May 2012

As Humanists, Do We Have the Right to Judge Others?

I’ve been pondering this question for some time now as I’m faced on an almost daily basis with a barrage of Facebook, email, and other electronic communications from and between a large group of family members who feel very differently than I do about many of the issues that face us today. For instance, I support gay marriage—they do not; I am a liberal—they’re deeply conservative; they are members of the predominant religion—I left it years ago. Yet, I see daily their Facebook posts and emails about their religion, gun rights, stopping gay marriage, raging against abortion, and ultra-conservative political views. I try very hard not to respond unless I see a blatant falsehood that can be corrected by possibly posting a link to a news article—or unless I simply can’t stop myself. But I’m always a little confused, if you will, about how to think about these people. I know that for the most part they’re decent people, but I find myself judging them harshly because of the very real harm their beliefs, turned to action, can do. Do I have that right?

I’ve done some searching and reading, starting with Steven Lukes ( who states, “But we need to face a troubling question, rendered all the more insistent in a shrinking world in which multiculturalism and the politics of recognition flourish. Who are we to judge the practices and beliefs of other cultures? Who are we to apply our standards to the adherents of other moral and religious systems?” (italics added)

Lukes goes on into a relatively deep (and to me, disappointing) discussion and winds up with nothing concrete (please read the article—many of you, I’m sure, will come out with clearer answers than I did).

A portion of a chapter on the American Humanist Association website ( was a little more useful:

“A humanist tries to look at problems in social relations from a characteristic perspective, that is, as problems in human happiness, problems in working out what will be best for the people concerned. There is no asking who is or is not right or wrong. As a practical person and as one who recognizes no immutable, hard-and-fast categories of good and evil, the interest is in workable solutions and happy relationships. There are not thoroughly good and thoroughly bad people, merely good and bad behavior; and behavior is likewise judged by its effect on oneself and on others. Situations are approached with confidence in, and openness toward, the people involved. The point of view of others is respected; humanists realize that those others have an equal right to their special slants. The aim is to be non-dogmatic, good humored, in a word, democratic.” … “They will refrain from laying down hard-and-fast rules as to how friends and relatives will or should act. They will try to understand rather than to judge. We can easily summarize this general approach to human relations. It is only by accepting people as they are and by trying to understand them that we can live with them successfully.”

I struggle to understand people whose views are so different than my own. Is there really “no asking who is right or wrong” if I believe that they are hurting people by voting against measures to ensure the rights of gays, by fighting any type of gun control and having many guns (even assault rifles) in their homes, going out of their way to fight against any form of environmental protections (dismissing environmentalists with scorn as “treehuggers), and on and on. How do I not judge them?

Yet, am I being unfair to them? They’re acting on what they’ve been taught over decades, with fears instilled by experiences, lack of education, and teachings of parents, and, according to some studies, they’re even “born that way” to a certain degree. I recognize that they see their views as being more positive for mankind and mine as contributing to the downfall of mankind.

I found no real answers in my reading. I’ll continue to strive to be friendly with my family members, try to look past their world views that, to me, are so disheartening and harmful, remember that I don’t have every answer, and attempt to open their minds in any small way that I can when opportunities arise. I’ll continue to follow my own path: “They knew no better, but I do not propose to follow the example of a barbarian because he was honestly a barbarian.” (Robert Ingersoll) But when their prejudices and biases become too blatant, I’m afraid I’ll be judging them.

If you have any thoughts or insights into this dilemma, I’m sure there’d be space in an upcoming newsletter for responses.

—Susan Fox

Out Loud

I put forward the question in last month’s newsletter: “what is something you wish you could say, but haven’t been able to say, for whatever reason?” This question has gotten me thinking a lot about voices and expression and being human.

Think of all the things that go unsaid. Things not said that you wish could be said, because not saying it leaves a piece of you unknown to others and renders you a little invisible and slightly absent from life. At a minimal level are those things left unsaid from not wanting to make others uncomfortable or not wanting to rock the boat, being unsure about where you’ll be left in your circle of relationships if they’re said: your true opinions about the political candidates, the laws being passed, even opinions about movies or how to proceed on a work project. Sometimes there are much bigger things you hold back from your family or friends, for example differences on religious views, so as to keep relationships open. But in the not saying, you are hiding your authenticity and the relationship is cobbled on dreams.

The very first thing that came to mind for me as something I wished I could say? I found a surprising something inside that wanted expression. I wanted to be able to shout – SHOUT – to the world: “Don’t F*** with me”!! I want to declare my inherent belief in myself that says I will not be taken advantage of, I will not lie down, I am charging into life and negotiating my own needs. Crucially, I want to use forceful, uncompromising language to do it. And you know what? That led immediately to the concern that I couldn’t actually say such a thing in our newsletter. I don’t really know where the line of offense would be, or maybe just good taste, especially in an official representation of our group, from one of it’s elected board members. But changing the words changes the message. And then, funnily enough, I’m back again in a place of not being able to say, for whatever reason, what I wish I could say.

I wish I could tell my brother that I am a purposely moral, passionate, whole, fully happy, fully human, human being. I wish I could tell him that life is an adventure to embrace and his way of guilt and failures and not good enoughs and mountains of shoulds doesn’t have to be. I know that every person must pursue their own path, but I can’t even share the idea as I hold to hopes of keeping some semblance of a relationship and being able to spend time together, even though the unacknowledged elephant is squeezing us out of the room and our time together feels like a game of pretend.

I think of the millions of things that go unsaid, the many silenced voices out there in the world and in this country, largely because of fear. Fear of harm or hurt or loss, usually in a very vulnerable population: abuse victims, marginalized populations, people in totalitarian states. And the not saying renders the person less than themselves, living a shadow life.

I think about how a person is only truly human if they can express themselves: expressions of ideas, thoughts, desires, needs. And if this is being human, what is our responsibility as humanists in this? Speak up yourself, as a start. Speak up for others when they can’t speak up, though we must be particularly careful not to impose our voice on theirs. Work for a world of greater expression. Build a world of non-silence.

There are plenty of people saying things that are ugly and horrible, it is obvious and all around us. But it occurs to me that one excellent way to combat this side of ‘expression’ is when they aren’t able to silence others; and the many are able to speak out and show the ugliness for what it is. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. And the things you wish you could say? Give it some thought. Maybe they can be said after all.

—Lisa Miller

Website of the Month
Humanist Society of Santa Barbara

We at the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara share the conviction that rational inquiry can provide the best foundation for human progress.

President’s Message

The May meeting will be our last meeting before taking our annual summer break in June and July. This hiatus will also coincide with the remodeling of Eliot Hall at the Unitarian Church this summer. They have a target completion date of September 1st. While we hope they can keep to this schedule, but we worry that, as delays happen we are not sure the venue will be available for our September meeting. Therefore the Board of Directors has decided to make our September meeting a Movie night in the Student Union Building on the U of U campus. We haven’t decided what to watch yet, and are looking for suggestions. Something of general interest and under two hours please. Our August BBQ will not be affected or changed.

As we plan for the next year, we would love to hear from you to let us know what kind of speakers or specific speakers you would like to have at our general meetings. We would also like to know what activities to schedule in our effort to have social meet ups like we had at the new Museum of Natural History, at the University of Utah. Please give it some thought.

I have been thinking about changing my monthly message slightly by sectioning it off a little bit and adding some subtitles. One of the first sections would have to be something like, “Here comes the latest asinine actions of the Religious Right.” Too long, too messy? Maybe something shorter, like, “Stupidest actions from the Religious clowns,” (That’s not much shorter) or perhaps just, “idiots at work.” Got any suggestions?

I thought about this because there sure is plenty to report on lately. You may remember that in my March message I made mention of the effort to create laws to give “personhood” to embryos. That’s bad enough, but then recently there has been another proposed law to define pregnancy as beginning at the last day of a woman’s menses. Say What? That’s bogus from just about any way you look at it. But it really shows their stupidity in that they don’t even understand the basic biology of reproduction. I mean how does that work? You are pregnant the day your period ends before conception ever takes place? I know we try to be fair and civil toward these people, but they are freaking crazy folks and they deserve derision to the max! Pregnant before you conceive! It would be a lot funnier if they weren’t dead serious about this. By the way, this is all happening, if I remember correctly, in Tennessee. They haven’t progressed very much out there since they had the Scopes Trial, have they?

I don’t comment on the blogs much, but now and then an article in the paper or on an internet site will be one that is worth putting forth an opinion, a criticism or kudos. I don’t get into the back and forth that many bloggers get into, mostly because they often degrade into people calling each other names. Kind of that childish, “you’re an idiot” with the reply being, “I know you are, but what am I.” But recently when I posted a comment about evolution and creationism, one of the religious bloggers responded with that oh so irritating rhetoric and posturing that implies that we who are not religious lead such pitiful lives because we “don’t believe in anything,” and they tell us that they will pray for us. Well I didn’t bite on his comment because he hadn’t replied about what I actually said, only about me and my kind being pitiful. But if I were to rejoinder I think I might say that I was quite happy with my scientific knowledge and my life’s knowledge and experiences. I might also say that I prefer looking at existence the way Carl Sagan put it, when he said “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” I find that most satisfying and I find it amazing and exhilarating to be alive at a time when science and technology make it possible to learn and understand the nature of the universe from the infinitely small to the infinitely large.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU