Letters to the Editor
Humanism and Atheism
As headlined in last month’s issue of the Utah Humanist the discussion of the relationship between humanists and atheists continues to be vigorous. When I make presentations to various groups on the history and philosophy of humanism the question invariably is asked “Are humanists atheists?” My answer is always “Some humanists are atheists some are religious.”
My explanation involves where the two philosophies put their major emphasis. Atheists’ major point is proclaiming there is no god, Humanists major point is human relationships. While atheists are intent on convincing their audience that there is no God, humanists are trying to convince their audience that everyone has the responsibility to make life as good as possible for all humans.
Religious humanists are usually active in Unitarianism, the American Ethical Union, or Humanistic Judaism. Recent polls indicate that more than 50% of Unitarians in the U.S. are humanists. The American Humanist Association was actually established by a group of Unitarian Ministers.
Humanism features an optimistic attitude concerning the moral and social capacity of people. Their ultimate goal is human flourishing, making life better for all. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now. They believe the rewards of living the good life will be enjoyed during this life, not in a life after death.
Ted Sorensen, a Unitarian and a top assistant to our only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, has written a book about JFK, Counselor, published this year by Harper. In it he quotes from the commencement speech the president delivered at the American University in 1963, “Our problems are man-made therefore they can be solved by man.” Sorensen goes on to say, “In many broader senses of the word, he (JFK) was a humanist because he looked to human beings to solve problems caused by human beings.”
Dave Burton, a Salt Lake artist and humanist, told me, “In order to become a true disbeliever you must learn a great deal about what it is you disbelieve.”
Are humanists atheists? I believe we are so busy seeking ways to act as a moral force in the world we simply don’t have time to debate the existence of gods.
Atheist Point of View
There are a few problems with Kay’s argument besides the ones Wilson cited. First, atheists generally aren’t claiming that there is no god, merely that they lack belief in them. Agnosticism is not a middle point between theism and atheism, by their terminology, but refers to a completely different matter, that is, the actual existence of deities. Therefore, you could be an agnostic theist or a gnostic atheist or vice versa, since whether you believe in something and whether or not something is technically provable are very different matters, e.g. I may not be able to prove that my brother is not Spiderman, but that doesn’t mean that it is an unreasonable belief.
Second, it’s not entirely clear just what kind of god or gods (or goddess or goddesses) are being referred to. For instance, we can be absolutely certain that “omni-gods”–that is, deities that are rational, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good–do not exist due to various arguments such as the problem of evil or inherent contradictions within the concept (such as the old “Can God make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?” paradox), and even most Christian theologians these days no longer support such a definition of God. So, depending on the deity being referred to, we most certainly can know that they do not exist.
The last issue I take with his argument is that requiring someone to prove a claim false before it can be rejected instead of requiring those making a claim to prove it sets the bar much too high–if we can’t disbelieve in an unproven deity, then we can’t disbelieve in literally any other crazy idea someone comes up with and maintain our intellectual integrity. Merely from a practical perspective, we have to be able to disregard some ideas as simply ridiculous.
Now, it’s true that atheism isn’t necessarily going to make the world a better place, and someone can be an atheist for absolutely silly reasons just as one could for any other worldview or belief. The most important thing is the promotion of skeptical inquiry into as many areas of life as possible–but unfortunately, books dealing with critical thinking alone don’t tend to sell as well as something controversial. Instead of attacking the “New Atheists” for being “negative” and “counter-productive” (unfortunately, he didn’t say in exactly what way atheists are guilty of either of these), we ought to be glad that someone’s bringing religious skepticism into the spotlight. It’s not as good as an entire skeptical worldview, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and as skeptics, we humanists should encourage public discussion of religious skepticism rather than attack it.
I personally feel that humanists do a disservice to others and waste their own time attempting to deny someone else’s god concept. More importantly, it targets us negatively; something we really do not need. As Paul Tillich stated, “we make our own gods.” Some need them, why deny them that right?
If we really want to promote humanism, and challenge more traditional religious views, we should do so by requiring others (especially fundamentalists) to define their terms. What do they really mean when they use the term “god”? We can then bring science to bear on the issue. They will identify their “god” as the creator. We can then point out that science now demonstrates that the universe has always existed. Time is a relative and not an absolute concept. That is a better argument then attempting to retort by asking, what created god? You get to the same point philosophically, but the latter question muddies the issue. Let truth prevail. It is the humanist way of doing things. The militant atheists are just as bad. They have defined their parent’s god and do not like what they find. The real problem is that their god concept is still primitive. It is not the use of the word “god” (which has multiple meanings) that they rightfully should object to. It is their primitive definition of god.
God is an almost useless term for humanists. But it does mean something to others. We can talk to others using their language. We have no right to deny them the right to look at life from their own perspective. Each person has their own right to define what is important to them.
President, The Humanist Foundation
Former President AHA
Martha died on December 10, 2009. Her family included this simple statement in her obituary that really sums up who she was: Martha avoided drawing attention to herself. She could never quite believe how beautiful she was.
What’s in a name? Apparently nothing, as Juliet tells us, for a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And yet one must wonder, since the Westport, Connecticut, Martha Stewart of crafts and television fame is like, although but a pale reflection of, our own Martha Stewart, that gentle woman who serves refreshments each month after our general meeting. You name it and our own Martha Stewart can not only do it, but probably does. She makes leaded glass creations that she contributes to the Unitarian Church’s “action auction” each year. She makes her own Christmas (Winter Solstice?) Cards with linoleum blocks. She paints with oils and water colors, and she does the calligraphy on our membership cards.
She and her entire family are multi-dimensional. She graduated from LDS High School, where she learned in her theology classes that she was not of the faith. She went on to the University of Utah where she was editor for five quarters of The Pen, a literary magazine, and graduated when she was not quite twenty with high honors in art and English. She broke her contract as a teacher at Davis High School to marry Justin Stewart on New Year’s Eve in New York City. Justin was at Columbia working on a master’s degree in adult education. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps during WWII and was the first to bounce radar off the moon, and eventually went back for his law degree and set up his own law firm. During the course of his life’s journey, Justin served as chairman of the Democratic Party in Utah and died six years ago; there was no apparent relationship.
Meanwhile, her son Peter, a mechanical engineer, has retired from Boeing; her daughter Polly teaches at Salisbury College in Maryland; and another daughter Heather lives next door, teaches Adult Education at Granite District, and is married to a Welshman who teaches English at Westminster College and writes plays for BBC radio, like last November’s play on Frank Lloyd Wright. Martha herself eventually returned to work at the Salt Lake City library for eleven years, then for the circulation library for the blind and physically handicapped for five years, and finally as a reference librarian for the Utah State Historical Society for ten years, retiring in 1980. She has since served as a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts at the U, and in the manuscript division of special collections at the Marriott Library at the U. But best of all, says her daughter Heather, Martha has enchanted generations of children with life-like butterflies and birds snipped magically out of construction paper.
Can the other Martha Stewart top this?
Anna Marie Burnham
5/11/1929 ~ 12/15/2008
Ann’s career as a medical secretary at the LDS Hospital and the University of Utah inspired donating her body to the University of Utah School of Medicine.
As a dedicated selfless single mother who actively pursued, and was an advocate for, politics and progressive causes–she lived her life with integrity and concern for others.
Friends described her as vibrant, charismatic, and energetic. She will be remembered for her love of words, sincere affection, compassion for people and animals and enthusiasm she shared in many subtle and elegant ways.
Ann’s passion for life was contagious! She inspired us to look deeper, to listen and to make the most of each and every day. It is no exaggeration to say that Ann loved her family more than life itself. She wanted no mourning, no grief, and no tears.
Please remember her by donating to a charity of your choosing in her honor.
I don’t have any respect for the Religious Right. There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson, and all the rest of these political preachers. There are a detriment to the country.
A lot of so-called conservatives don’t know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders of the Religious Right.
Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar…You don’t have to be straight to be in the military. You just have to be able to shoot straight.
I’m sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”
–Senator Barry Goldwater
The Vatican has finally forgiven John Lennon for declaring that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ, calling the remark a “boast” by a young man grappling with sudden fame. The comment by Lennon to a London newspaper in 1966 infuriated Christians, particularly in the United States, some of whom burned Beatles’ albums in huge pyres. But time apparently heals all wounds.
Jesus Kicked Out of School
A middle school in New Jersey invited students to come to classes in their Halloween costumes, but apparently one costume was too scary for school officials. One 13-year-old came to school dressed as Jesus: in sandals, long robe, long hair and beard, and a crown of thorns. The principal promptly sent him home, but defended her decision by saying the costume was a disruption to the education process because it attracted too much attention. She denied that the costume’s religious nature had anything to do with her decision. The student, whose mother is Catholic while his father is Jewish, said he created the costume because his friends had told him that is long hair made him look like Jesus.
All was not lost however–the student used the same costume for trick-or-treating. There is no report on whether anyone offered him shelter.
–The CDS Humanist Monthly
Darwin Day 2009 – Time to Get Excited!
This past February we sponsored a highly successful “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah.” In a couple of months the world will celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and Humanists of Utah will be there!
Plans are well underway to celebrate the life and accomplishments of one of the greatest visionaries and free thinkers of all time.
So mark February 12, 2009 on your calendar and plan to join the fun. The basic tenets and core values we will be celebrating include:
Science is our most reliable knowledge system.
We encourage curiosity and ingenuity through the pursuit of the scientific method.
Darwin’s exposition of Evolution is arguably among the most important scientific contributions in history.
We advocate the teaching of Evolution in our public schools beginning in elementary school.
We support the promotion of science to the general public, private and public institutions, science professionals, science educators at all levels, libraries, museums, the print and electronic media and science enthusiasts.
2009 is upon us and as I keep saying, there may be hope with President-elect Obama to be sworn in soon. Almost daily I contemplate the horrors of the last eight years. That pondering brings forth a variety of thoughts: about the lies, the blunders, the lost opportunities. The list is mind-boggling. I find it amazing to realize that I, without having spent a single minute as a politician, could have done a better job than “W”, but that’s not saying much.
But enough of that, I plan to get the year going by working with the other board members in preparation for our second annual Darwin Day celebration. With this year being the 200th anniversary of his birth, there is a much broader base of interest in the community. This year our event is one of several that are scheduled to take place at the University of Utah. Throughout the month of February there is much planned: plays, movies and video series, receptions, displays, etc. As his birthday on February 12 gets closer, we will have a better round up of events. At our December social I announced that Professor Frank Brown will be the speaker at our event. I took a couple of classes from Professor Brown many years ago and he was one of the science professors who helped cultivate a love for science in me. He is currently the Dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and a distinguished Professor of Geology & Geophysics. At our next general meeting on January 8, I will have more to say about Professor Brown. All this expanded information will also be in the February newsletter and on our website. There is a lot to do, but I am excited about the prospects of a successful month of celebration of the birth of a man who brought us a discovery which rivals any in science.
As soon as we wrap up Darwin Day it will be time for us to start working on our other annual event, Thomas Paine Day. I think it will be a good idea to make the focus of Thomas Paine Day be the Constitution and the role of our founding fathers. After the way it has been abused lately, I feel it will be useful to examine its language, what the framers mindset was, the historical context, what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to avoid. Of course, my original motivation for Thomas Paine Day was to bring Paine “off the” shelf where religion has managed to put him throughout history and give tribute to the man who first coined the name “The United States of America.”
Finally, I wish to say a few words about the Mormons and other religious groups in regards to their support of California’s Proposition 8. There continues to be a number of letters to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune on both sides of this issue, and I have mentioned it a couple of times myself in previous newsletters and in conversations with members of our chapter. I want to address the complaints from these groups. Some of them think–that after involving themselves and their official church in an effort (as I see it) to enact laws to deprive certain citizens their civil rights–they should be left alone and not criticized.
But the way I see it, if the officials of the churches and the members use their organization and its resources in this effort, the organizations and its people become not only a religion, but also a political action group. Having done that, they are fair game for any and all derision and criticism, from those deprived of their rights and from those who stand with the deprived. And, in fairness, they are also welcome to receive praise from their like minded friends.
That’s all for now, hope to see you January 8 at our general meeting.
Institute for Humanist Studies
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The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) is a think tank whose mission is to promote greater public awareness, understanding, and support for humanism. The Institute specializes in pioneering new technology and methods for the advancement of humanism.