November 2011

It Really Is A Small World After All

Sometimes seemingly unrelated events come together pleasantly in intriguing and sometimes surprising ways. I recently finished reading the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It is about a Roman poem (On the Nature of Things) written by Lucretius based on the Greek Philosopher Epicurus who had the notion that everything consisted of minute particles called atoms and that the way to happiness lay in finding pleasure. We are all made of atoms just like everything else is and we will be reduced to the same by death and the atoms will be reused. The Lucretius poem was much reviled during the dark ages but copied by some monks in your odd abbey here and there across Europe. Much of Swerve is about how it was discovered and protected from the Inquisition, etc.

There is also considerable space in the book devoted to the current excavation of Herculaneum, an ancient lost city on the other side of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was buried in mud by the same eruption that destroyed the more famous Pompeii. Herculaneum was a sea-side resort that was the home of the rich and famous of the era. One villa in particular has been found to have been the site of intellectual meetings, discussions, and plays. Badly damaged by age and being buried in mud scrolls reference who, what, and where and include short quotes and references to Lucretius’ poem, but not the poem itself, has been found at this site. This past spring my wife and I spent half a day touring Herculaneum. We and visited the villa referenced in Greenblatt’s book!

The other night I decided to watch a movie. With streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime deciding to watch a movie is easy, choosing which movie is crazy…hundreds of choices. While clicking through the selections I came upon a film named Leaves of Grass about twin brothers born in rural Oklahoma and raised by hippie parents (Susan Sarandon.) The one brother can’t stand it so he moves east and becomes a renowned philosopher, writer, and professor. Meanwhile his twin back in Oklahoma builds a state of the art marijuana growing operation. He is highly intelligent too, but has a more practical outlook on life. The gardener tricks the professor into returning home to Oklahoma by sending a message that he had been killed. What the gardener really wanted was to have his long lost twin come back for a day so that he could set up an alibi to go to Tulsa to kill the rich Jew (Richard Dryfuss) who had bankrolled the marijuana farm and was calling for the bill to be paid. The Tulsa trip does not turn out all that well as a number of the characters get killed. The professor delivers a eulogy and quotes an ancient philosopher that the state of death was so different from that of life that the two would never understand each other; hence we should not fear death–yes it was Lucretius!

These three random events fit together in my mind like pieces of a puzzle. There is nothing really profound here but I can recommend without reservation a few hours in Herculaneum the next time you are Italy, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is an interesting read, and Leaves of Grass was a fun movie. The only thing I have left is to actually read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. I have it on my on my Kindle and it is next on my list.

—Wayne Wilson

Some pictures from my trip to Herculaneum:

Villa Court Yard
Villa Interior
Mount Vesuvius from current ground level

Pseudo–Logic Top Hits

This month we were discussing the pseudo–logic or pseudo–science topics that are on our lists of most annoying things posing as truth these days.

  • A bit of pseudoscience that annoys me is that immunizations cause autism. Not only has such a link been shown to be false by study after study, the scientist who first reported such findings has been shown to have falsified his data to get the sensational results he was hoping for. This horrible rumor has led to many children becoming ill from preventable diseases and has made it likely that deadly outbreaks of preventable diseases will occur in the coming years, due to diminished herd immunity, which is what allows diseases to be controlled via mass immunizations. Much harm will come from this atrocity and it will only get worse before it gets better.
  • The babble of “intelligent design” versus evolution and the use of the terminology “believe in.” They are some form of “new” religion? Science does not need some form of a belief system, it uses evidence.
  • I am annoyed by the myth of ronald reagan being a great guy and president. He betrayed his fellow actors during the McCarthy era–some of whom were blacklisted. He lied (committed treason) his way into the presidency by making a deal with Iranians to release the American hostages after the inauguration. He waged war on peasants in Nicaragua, he started the decline of the middle class by lowering taxes on the richest of the rich and launched an all–out attack on unions by firing the PATCO strikers. He DID NOT defeat Soviet Russia–they self–defeated by over–extension just as we are now. He started the deregulation of Wall Street that has led to our recent catastrophic economic mess. He ignored Global Climate Change and defunded all the efforts Jimmy Carter had established to make ourselves energy independent. He believed in pseudoscience and used it to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on an insane “defense” project he called “Star Wars.” His wife was a believer in astrology which she used to influence his decisions. He was anti–intellectual and frequently used thinly veiled rhetoric to assail academia. “Great Communicator” my ass. He was one of the most destructive presidents of the American Dream we have ever had, and he was barely literate.
  • I often wonder why people are so confident saying “our country was built on Christianity” and cite all the references on the dollar bill, etc.
  • How about this one: “Everything happens for a reason.” Oh really? Everything happens for a reason? How about the Spanish flu? The San Francisco earthquake and fire? You could make a pretty long list here. Aside from the obvious cause and effect argument this statement is so pathetically ignorant that I always want to react with anger when I hear it. Unfortunately the “everything happens for a reason” statement usually comes out of the mouth of some dear and caring person who is only trying to console a loved one or friend after a very disagreeable incident and it would be a shame to cast a negative pall over the situation by uttering my disbelief. So I just bite my tongue and wonder just how long the human race will have to live with that kind of logic passing for wisdom.
  • So much pseudoscience annoys me it is hard to know where to begin, but one instance that will probably not be mentioned by others was identified by Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, in the August/September 2011 issue of Free Inquiry. It is that “anything that could be done with embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes could also be done using adult stem cells.” Closely related is that “modified adult stem cells…could absolutely do the job expected of embryonic stem cells,” which “has now, predictably, been debunked, showing that wishes built on religious desires are not a substitute for rigorous science.”
  • I get concerned when illogical thinking and actions endanger the well–being of others. The anti–vaccination craze is a good example. Not getting vaccinated or having one’s children vaccinated based on fear of a potential or imagined risk of serious side effects poses an even larger risk to the general public. The benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks. The fact that people are willing to risk the health of their children and the general public for no good reason angers me, even frightens me.
  • That the inevitable conclusion to the science of evolution is the programs and philosophies implemented by Hitler/Mao/Stalin.
  • It is not so much “which” pseudoscience that bothers me as it is the fact that our society seems to regard opinion more highly than observations. This conundrum is fed by the media who conduct polls that have questions that begin with “Do you believe…” It does not matter whether or not a majority (accurate to plus or minus 0.3%) believe that the earth is flat; objective observation proves that it is not. The example of a flat earth may be facetious but the concept is applied to issues like whether or not our leaders should be religious, or more specifically Christian. Any fair look at governance of society shows that a secular government is much healthier than one tangled with religious dogma. Governmental decisions colored with anything except generic moral beliefs (like murder, incest, etc.) are oppressive and tend to discriminate against healthy minorities. Show me the FACTS!

—Lisa Miller

What Secular Humanism Lacks

I’m a secular humanist who has doubted the claims of religion for many years. Still, I’m glad I was married in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral instead of the dungeon-like gloom of the Municipal Building. I am thrilled by Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, despite its religiosity, and “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria” at times have moved me to tears. Although I have not uttered a prayer in decades, I am awed by the kaleidoscopic colors of stained-glass windows and the soaring eloquence of Gothic cathedrals.

Religion is wrong about many things, including creation myths and evils such as the Inquisition and deadly suicide bombings. But for countless millennia, religion has gotten some things right: its rituals and ceremonies lend significance to important events, such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death; and the art it inspires often moves us deeply.

Those are some of the reasons religion has been around since our ancestors began walking upright, and why it likely will remain until the end of time. For while secularism is right about many things, its emphasis on rationalism and science, carried to an extreme, results in a cold, lifeless creed that ignores our strongest emotional needs.

Humanism is meant to address that problem, but does it really? A current organizing brochure of the American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

These are noble ideals, but some important things are missing from this definition of humanism. How about wonder, joy, friendship, and love? Those things, along with the pursuit of humanistic goals, are hallmarks of a life well lived.

I experienced a wonderful feeling of liberation; it’s true, when I threw off the shackles of religion. But I can’t say my atheism ever inspired me or filled me with a sense of transcendence. Yet I experience such things. Away from the city’s glaring lights, the starry nighttime sky can leave me speechless with wonder and awe. A Beethoven symphony or a soprano’s aria may make me shiver with esthetic pleasure. And the love I share with my wife and daughter is a gift I treasure above all else in life.

Secular humanism, I submit, will never succeed as an alternative to religion until it balances its emphasis on rationalism and altruism with ceremonies and ideas that celebrate humanity’s deepest positive emotions, such as wonder and awe, esthetic pleasure, friendship, and love.

—Walter Balcerak

Secular Spirituality

Of course I have spiritual moments. In a bland sense of that word, I suppose, but I think the right sense. I have times when I am just transported with awe, and joy, and a sense of peace and wonder at, oh. Whether it is music or art or just a child playing or some other wonderful thing off of my sailboat, being amazed at the beauty of the ocean.

I think that people make a mistake in thinking that spirituality is that sense has anything to do with either religious doctrines or with immateriality or the supernatural. The world is a stunningly interesting and glorious place at every scale, and the awe that one can experience because one understands something about how the parts are put together is, I think, far greater than the sort of awe of incomprehension. The universe is much more wonderful the more you know about how it is put together.

—Daniel Dennett
CDHS Humanist Monthly
August 2001

Website of the Month
Unreasonable Faith

I’m Daniel Florien. I was an evangelical Christian for over a decade…I was wrong.

President’s Message

I am sure that you have all noticed that human population has reached 7 billion. It is a troubling thing to contemplate how quickly we are increasing in numbers. While we have always been unable and perhaps even unwilling to provide a decent standard of living for all human beings, we are still increasing in numbers. It was interesting for me to note that since I was born in 1948, 63 years ago, human population has grown by about 4.5 billion.

In a list of problems which face humanity, Population growth is up there at the top in severity, because it affects almost all of the other problems we as a species face. Natural resources that are already being over used will be exploited even more as population increases. Pollution becomes ever harder to control, as do diseases, conflicts, unrest, and the list goes on.

Controlling population is so difficult to deal with because it is a global problem; it affects all humanity everywhere. Also, because people are divided in so many ways; by family, clan, tribe, religion, state, nation, organizations of groups of nations, etc., it makes it impossible to come to an agreement about any useful policies regarding population control.

Sadly this passing reminder about population is a moment that is only moderately being noticed and will fade away with a few documentaries and a handful of warnings about the perils of such continued growth. I fear for those who will live to see a world with ten or twelve billion or more. Can twelve billion people be sustained? What kind of quality of life will there be? Sobering thoughts in light of the fact that we aren’t doing that well feeding the seven billion we have now.

Another item in the news that caught my eye was a letter by a young student writing about the problem of underage drinking and taking a stand against it. She presents some good statistics and shows how it is a problem in the state of Utah. Underage drinking certainly is a problem and it needs to be addressed continuously. But I think she is wrong when she says that alcohol is a “scary and dangerous thing.” Like any substance alcohol can be abused. But it is the act of the human who abuses any substance that makes it dangerous. A bottle of booze does nothing on its own.

I have always thought it wrong to ban “things” as they are in reality only resources. Laws and punishment for breaking the law is the answer, not vilifying something like alcohol. The prudent use of alcohol is both pleasurable to the taste buds and a compliment to good food and is known to be healthful in moderation.

But to speak more to the idea of it being scary, I believe the cultural taboos about alcohol cause the most harm. I myself am an example, having been raised with the constant cries of the evils of alcohol and how it would ruin your life, and you will become a bum, etc., etc. Never was there mention of the millions of people all over the world who drink responsibly. That is the answer after all, learning to drink responsibly.

If we want to take that route (the scary route) then the world is full of scary things. A bottle of aspirin is scary if you take too many, and if you think about it, getting into a car with a tank of ten to twenty gallons of gasoline under or behind the back seat, should scare the hell out of you.

Well, I’m getting a bit silly, so I’ll say bye for now and I hope to see you at or next general meeting on the tenth of November.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU