July 2006

Religion, Identity, and Mideast Peace

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“It is true that most conflicts that are portrayed as religious conflicts are not in essence anything of the sort. Whether between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, Christians and Muslims in Nigeria or Indonesia,…, or between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, these conflicts are not at all religious or theological in origin!” says Rabbi David Rosen in his article with same title as this article in the “10th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs,” September 23, 2005, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He states these conflicts are not religious or theological in origin but are territorial conflicts in which ethnic and religious differences are exploited and manipulated.

“Why and how,” he asks, “is it that religion is so easily exploited and abused?” Why is it that in many contexts of conflict in our world, religion appears more to be a part of the problem than the solution? The answer, I believe is to a great extent implicit in the aforementioned point itself–namely the socio-cultural territorial and political contexts in which religion functions.”

He says that because religion seeks to give meaning and purpose to who we are, it is inextricably bound up with all the different components of human identity–family, the larger components of communities, ethnic groups, nations and peoples, to the widest components of humanity and creation as a whole. These components of human identity are the building blocks of our psycho-spiritual well-being, and we deny them at our peril. The counterculture–drug abuse, violence, etc. are a search for identity by those who have lost the traditional compasses of orientation. He points to Robert Ardrey, who opines that because religion is so bound up with identity, religion itself acquires far greater prominence in times of threat and conflict, nurturing and strengthening the identity that senses itself as threatened, in opposition to that which is perceived as threatening it. The Hebrew prophets did not, in relation to the people when in exile, challenge their lack of moral responsiveness and ethical outreach, as when the people are secure, but, rather, saw their role as to protect and enhance the identity that was under threat.

However, the character that religion assumes under such circumstances is often not just one of nurturing , but often one of self-preoccupation and even of self-righteousness, that disregards “the other,” who is not perceived as part of one’s identity group, and even demonizes that “other” as hostile, as “a perfect picture of malice,” in the words of historian Richard Hofstadter. So it is in the Middle East. Religion does not provide a prophetic challenge to political authority, but is rather subject to it and is more part of the problem than part of the solution. Because religion is associated more with partisan insularity or hostility, peace initiatives in the Middle East tend to avoid religious institutions and their authorities, seeing them as obstacles to the peace process.

In this light, in 2002 a remarkable gathering took place in Alexandria, Egypt, bringing together the Three Faith religious communities–Jewish, Muslim, and Christian–for the first time in human history, to lend the voices of their respective traditions to an end of violence and to promote peace and reconciliation. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt sent Sheik Tantawi to host the meeting. The Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Christian Patriarchs of Jerusalem also participated. They developed a declaration that condemned the violent abuse of religion, suicidal homicides and all actions that are oppressive and destructive of human life and dignity. It also called on political leaders to eschew violence, return to the negotiating table, to recognize the importance or religion as a force of reconciliation; and it called for respect for the rights of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The outcome has been the establishment of a Council of the Religious Leadership Institutions of the Holy Land with the purpose of facilitating communication between religious leadership and to engage such leadership in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. The summit also led to the establishment of centers for the religious teaching on peace and reconciliation in Gaza, Kafr Kassem and Jerusalem. This work has led to a sense that religious institutions must play an active role in conflict resolution and has increased an understanding of this necessity among political leadership as well.

“Simply stated, if we do not want religion to be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution,” says Rosen. Although humanists are skeptical of religious claims to divine inspiration, it is encouraging to see some religious leaders from widely different religious orientations actively promoting the peace process.

Reproductive Rights

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at your monthly meeting and I enjoyed my time with you immensely. The focus of my remarks was the effect of our current political times on reproductive health care and rights around the world. My goal for our time together was to be able to brief already engaged folks and spark at least one issue that as individuals, you would be willing to take on and work towards making a difference in our world.

We started with international issues. I believe that the US has been a bully with our financial aid for family planning services in developing countries. We have attached strings and unrealistic rules to all of our assistance programs, using the individual moralities of politicians. The result causes real harm to women and their families by restricting family planning services to those who need them most. Last week congress refused to fund a UN program to assist women with complications of child birth while restricting their access to control their fertility. The administration also continues to require unfair assurances from developing country organizations that tie their hands in providing out effective family planning and HIV/AIDS programs. Abstinence programs work no better here at home than they do in other countries.

The national challenges have been constant throughout this administration but somehow, as a whole, are flying under the radar screen. This could be accounted for by our distractions with war and national security. We can start with the South Dakota types of laws that are sweeping the country. It’s been a wake-up call for all of us and what prompted Bob to invite me to speak. These are either direct challenges to the Roe decision or trigger laws ready and in place if the court strikes down Roe. California had a ballot initiative last fall addressing teens and abortion. Those opposed to teen access lost and now are running another ballot measure this fall. Oregon is doing the same. The core of reproductive rights and access to services has played out at the FDA with science vs. politics and emergency contraception, at the CDC with medically accurate information on condoms for their web site, with appointments of judges and agency directors, as well as policies that affect our military personnel’s access to safe medical care or women who are the victims of sexual assault. This administration has an agenda that they are willing to push no matter how irrational and dangerous.

Here in Utah our most recent legislative session reinforced our elected lawmakers’ disregard for reproductive rights or access to services. Again this year we had two bills restricting access to abortion and at the same time a refusal to even hear a bill to create contraceptive equity in insurance plans to assist family’s access to birth control. Recent studies reveal Utah in the bottom 10 of states on comprehensive sex education or respect of reproductive rights. Neither as a nation nor a s a state are we willing to entertain legislation for prevention of unintended pregnancy, to promote women’s health, or invest in effective programs to curb the rising numbers of teens and adults with STDs.

I cautioned as we neared the end of my prepared remarks that there are many other issues where we are making no progress. Services for teens are fraught with so much controversy that we struggle to reach them with effective information and services. Those opposed to reproductive rights and services are using every opportunity to eliminate access to services for those most vulnerable. A report released last week revealed the growing gap between the rich and poor in access to family planning services to reduce the need for abortion. An anti-choice “think tank” is pushing legislation to grant personhood to fetuses, paving the way to outlaw abortion. Many of these issues are addressed in June’s Atlantic magazine and an article “The Day After Roe.”

We also discussed the culture wars and how individual values imposed on others can cause grave harm. When a pharmacist refuses to fill a reproductive health prescription for emergency contraception or even birth control pills it can change a woman’s whole life. If she can’t get to another pharmacy or her prescription is confiscated or she is humiliated and stopped in her tracks an unintended pregnancy could be the result. There are journalists who are now suggesting the policies of this administration are causing more abortions than they are preventing.

Just thinking about all the issues and work to be done could be overwhelming if I didn’t believe that good people like you were willing to take on some of these challenges. A letter to the editor makes a difference. Helping others to know the issues and calling the politicians on their bad votes or policies is critical for their education. Assisting in the campaign work to elect better lawmakers goes a long way to change the tide.

I ask each of you to find a cause in this presentation that you can get behind. Volunteer for Planned Parenthood or another organization working on reproductive rights. It will take all of us to keep reproductive rights and services safe and legal in these political times.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being who you are.

–Karrie Galloway, CEO
Planned Parenthood Association of Utah

President’s Message

July 2006

I would like to thank our June speaker, Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, for her presentation. The information about the state of reproductive rights was quite enlightening and we hope to have her back in the future.

At the June board meeting, we discussed the traditionally poor participation in Humanists of Utah events during the month of June. The board decided to make June a month without a Humanists of Utah event, other than the publication and distribution of the newsletter. June has never been the best in terms of attendance for either the General Meeting or the Discussion Group. In the many years I have been going to the discussion group regularly, the latest showing had the fewest attendees yet–just three of us. We hope that this change will be reviewed positively

I would like to take this opportunity to make a few comments about the environment and in particular, the recent discussions regarding the existence of global warming.

I’m sure that you are all aware of this controversy. Environmentalists, with the backing of many scientists, say it is a problem that needs our immediate attention. On the other side, a considerable effort is being made (mostly by conservatives and corporate spin doctors) to discredit the very notion of such an occurrence. It is my belief that the ongoing argument occupies us to the point of keeping us from working on and discussing the more important issues of the environment altogether.

Those of us concerned with environmental issues have unknowingly allowed our opponents to gain the upper hand when we fall in to the trap of trying to defend the proposition that global warming exists; the end result being the perception that until it is proven to exist, we don’t need to do much of anything.

I feel that arguing over whether global warming exists detracts from asking the more important questions: “Why do we allow any pollution, period? Why have we allowed entities that pollute to just go ahead (with a few weak regulations) and do as they please?”

The common man cannot do this sort of thing. For example, say I decide that I don’t like paying water and sewer charges. So I run a pipe out to the gutter and start flushing out to the street. My neighbors and the government would put a stop to that in a hurry, and rightly so. But you can also bet that the powers that be would not say “we’ll only make you reduce it by half, as we don’t want you to have too much of a hardship complying with the law.” Yet this is exactly what the entities and industries destroying the environment are told every day.

I realize that all pollution isn’t going away anytime soon. But we can reduce it considerably if we choose to. But it ain’t gonna be cheap or easy.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

A Humanist Conclusion

“…I caught my toe on a loose stone and stumbled, grazing the hand that I flung out to break my fall. My anger magnified this small hurt and I cursed. As I sucked at the injured place, a question began to press upon me. Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands? Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally. Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe.”

–Geraldine Brooks
Year of Wonder
A novel of the 1666 plague

The Prospect of Humanism

The three great ages of Western civilization are ancient Greece, the Renaissance, and the modern period of reason, enlightenment, science and democracy. These three great eras are periods in which humanistic thought has flourished.

Although the Western world has been dominated in its religious thought by Judaism and Christianity, humanism remains a strong candidate for any new worldwide philosophic synthesis of religion.

Everywhere we look in the modern world we see signs of humanist influence.

Consider the modern university. Although there are Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and individuals with all sorts of ideological commitments in university centers–the dominant faith in the academic world is humanism.

Humanism is the point of view one is likely to adopt if one surveys and attempts to integrate into a philosophy the scope of human knowledge to be found in physics, the behavioral sciences, the humanities and so forth.

Just as Aristotle’s attempt to integrate all that was known led him toward a humanist epistemology, so today the academic finds himself channeled by–his setting towards humanism.

This is not to suggest that humanists in the universities, or anywhere else, are apt to agree on most subjects. On almost every major question, humanists differ from their fellow humanists. The diversity among humanists is well illustrated in psychology. B. F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, all of them honored and avowed humanists, differed profoundly on the most basic issue of human freedom and human nature. On this question, though, as in so many other cases, we find that the important dialogue is occurring between humanists.

Although humanism is widespread in the academic world, it does not lead to agreement, and most of the significant theoretical discussions in the modern world are taking place among humanists who differ.

These differences between humanists may be more productive of new knowledge, and more to be valued for the contribution made to society at large, than the differences humanists have with non-humanists.

Humanists may be capitalists or Marxists, expounders of free enterprise or of a planned economy, believers in self- ethics or altruism, political activists or scholarly recluses. They do not necessarily come to agreement on the issues they debate.

Humanism is not final set of strategies or of answers. It is frame or orientation, an approach to the human situation.

–Paul Beattie
Freethought Forum
Newsletter of Humanists of San Diego

Secular Morality

Living As If Religion Were Truth

Moral intuitions in a secular society are discussed by Dr. Patrick Loobuyck, department of philosophy, Ghent University, Belgium in the current issue of Religious Humanism. Dr. Loobuyck argues that western moral values are necessary for a civilized society and they are based on religious writings. He recognizes that many secularists no longer accept the theistic fantasy that an authoritarian God rewards and punishes individuals based on adherence to religious commandments.

Most of us agree that moral values are necessary for a peaceful, meaningful world. We use moral discourse daily, we say we must live with absolute prohibitions, adopt intrinsic values, and grant human dignity while denying there is an ultimate source of these values.

Dr. Loobuyck says the solution to this dilemma is fictionalism, living ‘as if’ there was a God who commands moral standards. Fictionalism, says Loobuyck, allows us to accept in practice what we reject in theory.

–Flo Wineriter

Humanist Humor

An Irish girl had not been home for over five years. Upon her return, her father cussed, “Where have ye been all this time? Why did ye not write to us, not even a line? Why didn’t ye call? Can ye not understand what ye put yer ol’ mum thru?”

The girl cried “Sniff, sniff, Dad, I became a prostitute.”

“Ye what!!? Out of here ye shameless harlot! Sinner! You’re a disgrace to this family.”

“OK dad, as ye wish. I just came back to give mum this fur coat, and you a mansion and $5 million bank account. And …”

“Now what was it ye said ye had become?” interrupted her father.

“Oh forgive me…a prostitute!”

“Oh, be Jesus! Ye scared me half to death girl! I thought ye said PROTESTANT!”

Camp Quest

Member Recommended Websites

Camp Quest, a Summer Camp for humanist kids. It’s Beyond Belief! Opportunities all summer long in a variety of venues.

Camp Quest