February 2008

Why Men Believe

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

E. Haldeman-Julius was born in Philadelphia in 1889 and died in 1951. He owned a publishing company which published more than 2,200 “Little Blue Books.” The topics of these books included history, philosophy, sex, home economics, poetry, and free thought works by Paine, Ingersoll, and Voltaire, among others. He was not afraid of controversy and one series of books was entitled Appeal to Reason Series. There goal was to bring education to the masses. He was the first to use the postal service to distribute his fifteen cent paper back “Little Blue Books”.

“Why Men Believe,” is taken from his book, The Outline of Bunk circa 1929, page 24. In this essay he reviews what he feels was the essential history of religion. Men originally believed in religion because “they did not know better.” There was no scientific explanation of life. The fantastic dogmas of religion, though puzzling to them, could not be questioned by the stupid masses of men. There was in the first place, the activity of superstitious curiosity and wonder, in the absence of science, trying to explain somehow the mystery of the universe. These explanations would be of the sort that we find in religion: a queer patchwork of supernatural imaginings, myths and marvels. The element of ignorant wonder would sufficiently account for religion. In a word, once his mind got busy, man would awkwardly try to figure out what life meant. And untrained, unguided reflections would result in a religious mess. Religions would produce confusion, and, not least, would evolve into a scheme of power (with rival cults and deities) to be intolerantly maintained.

As for the masses, they were influenced by fear and hope–and susceptible in the first place, through their ignorance. Today hope and fear, while not so intense, still have their part in support of religion. A personal, sentimental hope also induces many to believe, or try to believe, in the promises of religion concerning a future life. Man egotistically rebels against the thought of dying. They surrender a great deal of knowledge and pleasure that is certain for the sake of an extremely dubious, shadowy reward and a hope of living in heaven with their departed loved ones. A belief in religion is only possible, with any degree of satisfying faith, to the simplest type of mind, and even then there is a doubt that is irrepressible, a doubt that is repeatedly awakened by the spectacle of death.

From another viewpoint, to some people, an acceptance of religion is the easiest escape from the wearying necessity of thought. Here is a man who is not equal to reasoning himself to a realistic view of life. Nor is he strong enough to bear what is to him the burden of skepticism. He wants comforting illusion. And without making any intellectual difficulties for himself, without really thinking much about the question, he leans upon a simple, vague, but pleasant faith in religion. Its unpleasant doctrines he forgets and its more attractive promises he choose to believe as a desirous and uncritical act of faith. Perhaps he is not zealous in religious devotion. He is not strong on doctrine; he is not interested in discussion. He has not so much been saved or converted as he has rid himself, in what seems to him the easiest way, of a troublesome problem.

I think E. Haldeman-Julius was as accurate in 1929 as he is in 2008. Faith is really intellectual laziness. Take for example, evolution. When asked how life began, to answer “God did it,” is a cop out. The true story of life was discovered by Charles Darwin. It took him an entire lifetime of study and work. Many other dedicated scientists spent many years of hard work in the trenches, digging fossils and interpreting them, studying the molecules of life including the molecule of heredity that is DNA to find the truth. It was evolution by natural selection on a background of inheritable characteristics and random mutations that, over millions of years, in slow small steps created life on this planet as we know it today.

The religious mindset is characterized by intellectual laziness. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to be a skeptic. Trying to find the truth is a rigorous intellectual exercise. The intellectually honest person must face the truth even when it hurts. The skeptic has a difficult, often thankless, and sometimes painful job. He has the job of bringing reason, knowledge, facts, and most importantly, intellectual honesty to the discussion of the great questions and problems that face mankind. What other choice do we have? Rational thinking based on knowledge and facts must trump a hope or belief without knowledge, “faith.” Vice a versa is just too scary to think about.

Taking the Constitution Seriously

I am going to talk about the Constitution, the rule of law, and simple honesty-all subjects obviously related one to another.

The Constitution today is not the Constitution of 1787. That document had no amendments. We now have twenty-seven. Note the first three words, “We the People.” The meaning today is so far different, blacks were used for counting and then only 3/4 value and women were excluded from participation. What the today’s originalists don’t acknowledge is that times change. “We the People” then is entirely different from “We the People” now. Numerically “We the People” is different as well from 3 million to over 300 million. Geographically we differ too; a seaboard of 13 states vs. a continent of 48 and two outlanders. We have grown, we have grown better, and with bumps along the way, including some in our day, we have grown more free.

Quite obviously, the Constitution with amendments is not the same document as that which was produced in Philadelphia in 1787. It is a much better document.

As a child I was taught to take the Constitution seriously. Some in my community asserted that it was a divinely inspired document which should be respected, revered and followed. After all, the creators of that document were persons of experience, learning and wisdom who had thought deeply about how government should be structured, and how power should be divided. As a U.S. District judge, I have admired and cherished their history-tested insights.

The framers, with their bitter experience of colonial status, their natural mistrust of undue power in the hands of one man, deliberately fractured governmental power into three great departments-legislative, executive and judicial-each to balance or check the power of the other. Miraculously that fundamental structure has endured for more than two hundred years.

Look at the structure of the document. In the allocation of governmental power, the Founders placed the power to declare war in the legislative branch. The words of the Constitution are plain. Section 8 of Article 1 says “Congress shall have the power to declare war.” They did this deliberately and with full appreciation of the hard lessons of history, particularly British, French, Roman, and Greek history. The design was to limit the power of one man to take the nation into war. They taught that the decision to start a war, and the inevitable cost in lives and treasure, foreseen and unforeseen, required that the nation make such critical decision through its representatives in Congress, and to announce such a group decision by a declaration.

The President has no power to declare war. The judiciary has no power to declare war. The legislative branch and it alone has the power to declare war.

As of this date, the Congress has not declared war against anyone, including Iraq. Yet the President calls himself a wartime President. The Congress has funded a war, off budget, that has yet to be declared. The failure to declare implicates international treaties and agreements, including how we treat prisoners.

Nowhere in that hallowed document, the Constitution, do we find that the President may declare war. In 2002, the Congress passed a resolution which in effect delegated to the President the power to make war:

Authorization-the President is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq

Nowhere in the venerable document do we find the power of the Congress to delegate its responsibility to another, President or not. The Congress cannot amend the Constitution by legislation or resolution.

One of the reasons for removing such a critical decision from one man was to slow the process down, to enable those charged with the responsibility for decision to examine with care the reasons, the facts supporting such a decision, and to make sure that the facts that drive the conclusion to start a war are real, not illusory.

By delegating the decision to the President and thus avoiding their responsibility, the Congress skipped that careful process and relied upon others to make an examination of the underlying facts and reasons-which now appear, with belated after-the-fact examination, to be thin, flawed, non-existent, or just plain wrong.

It is elementary that the power to conduct a war, which is the responsibility of the President as the Commander in Chief, is different than the power to start a war, which under the Constitution, is the responsibility of Congress.

Some may point to ‘precedent” that in the past some Presidents have indeed acted contrary to the Constitution and the Congress let them get away with it. On occasion the members of Congress have been complicit in abdicating their responsibilities under the Constitution. But their historic actions in no way obliterate the words and the wisdom of the document.

The people are owed “due process” in a different sense than usually employed, that is to say, a Congressional process which carefully and completely examines the factual footing for making a momentous and far-reaching decision as to whether we should or should not initiate a war. And if Congress decides we should, the Congress must have the courage to declare that decision to the entire world with a specified and named foreign state in mind. The Congress should then be prepared to defend such a decision and be answerable therefore, including the consequences which flow there from, including the cost in lives and public treasure.

Absent that, the people are shortchanged by their Congressional representatives and as a result appear to have been victimized by an executive process which has been wanting in care and in depth.

I have long wondered about the failure of the press and other media to examine the war power clause in any depth within the context of our current state of affairs.

I have long lamented that the avowed “strict constructionists” are leading the charge of those who would ignore the plain language of the Constitution.

The founders were long on brains and experience. An imperial presidency was dangerous and they knew it. That’s the very reason they built in a Constitutional check to guard against it.

To our sorrow it goes ignored.

–Judge Bruce Jenkins

Science is NOT Just a Matter of Opinion

The wonders of the Internet; overcoming dreaded diseases such as polio; our first steps to explore space; the ability to locate anything on Earth to within a few feet with a global positioning system–all are powerful reminders that science and technology can change the world in a most positive manner. They have a wonderful opportunity to play in shaping the society we live in–but they cannot do that successfully if science is allowed to become simply a matter of opinion.

Just look at what has been happening in regard to scientific questions about the environment, global warming and evolution. Why is scientific opinion so often disregarded, or even scoffed at? The answer is the growing public sentiment that science is only one of many ways of viewing the world. All of us should be troubled by this trend, because it threatens to make our nation less competitive at a time when the globe is shrinking.

–Richard N. Zare

President’s Message

Thomas Jefferson said in 1809, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight,” I heartily agree. The accumulation of knowledge is a wonderful thing. In my life I have enjoyed an interest in science and a curiosity about nature. For me it is profoundly gratifying to look at images of galaxies some 14 billion light years away and be able to perceive and understand how vastly large and complex the cosmos is. It is also gratifying to have some understanding of the infinitely small, and how matter works. All of the other sciences, from geology to biology are equally fascinating in their own way.

As Carl Sagan put it, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” With just a little thinking and curiosity, we can, in a conscious way, look around and perceive the universe the way it is. Wondering, asking questions, and seeking answers is very satisfying to me.

Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah is fast approaching (February 12), and things are coming together. The members of the Darwin Day Committee and I are quite excited about our first annual event. As you can see from the schedule in this issue, we have planned what will be an enjoyable and enlightening day.

I believe that this event will accomplish a number of objectives. For our chapter, it is a way for us to get out and be more “in the public” to advocate for humanism. We hope it will not only attract interested people in general, but young people in particular to humanism and the world of freethinkers (one reason the event will be held at the University of Utah.) The world desperately needs to promote science and by disseminating factual, scientific information we can assist in this important endeavor.

These things, along with the enjoyment of getting together, meeting new freethinkers (we hope!) and celebrating Charles Darwin’s birthday and his contributions to science (and the celebration of science in general) will make for a great day. Please come and join us-I don’t think you will be disappointed.

I am having one problem with Darwin Day, though. We have purchased a variety of “Evolve Fish” merchandise to sell (magnets, stickers, T-shirts, caps and much more-about 35 different items) and I want one of each. I’ll just have to cool it for now so that others can have a chance to shop, although you might see me in a new T-shirt. And I will see you on February 12.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU