May 2011

The Theory of Life

Peg McEntee, Metro Columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, spoke to Humanists of Utah at our monthly meeting in April.

I see my talk tonight has a pretty grand title: “My Theory of Life,” so, here goes. I see life as the great conversation, not so much the history of philosophy that Norman Melchert and others compiled, but the conversations we have every day. In my line of work, we talk our heads off when we aren’t writing our heads off. In life, we talk in the house, talk in the car, on the phone, and by email. I still write letters, although not very often. I’m on Facebook as a condition of my job, but I refuse to tweet. Life is far more interesting that 140 characters about nonsense, a word that actually begins with a “B.” In my career, I’ve been a reporter, a line editor, executive news editor, Sunday editor, assistant managing editor, and now a news columnist. Some people around the newsroom never have figured out exactly what it is I do.

What I do is listen, and talk, and listen some more. We have passing conversations, snippets of information, just like everyone else. We make bad puns and wisecracks.

But the greatest pleasure is derived from speaking seriously about serious things. A worry about conflict of interest or an ethical dilemma can stump us for a while. For example, when to name a victim of crime, or a suspect? We’ve built a sort of construct—sexually abused victims will not be named unless they actively want to be; nor is a person under 17 who is the victim of or accused of a crime—depending on the nature of the crime.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve sat around the table and worried away at the complexities of such rules. In general, we go for transparency and an ethical way of getting there—my adopted motto is, first, do no harm—but we nearly always talk about it. One day, we were in the afternoon editors’ huddle when the designers brought in a proposed illustration for a story. It was a noose, made of a power cord. I thought and thought about it, and just before we broke up, I said, “I have a worry about that noose.” Why? Someone asked. Well, I said, it’s a pretty potent symbol of racism, for one thing. The designers were shocked, “It’s about a tech company!” Even some of our top editors promptly disagreed with me. But a couple more people starting taking my part, and we talked some more, and the noose was nixed. (It turned into a frayed power cord.)

As an editor, I’d talk for hours with my reporters, discussing the focus of the story, the shape it would take, the elements it needed. And we’d talk about how the reporter should write it. When she was finished, I’d sit down with her, side-by-side in front of the monitor, and we’d talk it through, line by line, and sometimes hour after hour.

For me, those were some of the most pleasurable and gratifying times—talking it through and coming out with a better, more subtle and well-written story that is the newspaper’s way of talking to readers.

As a reporter, and now a columnist, I try to make my interviews into a conversation, not an inquisition. It is not a “just the facts” deal. It is getting to the core of the matter, the reasons and decisions leading to the news at hand. It is not “how do you feel?” the standard canard for a lot of people when they criticize the way we do our work.

As a young reporter, I had to call the father of a Mormon missionary from Coalville who’d been gunned down in La Paz. I did not want to, but I had to. When I finally made the call his father answered, and I when I told him who and what I was, he threw up the walls instantly. So I said the only thing I could think of: “Tell me about your boy.” And he cried, but spent about an hour telling me about his boy, his work on the farm, his academic excellence, the love his son had for his family and faith, and the love his father had for him.

It was one of many occasions when I had to resist the urge to cry. It also taught me a lesson: listen. It is, after all, a conversation.

In all of life, friendships and love affairs and child-rearing begins with the conversation. On my first serious date with my husband of 28 years, we talked for hours, lubricated by a big bottle of cheap red wine.

My friends and I have running conversations about damn near everything: the job, home repairs, the nature of love gained and lost. Our troubles and good times, our travels, and always about journalism, long and short form, books and poetry.

The last is important because when it all gets to be too much for me, I take down my collection of W.B. Yeats’ poetry and read, in particular, “Adam’s Curse.” There is a wonderful line from a poet who appeared on NPR’s This I Believe: “I believe that a book is a box because a book carries something from some one person to another. And because it is used and can be used to carry ideas across time, which is how ideas build up.” And a book, or a story or a poem or a lyric, is a conversation that can send your mind on all manners of tangents; which is the nature of thinking.

We have a daughter, our only child. My first words to her were, “Well, hello, Kate.”

In the summer of 2007, the year of the Trolley Square rampage, the wildfires that burned hundreds of square miles in Utah, and the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster. Kate was 19 and home from college for the summer. One night, I got home close to midnight, poured a glass and sat down on the couch with her. We started to talk, and that became the first adult conversation we’d had together. We went on for two hours before we finally just had to go to bed. I lay there that night and thought, I’ll never forget this: My daughter and I, not so much parent and child, but friends, talking about serious things. It was, and I use the word carefully here in Utah, revelatory.

There is one more thing about the great conversation that I believe is the meaning of life: I try never to walk up to my husband and say, seriously, “Can we talk?” It scares the poop out of him every time.

—Peg McEntee

We Are Humanists Because…

This month the members are talking about humanism and why we’re humanists. Your insightful thoughts make me even gladder I’ve found the philosophy of humanism and you Humanists of Utah in particular.

  • For me it is all about who I am and what I call myself. There are a number of labels that others use that I am not fond of like atheist or non-believer. Both of these, while probably accurate, describe who I am NOT, rather than who I am. Other “accurate” labels might include non-black, non-female, non-homosexual, etc. but please, I for one prefer to be known as a humanist!
  • My favorite aspect of humanism is the goal of being truly human in every role we play each day. Our thoughts, our actions, our personal relations, our community responsibilities. Humanism encourages an increasing awareness of our individual responsibility of developing a peaceful, energetic, cooperative, healthy world ourselves without any supernatural motive.
  • The best thing about humanism is the people. I think of myself as a humanist because the principles of humanist most closely agree with the way I think.
  • Humanism, for me represents freedom. It is freedom to support the civil liberties and rights of all people, irrespective of sex, race, religion or sexual orientation. It is the freedom to have an open mind, to not be confined by dogma, to pursue the answers to life’s problems from all perspectives whether it be through philosophy, mythology or science. It is the freedom to be wrong; any decision I make may have consequences in this life, but there is no eternal damnation. I don’t fear death any more than I fear sleep, which gives me great comfort. To not believe in and fear an afterlife is real freedom. This freedom is what makes me human and a humanist.
  • I’ve been an atheist for all of my adult life and since I am a scientist, most of my colleagues and friends are atheists as well, so I need neither company nor confirmation for my “beliefs”—but what humanism does is set those beliefs in a larger social framework, one that sits comfortably with my personal values.
  • Two things in particular: I like humanism’s commitment to the evidence-based, critical thinking, skeptical, self-correcting scientific method, as opposed to the faith-based, tell-me-what-to-think, gullible, writ-in-stone religion. And I like its commitment to equal human rights for everyone, including women, gays, blacks, and immigrants, as opposed to theologically or ideologically based discrimination against certain groups. Actually, I like everything about humanism.
  • What attracts me to the humanist philosophy is its emphasis on benefiting humanity and its promotion of equality among all people without introducing matters of religion or theism. These are guidelines by which anyone can live his/her life, regardless of one’s belief (or lack thereof) in a deity. This was evident in the charity fundraiser that the UU student group SHIFT put on recently, in which several religious people chose to donate money to the humanism jar instead of one of the church jars, explaining that they would rather our members volunteer two hours at the Homeless Youth Resource Center than attend a church service, which would be the result should the humanism jar contain the most donations at the end of the fundraiser. Such acts give me hope for the future, especially for the future of humanism.
  • Enlightened, scientifically-based humanism raises supreme values of love, respect, brotherly neighborliness and emancipation from the yoke of perpetual serfdom. A serfdom that is the man-made endeavor to enrich the rabbi, the priest, the sheik, etc. etc. at the expense of the poor, used, abused and neglected followers. Religion is organized perpetual and methodical brainwashing, to the detriment of its followers and its detractors and a menace to our humanity. Defeat it with scientific knowledge and vanquish misbegotten fairy tales and myths.

—Lisa Miller

The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
~Book Review~

Few, if any, thinkers and writers today would have the imagination, the breadth of knowledge, the literary skill, and-yes-the audacity to conceive of a powerful, secular alternative to the Bible. But that is exactly what A.C. Grayling has done by creating a non-religious Bible, drawn from the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions, using the same techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions. The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections—Genesis, Histories, Widsom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good—The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and so many others, The Good Book will fulfill its audacious purpose in every way.

A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of the acclaimed Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, and Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World. A fellow of the World Economic Forum and past chairman of the human rights organization June Fourth, he contributes frequently to the Times , Financial Times , Economist , New Statesman , and Prospect. Grayling’s play “Grace,” co-written with Mick Gordon, has played to full houses in London and New York, starring Lynn Redgrave; its central debate over the virtue of religion gives Grayling a strong platform for The Good Book . He lives in London.

—Published on CFI Website
Part of CFI’s Voices of Reason Series

Deist, Not Christian

My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the dissenting [puritan] way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s lectures. [Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was a British physicist who endowed the Boyle Lectures for defense of Christianity.] It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.

—Ben Franklin

Website of the Month
New Humanist

New Humanist is the London based magazine of the Rationalist Association, promoting reason, debate and free thought since 1885. On this website you can find archives going back more than a decade, a blog, and more.

President’s Message

I’m sure you can all understand that writing a President’s Message each month is easier some months than others. This month was turning out to be one of those difficult times; I’ve been busy, and our newsletter needed to be completed a little earlier this month. So while I was sitting here struggling for something to come up with, I decided to delete some e-mails while thinking of a subject to include in my message.

I subscribe to a number of online newsletters including AlterNet. It often has a link to a Rachel Maddow video. I just watched Maddow on The GOP’s “Small-Government” hypocrisy and it got me going; like one of many recent reports about Republicans that is guaranteed to raise my hackles. The clip is about how the newly elected governor of Michigan has pushed through laws that give the state government the ability to take over local governments that are having financial problems. Then, not surprisingly, developers can acquire chunks of land for their projects that nobody in these local communities can afford; absolutely infuriating.

Today’s Republicans are not about small government, they are about absolute power which is government at its biggest. Republicans work toward a gerrymandering, union busting, rights denying, choice denying, corporation loving, and big brother government. I realize that this is basically the same rant I expressed last month, but I can’t help it.

While conservatives deserve criticism and derision, liberals, progressives, and moderates also need criticism for being inept and seemingly unwilling to fight this kind of government takeover until it is near the point of no return

I too bear some blame because other than these rants, an occasional donation and a record of voting in nearly every election, I do little else to support sanity. I should do more, and I think our organization should do more. Although we must be careful about our non-profit status in regards to politics, we can still be active in many ways. One thing I would like to suggest is that we have speakers and discussion groups that deal with current events more often. Educate yourselves and get involved in any way you can.

Moving on to some chapter news, there are a couple of items to mention. Our affiliation with the Utah Coalition of Reason (UCOR) is progressing well. Its Board of Directors boasts a number of young and energetic freethinkers. The main goal of UCOR is to bring together various likeminded freethought organizations in Utah in order to coordinate and promote our organizations’ events, and also to plan joint events. The event planning committee of UCOR is making good progress in organizing a Darwin Day Festival for next year. There will be other announcements from the committee and a request for suggestions and volunteers. I am excited about their plans, which will include a student science fair with generous prizes for the schools sponsoring the winners. Several other events are being planned for this fest, with an adult get together that will include adult beverages. Watch this space for updates in coming months.

As I announced last month Humanists of Utah has decided to take an active role of supporting the Homeless Youth Resource Center (HYRC). To get the ball rolling, I recently visited the HYRC to get informed about their needs. It was no surprise that they need money for running the center. They also need volunteers to help in a few areas, such as serving meals. Additionally, there is a need for donated goods of various kinds from clothing, sleeping bags, non-perishable food, notebooks, stamps and much more. It is early in our effort, but we will be working to get moving and make it a sustained effort. So watch for announcements and requests for donations. Your personal support will be appreciated by our chapter and put to good use by HYRC.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU