, people can come up with new ideas to make society better. They can come up with a solution to help the individual have more rights. Once a good, accurate, well-thought out idea is found, there is a major responsibility to let others know about it. An idea does no good in the world if it is never heard. Columbus would not have discovered America, the Methodist, Baptist, Protestant, and Puritan churches would not have been established, the American Revolution would not have happened, if important, influential people had not spoken out, none of these major events would have taken place.

Rational Thinking includes considering the consequences beforehand, and trying to make life better for the individual. Philosophers and politicians have studied history and used rational thinking for centuries. History, art and science can teach principles and theories, which are critical in order to have good, rational thought. In order to make the world better, people with rational thought must speak out and have influence. They have before, they can again.

-Megan Smith

Ms. Smith accepting her check from Marion Craig Essay Contest Committee Chairperson Flo Wineriter and Chapter President Bob Lane

Ms. Boardman’s essay on Ethics:

As children, we were taught by our parents that it is wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. As we grow up and enter into the real world with some knowledge of right and wrong, we see, first hand, the importance of ethics as well as its complexity. The role of ethics in our society is very necessary because it has a large influence on today, as well as the future. We need to learn about good ethics because they guide our decisions, make us who we are, and determine our future.

Ethics are learned throughout our lives as we associate with others. During years of schooling, we learn ethics as we interact with teachers and classmates and learn respect and other skills. In the work place, we learn responsibility, teamwork, punctuality, and communication skills. When we understand why these ethical values are necessary, we realize the importance they have in our success as well as our everyday lives. We use these skills, along with our knowledge of right from wrong as we go about various activities such as driving, buying milk at the supermarket, filing out an application, etc. We know that it is unlawful to run a red light, shop-lift, and lie under oath. Because good ethics make us honest, law-abiding citizens, we contribute to the good of society.

Today’s society is full of crime, irresponsibility, and dishonesty…but imagine if the entire population had no sense of ethics. The role of ethics in our society is very important because it is the basic beliefs and standards that make everything run smoothly. Ethics are involved in all organizations and institutions around us whether it be political, medical, lawful, religious, or social. Ethics are what gives us comfort knowing that we live in a country where we are able to choose. Because we believe our doctors are ethical, we feel certain we can trust their diagnoses. If ethics did not apply to medicine, some doctors may knowingly misdiagnose their patients just for the sake of money rather than for the persons’ health and well-being. Ethics give us comfort that the business deal will not fall through. In today’s society, laws and contracts are enforced to make sure that the business deals are fair and that the both people will hold up their end of the deal. Without any application of ethics, our society would be one of dishonesty and uncertainty. Although we do not have a perfect society, the ethics in our country is what makes the United States such a great country.

Ayn Rand explains, “Ethics is a code of values which guides our choices and actions and determine the purpose and course of our lives.” It is simply a principle that helps promote, enhance, and maintain our lives. Ethics play a role in the lives of individuals and each individual has an influence on society considering that all people and things around them are affected by their choices whether they be good or bad (running a stop sign or slowing down when the light is yellow). Many people decide early in life if they are going to live their lives in truth or dishonesty. Ethics influence the choices that individuals make and will eventually determine their lives and who they become. Our beliefs, standards, and personalities are formed by the way we interpret what is wrong and right and how we act upon these interpretations.

Valdemar W. Setzer said, “Ethics is not definable, is not implemental, because it is not conscious; it involves not only our thinking, but also our feeling. Not only do we need to know what ethics are, but we also need to want to act upon them. People can have the knowledge of right from wrong, but still have no desire to live and act in an ethical manner. Alfred Adler expresses this idea by saying, “It is easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” In many auto shops, they guarantee honest and superior workmanship, but in reality, their work is substandard. Actions speak louder than words because they are just that…words. So many people criticize our country and its leaders, but do not live in a way that can improve our society. In order to want to better society, one must have high ethical standards.

We know that ethics are more than abstaining from lying, cheating, and stealing, but that it is the knowledge of right from wrong which influences one’s conduct and decisions. The way people choose (wrong or right) effects all those around them whether they like it or not. Without ethics, our society would become even more corrupt and fall from the great nation which it is today. Ethics help keep things in order and in peace. Because our decisions have such a great influence, it is our responsibility to our society and those around us to live a life of good ethics.

-Halie Boardman

Ms. Boardman accepting her check from Marion Craig Essay Contest Committee Chairperson Flo Wineriter and Chapter President Bob Lane

–Flo Wineriter

Don’t Think of an Elephant

~Book Review~

Liberal values are summarized with clarity in George Lakoff’s book, a short easy read of 120 pages. Every humanist will be energized with a burst of adrenalin and pride as the message of liberal ideas unfolds on every page. As the author writes in the preface, “It is vital for us, for our country, and for the world that we (Liberals) stay united. It is our values that unite us. We must learn to articulate those values loud and clear.”

This book is written in the service of helping us reach that goal.

George Lakeoff is Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

–Flo Wineriter

God’s Politics

~Book Review~

Liberal values are summarized with clarity in George Lakoff’s book, a short easy read of 120 pages. Every humanist will be energized with a burst of adrenalin and pride as the message of liberal ideas unfolds on every page. As the author writes in the preface, “It is vital for us, for our country, and for the world that we (Liberals) stay united. It is our values that unite us. We must learn to articulate those values loud and clear.”

This book is written in the service of helping us reach that goal.

George Lakeoff is Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

–Flo Wineriter

Rights from Wrongs: Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights

~Book Review~

The basic premise of this book by Alan Dershowitz, published by Basic Books, Copyright 2004, is to answer the following questions: Where do rights originate; Divine sources, natural law, or secular experiences? How does experience teach us that rights can survive emergencies? Dershowitz explores each of the origins of rights, coming to the conclusion that rights have to come from secular origin. “We cannot endure without morality, law and rights, yet they do not exist unless we bring them into existence. We must not abdicate our own decision-making to other human beings who alone claim to hear the silent voice of God or to understand the moral implication of nature…. It is our job (as judges/citizens) to give meaning to the (constitution/government.) We have the methodology for interpreting it.”

Ergo, we must remember, as Justice Robert Jackson observed, “The President is not the commander-in-chief of the country, only of the military, and that other branches of government must play an important role in striking the proper balance between security and liberty.” If not, we will be living the wrongs when we were guaranteed the rights.

–Cindy King

Random Thoughts

Tsunami Relief Effort

Our chapter recently sent $3500.00 to the American Humanist Association to be used in the Tsunami Relief Fund. The AHA is coordinating with humanist groups and organizations in the affected areas of the world so that we can be certain that our donations will be used for victim relief and not administrative overhead.

We received confirmation of the donation from Tony Hileman, President of the AHA:

“Your donation was far and away more than any other organization or individual’s, and the Humanists of Utah are to be commended for your compassion and generosity. All together we took in something over $12,000. That is impressive!”

–Flo Wineriter

Rubella Eliminated!

In March news agencies world wide reported that Rubella, the cause of German or “hard” measles, has been eliminated from the United States. This is, in this writer’s opinion, a major triumph for science.

The methodology for the successful eradication is vaccination of the vulnerable population. Smallpox was eliminated from the world (except in controlled storage) several years ago.

These advances are a direct result of application of the Scientific Method and based on application of the Law of Evolution. Victories like this are an affirmation of humanist principles.

–Wayne Wilson

Move On

Member Recommended Websites

Grass Roots politics is arguably one of the most important bases of the Great American Experiment.

Move On dot Org was first started by activists opposed to the Iraqi war. Today it continues as a resource fighting for populist themes and causes.