Challenges to Religion
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group
by Flo Wineriter
The February discussion group read and discussed “The New Naysayers” by Jerry Adler, published in the September 11, 2006 issue of Newsweek. The author examined four books written by three atheists that have enjoyed a spot on the top selling books list during the past several months: “The End of Faith” and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
Atheists are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent Newsweek Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6 and only 37 percent said they would be willing to vote for an atheist for president.
Newsweek writer, Adler, says Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions- they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone rattling attacks on what they regard as pernicious and outdated superstition. They ask: “Where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur’an? Tell them their book was written by an invisible deity who will punish them with fire for eternity and they require no evidence whatsoever. How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow up 180,000 people in a few hours?”
Adler’s article says Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanisms of natural selection that created the human thumb. The driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness.
Responding to the question, “If there is no God why be good?” Dawkins writes, “Do you mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.”
Regarding the Bible, Sam Harris is quoted as saying, “Why would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath?
The Newsweek article concludes with: “Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris treat belief in God as a superstition the modern world can no longer afford, if they are right the five-century long competition between science and religion is sharpening.”
My Journey to Humanism
have read the biographies on the Humanists of Utah web site. They are very interesting and informative. In trying to write mine, I have decided to be more personal than most I have read. I have done this, not for my personal aggrandizement, but because I feel it might help someone else if they are struggling with science vs. religion. If you find this personal touch offensive, I hope you can forgive me.
My life has been a long, protracted, sometimes painful, struggle between religion and science. It has been a steady growth from superstition, myth, and religion (Mormonism in particular,) to factual knowledge, natural history and science. Recently I can add humanism, and the friends I have found there, to my evolving life philosophy.
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee May 11, 1945 while my father was going to the Army Medical School during WWII. After the war our family moved to Kansas and Colorado while my father paid back his medical debt to the Army in the Public Health Service. He was chief medical officer in two different federal prisons, Leavenworth, and the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado. I had a carefree childhood with many friends of different religions, and backgrounds in both Kansas and Colorado.
Because my family was devoutly LDS we moved back to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1957. I grew up with the Mormon religion being a major part of my life. Moving to Salt Lake meant that most, if not all, of my friends were now Mormons. Meanwhile, I was a curious kid and loved to read. Story time at the local library was my favorite. As a teenage I read some of the Holy Scriptures. They didn’t make much sense, and everyone had a different interpretation of them, but I was told I must take it all on faith. However, my favorite books were mystery stories. How detectives solved mysteries fascinated me. The smart people, who could solve mysteries that many others couldn’t, seemed bigger than life. I admired them and wanted to be one of them. I read most Conan Doyle’s mysteries and I still have the complete Sherlock Holmes on my library shelf. The mysteries of the natural world were solved by scientists. I was read books about the lives of Francis Bacon, Joseph Priestly, Lavoisier, Newton, Marie Curie, and multiple others. They were able to unravel the mysteries, and discover .the facts about physics, chemistry, and geology. By careful thought and experiment they discovered what our world is made of, and how our world works. I wanted to know, step by step, their thinking processes and how they discovered the truths of our natural world. I kept a scrapbook of the science biography pages that came in our “Weekly Readers” during grade school. Each week there would be a page outlining a scientist, like Joseph Priestley describing how he discovered oxygen. Scientist became my childhood heroes, and they still are. One topic that was missing was evolution. This is because we lived in Utah, I’m sure it’s the same for children in the southern “bible belt”. I did not have much exposure to Charles Darwin. Evolution was not a topic of discussion in our home and creationism was taught in our local ward Sunday School.
Science and religion seemed compatible during my childhood. However, in high school and college I took courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. In biology we were taught that all life on earth evolved over millions of years. Many other ideas I was learning in college were not compatible with what I had learned in Sunday School. Emotionally I was still attached to the LDS faith, but I was disconcerted by Mormonism’s lack of what I call “intellectual honesty” When I brought these issue to my church leaders and authorities I was told to “not delve into the mysteries” These were left to God. I had some issues with this philosophy. If Newton had followed this advice we wouldn’t understand the laws of motion, gravity etc. and we wouldn’t have a space program. We could not have calculated the trajectories that put man on the moon. If Henri Bequerel hadn’t discovered X-rays we wouldn’t be looking inside of the human body to make diagnoses and prescribe proper treatments. If Charles Darwin had not discovered evolution by natural selection we wouldn’t understand biology. There are many other examples of creative thinkers in the history of science. They weren’t content to let God keep all the secrets hidden from them. It seemed to me, that the magic, miracles and superstitions that were part of my religious training began to fall apart in the bright light of scientific discovery.
Medicine was an integral part of my growing up, because my father was a family doctor. I saw him prescribing antibiotics for severe childhood illnesses, like strep throat, which can progress to scarlet or rheumatic fever. Antibiotics would cure the patient and prevent death or severe sequelae like rheumatic heart disease. Valvular heart disease, as a result of rheumatic fever, makes a life long invalid out of an otherwise normal healthy child. I could not, and still cannot, understand how a “kind God” could allow young children to die, or be crippled in alarming numbers, from infectious disease for hundreds of years before Louis Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease and Fleming discovered penicillin. If God was omnipotent, he would have known about germs and antibiotics long before Pasteur and Fleming. Why didn’t he reveal all this much sooner, say around 500 A.D. God knows how many lives that would have saved in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I often asked my father, who was a practicing family physician about these issues. He didn’t have an answer. My religious leaders would tell me, “Because we needed to learn about good and evil.” This made no sense. Killing a child doesn’t teach a lesson because a dead child can’t learn anything from the experience, he’s dead. It just seemed cruel…so, so cruel. I have now come to believe that NO advancement in the human condition, no solving of medical or other mysteries came about because we ascribed the mystery to “God”. In fact one author describes the history of religion as; just one retreat after another, as each successive religious “miracle” is unraveled and explained by the continuous march of science.
Geology and evolution were key issues for me. The Mormon faith had taught me that the history of the world was all tied up in a story about a family of Jewish Middle Eastern tribesman, wandering around in the Arabian Desert. The biblical story in Genesis explained that creation occurred in seven days, or no, maybe 7000 years. It included unbelievable stories, and outmoded cultural laws. For example, turning the Nile river into blood (that’s a lot of blood), or how about allowing concubines but stoning adulterers to death, or for another example, the scriptures suggested that you should kill your children if they didn’t profess a belief in “Yahweh”. How could the patriarchal genealogy of a small tribe of Middle Eastern people, there wanderings in the desert, and their relationship with “Yahweh” be the complete history of earth? We were taught it all started with Adam and Eve and ended up with Joseph Smith in about a 4,000 year time period. Was this the entire history of earth with its plants, animals, and humans? If this was the history of the world, where were the dinosaurs? They weren’t mentioned in the Bible. How about the Chinese and Japanese people? Where did they come from? What about the ice age? What about wooly mammoths? It seemed to me, that my college courses in geology, biology, paleontology and evolution, including human evolution taught the true history of planet earth and life on it. It was a story that included facts and evidence. Dinosaur bones were fossilized and being found in abundance. Science was piecing together an all inclusive story of everything inorganic and organic on the earth. The earth was 4.5 billion years old and multi-cellular live evolved over approximately 600 million years. The driving principle of evolution was a natural one that didn’t require supernatural guidance by a God or gods. It is called “natural selection” as explained by the great scientist Charles Darwin. What courage he had in facing his religious creationist critics; and what intellectual honesty he portrayed. Most people do not know that he began life, planning to go into the priesthood, but his study of life on earth over the years revealed the facts of evolution repeatedly until “the facts could no longer be denied.” He anticipated the far flung repercussions his ideas would cause, but his intellectual honesty would not allow him to keep evolution by “natural selection” under wraps and he published his ideas in The Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Over the past 150 years, since the publication of this book many scientists and others have tried to prove him wrong, but they have failed. It is now one of the strongest theories of science proving to be as reliable and predictive a theory as the theory of gravity.
Because of social pressures I attempted an LDS mission in l964. I only lasted 6 weeks at the missionary training center when I realized I was becoming severely depressed. I didn’t think I would be able to convince others about a religion or philosophy with which I wasn’t truly convinced. I think both the LDS church and I came to the conclusion that a mission wasn’t in my cards. Returning to Salt Lake City, I found myself a pariah. Not many decent, law abiding, sane, young men were returning from missions in 1963. Church members treated me like I had leprosy. Rumors spread of why I returned from my mission including rumors of sexual improprieties. These had nothing to do with my “failure” to serve a mission. Interestingly one of my tormenters who spread most of the sexual rumors happened to be a member of my ward, the infamous Mr. Tom Green, the polygamist, who, by the way, is now in prison for child rape, after “marrying” a 14-year old girl.
About this time, my father suggested that I enroll at Westminster, College. It seemed to be the place where most of the “infidels”, non-Mormons, went to school. What a relief for me! I had a wonderful experience there. I felt the infectious enthusiasm my teachers and mentors had about learning and knowledge. Science classes were my favorite. I majored in mathematics, with a minor in both physics and chemistry. We had required protestant convocations weekly. These opened my eyes to people of other faiths and religions. I realized one didn’t have to be a member of the “chosen people”, the “Mormons”, to be a “good” person. After graduation, due to the Vietnam War, I spent some time in the Army Reserve. During this time I grew to hate war and a sense of kindness to all people despite their politics, race or beliefs began to grow in my consciousness. After active duty, I decided to try and get in Medical School. It seemed a perfect way to combine my interest in science and my growing sense of humanism. I was accepted at the University of Utah Medical School graduating in 1974. I finished a general surgery residence at Maricopa County Hospital, Phoenix, Arizona in 1979, I practiced general surgery for five years and then took a sabbatical leave for one year to complete a vascular surgery fellowship at the University of Southern California in 1985. Since then I have practiced general and vascular surgery in Salt Lake City for 17 years. I am now beginning my gradual retirement. I am slowing down my surgery practice, doing only varicose vein surgery in private practice, and teaching surgery residents vascular surgery, one day every other week, at the VA Hospital in Salt Lake City.
During my years which were kept very busy as a practicing surgeon, husband, and father to three children, I didn’t have much time to reflect on my life philosophies. I wasn’t attending church but I felt that, if there were a God, my taking care of sick people might be good enough for at least a standby ticket to the Celestial Kingdom (Mormon heaven.)
I wasn’t interested in baptizing my children in Mormonism or any other religion for that matter. It was a difficult experience living in this valley and trying to instill in my children a respect for all people despite their race, religion or background. This was especially true when they felt the ostracism of being a minority (non-LDS), in the midst of their LDS friends and for that matter some of their LDS cousins. Fortunately they have all grown up to be open minded and compassionate adults.
During these years my casual reading led me to authors including, the psychologist Erich Fromm’s On Becoming a Human. I read nearly every book written by Joseph Campbell. I felt he explained the history and evolution of the world’s religions as myths written by humans. We made God in our image; he did not make us in his. My science readings included geology, paleontology, anthropology, and astronomy. My library now includes two whole walls of bookshelves. All of these books made sense when compared to the Bible. Here, in science, was the true history of the universe, the history of earth, the history of life on earth, including human evolution and our anthropological and cultural history. The brilliant biologist Edwin O. Wilson wrote a book summarizing a lot of what I had been reading in science over the years. I consider it perhaps the greatest book of our time. It is called Consilience and I recommend it strongly.
Recently I have read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What they have to say rings true. I can’t remember if it was Dawkins or Harris who said, “When are we going to stop killing each other over who has the best imaginary friend?” I agree with Sam Harris who wrote “unless humanity can come to the realization that it is better to know something than pretend to know something we are all doomed.”
Then I found humanism. It seemed to fit perfectly. In says, in essence, we need to be nice to each other because it is the right thing and the human thing to do, not because some mythical father figure in the sky says we have to, or go to hell. We need to be kind to our planet for it is all we have to sustain us. It is not ours to subdue as outlined in the Bible. We need people to stand up for these humanist ideas, without religious tribalism and bigotry. Hopefully we can make some appropriate decisions before some of the more zealous among us blow the whole planet up with nuclear bombs trying to convince us that they have the “best” imaginary friend. Witness the ongoing deadly battle between the Muslims (Allah and Mohammed) and the Christians (God and Jesus.)
I was happy to find your humanist group. Along with science, it is the only philosophy that makes sense to me. I have to say, however, it is a bit disconcerting to find our numbers so small. Does anybody ever think out there? Hopefully they’re not just content to obey their religious leaders, like some animal, or dog. We have brains and we should use them.
Whatever hope the world has, I believe it resides in the knowledge of science and the morality of humanism. I am also hoping there are many “closet humanists” out there. Maybe being a member of the secular humanist group and now a board member I can help bring some of the closet secular humanists out of the darkness.
Dr. Craig W. Wilkinson
Salt Lake City, Utah
Quite often I tell people that I came to humanism by way of science. What does that really mean? It means that early in my life I became skeptical, and as time went on I began to question those things that didn’t, in my mind, fit in with reality. Most of those things were associated with religious beliefs, especially those that dealt with creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, etc. Those beliefs (and many others) appeared ridiculous to me.
They continue to be ridiculous to me to this day. As people try to discredit science and inject religion into public schools and other areas that should remain secular, for me it is necessary to focus on science by defending it, disseminating factual information about it, and by being more vocal in its importance and truth.
For the next few months, you will see this occur in the President’s Message. In addition to the usual updates, requests and announcements, I plan to include a mixture of defense of science with some various educational facts. Hopefully this won’t bore everyone to death! (You will have another opportunity for such boredom when I am the speaker at the September General Meeting.)
My purpose in all of this is to inform people in the areas in which I have some knowledge, as well as to defend science in every way possible. I believe that we must confront misconceptions of all kinds and to stand up to what are sometimes lies about scientific areas, or seemingly authoritarian pronouncements of “how the world really is.”
Accuracy is one aspect of science we need to remain ever vigilant about; people often have incorrect and/or unreliable information that is designed to confuse or misinform. One example is the doubts so many people profess to have regarding the seriousness or even the reality of global warming-something which most respected scientists worldwide agree upon. I read a recent letter in the local newspaper in which an individual based his entire opinion on global warming (that it is bunk) on incorrect information about glaciers (melting rates, etc.) As someone who has studied Glaciology extensively, I could tell from the comments that the writer knew very little about the subject. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it does illustrate the importance of keeping scientific facts accurate and that the media have an obligation to report information correctly. A recent Google search of “glaciers” and “glaciology” was very disappointing: a lot of what I found was either inadequate or inaccurate-and this was on the premiere sites! It was troubling to think that people are getting their data from these sites that are either woefully inadequate or blatantly incorrect. It was a good reminder to me that when presenting any type of fact, about global warming or otherwise, scientists and the science minded alike must be scrupulous in our accuracy. Science should enlighten, not misinform, inform, not confuse, bring the truth, and not spread fallacies. Providing accurate information is vital in this endeavor.
Member Recommended Websites
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