February 2006

The Enlightenment Under Threat

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group

“Across the world, millions of people feel threatened. They sense a dangerous enemy at the gates, committed to values and beliefs they fear and despise, and ready to impose its alien ideology on their government, their life and their children’s future,” declares an article in New Scientist, October 8, 2005.

It says that this statement shows how religious fundamentalists feel. The secular world of the early 21st century is a threat to all they hold dear. In response increasing numbers are joining militant religious groups and living, voting and battling for their beliefs. Like it or not, they already outnumber the secular rationalists whose thinking underpins today’s western urban societies. Much of the past century was characterized by a widespread belief, at least in the west, that as the world developed materially, religion would dwindle in importance. But the opposite has happened. Fundamentalist Islamic movements are gaining strength across the Muslim world and beyond. In the U.S. Christian fundamentalism holds more political and cultural power than ever before. Fundamentalist movements have arisen within Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. The world, in short, is witnessing an explosion of movements that reject rational inquiry as the best way to explain the world and empirical evidence as the best way to formulate policy. Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms are often portrayed as being on opposite sides in a “cosmic struggle” of good against evil. “But they are the same,” says New Scientist.

Fundamentalist religions are driven by a desire to get “back to basics,” to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age when their religion was untainted by secular influences. They fervently believe they alone have the truth–usually an overtly literal interpretation of a sacred text–and an equally fervent desire to impose that truth on others. Unlike mainstream religion, they cannot tolerate dissent.

What is driving the growth of such intolerant belief systems? “There is,” says the article, “palpable unease that fundamentalism represents a mortal threat to the accomplishments of modern society; that the achievements of the Enlightenment are in danger of being rolled back.” Does it pose a threat to the scientific world view? A study by Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame concludes that the very force that was once expected to render religion obsolete, modernity, is in fact causing it to mutate and gather strength. Modernity is a mode of thinking that is exemplified by science. It focuses on change and progress, empirical evidence rather than revealed truth, and skepticism of traditional (including religious) authority. It has proved enormously powerful.

Surprising was the ability of religion to fight back and to spawn an entirely new way of looking at the world. What characterizes traditional religions, says Karen Armstrong, a British writer on religion, and an expert on fundamentalism, is that they are geared to the needs of people in traditional agrarian societies. They focus on the permanence of mythical truths behind superficial reality, and the divine will behind apparent injustice. They see life as cyclical, not progressive, and offer an understanding of the cosmos and a system of morals which provide rules, reassurance and meaning that people in such societies need.

Against this background, modernity can be deeply unsettling. It “undermines all the old certainties,” writes Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion at Boston University. Traditional societies are culturally uniform, but as people from this background are drawn into industrialized urban life, they come up against others who believe different things. What scandalizes people is startlingly similar across countries and cultures: pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles and sexual behavior, reliance on human reason rather than divine revelation, or democracy, which grants power to people rather than God.

“It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that lie at the heart of the fundamentalist vision,” Armstrong advises. “Only then will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching evil.”

Should secularists feel threatened? Yes and no. sometimes fundamentalists embrace an approach based on reason. Nearly half of evangelists, one study showed, opposed banning stem cell research; and their views on homosexuality and abortion differed little from those of the general population. But evangelical Christians in the U.S. have successfully fostered a belief that science is somehow anti-religious, and that this imbalance must be redressed. Only 26% of Americans are evangelicals but in 2004 37% of Americans wanted creationism taught in the schools. Erosion of popular support for scientific research makes it easier to sell politically motivated denial of scientific discoveries such as global warming. George W. Bush has talked openly of running a “faith-based presidency;” and a member of his inner circle has been quoted referring disdainfully to the “reality-based community–that is, people who believe policy should be based on empirical evidence rather than faith. “George Bush was not elected by a majority of voters in the United States. He was appointed by God,” according to one senior U.S. politician. Commentator Thomas Frank has argued that by allying itself with evangelical beliefs, the U.S. Republican Party has managed to dupe poor people into voting for economic policies that damage their interests, such as tax cuts for the rich.

The challenge for the secular inheritors of the Enlightenment is to remain true to their values and be tolerant and pluralistic–even in the face of an opponent that can never reciprocate. That means understanding fundamentalist mentality, and at least not adding to the alienation that inspires the more extreme among them. “We must accept seriously held public belief as a normal part of modern living,” says sociologist Grace Davie. “The more you deny and attack it, the more defensive it gets.”

Mike Huston

November 3, 1941 ~ December 25, 2005

In Memoriam

Mike Huston served on the Humanists of Utah Board of Directors during his last year of life. He brought with him compassion his compassion for reading and helping troubled youth. He worked diligently on our Marion Craig Essay Contest last year, producing all of the printed materials for the contest. His death is a great loss to our chapter.

Mike Huston

Here is some information from his published obituary: Mike worked for many years as a truck driver. He loved books and people; he was a voracious reader and connected with people everywhere he went. After retiring, he devoted much of his time to establishing and maintaining a library for residents at the Salt Lake Valley Juvenile Detention Center. Recently named the Michael Huston Library Center in his honor, the facility now has more than 8,000 books. Mike was loved and respected by many other family members and friends. He will be remembered for his kindness, his generosity, his sense of humor, and his optimism.

Humanists of Utah extends our condolences to his family.

President’s Message

Our annual membership meeting will be held February 9, 2006, at Distinctive Catering. I look forward to having an enjoyable evening. The Board of Directors encourages all members to attend and bring a guest. We would be delighted to see a number of new faces at the social. Many thanks to Flo Wineriter and Rolf Kay for supplying the wine again, and to Rolf for making the arrangements with Distinctive Catering. Thanks also to Sarah Smith for arranging the entertainment, a bluegrass group called the “Blue Sage Trio.”

As usual, we will be conducting some chapter business. We will announce the results of the board member elections and vote on a by-law change. Watch your mail for your ballots and be sure to return them.

The Board has voted to send a donation of $300 to the library at the Salt Lake Valley Juvenile Detention Center, in the name of deceased Board member Mike Huston, who passed away on December 25, 2005.We would also like to encourage Humanist of Utah members to make a personal donation. The library is mostly the result of the efforts of Mike, and is nationally recognized.

Board member Bob Mayhew has been corresponding with Vern Bullough, a distinguished humanist, columnist and senior editor of the magazine Free Inquiry, in an attempt to arrange for him to be the guest speaker for our March General Meeting. Vern, who is originally from Utah, is a SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, founder of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge. He is the author, co-author, or editor of over 50 books, many of which deal with sex and gender issues. He has served as President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and has earned numerous awards for his writing and research, including the Kinsey Award. He has written more than 150 articles and is a popular lecturer in the U.S. and abroad.

Unfortunately, Vern’s busy travel schedule makes it impossible for him to be here for the General Meeting. However, he will be here during the time our discussion group meets on March 2, 2006 and has agreed to speak to us. This will be a great opportunity to hear from Vern and to engage in an interesting questions and answers session. Tentatively, he will be speaking about “Competing Groups” in humanism and free thought areas. I urge you all to come and enjoy what should be an enlightening evening.

Next month I plan to write a few things about State Senator Chris Buttars, who’s recent and ongoing antics on Capitol Hill have provided so much amusement and irritation. Over the next several weeks, he will no doubt show how little he knows about…well, just about anything as far as I can tell, especially biology, evolution, and homosexuality.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Living Humanism

While we should not seek to be what we are not, I think that there are things we can do to add more “spirit” to what we believe and what we do as individual humanists and as a community. Among these is a deepening appreciation of humanism as a lived philosophy of life; that is, not merely beliefs we hold about life and reality, but beliefs we strive to put into practice in every aspect of our existence. A second emphasis is to see the connections between what we believe and what we do–to appreciate how our actions are rooted in our convictions and how our ideals inspire our actions. A third approach would be to deepen our relationship to the sources of our being.

For the traditional believer, this source is God. For the humanist, it is usually understood as Nature. It is the sense of rootedness in the cosmos and drawing strength from those forces in nature that sustain us. Lastly, it is openness to the “big” questions of life and reality, the reflections that inspire awe, wonder, cosmic piety and reverent humility in the face of the grandeur of existence.

–Joseph Chuman, Ethical Culture Leader
From DIALOGUE publication of the American Ethical Union
Autumn 2005

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
or Pearls Before Swine

~Book Review~

I have reviewed a number of Kurt Vonnegut’s books on these pages over the years. Looking back I see that I have frequently said something like, “this is not a good first book to read from the Vonnegut canon.” God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a good place to start. This book, first published in 1965, formulates Mr. Vonnegut’s credentials as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Eliot Rosewater, the central character of the book, is rich man who obtained his wealth as an inheritance rather than accumulating it himself.

Eliot gets into trouble with his family because he not only has no interest in growing the fortune, but he also believes that it should be shared with everyone and anyone who needs financial assistance. He writes a letter to the unknown heir of his fortune that concludes, “And Eliot became a drunkard, a Utopina dreamer, a tinhorn saint, an aimless fool. Begat he not a soul. Bon voyage, dear Cousin or whoever you are. Be generous. Be kind. You can safely ignore the arts and sciences. They have never helped anybody. Be a sincere, attentive friend of the poor.”

Kilgore Trout, a Vonnegut icon, plays a major part in this story. He describes Eliot, “it is news that a man was able to give that kind of love over a long period of time. If one man can do it, perhaps others can do it, too. It means that our hatred of useless human beings and the cruelties we inflict upon them for their own good need not be parts of human nature. Thanks to the example of Eliot Rosewater, millions upon millions of people may learn to love and help whomever they see.”

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine is a seminal work that belongs in the library of all humanists.

–Wayne Wilson