February 2010

In Defense of Blasphemy

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

Tauriq Moosa is an ex-Muslim who has a web site on which he “Defends Reason and Promotes Beauty without a God.” He is a contributing editor for the Secular Humanist Bulletin and also writes for “Skeptic” magazine. His motto on his web site is “Freedom of thought is the only good more important than peace; for without it peace would be another word for servility.”

In his recent article entitled “In Defense of Blasphemy,” he defines blasphemy as “impious utterance or action concerning the God of the theists or sacred things.” In Judaism it is defined as a) an act of cursing or reviling God.or b) pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in the original, now forbidden manner instead of using a substitute pronunciation such as Adonai. The Catholic Encyclopedia however, defines blasphemy as an “etymologically gross irreverence towards any person or thing worth of exalted esteem.” How are we to contemplate these various definitions, all churning within a pot of miasmatic confusion? He feels there is an absurdity of any imperfect human being able with his or her language to insult an omniscient, omnipotent being like a God. It is the humans themselves that take offense to having their particular God’s name taken in vane.

Mr. Moosa then goes on to ask, “Does anyone feel hurt when I say Zeus is a bastard?” Only if there are any classic lecturers listening. Or “I know what Thor can do with his hammer.” Shocking to a medieval Viking. But what happens if we replace these insults with the name Yahweh, capital-G god , or Jesus. By today’s standard, this is not allowed. We must ask ourselves why we can all scorn Zeus but not Yahweh. Offense is taken in and of itself as an argument. You have hurt my feelings, it states, therefore you must be silenced or censored. On the other hand, open dialogue, the nature of a stable society, means that we have an agora-or open market place of ideas-to which all are allowed to contribute. Naturally being an open environment there are things that we will not like. But whether we like something or not, does not tell us whether it is true or helpful. It must be subjected to criticism from both sides, for and against. It hurts your feelings, well, that is really just too bad. We cannot simply dismiss an idea because one side is “hurt.” Defenders of reason do not use offense in and of itself as an argument. Moosa quotes JM Coetzee: “Convictions that are not backed by reason…are not strong but weak; it is the mark of a weak position, not a strong position, that it’s holder, when challenged, takes offense. All viewpoints deserve a hearing; debate, according to the rules of reason, and reason will decide which deserves to triumph.”

But why to so many people take offense so easily? Most people believe their religion to be true because these ideas have been passed down via heritage and are not subjected to the same criticism as many other ideas. A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. When challenged about their religion they immediately retreat under the guise of offense. This is a personal thing, and you are not allowed to talk about it. Mr. Moosa feels that if it was not the fact that so many people believe in a god and so many people respond to open criticism of religious ideas in this way (personal offense); we would all agree that most religions are absurd; at least all the other religions, other than our own. Which leads directly to the definition of a myth, which is of course “the other persons’ religion.”

Blasphemy is a right for everyone because everyone will be offended by some view, in this open market place of ideas. This is the deal we sign up for when entering a secular society, premised on freedom of speech and equal human rights. If a view upsets you, you must be able to give good reasons, aside from a simple assertion of unquestioning belief or faith. We must eliminate the arbitrary boundaries based on emotion and magic books. Reason will decide the victor. The tiny light of reason in this path of darkness, marked with the blanket of religious superstition, is our guiding light in this world.

–Craig Wilkinson, MD

C-cubed: Community Corner Conversation

This month we are launching a new newsletter feature fondly named C-Cubed: our Community Corner Conversations.

Each month I will pose a question or a poll or something along those lines and ask you to send in your contributions to the discussion in the following weeks. I will then compile your responses and post them in the next newsletter. I think it will be very interesting to hear from and share with each other. Imagine the surprises and the fun that awaits our little humanist community!

There are so many things I’d like to ask you, but let me lead with this: do you have a human rights issue that you just can’t stop thinking about? Something that you want to shout to the world? (Or just generally let out a good yell?)

For some reason I just can’t stop thinking about the law they’re trying to push through in Uganda engaging draconian attacks against homosexuality. The proposed law (which was reported at one time to have had a 99% chance of passing, before the international community got involved) calls for lifetime imprisonment for anyone committed of a homosexual act. Death is the sentence for “aggravated” homosexual acts, which includes anyone found to have the HIV virus. As extreme as this is, the law also includes a 7-year prison term for anyone who “helps” with homosexuality: counselors, activists. AND a 3-year prison term for anyone who doesn’t report within 24 hours any known instance of homosexual activity. My mind reels. It seems some of America’s religious leaders are complicit in this bill. They were leading seminars in Uganda about homosexuality (we can just imagine), but disavow any links to a call for death…

So what human rights issue is on your mind community? The newly enacted 25,000 euro fine in Ireland for any instance of blasphemy? The brutal silencing of election protestors in Iran?

You can send your thoughts to “Lisa at HumanistsofUtah dot org.” I will also be sending out a group email a little later for easy response (and a reminder.) The deadline is February 26. Keeping in mind that we need to compile this for the newsletter, I will definitely enjoy reading your paragraphs but will probably condense them down to a sentence or two. I’m also thinking that we will not identify the specific members with the responses, so you will have some anonymity if that helps. I can’t wait to hear from you!

–Lisa Miller

Insurmountable Risks

~Book Review~

With the current discussions of a possible nuclear power plant coming to Utah: what are the benefits and risks? This is especially important regarding global climate change and energy policy. This book addresses several prevalent policies that have arisen since the birth of the nuclear industry and its various facets. Insurmountable Risks by Brice Smith starts out by discussing various types of nuclear power plants, and the advantages and disadvantages of each including costs and benefits. Evolvement of regulatory policies that govern the nuclear industry from the Atomic Energy Commission to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are discussed, including international policies from the United Nations Commission on Nuclear Proliferation.

Comparison is also made between nuclear and other forms of power generation with regard to economy, safety, sustainability, including consideration of whether nuclear power is really a “green” technology when all aspects of the energy generation are taken into consideration. There is also a discussion of how energy is treated as a commodity on the various national and international stock exchange markets. There is also an analysis done by various economists comparing the different ways of generating electrical power, with special attention to factoring in hidden costs, such as disposal of uranium mining mill tailings, use of large volumes of water, etc. to that of other energy industries hidden costs.

Discussion of radioactive waste management from the different forms of nuclear power generation is also presented, such as different reprocessing methods from various countries (and where this stands as of today), as well as the as yet unsolved disposal problems related to high level waste. Another consideration dealt with in this book is the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation by rogue nations, since the accumulation of weapons grade uranium and plutonium is easily accomplished once a country has the technology to produce reactor grade material.

The culture of safety is analyzed from miners of raw materials, to that of the refining, to that of processing in the nuclear power plant, to the waste material. This includes a discussion of depleted uranium (which is produced in large quantities in the refining of uranium ore), to mixing of radioactive isotopes, to long-term waste management, and to that of other energy technologies safety issues.

While this book is not a light read, there are over 1000 footnotes that are as interesting as the text itself. There are about 50 pages devoted just to references, and a list of acronyms is provided to help the reader navigate through the book. It is a very informative source on this crucial current issue. It may be hard to find, but a copy can be obtained from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (www.ieer.org or www.rdrbooks.com ), and King’s English Bookstore.

–Cindy and Art King

Humanist Message

The democratic candidate in the Massachusetts senatorial special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy was soundly defeated. Several analysts theorized the reason was a failure to effectively communicate. The analysts’ comments stimulated my thinking about the membership problems of our chapter.

Our membership numbers have declined more than 20% during the past ten years. Death has been the major cause, a few losses by previous members not renewing. We have not attracted enough new members to replace either. I wonder if we, like the democrats, are also failing to communicate. Do we know what we want to communicate? Do we know the essence of humanism? Do we know how to communicate effectively?

Humanism is more than a scientific society. We are also a society that encourages ethics, morality, and compassion. Humanism is concerned with human relations, happiness, fulfilling of life’s needs, physical and emotional, as well as intellectual. Our goal is similar to the goals of a liberal arts college, encourage people to develop habits of the mind that will connect the dots to a full life.

We have two challenges, first, clearly defining humanism. Secondly, discovering how to communicate that definition.

–Flo Wineriter

President’s Message

On February 11th we will be hosting our third annual “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah.” It is the time when our chapter celebrates Science. We do this around the birthday of Charles Darwin for there is no person in the history of science or indeed the history of humankind who is more deserving of a celebration of his or her life and birthday. His contribution to science is one of the greatest humanity has in the numerous contributions by scientists of all stripes. The theory of evolution is certainly at the top of any list of human accomplishments.

For me, calling evolution a theory is just fine, even though many who don’t understand the scientific method will call a theory “just a guess.” I think it is useful to also remember that while Darwin was one of the first to explain the “Theory of Evolution,” it should also be thought of as a discovery. He did not invent it or “think it up,” evolution has always been there just waiting to be understood.

I believe that advocating for and defending Science and the scientific method are extremely important and require our vigilance. This vigilance is necessary because there are groups and individuals who are working against science, reason, and rationality. It would be easy to feel smug about our knowledge about evolution and earth history, but the people who wish to discredit evolution are not idly sitting back watching, they are active and well funded. We have not instituted Darwin Day to argue against anyone’s belief in god. We want our celebration to be about those who have contributed to science and free thought. But it is necessary to recognize the existence of the wide gulf between those of us who understand evolution and those who do not and who work to try to discredit evolutionary science and the other disciplines that are related. They wish to remove evolution from schools if they can or at least wedge creationism into schools in the form of creation science or intelligent design.

At our first two Darwin day events we presented various professors of different scientific disciplines, Biology, Paleontology, and Anthropology. Their presentations were very instructive. This year however, we thought it would be a good idea to focus on Darwin himself. So Professor Bruce Dain of the University of Utah History Department will give us a presentation titled, Darwin’s Personality and His Ideas. I hope that you will support our efforts by attending our celebration. I am sure you will enjoy the evening of enlightenment by Professor Dain and of course our tradition of a cake with Darwin’s likeness, ice cream and other refreshments. Thank you for your continuing support.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Symphony of Science

Member Recommended Websites

The Symphony of Science is a musical project headed by John Boswell designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form. Here you can watch music videos, download songs, read lyrics and find links relating to the messages conveyed by the music.

The words of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, and many others set to music.

Thanks to Bob Lane for suggesting this link!

Symphony of Science

Bob Mayhew

My Journey to Humanism

I was not born into humanism. Neither my parents nor grand parents were humanists. Some of my father’s forbearers were liberal enough to involve themselves with the Underground Railroad in cahoots with John Brown and his rabble rousing group.

Farther back in time you can find some liberal preachers in the Boston area that have been implicated in the formation of the American Unitarian church and were preaching a liberal message that may have contributed to the unrest that eventually led to American liberation from England.

I came to this philosophical bent the same way many do. A slow process of awakening to the truth of the world around me and by involvement with it and the people and situations I have come in contact with.

My parents were not particularly churchy people. In fact I do not recall my father ever mentioning his involvement with any church during his growing up in west Kansas sand hill country. I do remembering him mentioning his family’s involvement with John Brown and a preacher in Boston way back in the middle 1700’s. He always made these remarks with the disclaimer that the Boston preachers were probably witch burners and the folks associated with john Brown were outlaws-as if he were slightly embarrassed by the association or that he needed to make the disclaimer less people will think less of him if they knew he had come from a family with long held liberal beliefs.

My mother on the other hand was made to attend church by her very devout god-fearing parents in central Kansas and did so until she was married to my father in 1938. I do not recall what cult, sect coven or denomination it was she and her family attended but I do know her father sang in the choir and was a very active member, even in leadership, until he became too frail to attend. I also know that none of her 3 brothers were particularly active church goers after they left home, suggesting they were not going of their own volition.

I never had a serious conversation with either of my parents about their personal religious beliefs and can only guess what they really believed. I do know that they had different views of the world and people around them.

My father accepted everyone he met at face value and let his assessment of them be formed by their actions over time. My mother would do the same but her first impressions were usually more judgmental and slower to change.

I was born in California, Pasadena to be precise. About a mile from the Rose bowl I was told. I do not know if this fact has had anything to do with my current philosophical bent but it does not hurt.

Dad was a Geologist, so we moved from place to place depending on where his profession took him. Consequently we did not have a steady church to attend as we moved from Southern California to Albuquerque to Aztec, New Mexico to Moab. In Moab mother experimented with church’s to find one that suited her and her need to give us kids an ethical religious upbringing. We were Baptists, Presbyterians and finally Episcopalians. I did not mind too much going to church except that it interfered with playing. I did go to church school and learned all the common bible stories. I was even confirmed at age 13 or so. I remained a dutiful, unquestioning little Episcopalian throughout my school years.

I do remember feeling that I was not a true believer and questioning my desirability to be a member of the “saved” class when my time would inevitably come.

My young adult hood found me not caring about such things as being saved, heaven, hell or anything at all about the existence of God.

It was not until I met Julie and moved back to Utah in the early 1980’s that I seriously gave any of this any real thought. And it came slowly. I have never been a real deep thinker and mostly just shrugged off questions of faith as a waste of energy and time. I have since come full circle and believe that questions of faith are a waste of energy and time-why bother.

Julie, and her mother Alice were regular attendees at First Unitarian Church where we are now. I attended with them and our children and started to learn what liberal religion is. We were avid members of first church for a decade or so. It is here that I learned of my ancestor’s involvement in the founding of American Unitarianism-from my children coming home from religious philosophy classes they attended at this church.

Julie’s mother Alice was an original member of this humanist chapter and was she and Julie that introduced and brought me here. I will be forever grateful for that.

That is the abbreviated testament of my journey to humanism.