May 2010

C-Cubed: Book Recommendations

We have some great recommendations from fellow humanists this month. My to-read list has definitely grown. By the way, Wayne is graciously offering to print book reviews in the newsletter for anyone willing to submit a report now or in the future. Please consider it! Also, take a look at our website for more humanist reading suggestions. Many of these have links to reviews provided by members.


Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (Jason Cooperrider)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson and Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Lisa Miller)

Island and Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: Favorites dealing with themes of religion, violence, war, politics, social stigmatization for beliefs. (Justin Howland)

Still Alice by Lisa Genova: Gave new insight into how to think about what is going on in the mind of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. (Lauren Florence)

Passion and Principle by Sally Denton: The story of the lives of one of America’s first “power couples”, John C and Jessie Fremont. It includes the history of Fremont’s Western explorations, the California gold rush, the Mexican war, the Civil war, and an interesting early reference to “plausible deniability” on the part of a US president. (Rob Duncan)

Slapstick or Lonesome No More by Kurt Vonnegut: Favorite book ever. Though for someone who has never read Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater would be a better introduction to his works. (Wayne Wilson)

Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough: Deals with the beginnings of the F.B.I. in the 1930’s and their war against crime, specifically Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, the Barker Gang and John Dillinger. It is very interesting for those who enjoy history about old time gangsters and outlaws. (Richard Cushing)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: The story of a father and his young son trying to find safety after an apocalyptic event. Not always an uplifting story, nevertheless, compelling and hard to put down. (Richard Cushing)

The Conversation for May:

WHAT IF… states actually started seceding from the United States? Given Utah’s track record this year (joining in to sue the federal government over the health care bill; the legislature calling on the EPA to desist on CO2 reduction programs since that climate change stuff is all unsubstantiated science; further policing of women’s reproductive systems with a specifically tailored criminal law against inducing miscarriages; talking about following Arizona in their radical immigration law) I’m betting Utah would be joining them. So, a little poll for this “what if” world. Will you be staying in the seceded state?

A) No. I’m outta here.

B) Yes. It wouldn’t make any difference in my day to day life.

C) Yes. I like a good fight. I’ll stay and be a voice of reason.

Send your responses to Lisa at for next month’s newsletter. The deadline is May 28.

–Lisa Miller

A Meaningful Life

A popular presenter, Associate Professor Jeffrey Nielsen made his third appearance with Humanists of Utah. Starting out with bit of autobiographical information, Nielsen spoke about his last semester at Weber College just before heading to Boston for law school. Needing to complete some G.E. requirements, he enrolled in an introductory class in philosophy taught by a Professor Owens, “an interesting character with a white Afro.” A book he mentioned in class was Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych.

Unlike his students nowadays where Nielsen said he could hardly get them to do assigned reading, he’d rush out to get books his professors mentioned, and Tolstoy’s novel was no exception. “It was a transformative moment for me,” said Nielsen after he finished this novel. The main character was a lawyer, and he was going to be a lawyer. In his entire life, Tolstoy’s lawyer was inauthentic; never once did he make a decision or choice based on his own values. Instead, he conformed to what Nietzsche referred to as “the herd mentality or the crowd mentality.”

The thesis of the novel caused Nielsen to wonder how it would be to live one’s entire life but to never be truly alive. “How would it be to make it through life with fake ID’s and never once be your own true self?” Shocked, this realization caused him to think. Putting Tolstoy’s novel together with Socrates’ belief that the unexamined life is not worth living, Nielsen said he wondered why the unexamined life wasn’t worth living.

According to Socrates, an unexamined life leads to mindless dogmatism and annihilation. Socratic thought is to believe in commitment to intellectual honesty and moral conscience. And for Socrates, care of the self was our highest obligation and our highest happiness. But Nielsen said that you cannot care for the self without seeking understanding. And you cannot care for the self when you’re harming others. Thus the unexamined life can lead to harming others and unjust practices.

As a result of this revelatory moment, Nielsen decided against law school, and instead pursued a PhD program in Philosophy. “My wife is still not too happy about that,” Nielsen joked. In his studies in philosophy, Nielsen wondered about some basic questions, such as what does it mean to exist, and what does it mean to be real. And what is reality, what is knowledge, what is truth, how should he live, and what should he do.

Such questions have shaped Nielsen to how he is as a philosopher. And to him, his job as a philosopher is to question institutions for the sake of community, to question power for the sake of justice, and to question lifestyles for the sake of happiness and meaning, all the while guided by the Socratic thought to intellectual honesty and moral conscience. Intellectual honesty is the wisdom to know what you don’t know and to have openness, humility, and tolerance of others’ ideas and values.

Nielsen interjected that he finished his degree, came back to Utah and taught at BYU until 2004, when the LDS church encouraged members to not support same-sex marriage. Sitting in sacrament meeting as this letter from the church presidency was read, Nielsen said it struck him that that wasn’t quite right. To make a long story short, Nielsen said he wrote an opinion piece that the Salt Lake Tribune published, challenging the church’s stand on same-sex marriage. Consequently, he was fired from BYU, and since has been at UVU and Westminster College.

And being here with Humanists of Utah, he said, is just a continuation of his job as a philosopher, a Socratic project of intellectual honesty and moral conscience, searching for the truth, and in the process, making sure he doesn’t harm others.

With that bit of autobiography, Nielsen began to address the cynicism, apathy, and anger being played out in politics today. With Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett in our local political scene and the national tea party movement, Nielsen is very troubled.

According to Nielsen, the Utah Institute for Public Deliberation has three points that they address:

  • What it means to be a human being or a symbolic animal
  • What it means to be a social animal
  • What it means to be a relational or organizational animal

The symbolic animal refers to the physical needs and existential needs we have–or “Will to Meaning.”

  • The will to meaning means we must gain a psychological confidence of our own self-worth
  • The will to meaning means we have to feel like we’re making a creative contribution to life
  • The will to meaning means to have a genuine connection to community

To experience a meaningful life Neilsen maintains that, we need these three conditions. When a person’s will to meaning is frustrated or when one or all of the above are not met, the defense mechanism of cynicism and apathy comes into play to protect ourselves from self-destruction.

When cynicism and apathy are placed into a social context where on one hand, you have opulence and consumption, and on the other hand, you have fear, anxiety, insecurity, and growing inequality, then the frustrated will to meaning explodes into anger, public unrest, and public instability.

Displaying a book he brought along to our meeting, At the Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson, a book about epidemiology, Nielsen cited an interesting piece of information. Thirty years of research has shown that people are happiest and healthiest when they experience the least amount of social inequality. What jumped out for Nielsen was how the book showed that since 1980, we’ve had growing inequality in America of our economic state, which is accompanied with a host of ills.

From that research, Nielsen said he is concerned about the clear correlation between social inequality and growing distrust. In other words, the more inequality in a society, the more distrust there is. Therefore, in America for the last 30 years with the growing inequality, there’s been a growing distrust; we just don’t trust one another.

Thus, cynicism and apathy is the result of frustration to our will to meaning. Nielsen said, “During hard social economic times, when that frustration gets manipulated by certain people, who shall remain unnamed, when that gets manipulated by people in the media who have self-interested motives, that can explode into anger and civil unrest.”

Social animals naturally live in groups. And groups need to be organized. Groups need to be ordered, and power has to be applied to order the groups to promote cooperation and to resolve conflicts. Nielsen said he calls it political power whenever power is used to order relationships in the community, in terms of cooperation and conflict.

According to Nielsen, there are three ways that power can be ordered. These ways pertain whether in a family, religious institution, non-profit agency, work or government institution: coercively, manipulatively, or persuasively.

  • Coercively means to threaten or force the person to do something against his will.
  • Deceptively or manipulatively means acting under false pretenses. At this point, Nielsen tells a Santa Claus story from his own family. When his daughter was ten, she asked him if Santa Claus was for real. He knew if he “messed up,” he’d be in trouble with his wife. After conferring with her, his answer to his daughter was, “No, sweetheart. There is no Santa Claus. It’s your parents who bring you the presents.” She started to cry, running to her room. After about 20 minutes, she came out with a picture she’d drawn. Holding up her picture for us, it is of his daughter with tears rolling down her face. At the top, she’d written: “I’ve been lied to all my life.” The trouble with manipulation, concluded Nielsen, is that when the truth comes out, all credibility is lost.
  • Persuasion uses logic and dialogue to influence people to organize cooperation and resolve conflicts. As a teacher of ethics, Nielsen has to ask himself what the ethical way to exercise power is. With few exceptions, the only moral way to exercise political power is with persuasion through reason and dialogue. To coerce or manipulate is unethical. He’s confident that all of the ethical theories and models that he’s aware of embodies persuasion.

Nielsen said that he sees only two ways to relate to another person, whether in an organizational context, in life, to his wife or to us. And that is a relationship of equality or of inequality. In a relationship of inequality, there tends to be coercion and manipulation whereas in a relationship of equality, there tends to be the invitation to be persuasive. Nielsen observed that relationships of inequality are rank-based whereas in relationships of equality, they are peer-based.

In which of these two contexts is a person more likely able to satisfy his basic will to meaning, that is: self-worth, creative contribution, and connection to community? Peer-based, of course, while relationships of inequality frustrate our basic will to meaning. But why is it that every relationship we have in life, in fact, every aspect in life is always organized in a line of inequality?

This is where the myth of leadership comes into play; the line of inequality is a set of assumptions that justifies the significance we place on our concept of leadership and the privileges we bestow upon our leaders, frequently to the detriment of others in our organizations–whether they be business, religious, family, or government. The myth of leadership creates the powerful belief that only a relatively few gifted individuals can be made leaders and thus, trusted to make the decisions and do the commanding and controlling of everyone else. It makes false assumptions about leaders and followers.

  • The leader speaks and the followers listen
  • The leader controls information and the followers can only guess
  • The leader knows and the followers only have opinions
  • The leader decides and the followers just do what they’re told
  • The leader directs resources and the followers must make do with less and less
  • The leader commands and the followers obey
  • The leader is superior and the followers are inferior

The implications of the peer principle require that the following values be recognized, respected, and implemented:

  • Openness with information-as opposed to the secrecy allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Transparency in the decision-making process, which requires greater participation of all affected parties-as opposed to the top-down and behind closed door decision-making allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Cooperation and sharing of management roles and responsibilities, which requires the exercise of power-in-common-as opposed to the command and control nature of the exercise of power-over allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Commitment to peer deliberation as the legitimate exercise of authority-as opposed to the rank-based exercise of coercive, manipulative, or even persuasive authority allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.

For more detailed information, check out Nielsen’s fascinating book, The Myth of Leadership: creating leaderless organizations.

–Sarah Smith

Now You’re Getting Mad?

You didn’t get mad when the Supreme Court stopped a legal recount and selected a President.

You didn’t get mad when Cheney allowed energy company officials to dictate energy policy.

You didn’t get mad when the habeas corpus-killing Patriot Act was passed. You didn’t get mad when we illegally invaded a country that posed no threat to us.

You didn’t get mad when we spent over 600 billion dollars (and counting) on said illegal war, or when the U.S. death count rose over 3,000.

You didn’t get mad when over 10 billion dollars vanished into thin air in Iraq.

You didn’t get mad when you found out we were torturing people.

You didn’t get mad when it came out that the government was illegally wiretapping Americans.

You didn’t get mad when Bush didn’t even try to catch Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora.

You didn’t get mad when you saw the disgusting conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn’t get mad when you found out thousands of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans were destitute and homeless.

You didn’t get mad when we let a major U.S. city drown.

You didn’t get mad when we gave a 900 billion dollar tax break to the rich.

You didn’t get mad when the man who is now the Minority Leader distributed tobacco lobbyist checks on the floor of the House of Representatives.

You didn’t get mad when a covert CIA operative was illegally outed.

You didn’t get mad when, via reconciliation, a trillion of our tax dollars were redirected to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, which costs over 20 percent more for basically the same services that Medicare provides.

You didn’t get mad when the deficit hit the trillion dollar mark, and our debt hit the thirteen trillion dollar mark.

You finally got mad when the government decided that every American has the right to see a doctor. Yes, illegal wars, lies, corruption, torture, stealing your tax dollars to make the rich richer, are all okay with you, but helping other Americans, Oh, Hell no … and now you’re mad!

Slightly different versions of this text exist on the internet. This one is from the May issue of PIQUE

If Only There Were Such a Place

John Chesley submitted this quote from Lost Horizon a novel by James Hilton 1933. If only there were such a place.

High Lama: We have reason. It is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La. It came to me in a vision long, long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiplying until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. The time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time is why I avoided death and am here and why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be kind. When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the Earth.

–John Chesley

President’s Message

Here it is the beginning of May, and the people I talk to and even I am somewhat surprised that the weather has turned cold with rain and snow. I don not know why we were surprised, I am nearly 62 and like all of us who have lived in Utah for a time know, April is NOT summer. Still, the early spring thaw draws us outside, and tempts us to enjoy the weather and for us gardeners, to plant early. I enjoy growing some of the things I eat. There is nothing better than a tomato fresh off the vine from your garden.

I think the practice that is being renewed in this country of having cooperatives is a good idea, as are farmers markets. I think we should all try to eat and buy local when possible. It is good for the local businesses obviously and better for the environment if the items are not shipped from far away.

I must at this point change the subject from the pleasantness of gardening to the horrors of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. As it unfolds, I am getting a little depressed and at the same time angry. It is such a huge disaster, and one that grows even larger each day. We can only hope that they will be successful soon, in getting the flow stopped! As I write this message the best guess is at least several more days if not a couple of weeks and perhaps a couple of months if early efforts are not successful. The potential is almost too horrid the think about. There is the prospect of a continuing flow of oil, eventually getting into the Gulf Stream and being carried around Florida and up the east coast. Plus the historical knowledge that usually only a small percentage of oil from spills ever gets removed from the environment. It is devastating to say the least.

If the reality of the situation is not grim and depressing enough, idiots, (mostly conservative) are making outrageous statements. Rush Limbaugh has said that environmentalists might have blown up the rig, and Texas governor Rick Perry calling it “an act of God.”

That is about it folks, blame it on someone other than the owners of the business enterprise, even blame it on God. How utterly ridiculous, the idea to drill was a human one. The business, the rig, the technology to build and use the rig, the maintenance, and day-to-day functioning of the rig are all human endeavors, pure and simple. What a sick, petty, and malevolent act it would be for a God to do such a thing; and for what reason?

Unfortunately there are a lot more of these statements out there, and in their midst is Sarah Palin pitching for off shore drilling while this is all happening. You would think that these clowns could get with the reality of this situation and at least shut up for a while. But no, it is time for them to make it political and also to start posturing in defense for the poor oil industry.

I also believe that much of the blame for this disaster can be placed on the business creed to always maximize profits. Profits are a good thing, except when they cause humans to make unethical, immoral and greedy decisions in their pursuit. These corporations lobby against safety regulations, are cutting corners here and there, obfuscating, etc. It is hard to know for sure, but it appears to me that in this case safety may be the victim of the pursuit of profits. It is nothing new, as we can note that pollution is another example of profits first.

Well, I better end this rant before I get carried off into pollution issues. I will save that diatribe for another time. Right now, most of us can only watch and hope for the best for the near by residents and businesses that will be affected, not to mention the planet. It is nice outside so I think I will go work in the garden for a while. Hope to see you soon.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Food For the Eagle

Member Recommended Websites

Adam Savage, of Myth Busters fame, was recently awarded the Harvard Secular Society’s Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. This is his acceptance speech given in April 2010. Thanks to Karen Keller for suggesting this site.

Food For the Eagle