A Deeply Religious Man
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear–that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms–it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
AHA Board Report: Flo Appointed Treasurer
I attended the American Humanist Association (AHA) semi-annual Board meeting in San Jose, California November 10-13 and I am pleased to announce that I was appointed to the position of Board Treasurer. I feel it is an honor to give our Chapter a voice in the national affairs of the AHA.
The three-day meeting devoted a great deal of time to addressing the challenges of growth including finances, membership and public relations. One of the major projects we expect will enhance both growth and stability is in reformatting our national magazine, The Humanist. Within the coming year the publication will take on a more modern appearance with appealing covers, shorter articles, and more information about Humanism. The goal is to accomplish this without sacrificing The Humanist reputation of high intellectual standards and forthright approach to social problems.
Finding ways to improve communications between AHA and local Chapters was given a high priority. Chapter leaders and national board members have been aware of the seriousness of the relationship problems for several years but very little has been tried to improve the situation. The Board devoted several hours of discussion time exploring the problems and possible solutions. Board members were unanimous in wanting to find ways to make local Chapters feel they are an integral part of the national organization.
The AHA board meeting ended in an atmosphere of high hopes and a feeling of confidence that our goals will be accomplished.
The Folly Of Half/Way Humanism
A hundred years ago many liberals, both political and religious, were persuaded that with the rational demolition of supernaturalism, superstition would vanish, human beings would increasingly spend their energies improving their common lot, and widespread education would have the moral effect of diverting all minds toward noble ends. It was a lovely delusion while it lasted. For the fact is that after two World Wars, conservatism and reaction have gradually eased themselves into the saddle and are riding humankind.
I could argue that the long-term effect of John Kennedy’s assassination was a gradual loss of faith on the part of Americans in their public, especially political, institutions…When one stops to consider the tendency of American politics to devolve into balkanized constituencies based on the differences instead of common ground among us, one begins legitimately to fret for democracy’s future. This is cause for the greatest concern. For democracy, in its essentials, is the most ethically significant political idea the world has ever known.
Authoritarian politics, like authoritarian religion, keeps people infantile. Basic to democracy, then is political adulthood, a citizenry sufficiently well-informed to want to make decisions about their government. If our humanist religion teaches us anything, it is that a developing sense of responsibility for our own ideas and actions constitutes life’s essential dignity, zest and freedom…To thinkers as different as Gandhi and Maslow, religion means self-knowledge and self-actualization. To seek and to mold the spiritual order unique to oneself is the very stuff of life’s drama, an odyssey that continually draws us forth to a search for meaning. In humanism fidelity to that search replaces obedience to some supposed revelation from on high. Fidelity to that search confirms and ennobles our self-worth, or dignity. I think one of the principal tasks of liberal religious humanism is to formulate an up-to-date theory of democracy and how it can be simply and equitably implemented.
How do we begin such a task? Since there is no spiritual renewal in a vacuum, we must seek out those aspects of history that seem most appropriate in the light of present needs and challenges. What historical resources in the vast and varied tradition of liberal religion can yield materials distinctively suited for illuminating and shaping a contemporary religious humanism and with it advance the potential for strengthening our democracy?
Among early American Unitarian thinkers Theodore Parker recognized that the democratic experiment derives its vitality, if also its turbulence, from conflict and difference openly faced, not secretly subverted. Liberal religion, he preached, must be impregnated with the American democratic ethos.
Following Parker in the last century there arose the Free Religious Association, a post-Civil War protest movement within establishment Unitarianism against the latter’s excessive Christian bias. The precursor of 20th century humanism, Free Religion, in the hands of its chief expone5ts like Frothingham and Potter, was an expression of its ethical kinship with the spiritual idealism of American democracy…Members of the Free Religious Association postulated that each person has worth, an innate sacredness, precisely because we are ends in ourselves and endowed with reason, rationality and its offshoot, ethics, being conceived as natural properties of being human. Religion, in this scheme of understanding, means loyalty to the Ethical ideal and its working out, however, imperfectly, in history and in personal life. In short, humanistic liberal religion as opposed to secular humanism rests on the premise that a unique spark of divinity resides in each of us by virtue of our genetic endowment. Humanism becomes a democratic religious faith at that point where it boldly proclaims the sacredness of all individuals.
Pioneers of the Free Religious Association with the Unitarian movement were passionately convinced that a non-theistic, non-Christian universal ethics would soon become the common ground on which people from all walks of life could unite religiously. But what sadly and subtly occurred in American cultural history is that the liberating momentum of the Enlightenment spent itself by the end of the presidency of John Quincy Adams, last of the founding fathers to occupy the White House.
In the 1830’s the separation between intellectual and religious life became rather obvious. That unfortunate split has been with us ever since, making it inherently difficult for intellectually discerning people to take religion seriously, while those that do–like many UUs and Ethical Culturists–are often uneasy even in their deepest convictions.
Revitalizing the Free Religious spirit will take energy and forthright actions. To date we have been anything but bold. Some of my professional colleagues have lately been bemused with the notion that people who gravitate to liberal religious groups do so because, having abandoned a crabbed, narrow, unconvincing orthodox faith, they are now disenchanted as well with the so-called secular world. Therefore, goes their familiar argument, we must present these anxious dropouts from secularism with a better spiritual alternative. So far I’d agree, except that what they suggest putting forth is, once you uncover it, the old religious stuff mystically refurbished and purged of its grosser aspects. Sometimes it’s presented as a “lover’s quarrel” with God–again, halfway liberalism still emotionally unable to cut its unbilical cord. I say we must stop waffling–there is no supernature, there is in reality neither one god nor many except as imaginative creations.
I believe we should de-Protestantize, de-Christianize the liberal religious tradition and find our primary inspiration and illumination in the highest strivings of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the literary, scientific and humanist moral traditions of the West. To succeed–if liberal religious humanism is to prosper–it will have to attract people who believe in it and are willing to work on its behalf.
If we are alive to our times, liberal religious humanism can help remake the world.
Is it worth the effort? I believe it is imperative. Humankind must escape finally and permanently from the anchor of the supernatural assumption. Secular humanism so called is fine so far as it goes and I count myself an advocate of it. But it has no wings–no developed doctrine of the tragic, or of death, or of the sacred without which prophetic criticism becomes impossible; above all, it has no doctrine of human community without which humanism cannot be effectively transmitted except individually via individual teachers and students in the university. In contrast, religious humanism includes all the imperatives and impulses of secular humanism but goes beyond it, compensating for its lacks.
Liberal religious humanism: it demands an erect posture–no bowing, bending of the knee, or closing of the eyes–it invites the spirit to soar–but in this world only! And with renewed intellectual and spiritual freedom, with the inspiration and courage born of our self-asserted sacredness, the democracy dreamed of by our predecessors can be realized.
The above was excerpted from the address, “No More Waffling: The Folly of Halfway Humanism,” delivered by Khoren Arisian in 1983 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis where Khoren Arisian is the current minister. The tract was published by the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.
Freedom and Humanism
The conviction persists that freedom and humanity are somehow inseparably linked, and that we cannot hope to understand ourselves until we have some understanding of their relationship. We ask: “Am I free to direct my life, make choices that are genuinely mine, make moral decisions that affect not only me and those about me, but possibly the larger cosmos as well? Or am I without any true volition, simply the tool of destiny–perhaps no more that a creature of blind chance?”
Any assumptions we make in these matters–and they can only be assumptions–are of prime importance, for ultimately they affect what meaning, if any, we discover in human life, and in our separate existence.
If we take the position of the determinist, we will say that individuals are not free in any way, that the whole enterprise (of which each is the minutest part) is out of their hands. The universe is a system of inflexible laws, and every particle of matter, every spark of life, every thought, every act is nothing but a reflex of those laws. Whatever influence people think they have over events is purely illusory–as if a wave were to think it had stirred the ocean into a storm.
Such concepts have their roots in 19th century scientific belief, which in turn affected other areas of thought: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, art, and even religion. Determinism is still a valid position for some philosophers, who doubtless find in it the satisfaction of knowing beyond any doubt that the universe is wholly without meaning in any humanistic sense.
If, on the other hand, we take the existentialist’s view, we will say that humankind, cast adrift on a sea of nothing, and inescapably alone, suffers a terrible freedom–a freedom in which each individual’s survival depends upon the ability to “create” self, one’s own reality of being. No purpose can be attached to the universe except what one painfully fabricates from fragments of experience that in themselves have no meaning. Humankind is absolutely alone–hence, absolutely free.
The world, in the existentialist’s view, is a kind of fortuitous dream, or rather nightmare, beset with all the terrors of undifferentiated possibility. Existentialism is unquestionably the headiest brew modern philosophy has yet concocted, though for some it lacks any soothing, any comforting ingredients. To say “man is condemned to freedom” is to say that he is forced into the terror of choosing, and perhaps choosing wrong.
The determinist and existentialist occupy extreme positions in philosophy. Most humanist thinkers, on the other hand, tend to avoid the extremes–certainly in areas as clouded with ambiguity as the subject of freedom is–and to assume that in a field of contending forces or opposing views, the truth, or what can be allowed to serve as truth, stands somewhere near the middle. They see a kind of triadic process at work here: from two opposite, interacting elements, a third, synthetic element is born that represents superior insight.
Modern science, which has provided many new insights into humanity’s physical and psychological nature, and into its evolutionary history as well, has also provided bases for new speculations of the problem of human freedom. Among such speculations is the idea that freedom may not be something that humanity either has or does not have, but rather something that it may have the capacity to create. Freedom is seen not as a gift (or a gift withheld), but as potentiality implicit in the evolutionary venture. Freedom is something to be earned.
It is quite possible that for most of its history humanity has not been free in any positive sense of the word. Human actions and thought may simply have followed guidelines inherent in the human condition, the result of a limited power over the environment and the sequence of events. According to one modern savant (Julian Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) mankind before about 3,000 B. C. was not conscious at all in the present sense of the word. Before then, Jaynes tells us, people got their signals from inner voices which they called gods. The inner voices came from the right hemisphere of the brain; the left hemisphere constituted the “human” side of the brain. This meant that ancient people lived psychologically in a bicameral world–that is, their governing faculties consisted of two relatively separate powers. Only the eventual breakdown of this arrangement (and the accompanying decay of the gods) made it possible for people to become conscious in our modern sense–to become self-conscious, self-aware, self-analytical. With consciousness, people gained the ability to deliberate, to pass between stimulus and response, to decide. No longer bound to obey external authority, they now found authority and understanding within their newly conscious self. In short, they began to be free.
Such a radical hypothesis, of course, awaits proof. Its value here is as a dramatic indicator of the direction modern thought may be moving toward: a concept of freedom as a process, a thing to be achieved when people have reached the stage where they can “deserve” it.
It can be argued that we are at that stage now. For have not the enormous powers conferred by science given us enormous freedom to use or misuse them? Through technology, we now have the power to reshape the environment along artificial, and therefore uniquely human, ways; we find ourselves deciding which species on earth we will or will not preserve; we consider how the atmosphere may be altered, how climate and weather may eventually be controlled. Already we envision our ability, through genetic management, to blueprint our biological future; cloning is only one of the more spectacular possibilities hinted at. Most significantly of all, we possess the terrible freedom utterly to annihilate the world in an atomic holocaust.
Of course, there are those who argue that all these “supposed” freedoms are but stages in a predestined plan to have humanity self-destruct at a certain point. Technology is seen as merely the means of carrying out that end.
Such thinking, however, will strike most of us as the counsel of despair. IF humanity can get past the technological crisis, IF we can avoid annihilating ourselves as well as the planet, then the possibility of almost unlimited freedom emerges: freedom to develop our intelligence by learning to use the now-unused three-quarters of the brain, to achieve new levels of spirit and creativity, to make ourselves what we have always boasted we were–the center of our universe–and perhaps the inseminator of other universes undreamed of, light years away.
AHA Conference Report
Praise for Dr. Jack Kevorkian and criticism for the Boy Scouts of America were highlights of the 53rd Annual Conference of the AHA. At the awards banquet Dr. Kevorkian was praised for his tireless battle defending the principle of self-determination for people with a terminal illness. He was presented the 1994 Humanist Hero Award and responded with deep appreciation to the AHA. Dr. Kevorkian, with a body-guard and an attorney by his side, was friendly and gracious to dozens of Humanist members who wanted to shake his hand and personally thank him.
Most of the AHA delegates signed a document expressing disapproval of the insistence of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) that every scout must sign an oath to God and the BSA official statement: “…no boy can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.” The signed petition awarded a “Badge of Dishonor” to the BSA for their shameful treatment of the non-theistic community in the United States of America.
The AHA Board of Directors urged editorial changes in the publication of the Humanist magazine and recommended that it contain more articles and information that will promote humanism. Members who attended meetings of the Board as observers expect we will see some definite changes in the magazine in the near future.
More than 200 members attended the 1994 conference.
Are Humanists Human?
Keynote address, annual reunion of the South Place Ethical Society, London, September 24, 1989, by Nicholas Walter
My title sounds a silly question, because the obvious answer is yes, in that all the people here and all the humanists I know are members of the human species (though I do sometimes wonder). But it is meant to express some serious questions about the place of the humanist movement in human society and about the place of human beings in the humanist movement, and the answers to such questions are not so obvious.
I shall begin with one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Fables called The Four Reformers:
Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed the world must be changed.
“We must abolish property”, said one.
“We must abolish marriage”, said the second.
“We must abolish God”, said the third.
“I wish we could abolish work”, said the fourth.
“Do not let us get beyond practical politics”, said the first. “The first thing is to reduce men to a common level”.
“The first thing”, said the second, “is to give freedom to the sexes”.
“The first thing”, said the third, “is to find out how to do it”.
“The first step”, said the first, “is to abolish the Bible”.
“The first step”, said the second, “is to abolish the law.”
“The first thing”, said the third, “is to abolish mankind”.
Our immediate reaction; to that, of course, is a laugh; but our next reaction, I hope, is a wince. The humanists, who began by wanting to abolish the Bible and then God, often seem to want to abolish a whole lot of other things, ending with mankind. Stevenson’s general point is that reformers are interested in the world as they want it to be, rather than in the world as it is. My particular point is that humanists are interested in humanity as they want it to be, rather than in humanity as it is. And my questions are about the relationship between humanism, and humanists on one side, and humanity and human beings on the other.
For a start, what about this word humanism? I use it myself, but I often wonder about it. I remember how Marghanita Laski, the entertaining and infuriating unbeliever who died last year, used to say crossly: “I’m not a humanist, I’m human! I recall that none of my grandparents, who all lost their various forms of Christian faith early in their lives, and neither of my parents, who never had any faith to lose, ever called themselves humanists. Although I have never believed in anything above or beyond or behind humanity, have never suffered either from the painful disease of religion or the equally painful recovery from it, and have therefore been a humanist as long as I have been a human, I have never been happy with the term.
Indeed I didn’t call myself a humanist for a long time. When I was young, I was taught that humanists were scholars in the Italian Renaissance at the end of the Middle Ages who turned from divine to human studies, in particular to the study of Classical Greece and Rome, but who were still Christians even though they contributed to the decline of Christianity. When I was a little older, in the sixth form at school, I was actually called a ‘humanist’, but this was only because I was studying the so-called ‘humanities’ rather than the sciences. The usage had to do with the theories of German educationists at the time of the French Revolution, who coined the word “Humanism” to express the ideal of a liberal education; it had something to do with the Ancient World (though we didn’t lean much Latin or Greek), but nothing to do with religion. Indeed the so-called humanists around me were far more likely to be religious than the scientists, so I didn’t much want to be associated with them or with the word.
When I was older still, at university, I learnt about other people called humanists–followers of the French thinker August Comte, the founder of a “Religion of Humanity” in which gods and goddesses were superseded by great men and women, or of the American thinkers C. S. Pierce and William James, the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism in which the truth was what human beings thought it was. Later I learnt about John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in the United States, and F. C. S. Schiller and Gerald Heard in this country, who added further and increasingly confusing meanings to humanism.
Finally, I learnt about the scientific humanism of J. B. S. Haldane and Julian Huxley, of Boyd Orr and Brock Chisholm. I soon realized that this was much the same as the ideas which I had been brought up with and which I agreed with. I found it expounded in books by people like E. M. Forster and Bertrand Russell, and in person by people like Margaret Knight and Hector Hawton. In the end, about thirty-five years ago, as a result of this long process, I began to accept “Humanism”–which was being adopted by the freethought movement at about the time in about the same sense.
Nevertheless, even though I was a humanist, I didn’t become a member of any humanist organization. On the one hand, I certainly agreed with the propaganda of the Rationalist Press Association and the National Secular Society when I came across it, but I seldom went out of my way to look for it, because I took it so much for granted and because I was much more interested in political than religious arguments. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t agree with the work of the South Place Ethical Society or the Ethical Union, I didn’t like the meetings of the former and didn’t go to the meetings of the latter, because I felt that so-called ethical people were trying to bully me, just as religious people had tried to bully me at school and university. I didn’t like them much better when they began to call themselves “humanists”, nor did I much like the new humanist movement which appearing during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My main problem was that I couldn’t see the point of emphasizing the obvious fact that one was human, or of expressing meaningless belief in humanity; the latter is surely as absurd as Margaret Fuller’s statement that she accepted the Universe. (As Thomas Carlyle commented, “Gad, she’d better!”) If I had to express my basic beliefs in one word, I might choose not humanism but something else–freethought (thought that is free from arbitrary authority or assumptions), or rationalism (the reliance on reason), or secularism (the concentration on this life in this world), or just atheism (the rejection of divine beings and supernatural events). Anyway, although I quite enjoy playing around with these and other words, I do wonder whether in the end they cause more harm than good. We have just been commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, which is the first public event I can remember, and of the pact between Hitler and Stalin which let the war begin. I recall that when this agreement was made between Nazism and Communism, saying so much about both of them, a British official is said to have commented, “All the Ism are now Wasms”. I sometimes wish that all the Ism which have buzzed around the freethought movement during the past couple of centuries were Wasms and that we could get on with more important issues.
However, humanism is established as the Ism of the freethought movement, not just in this country but around the world, and it is now the word used by most self-conscious non-religious people. Following my own principle, I have had to consider the movement as it is and not as I would like it to be, and this includes both humanism and the humanists. I worked out for myself a basic definition of humanism–a combination of the negative rejection of the idea of anything superhuman as a guide to thought and the positive recognition of common humanity as a guide to action. This was easy enough, but then I gradually got involved in the humanist movement, and eventually began working for it. This was not so easy, and it is my experience of humanists which has led to my question, Are the humanists human?
In asking such a question, I don’t want either to attack or to defend humanism, but simply to discuss it among humanists, according to what I take to be humanist principles of free inquiry and open expression. What does it mean to call oneself a humanist, more than the basic definition I have just given? What is gained by adding an Ism to the obvious fact that one is human? Does it make one more human, or less? Does it actually add anything to Kathleen Nott’s joke that humanism means being unkind to God and kind to animals? In the latter connection, indeed, what does it say about animals? Is humanism a form of what is now called speciesism–a sort of human patriotism? What does this say about our view of evolution? Do we attach a special objective value to the human species, as the only moral or rational form of life, or do we just give it subjective value because it happens to be our team? Does humanism have a positive meaning at all, or is it just a polite word for the negative attitude which use to be called infidelity or unbelief? Does humanism actually have any particular connection with humanity at all?
We all have our own answers to these questions, but whatever they are, what does it then mean to work for humanism though a humanist organization? We all have our own answers to this question too, but I shall put some which occurred to me when I was an outsider and which I am sure still occur to outsiders…
But, we are told, humanism is something more than old secularism or rationalism or ethicism or the old freethought movement altogether. At first humanism was a religion–the “Religion of Humanity”, a fine phrase when Thomas Paine coined it back in the eighteenth century, but a silly nonsense when Comte adopted it in the nineteenth century, and an empty shell when Julian Huxley tried to strip it of revelation in the twentieth century. Religious humanism still exists, but it is very much a minority cult, even among humanists, at least in this country. The humanism is often used as a disguise for a religion of science, especially attached to the doctrine of evolution by natural selection; in this sense it is the same as ‘scientism’, the view than science has the sacred status which religion used to have. Then humanism is sometimes used–as ‘secularism’ was when G. J. Holyoake first adopted it in 1851–as a way of avoiding argument about religion and of saying that all men of good will can work together and sink their differences; in this sense Kenneth Kaunda made it the official ideology of Zambia (where there are public posters urging “Be Humanist!”). And humanism is sometimes used as an alternative to or substitute for religion, a secular faith to believe now that God is dead; in this sense it is the official public morality taught in Communist countries. But, like E M. Forster, I don’t believe in belief, I don’t want another faith, and I don’t think many humanists do. For most people who call themselves humanists, surely, humanism is not a form of religion, or even an alternative to or substitute for religion, but a rejection of religion.
But now, we are told, humanism is analogous with religion. Well, that may well be true for some humanists, but not for others, and certainly not for me. My ideas about life, the universe and everything, which I am willing for the sake of argument or agreement to call humanism, do not play the part in my thought and behaviour that religion plays for other people. They are much less dogmatic and much more pragmatic. My humanism is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it says what I am, and not what I should do. For example, it would never occur to me to approach a problem as a humanist, in the way that religious fundamentalists approach problems as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or whatever–or indeed in the way that political fundamentalists do so as Marxists, socialists, anarchists, or whatever.
We are also told that humanism is a member of a wider class of things which includes both religious denominations and political ideologies, and that this kind of thing may be called a stance for living or a life stance. Well, again, that may be true for some humanists, but not for others, and certainly not for me. I can see what the life-stancists are getting at, but I don’t think they have got it. I find both life and stance inappropriate words in this context, and I find such phraseology either meaningless or positively misleading. (Anyway, mightn’t it be more accurate to say than humanism is a death stance or a stance for dying?) I have another problem, not so much with the content as with the style of the argument. I don’t mind anyone saying that humanism is this, that, or the other, but I do mind being told that as humanists we have got to agree about it, and I mind very much being told that if I don’t agree at least I mustn’t disagree in public. If humanism really involves humanists treating other people in this way, then include me out.
Even more recently, we have been told that humanism is a eupraxophy–or is it an eupraxophy? The same objections apply even more strongly. Are all the old words so worn out that we must coin a new one, and if so must it sound so peculiar? I wonder whether anyone who seriously proposes the adoption by humanists of such a term as eupraxophy is thinking of them as human; and whether, if we seriously offered it to the wider public, we would be thinking of them as human. As Winston Churchill said in rather different circumstances in 1941, “what kind of people do they think we are?” I find it hard enough explaining what I mean by ‘humanism’ and why I work for the humanist movement without wanting to make a complete fool of myself. Again, I have another problem, which is that the advocates of such terms as life-stance and eupraxophy are active and influential in the world humanist movement, and are trying to impose them not just on their own circles but on national and international organizations. As I said before, if humanism really involves this kind of thing, then include me out.
From the opposite perspective, we are sometimes told that the trouble with humanists is not that they are too sure but that they aren’t sure enough what humanism is. I think there is something in this, but I don’t think it matters much. Isms are only labels, and I see humanism as simply a rough indication of our destination rather than a full description of our identity–the address on the envelope rather than the text of the letter–and I don’t think it matters if we don’t agree or don’t know exactly what we believe. Of course I accept that argument that there should be some common understanding of what we mean, but I reject the argument that there should be certainty and agreement about everything.
Here I must say that I am worried about the tendency for humanism to develop from a basic position into a complex ideology with a whole series of doctrines–about life and death, women and children and old people, sex and contraception and embryo research, religious and moral and scientific education, school worship or “worthship” (another awful word) and separate schools, evolution and right and left brains and the paranormal, race and nationality, censorship and ceremonies and counseling, and so on. I am impressed by the Dutch Humanist movement, for example, which is about ten times the size of ours in a country about ten times as small, but am alarmed by some of its features. It has become one of the pillars of society–and you remember what Ibsen said about the pillars of society. I am worried about the tendency among humanists to show intolerance to people who challenge either the general ideology or one or other of the particular doctrines. If there is any value in humanism, apart from the truth of its basic position, it is surely that humanists differ just as much as other humans and that we say “Vive la difference!”
All this sort of thing reminds me of why I didn’t like the word humanism when I was young and didn’t want to join the humanist movement when I was older. Not that I want to follow the argument put by some freethinkers that the word causes such trouble that we should drop it altogether; I think we are stuck with it and should make the best of it. Nor that I want to leave the movement to which I have given so much time and energy. But I must confess that I find myself drawn towards the mysterious new organization which calls itself the Humanist Party. No, I don’t like what little I have been able to discover about its origins or methods, and I don’t have any wish to join it. But I do like its basic statement of the meaning of humanism–‘Nothing above the human, and no human above another’. I wish I had thought of that! Does humanism have to mean any more than that?
But it is time to stop asking questions and to start giving answers. In my view, then, humanists should think less about humanism and more about humanity–as it is rather than as it should be. Humanists should behave in a way which is human and which will appeal to ordinary humans outside our movement. Let us remember that about half the people in this country never voluntarily take part in any religious activity, and that about a quarter have no religious belief at all. If humanism means what it is meant to mean, these tens of millions of people are humanists without knowing it–rather like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s playLe Bourgois Gentilhomme, who spoke prose without realizing it.
But they will not become humanists if we copy the mistakes of all the religious and political ideologies, and try to bully or bewilder them into humanism. Humanism should not be an evangelizing or proselytizing system like all the others, but should be a place where people can take refuge from such systems and become who they are. Our job is not to convert people to humanism but to encourage them to be human. Nothing is gained by just exchanging one orthodoxy for another…As Tolstoy said: “Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change himself”. Stevenson wrote another Fable, The House of Eld,which is too long to quote here, about a country where people wear fetter on their right legs until a reformer shows that this is a superstition–so they wear fetters on their left legs instead! A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, opposed moral education as much as religious education because, even if it was based on facts rather than fantasies, it is just as oppressive of children. As a former child, I sympathize. I wonder what he would think of trying to get humanism into agreed syllabuses of religious education or into school assemblies. To quote a final fable, one of James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time, about the bear who turned from alcoholism to teetotalism: “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.”
I must end by saying that, despite all the other things I have said, I still prefer humanism to all the other Isms, and I still prefer the humanist movement to all the other movements I have known. Most of my best friends are humanists and most of the people I admire are humanists. I always enjoy visiting the local groups in the British movement, and meeting people from other countries in the international movement. I do actually agree with most of what most humanists say humanism is. I have simply tried to voice some of the things which worry me about it and them and which worry many other people whose voices we never hear. To take (today as) a final example, what sort of humans meet in central London on a pleasant Sunday to talk about being human?
So what is the final answer to my original question? I find it in the German thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. Just over a century ago he published a book whose title says all that I have been trying to say: menschliches, allzumenschliches–Human, all too Human. My criticisms of humanists only amount to saying that they are much the same as everyone else–yes, they are human, all too human. Nietzsche tried to persuade humans to become superhuman, but he was all too human, too, and collapsed under the strain. We must not make the same mistake. We must be neither too human nor too inhuman. We must recognize that we are just human and not pretend to be something more. What matters is not humanism, but humanity–not the humanist movement, but human movement.
How It Is
On the subject of deism or theism, no one knows anything at all: it is all smoke and mirrors.
The professional philosophers (but I don’t know how much of a living one can make doing that or even if there are such people in this age) have classified our sources of knowledge. That is, how we come to learn things, whatever they be. Among these is what is called “recourse to authority” or, more simply, “ask someone who knows.” I often wondered if I am an authority on anything and concluded that I would classify myself as a guru on:
As one gets older one is increasingly amazed at how few experts there are on anything. On the subject of deism or theism, no one knows anything at all: it is all smoke and mirrors. In spite of protestations to the contrary, not one person in our universe knows a whit more about this than anyone else, and certainly not more than you. Just imagine: nobody knows any more than you do about this; you are the expert. Less is known about this subject than people know about economics, where it is generally recognized that indeed nobody knows anything at all. There is nobody with any secret trove of information–nobody…
So you can’t ask anybody because nobody knows. Nobody has any special knowledge, any private knowledge or revelation. Those who claim they have are either liars or charlatans or both. They want something from you, either your money or your power. It’s best to be careful in giving away either; both wells can run dry.
You can’t ask me. Aside from the fact that I finally know the meaning of life, there isn’t much I can add to the discussion that will make you a happy person. I am only a deliverer of fact, an unrelenting pragmatist, an unrepentant humanist. There is no “good news,” only news.
Something happened during the survival/evolution of the human species that makes it difficult for us to accept “I don’t know” as an answer. It’s as if we would rather be fooled and lied to than face uncertainty. And to this most difficult of questions, which is best simplified as “Why is there something instead of nothing?” comes the most frustrating of answers: nobody knows.
With one exception all the rest is mind games, sort of a semi-intellectual mental masturbation. And none of it results in long-term satisfaction, let alone relief. If anything could be proved it wouldn’t be called “faith,” would it? For faith is belief in the intrinsically unbelievable. That exception–apart from the idiocy that passes itself off as serious cerebration–is the search for evidence of extraterrestrial influence on human affairs, so-called divine intervention.
The phenomenon referred to as “miracle” is what might be called hard evidence for otherworldly “interference” in the affairs of people kind. But the concept of miracles has been considerably cheapened–consider the TV preachers…In spite of the theoretical impossibility of proving the negative, it is clear that there are no miracles. Not an iota of evidence supports the role of any extra worldly being in human affairs. Much is still unexplained. But that is the wonder: what a dull world if we understood everything! We perhaps never shall.
Humans have an overwhelming tendency to think that their kind is something special, more than just an evolutionary step just beyond the step before us, that some kind of quantum barrier divides us from the rest of the primates. But consider. It seems that once a species starts down a path where one characteristic provides some significant survival value, that road is traveled to the very end. So if what we call intelligence was profoundly important to us naked apes, then the brighter among the bright had an advantage. Evolution has provided no short-necked giraffes, no miniature elephants. There seems to be a minimum brightness level if people, excepting perhaps politicians, are to function.
The ultimate problems with dabbling seriously in theism or deism are twofold. First, the dabblers can’t leave well enough alone. Associating with all that purported power, they are tempted to borrow some for themselves. And thus, inevitably, abuses follow. Not only do the professional deists/theists (otherwise known as the clergy) borrow some of the power they conjure up to control the foolish faithful, but, as if trying to maintain balance in their bizarre universe, they create anti-deities, the antitheses of their gods: fallen gods, defective god, gods gone bad. Both their gods and anti-gods are created in their own images. So with this bizarre parity created from whole cloth we have access to the two great cop-outs of our civilization: “It was god’s will” and its brother, “The devil made me do it.” Both are easier than taking responsibility for our own actions and behavior.
We are indeed alone, we apparently have no purpose, no noble goal. We are the result of stellar evolution, then chemical evolution, and finally biological evolution. In the end we must look to ourselves for ourselves. There is nothing else. That’s how it is.
This article is from Religious Humanism, Journal of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Vol. XXVI. No. 3, Summer, 1992. Thomas Kelly teaches in the School of Medicine of the University of Maryland, in Baltimore.
The Nazi Virus
Professor Ronald Smelser, speaking to the September 8, 1994 meeting of the Humanists of Utah, noted the appropriateness of his presentation. The United States military had just that day officially ended its occupation duties in Germany. He said the question now concerning many around the world is whether the Nazi philosophy will return as a major force in German politics. Dr. Smelser cited the recent display of anger against foreigners in Germany, the violence of Skinheads, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, as evidence that pockets of fascism remains. He emphasized there is a German law against promoting Nazism, and that law has been respected and enforced and he sees no indications of its being repealed.
One major problem that needs close monitoring is the population of Germany: 239 people per square kilometer! In the United States there are 60 people per square kilometer and in Utah only six. To get an idea of the population density of Germany, imagine nearly 800 million people living in Utah.
Professor Smelser gave a detailed historical overview of events leading to the assumption of power by Hitler and the German acceptance of the Nazi philosophy. He recalled that before and after the First World War several Utopian schemes were gaining popularity in Europe. Nazism combined the theory of racial superiority with political socialism to win public support. Hitler used the Millennial techniques of a “chosen people” establishing the “kingdom of god” to promise a thousand years of peace and prosperity. In reality Hitler, caused a decade of “hell on earth.”
This Nazi technique is like a virus, says Smelser; it lies dormant and could be triggered if the resistance of the host body politick is lowered sufficiently. There is evidence of a Nazi virus stirring in the world today. The challenge is to keep the body politick healthy enough to keep the virus isolated.
In Search of What Makes Us Human
Book review of Origins by Richard Leakey, and Roger Lewin, Doubleday, 1992
Richard Leakey is a world renowned paleoanthropologist (son of Louis and Mary Leakey) and Roger Lewin is the author of several prize-winning science books. In 1977, they co-authored Origins, and return to update their earlier conclusions and add new information.
In 1984, Leakey and his crew discovered the “Turkana Boy” on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. This l.5 million year old skeleton is recognized as one of the most significant discoveries of all time. To quote from the book: “Homo erectus, the Turkana boy’s species, represented a pivotal point in human evolution. More or less everything that preceded erectus was distinctly apelike in important respects: in some of the anatomy, life history, and behavior. And everything that followed erectus was distinctly humanlike. The Turkana boy had been part of a major shift in human evolution, one in which the seeds of the humanness we feel within us today were firmly planted…”
The book is largely a narrative of this discovery and of how he went on to explore the current theories of how humankind evolved. He discusses the methods used by scientists of different disciplines, and incorporates ideas from philosophy, anthropology, molecular biology, and linguistics in his investigation of how humankind acquired the qualities that make us human. It is also something of a basic text on evolution.
Richard Leakey is now the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which places his life in constant jeopardy. That, plus his deteriorating health, both of which he is constantly aware, could make this his last work. In that sense, this could well be his testament.
The following is the thesis of the book: “…I believe that the qualities of humanness–consciousness, compassion, morality, language–arose gradually in our history, products of the evolutionary process that shaped our species. These qualities are, of course, most appropriate in the interactions among individual humans; they are the threads that hold the social fabric together. But, together with our creative intellect, they form part of our perception of the rest of the world of nature. I am not suggesting, as some people do, that every species of plant or animal has the same rights in society as humans. It is correct that we recognize the special value of a human life. But it is also correct that we recognize the place in nature of the human species, Homo sapiens, as one species among many. This is the true insight into our origins.”
This is the title of the last chapter. It is a summary of the meaning of the discovery of the Turkana boy and Leakey’s subsequent investigations and resultant discoveries.
The authors begin: “The urge to know is a defining feature of humanity: to know about the past; to understand the present; to glimpse what the future may hold…Human consciousness…is resourceful at creating explanations where none naturally exist.”
Paleoanthropology is one of the few sciences which can give answers. The authors have more information since writing the first ORIGINS, and they can now present new arguments to the several interpretations of the origins and future of humankind. These interpretations are grouped under the headings of Inevitability, The Gap, and The Sixth Extinction.
Inevitability is the belief that the arrival of Homo sapiens was predestined: since we are here it must be for some purpose, otherwise it is by chance, and for many people such a conclusion is unacceptable. This has been expressed mainly in three ways:
First, because of the special qualities of Homo sapiens we are here by design, or, the fact that something works well implies that it was designed to be the way it is.
Second is the Anthropic Principle, the view that the universe is the way it is because it could be no other way. Since the laws of the universe operate within tight margins and we are here to observe them, the fundamental laws must be as they are.
That the unfolding of life on earth has followed a path of progress and predictability is the third belief. Evolution is viewed as constantly striving for improvement, fashioning an ever more efficient and successful organism, and if the process were set back to the beginning and run again, much the same pattern would result. The adoption of upright walking, the modification of the dentition, the origin of the expanded brain and the ability to expand the range, the emergence of complex spoken language–each can be seen as part of a cumulative and predictable march toward the present Homo sapiens.
The authors respond to these three arguments by citing several factors which must be considered. The first are the several climatic and environmental changes which triggered evolutionary innovations. One was the drastic global cooling around 2.6 million years ago which correlates with the origin of a new species and the evolution of the enlarged brain, the beginning of Homo. Had this cooling not occurred with the resultant ecological modifications, “…perhaps Homo would not have appeared then, perhaps not at all.”
Then there are the environmental and climatic changes associated with the formation of the Great Rift Valley, some ten million years ago and onward. Those highland, mosaic environments were important in the origin of the hominids and had there been no such tectonic events in East Africa at that time, leaving the forests intact, “…perhaps hominids would not have evolved then, perhaps not at all.”
Another factor is the mass extinctions which devastated so many species. In these events, many of the normal rules of biology are briefly suspended, principally those relating to everyday competition and survival; and geographic distribution, body size, and plain luck determine survival, rather than inherent superiority or adaptation. “Had that primitive primate been less lucky at the Cretaceous extinction, there is no reason to expect that animals like primates would ever have evolved again, no prosimians, no monkeys, no apes–no humans.”
The authors explain further that just because a particular species has unlimited evolutionary opportunities ahead of it, potential changes are to some degree constrained by its existing anatomical architecture and its historical heritage. What happens is a contingent fact of history, not the march down a predestined evolutionary path; Homo sapiens was one of a range of possibilities, not an inevitability. The important message that comes to us from the fossil record is that it makes no difference to reason that if the circumstances been only slightly different in the history of life, that we would be or would not be. What is significant is to realize that our being here was by no means inevitable, no matter how our very humanness rails against the notion.
The Gap is the notion that because of the special characteristics of humankind, we are set apart from the rest of the world. Among these are our technological skills, our ability to modify the environment, our cultures, our aesthetic sensitivities, and ethical sensibilities. One notable distinction has been the elaboration of many mythologies and religions to contain and explain the world. This is undeniably unique to the human species.
However, Mr. Leakey believes that standards of ethics and morality could be derived in the absence of religion. Since altruism is part of the behavior of social animals, it can be expected to develop much further in intelligent and intensely social animals like our human ancestors. Therefore, such standards are an inevitable, and predictable, product of gradual human evolution. This is the humanists’ position.
Culture also sets humankind apart. We are a cultural creature unmatched by any other species. This is a dimension of behavior which essentially creates another world, one whose ideas and knowledge may be constantly reshaped and transmitted from one generation to the next. We all take part in a cumulative expression of our species. Our present culture depends in a very direct way on what was done many generations back, and we are the beneficiaries of our distant ancestors in a way not experienced by any other species.
The authors trace the development of civilization beginning with the 100,000 years as hunters and gatherers, small bands who were part of larger social and political alliances. Material worlds were limited, but their mythic worlds were rich, passed from generation to generation. There was a change between twenty thousand and ten thousand years ago when humankind began to organize their practical lives differently, exploiting food resources in a way that allowed less mobility, more stability, perhaps more possessions. Finally, from ten thousand years onward, food production became more common. Villages sprang up, small towns, cities, city-states, and eventually nation-states arose. Civilization had arrived, founded on generations of slow cultural changes, with a range of practical, intellectual, and spiritual possibilities which is the ultimate expression of the power of culture. Surely it sets us apart from the rest of the species in the world.
The authors seem to be answering the question of the Gap in positive terms, citing reasons why it exists. But they finish their examination of The Gap with the conclusion that this gap is more an illusion, an accident of history. We only feel special and separate because no species comes close to our accomplishments. One of the most important lessons learned by looking at the fossil record is to recognize that there is an unbroken genetic link that binds humankind to the nonhuman world of nature. Consciousness, compassion, morality, and language did not begin with the origin of Homo sapiens; our ancestors were more than erect apes. The emergence was gradual; other species do indeed match up to us to some degree. That they are no longer here is a contingent fact of history. The Gap is closed.
The Sixth Extinction
This is the third of Mr. Leakey’s concerns. He notes that since the origin of complex forms of life on Earth, there have been five mass extinctions and a number of smaller events. This represents a periodicity of twenty six million years during which the number of living species collapsed catastrophically. (The Permian event wiped out 96 percent of all species.) Each mass extinction changed the Earth’s biota on a grand scale.
The rapid recoveries from these periodic mass extinctions characterize Earth history. After each collapse, survivors diversified by exploiting the available ecological opportunities thoroughly and swiftly. Over a few tens of millions of years the overall diversity often reached close to or even exceeded the levels before the previous mass extinction. Following the most recent Cretaceous extinction (6.5 million years ago), the level of diversity was higher than at any previous time. Thus, biota change is repeated time and time again.
We are now in the midst of the Sixth Extinction with the loss of 50 percent of species. There have not been any catastrophic impacts from asteroids this time, no massive chains of volcanic eruption, no global disaster of natural origin. Instead there is the inexorable growth of human populations, enveloping and destroying the habitat of the rest of the world’s organisms. The number of extant species is collapsing, and we are the agents of their demise.
The authors draw the readers attention to the lessons from the fossil record. For the most part, species do not last very long; invertebrate species on average have a longevity of five to ten million years and vertebrates about two million years. As a result, more than 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Species go extinct not because they are in some way inferior, but because they succumb to the vagaries of the processes of extinction.
They conclude that it is culture, transforming and enriching the life of Homo sapiens, which may block further evolution of humankind. Evolutionary change by natural selection proceeds by the differential survival of genetically favored individuals. By making survival subject to many nongenetic factors, culture effectively eliminates that process. “Further evolution is probably at an end unless there is genetic intervention by new technology or deliberate breeding programs over many thousands of years–both of which options properly ring ethical alarm bells in our society.”
But the notion of further evolution of Homo sapiens should be placed in a larger time perspective. In our recent history, two intellectual revolutions shook humanity’s perception of itself in the scheme of things. The first was the sixteenth-century Copernican revolution which dislodged the Earth from the center of the visible universe to the position of one small planet among others, circling a small sun. The second was the nineteenth-century Darwinian revolution placing humans in the same biological category as the Earth’s other species. Added recently to these two insults there is a third: the scale of the universe itself.
This new scale describes a universe some twenty billion light years across, unimaginably vast, with our solar system and its host galaxy, the Milky Way, an insignificant corner of infinite time and space. It is calculated that our own sun will produce heat and light sufficient to sustain life on Earth for another five or ten billion years. These figures challenge not only the mind in its attempt to comprehend them, but also the strength of the human spirit in its perception of itself. However, long before the sun’s energy is finally spent, it is a certain guess that Homo sapiens will no longer exist, another extinct species in Earth’s history of biotic collapse and recovery.
The authors remind us that we humans, with our intelligence, our technology, and our power, are the stewards of planet Earth and that its future is in our hands. But because we find it impossible to imagine a time when we will no longer exist, we naturally equate the future of Homo sapiens with the future of the planet. However, the logic of the fossil record, and the logic of a true understanding of Homo sapiens as one species among many, forces us to accept that this is not the case. We are not stewards of the Earth, forever and a day. We are merely short-term tenants, and pretty unruly and destructive ones at that.
Mr. Leakey concludes by reminding us that “…it matters not at all that other species do not possess a degree of consciousness like ours, do not experience feelings in the way we do. They are part of our world; we are part of theirs. Our greater intellect may confer on us an enhanced ability to exploit the natural resources of the world. But–and I feel this very strongly–it also lays on us an enhanced responsibility to husband those resources carefully, to be sensitive to the knowledge that a species, once extinct, is destroyed forever. By impoverishing the environment, we impoverish our own lives, in this short-term tenancy we have on planet earth.”
The Scientific Method
Step One: The Occurrence of a Perplexity
To perplex is to be unable to grasp something clearly or to think logically and decisively about something.
Step Two: Clarification of The Perplexity
To clarify is to be free of confusion and to make understandable.
Step Three: The Appearance of Different Solutions, or Working Hypotheses of The Perplexity
To hypothesize is to form a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.
Step Four: Deducing Implications of the Suggested Hypothesis
A deduction is the deriving of a conclusion by reasoning, specifically of an inference in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises.
Step Five: Verification of The Chosen Solution
Some action or observation, engaged in for the purpose of determining which if any, of the suggestions as developed, offers an adequate solution of the perplexity.
Step Six: A Reiteration of The Preceding Thinking
Uncover any inadequacies that might be corrected.
Sources: Right Thinking, A Study of Its Principles And Methods. E.A. Burtt, Ph.D. (1928, 1931, 1946), whose analysis is derived from How We Think, by John Dewey, Ph.D. (1910).
October 12th is an important date in the history of reason challenging myth and magic. On that date in 1692, Governor William Phipps of Massachusetts issued an edict that spectral evidence would no longer be admissible in the courts. The effect of this edict was to require that evidence admitted in court be observable by ordinary senses, measurable, and hence replicable. This date marks the end of the horror of the Salem witch trials and a victory for reason in our courts.
Death: Celebrate Life
This past month I spoke at a memorial service for a life-long, close friend. As I looked over the group of people attending the service I realized how many of them had suffered the grief caused by the death of a loved one in the past few years. Many had experienced the death of a spouse, a parent, or a child and I thought how our coming together to celebrate the life of a friend helps us to understand our own grief, have compassion for the grief of others and generates a sense of community.
Celebrating life as we grieve reminds us how short and how precious are the bonds we develop with just a few other humans during this experience we call life. It reminds us of the very short time we have to share the beauty of a sunrise, the serenity of a sunset, a refreshing breeze, and a cleansing rain.
It reminds us that we, too, are drifting toward the end of life and we should take advantage of every opportunity to make life meaningful for our self and meaningful for those with whom we share this experience. The human condition is precarious and chaotic. Let us celebrate its uncertainty frequently.
Our Human Goal: Individuation
What Do We Want and What Should We Want?
…Suppose someone were to say, “Education always presupposes certain goals toward which progress can be made. Is it possible to specify what it would be like to be fully developed in the way of feeling and emotion? What is the ideal toward which one should strive?” What could we answer?
Surely it would be the better part of wisdom to back away from “ideal” beyond specifying, as Aristotle did with respect to human virtues, some middle place between cowardice and foolhardiness, so, “well developed in the affective way” would specify a mean between the extremes of passive apathy and hair-trigger emotionality. Of course, this is only a beginning and may even be dismissed as too obvious to merit mention. But the main point is that there is considerable ground between extremes, and one cannot reasonably specify more precisely, for that will depend upon a number of additional factors than just being human. There is age, stage of development, station in life, cultural norms, and individual personality. By the latter is meant, roughly, that we all have different living styles. The ideal of integration requires a certain coherence among the different traits and propensities.
If one set out to “operationalize a set of behavioral objectives,” one could expect nothing but a travesty as outcome, yet everyone who believes in the importance of the traits and functions described in this work has a least implicit criteria available for recognizing “a feeling person.” And this is not a bad short-hand designation of the kind of person we are trying to visualize, though it does not coincide with the “feeling type” of C. G. Jung, discussed above, for that personality type by definition is one in which the feeling function is most fully developed, as against the functions of intuition, thinking, and sensation. By contrast, what we are trying to get into better focus is a person who might have any of the other three even more highly developed, and who yet has differentiated feeling to a relatively high, well-discriminated level.
What, then, can be said about one who seems to us to have earned the descriptor, “a feeling person”? Working on the assumption that development along these lines tends to be somewhat harder for males than females, we’ll use the masculine pronoun in what follows:
This evidently incomplete list of characteristics may serve at least to sketch the Feeling Man, who in the characteristics mentioned will differ little or not at all from the Feeling Woman. Indeed some recent psychological investigations seem to show that gender differences in this realm have often been grossly exaggerated. And yet people’s respective ways of manifesting their feeling characteristics will often bear the mark of their gender, of their ethnicity, and of their personality-as-idiosyncratic, for finally none of us is identical with a type, but each of us is our own indefensible self.
–James L. Jarrett, Ph.D.
The Religious Influence on Utah Legislative Decisions
“Values” affect all our choices; that is obvious. We choose a particular career because we “value” that profession. We might choose a particular religion because we value its tenets. “Values,” “Standards,” “Ideals” all permeate our choices–to one degree or another. However, what if my values, those beliefs that I hold dear, conflict with yours? Then what? How do we arbitrate, resolve, compromise, or just plain tolerate people or groups who have standards quite different than our own? What if these “conflicted” ideals lead not to just differences in hairstyles or clothing, but to the very core of our lives? What if our politicians hold and act upon principles which conflict with a portion of the population they have been elected to represent?
The potential for conflicted values is especially problematic in Utah since a majority of the population is of one religious persuasion. It would be unreasonable to think that religious beliefs did not affect the decisions made by Utah legislators. However is there some mark, some line, when voting one’s religious values is inappropriate? What is that line and how do we tell if it has been crossed?
In the open, intellectual spirit advocated by John Stuart Mill over one hundred years ago in On Liberty, the November 10th meeting of the Utah Humanists was a panel discussion [organized by Board Member Ron Healey] which addressed many of the issues in the preceding paragraphs.
Present on the panel were:
Panel Moderator: Shannon Bellamy, Ph.D., Faculty Member, Gore School of Business.
The discussion started by asking the panelists to respond to the hypothetical question of a woman pilot who was about to relocate to Utah from Dallas, was a southern Baptist Democrat, and was concerned about the religious influence in the community and in the Utah legislature. The responses were varied, the conversation was lively and animated, and there was no specific, concrete conclusion. In the spirit of John Stuart Mill, we should not be disappointed. The conversation itself keeps alive and open for public debate the question of how values influence the political process.
Did the panel discussion open our eyes a little? Did it make us a little more tolerant of others? My answer is, Yes! It seems to be a step in the right direction when Kelly Atkinson, Mormon and Utah legislator, says publicly: “It’s time for a lot of people [Mormons] to wake up and smell the coffee!”
–Shannon Bellamy, Ph.D.
John Gunnison and the Mormons
Could John Gunnison Have Changed the Mormons?
Transcript of lecture presented by R. Kent Fielding, Ph.D., at the December 9, 1993 meeting of the Humanists of Utah.
Quotations in the text are taken from Dr. Fielding’s recently published book, The Unsolicited Chronicler: An Account Of The Gunnison Massacre, Its Causes And Consequences; and from the reprinted 1860 edition of John W. Gunnison’s book, The Mormons, Or Latter-Day Saints, also published by Dr. Fielding.
I. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
I am here tonight speaking to Utah Humanists, under the auspices of the Utah Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau. We have an interest in common which brings us together. You, as Humanists; the Humanities Council as sponsors of dialogue on significant humane interests; and I because I am also a humanist, vitally interested in the contemporary issues affecting our society.
My humanism is founded in the study of history, the mother of all humanities. History gave me my second birth; into an awareness of the scope and depth of human development and civilization: the source of all humanities.
My first birth was into the Mormon communities of Spanish Fork, my earliest home; of Springville, the home of my father who died before we became acquainted; and of Orem, where I lived until I was forty years of age.
And therein lies the specific focus of my vital interest in the contemporary issues affecting our society:
II. JOHN GUNNISON’S INFLUENCE ON THE COURSE OF HISTORY
I did not come tonight to talk about myself and my view of the current dilemmas of Mormons, although that level of detachment is unavoidable, considering my own deep involvement and prior commitments nd the amazing display of arbitrary power exhibited by the Mormon church in recent times. Instead, I have come to talk about John W. Gunnison, who asked these very questions, and provided his own answers in a situation far more dangerous and compelling than the one now before us.
I have posed a rhetorical question intending to furnish the answer of which I approve; which I came prepared to articulate and demonstrate: Could John Gunnison have changed the Mormons?
My answer is an unequivocal YES!
There are pivotal events in history where small incidents decisively affect the future. You have all learned to recite the doggerel: for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost…
The Gunnison Massacre, on the Sevier River, Utah Territory, October 26, 1853, was such a pivotal event; in Utah history and perhaps in American history.
I have said that John Gunnison ALIVE, would have changed the Mormons and might have changed the course of the American nation.
And there is more: John Gunnison DEAD, did change the Mormons and his death may have left the course of the American nation unchanged; its leaders unable to avoid the terrible calamity which befell it: dis-union and civil war.
I have said that John W. Gunnison did change the course of Mormon history. My book, The Unsolicited Chronicler; An Account Of The Gunnison Massacre, Its Causes And Consequences, traces the path of events from the Gunnison Massacre to the Massacre at Mountain Meadow. This pattern of cause and effect is not difficult to trace. It is not my subject tonight; but briefly, the scenario is as follows, beginning with “the loss of a nail”:
III. The larger issue: DID THE GUNNISON MASSACRE DIMINISH THE ALTERNATIVE COURSES OF ACTION AND LEAVE THE PATH TO DISUNION AND CIVIL WAR UNCHANGED?
This issue is more difficult to trace. The contingent questions are these:
IV. A DIALOGUE WITH PRESIDENT FRANKLIN PIERCE
History cannot describe the path not taken. This is the work of novelists. However, it has been attempted by historians, and it is irresistible for historians who are humanists discussing rhetorical questions of contemporary interest.
Let us begin our rhetorical scenario about how Gunnison ALIVE might have changed Mormonism.
On a certain day in May, 1853, Gunnison visited with President Franklin Pierce, in Washington, D.C. There is a historical basis for this scenario. In several letters written after Gunnison received his commission to survey for a central railroad route to the Pacific, the Captain said he had visited with his old friend, the new President, Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire.
The details are sketchy. Gunnison recorded little more than his recommendation that Brigham Young be retained as Governor of Utah Territory.
Let us venture a more complete conversation.
Gunnison was the best informed non-Mormon source of information about the Saints in Washington and perhaps in the nation. He was also on intimate and confidential terms with the President.
Given at least an hour for conversation, they would have discussed the Mormon people, their leaders, and the general conditions among them: their industry, loyalty, and their capacity to conduct their affairs so as to become a sister state in the American Union.
V. THE UNSOLICITED CHRONICLER
In my book, I have developed the thesis that Gunnison’s analysis of the Mormon religion, his profile of its first prophet, and his description of the Mormon experience with its neighbors, arrived at conclusions which were offensive to the Mormons. The issue of Mormon involvement in the Massacre, as was charged against them by several parties, and was believed by Gunnison’s widow, is fully explored in this account.
That issue is subject matter for a different discussion but germane to this in one important respect:
In biblical terms, Gunnison was attempting to “steady the Ark of the Covenant.” Its author would surely suffer the fate of the Hebrew, Uriah, who had been struck dead by the power of God for such an act. And if God did not act as expected, some Mormon zealot could readily persuade himself to be the agent of divine intent. To gain this perspective it is only necessary to read the speeches delivered when dedicating the cornerstones of the Salt Lake Temple.
Gunnison’s ability to influence the course of Mormonism was dependent upon the willingness of Mormon leaders to accept him as a friend and to act in accord with his counsel. If the Mormons conspired in his death, as was charged, or saw him as a threat to the success of their movement, he would have been “let severely alone”; and unless he had the President’s appointment in his pocket, his presence a second time among the Mormons may have achieved no more than a second book commenting on the condition of the Saints in the Valleys of the Mountains.
Nothing better can be said on that issue than to repeat Gunnison’s expressed belief that his book with its analysis and recommendations had been mis-perceived by the Mormons and that he could correct in person any errors or mis-understandings they may have entertained.
VI. HOW GUNNISON PROPOSED TO CHANGE THE MORMONS
Gunnison prescribed remedies for the excesses of Mormonism in a masterful burst of eloquent language, typical of the humanist that he was and of his faith in the powers of a democratic society:
“The causes which are at work to break up the clanship and oneness of the Mormon State, and reduce that people to the situation of others, with various beliefs and interests, are among themselves. The bursting power is internal, and loosening the outward bands will discover it. In short, the true policy is apparent, and may be given in their own peculiar phrase, ‘let them severely alone’ which they apply to Gentile rulers sent to control their movements.”
Gunnison did not live to counsel with Brigham Young. His death in the far off deserts of Utah proved to be a double tragedy. Beyond the betrayal and the brutality of his death lies the fact that the forces of change he had hoped to invoke were diminished. Mormon authoritarianism and unity were strengthened as public animosity toward the Mormons increased following the Gunnison Massacre and its sequels.
Ultimately, Mormonism was forced from its sectarian character and into the mainstream of American life by the revocation of its charter and the escheatment of its property, rather than by the free competition of ideas.
The agencies of cultural change were neither revelation and authority, as anticipated by Brigham Young, nor individual freedom of choice and reason, as Captain Gunnison had anticipated. Instead, they were the forces of war, of enforced cultural conformity, of transformed economic productivity, and of a seemingly endless increase of knowledge transforming all received perspectives.
There are those among the contemporary faithful who seek change accommodating the issues and human requirements of modern life much as did those Mormons Gunnison described many years ago. These new “Yankees and Chartists” are using the same methods and arguments for change that Gunnison cited: expanded roles for women, engagement of youth in present day concerns rather than group commitment and self-lauding prejudice, education for self-discovery, and the development of talents and skills.
These new reformers are armed with methods no more forceful than those available in Gunnison’s day. They take the personal risks inherent in challenges to authoritarian dogmas and dogmatists, as they reject control by intimidation. Such advocates of reform are still accused of “steadying the Ark,” and may be struck from their social foundations and demeaned by an arbitrary power seeking to protect the sacred oracles.
But today’s reformers may be aided rather than hindered by external pressures created by the surrounding society. These are much more pervasive than were the forces of rejection and persecution. These external forces may produce innovation, rather than tighter group cohesion.
The world outside enters all interior worlds in small increments, building toward new meanings and behaviors. New words are the subtle agents of change; new perceptions consign old images to the burgeoning realm of fantasy. Such agencies have already had significant effect in muting strident rhetoric and diminishing the force and direction of biblical authority. But these forces of change are almost imperceptible in a single lifetime, and many who wish better accommodation may find it more readily outside the fold, as was the case among the earlier Mormons.
The solution to the issue of change which holds least complication to most Mormons is described in another of Gunnison’s observations about the Mormon church in his day. This is the principle of continuous revelation. In his description, revelation appeared as an agency of discovery and change, rather than as a confirmation of immutable truth and conformity:
“Additional revelations are made from day to day according to the exigencies of the people and church; and this is assigned as the reason why they are so far in advance of the Christian world in spiritual, heavenly knowledge, and causes them to sneer upon all who adhere alone to the old revelations, and to pity them for their blindness and ignorance…
“But what we predicate of their teachings and of their doctrines to-day may not be the truth of either to-morrow. For by the doctrine of development, and having revelations according with the exigencies of the church, they may be bidden to change their policy, and suspend those commands found to be inapplicable to their condition, and the faith of the saints.
“Such suspension and withdrawal of privileges have already become precedents—and it should not strike us with surprise to hear that matrimony is confined again to a single pair, on the plea that it has fulfilled the intention of its founder, and the Word is prevailing fast enough to build up the faith on the earth, ready for the Lord’s coming.”
Gunnison was a humanist and also a pragmatist. Who is to say that some future Mormon leader may not broadly define revelation, as did the first Mormon prophet, and endorse the democratic dictum that the voice of the people is an acceptable equivalent to the voice of God?
Robert Kent Fielding is a native of Utah, presently living in Connecticut. He is a former professor of history at Brigham Young University and at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Since his 1959 Dissertation, “Growth of the Mormon Church in Kirtland, Ohio”, he has written extensively on Mormon history and has been published in a number of professional Journals. In 1964, he published a widely used text book, titled The United States: An Interpretive History. Now retired, he divides his time between Connecticut and Orem, Utah, and writes and lectures on the Gunnison Massacre and Mormon History.
Reaffirming the Humanist Belief in
The Spiritual Life and the Free Mind
We are told over and over again by professors of theology and by ecclesiastics that the values prized by liberal and humane minds cannot survive without a survival or revival of the religious beliefs current in the Western world for the last two thousand years of the Christian and over five thousand years of the Hebrew tradition. There is a tendency to assume that those who believe that moral ideals or generous intentions may exist in men not committed to the supernatural are at the very least foolish and probably scoundrels and totalitarians to boot. This is not the place to argue the complex foundations of religious belief. But there are certain secular aspects of the nature of spirit and the spiritual life that it is needful to consider, and these can be briefly stated in any current discussion of religious literature.
There is no question that religious literature has a very wide public today, and the notion that religious interests are vanishing is a hangover of the complacent intellectualism of the nineteenth century. There is, further, no question that there has been a collapse of secular hopes, an uneasiness about the human future, a shattering of naive enthusiasms for the progress possible through the latter-day magic of science. There is an enormous concern (even among those not especially religious) with a basic reconsideration of the meaning of their own lives, the source and validity of moral values, the ultimate nature of the universe. Many have fled to mystical cults of the West and of the East. Others have sought a way out of the current chaos in the fixed authority of a rigid theology. In one way or another, millions have sought “peace of mind,” if only in a book that under that title seemed to promise nirvana or its facsimile. It is clear that there is a very convincing case made by those who say some faith is necessary if life is to endure at all–or to be endurable. Life itself is an act of faith; the assumption even of the next day, the next moment is a gesture of confidence, the assertion of a hope, the substance of an expectation. It is a patent, too, that there are all sorts of reasons for despair, grounds for lack of reliance on the general human future and credence in the old securities, in the radiant prospect of science for human welfare, confidence in human nature itself, or in human beings in groups. Science seems to have led us into an impasse; the fruit of our subtlest technical skills may be the widest destruction. There is a chance even that the whole planet may be blown up.
The democratic faith which was so devout during the nineteenth century seems to be less secure now. The voice of the people does not always seem to be the voice of God. Parliamentary governments, where they still persist, are weak and vacillating, and in many parts of the world they have disappeared. And the old-fashioned liberal assurance of the teachable and touchable generosities of human nature seems to have vanished, too. Psychiatry has taught us too much about ourselves, and not only the psychiatrists have taught us the hidden rottennesses in the psyche; crime commissions and the daily headlines have shown how public and rife our corruption is. It is no wonder that it is easy to agree with the gloomier theologians that there is no health in us. It is tempting to turn with them for comfort to a world elsewhere. It is not surprising that we have been told, and often agree, that we must choose between belief in the supernatural or a despairing acceptance of the natural, for in the world within or without about us there is no ground for comfort, no sustenance for hope.
There have been ages before ours that have given up faith and hope in the world, eras in which many have felt that man could be saved only by those vistas of a world beyond the world, by the supernatural as revealed in sacred writings and established churches. I do not propose to argue here with those who share this conviction. I intend simply to try to restate and reaffirm what one may call the faith of the humanist and to insist that there are thousands, nay millions, in our country and in the world (even among those attached to churches and synagogues) who at heart are humanists too, and whose faith has every right to be called spiritual, and whose conviction can only by malice be called “grossly materialistic.” There is a dedication, humane and liberal, that cherishes precisely those values which have been the heart and substance of traditional religions. Indeed, for the humanist, prophetic Judaism and early Christianity are permanent contributions to Western civilization precisely because they enshrine in dramatic myths and metaphors what ultimately counts, what basically justifies human existence and gives expression to its heights, its depths, its glories, and terrors. The Old Testament contains both Ecclesiastes and the Psalms themselves which range from rapture to despair. What, then, are the articles, if so strict a term may be used, for a religion so flexible, and one that goes further than inquiry warrants?
In the light of the current spread of despair and disillusion, it is worth reaffirming the contours of the liberal belief tethered always to what disciplined inquiry can make credible. There is, first, faith in nature itself, that creative urgency and dynamic energy which is not the dead matter of the billiard-ball physics of the nineteenth century, but the vitality that generates new planets, new lives, new creations in art and philosophy and thought. There is such a thing as “cosmic piety” that comes not from any conventional assumption of a power beyond the natural, but reverence such as a poet might have for the splendors of the sea and the brightness of the stars, the miracle of childbirth and of growth, the renewal of life in the midst of death, the forms of art that outlast the artist and his audience. Even mortality is not a cause for sorrow, for regeneration is as much a part of nature as is death itself; and as for civilization as a whole, ours must end; others, so fertile is the energy of matter, will take its place, different inevitably and not impossibly better.
Pessimists have too hastily written off faith in human nature. The Greek dramatists two thousand years ago had a profound awareness of the horrors lurking within human nature, but a profound sense, too, of the dignity of human aspiration, and the reaching, however blocked or misdirected, toward the just and the good–themselves creative visions of the mind. With all the monstrosities of which nature is capable, highlighted by twenty years of brutalitarianism, the last twenty years have revealed, too, the courage and the generosities to which under the worst pressures, the best of men bear witness. Nor is it time yet by any means to lose that faith in the generality of men which animated Lincoln and Emerson and Whitman in America, and such a quiet saint of liberalism as John Stuart Mill in England in the nineteenth century. The faith in what man may make of man is not vanquished, and all the macabre predictions of what science may do to destroy us cannot blind us to what knowledge can do when allied to the liberated good will of men. The humanist whose credo is resolutely restrained to those conditions of existence which knowledge can disclose, is not without hope, nor can be called faithless. Like the theologian, he knows man is mortal, that man is frail, that he is erring, that at times he is tragically helpless. He knows too that masses of men can be brutally enslaved, or what is worse, brutally misled. He knows that nature, so gigantic in power, can be and is ruthless to human good. But he knows, too, that nature is often benign and is the source of all we hope and all we are. He persists in the conviction that sound knowledge allied to shared experience will sustain and justify faith in man, in nature, and in all things that knowledge discloses for our discipline, our joy and our salvation.
–Irwin Edman, Ph.D.
Can The Humanities Make Us Human?
Or Why I Stopped Studying Math and Switched to Philosophy
Lecture/Discussion presented at the meeting of the Humanists of Utah on May 12, 1994, by Patrica L. Hanna, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah, and a former math student. The following notes were used by Dr. Hanna in her presentation.
When Bob Green asked me to address you for a few minutes in February, he suggested the topic: “How can studying the humanities make us humanists?” Then I ended up having surgery and was home recuperating on the day I was supposed to be here. I’m going to stick to my original title for tonight. I’ll keep my remarks brief so there will be time for discussion.
Before answering this question directly, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about definitions; after all, I am a philosopher of language and I would be derelict if I didn’t spend some time talking about definitions.
“Human.” Clearly, I don’t intend by this term to invoke images of some biologically fixed classification. No matter how long or hard a dolphin studied humanities, it would not result in a transformation from one genus and species to another. But, one might ask, am I not misusing “human” if this isn’t what I mean? No. If you look at the debate surrounding free choice vis-a-vis abortion it is apparent that when someone says that abortion is wrong because the fetus is human, they do not mean that the fetus has such-and-such a genetic structure. When someone else says that this is not the point, but insists that the fetus has the potential to become human, they don’t mean that it lacks the appropriate genetic structure but might develop it in time. No, in both cases the term human is being used as a moral or value term; and it is in this sense that I use it when asking whether studying humanities can make us human.
In this sense, to be human is more than belonging to a certain genus and species, it is also to possess the ability to make choices and to act on them; further it is to belong to a very large and spatially discontinuous community of fellow agents, what we might call the global community of persons; and finally (and perhaps most importantly), it is to see oneself and others as members of this community and to accept mutual obligations and rights in virtue of this membership.
On this understanding, southern slave holders were not fully human because they failed to see themselves and their slaves as members of a mutual community; likewise, some Afrikaners are not fully human for similar reasons; anyone who worked in the Nazi death camps lacks full title to being human; and, in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia there is more than enough room to accuse various participants in the conflict of failing to be human.
We can now restate the question, and restricting the class of students to entities belonging to the appropriate genus and species:
Can studying the humanities
This is a longer question, but I think it makes the landscape of the inquiry much more perspicuous. But there is one further piece of definitional housekeeping.
“Humanities.” What is/are the humanities? At the University of Utah, The College of Humanities contains the following departments and programs: Asian Studies, Communication, English, History, Humanities Center, Languages and Literature, Linguistics, Middle East Center, Philosophy, University Writing Program.
At other universities, the administrative divisions are different. For example, history is often considered as a social science, communication as a free-standing school. But this really doesn’t help us. At universities, groupings aren’t ultimately anything more than arbitrary administrative decisions made by someone on the basis of who knows what criteria. I think that the best definition is the one that we use at the Humanities Center, taken from The Humanities in American Life, Report of the Commission on the Humanities, issued in 1980.
“Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically.”
Here the burden shifts from listing the subjects which are appropriate for a course in humanities to the methodology used in approaching an open-ended list of subjects.
Many have remarked on the value of an education in the humanities in helping us to find our center, our core values. And surely it does this. After all, what better way to discover what you believe a good life to consist of than by reading Plato and Aristotle on the good life, or by learning about the impact that such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Charlemagne, Hitler, Lao Tzu, and Confucius have had on history and reflecting on how this impact might have differed had they been other than they were, or by learning about different cultures, their languages, literature, history, art, and forms of governance?
This is certainly a first step toward addressing 1, 2, and 3 above; but let me try to be more precise. The humanities requires us to do several things in approaching any topic. First, we must come to a clear understanding of the issues raised; in turn, this requires us to gain a sense of the history of those issues, how and when did they arise? Have they developed and evolved over time? How? What influences do changes in culture have on the issues.
The first requires the development of our analytic and critical skills, as well as the ability to read carefully and with an open mind. The second requires us to have a sense of intellectual history and of the diverse cultures and people of the planet. The humanities gives us all of this. Philosophy, discourse analysis, rhetoric, critical thinking, literary analysis, and the study of the structure of language all call upon and expand our analytic skills. History, cultural studies, the study of languages and culture enable us to address the second set of questions.
And this tells us how the humanities enables us to develop the ability to make rational choices and to act upon them; but it also shows us how we are drawn into the global community of people making and acting on such choices.
Once I begin to appreciate how the problem of other minds or the problem of evil first emerged, and once I see how this very same problem still engages us today, I cannot help but recognize that I am a sister of the long dead Egyptian or Greek or Chinese thinker who contemplated the same mysteries that engage me today. I also cannot help but look at the mother in New Guinea, sitting at home in her hut, playing with her daughter and see myself playing with my daughter; both of us are concerned that our daughters develop into well-functioning adults, both of us worry about fixing meals and cleaning and a myriad of other little things that go together to form part of the “good life”. Once this new form of seeing has emerged, the recognition that I am part of a global community is irresistible.
And with this recognition comes another realization: if we are fellow “citizens” (so to speak), we are not disconnected, we are not islands unto ourselves. This community provides us with support and with obligations; to be human is to help and be helped, and to recognize this mutually dependent/supportive relationship.
An interesting and informative discussion then followed between Dr. Hanna and a number of members and visitors in attendance.
Editor’s Note: In her lecture of May 12, 1994, Professor Patricia Hanna quoted the noted philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but she was unable to get it to me in time for the June Journal. The quote is pertinent to her presentation and I include it now:
Membership Meeting Report
A group of 40 members and guests met at Crusty’s restaurant in Salt Lake City for dinner and the annual membership meeting. The Chapter President, Flo Wineriter, conducted the meeting, reports were given by Chapter officers, and elections were held for 1994-95.
Secretary Wayne Wilson reported that there were 77 members and 36 subscribers for a total of 113. Complimentary copies of the Journal are sent to 12 libraries, 15 to interested others and organizations, and 27 exchanges with other Chapters. There are at present 18 in the three-month trial membership period. This is a total current mailing list of 185.
The Treasurer, Anna Hoagland, reported that as of 31 December, 1993, the reporting year, there was $2,594.09 in the General Account, and $500 in a special Conference Fund established by Flo Wineriter from contributions received from ceremonies he performs as a Humanist Counselor.
President Flo Wineriter spoke about the need to increase membership. He has asked outgoing Board Member Nancy Moore to chair a committee to create some public relations materials that will succinctly define Humanism and stimulate more public interest.
The Election Committee Chairperson, Willa Mae Helmick, then presented the candidates and the following were elected as Chapter Officers and Board Members:
President: Florien Wineriter
Flo Wineriter will be the new Program Director, Bob Green will continue as the Journal Publisher and Editor, with Willa Mae Helmick as Assistant Editor. Lorille Miller will continue as the Chapter Historian.
Outgoing Board Member, Nancy Moore, was presented a plaque honoring her service during the past year.
Those attending the meeting expressed satisfaction at the progress of the Chapter, enjoyed an excellent dinner, and took the opportunity to visit and make new acquaintances. A similar meeting will be held next year.
What It Means To Be Human
During the summer of 1979 I had one of those learning experiences that has helped increase my perspective and understanding about what it means to be human.
It was a very warm day. I arrived home about 5:30 p.m. and walked through the front door, directly to the kitchen, got a glass, and put it under the faucet and let the water run over the glass, and over my hand, hoping that it would cool at least one more degree. In front of me was our kitchen window, facing west so the levelor blinds were mostly closed to protect the room from the heat of the summer afternoon sun. As I raised my head and drank the barely cool water, something caught my eye through the blinds–a puff of white flashing skyward. I paused, wondering what I had seen, finished my drink and decided to go out on our deck and see what it might have been. As I approached the edge of the deck, I heard a snap and once again a white puff flew skyward just in front of the edge of the deck. I watched as a white ball of cloth reached an apex of 50 or 60 feet, paused, and started down, opening into a small 2 foot by 2 foot square parachute. As the parachute floated down past the edge of the deck, I looked into the eyes of George, the family gerbil. As he hung from the parachute, he looked terrified! His eyes were pleading with me to do something. As I watched below, a small figure in white T-shirt and shorts raced out, caught the par rodent and dashed back under the deck.
I might pause here and say that for George, my 10-year old son Mike was the god of his earth. Mike created George’s days and nights, provided his home sustenance and trials. I believe that the bulk of George’s dreams and revelations come from god Mike and that even his miracle of flight, in some form, was granted to this tiny creature by my son.
To continue my story, the look on George’s face drew from me feelings of compassion and responsibility. I flew down the stairs, out the back door, and confronted my son who stood before me left hand in the front pocket of his shorts, right hand drawn around behind himself in a self imposed hammer lock.
“What”, I asked, “is going on?” Parents ask stupid questions sometimes to attempt to extract premature apologies from their children. In such a situation, Mike generally had two answers, one being “nothing” and the other being “stuff.” I got the “stuff” answer. Mike had harnessed George up in his homemade parachute and launched him skyward using his homemade flipper. It was a very good flipper. I then started down the dialogue path that would lead to my tiny enlightenment. I asked Mike how he would feel if a 40 foot giant took him, harnessed him up and launched him 200 feet into the sky using a giant catapult. “Great!” he exclaimed!
For Michael, he was simply living the golden rule–do unto others–I learned quickly that there were at least three individual perspectives involved in this little drama. George’s perspective, a perspective of sheer terror, a somewhat one dimensional egocentric perspective after all. There were then, two other perspectives, my perspective and my son’s perspective. Mine to save the innocent animal from heart failure, and Mike’s to celebrate life with George by creating for him as much joy and exhilaration as possible. By reason, each of us was taking others into consideration. It is that, finally for me about the humanities–that I take others, humans and human values into consideration. I believe the humanities disciplines demand that continuing examination.
The definition for the humanities is debated continually. At the University of Utah, the College of Humanities consists of the departments of English, Languages and Literature, Philosophy, History, and Communication. The College also houses the writing and linguistics program, the Middle East Center and the Humanities Center.
When Congress established the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965, it identified the humanities by a listing of scholarly disciplines: “language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods.” While it was doubtless necessary to draw boundaries in this way, it is misleading to regard the humanities basically as a set of academic disciplines or even more restricting, as a set of “great books.” They include, rather, certain ways of thinking–of inquiring, evaluating, judging, finding, and articulating meaning. They include the developed human talents from which texts and disciplines spring. They are, taken together, the necessary resources of a reflective approach to life. The value of a reflective approach can be best appreciated by considering the alternative: a life un-illuminated by imagination, uninformed by history, unguided by reasoning–in short, the “unexamined life” that Socrates described as not worth living. Where the humanities are vigorous, action follows from and is guided by reflection. It is their capacity to change, elevate, and improve both the common civic life and individual lives that make the cultivation of the humanities important to me.
I offer the following brief observations on the character and value of the humanities:
1. The humanities have both a personal and a civic dimension
They bring meaning to the life of the individual and help define the self. They also make possible the shared reflection, communication, and participation upon which a democratic community depends. They are the basis of reasoned civic discourse; and they are centrally concerned with the relation between the individual and the community.
2. The humanities take the long perspective
There are no breakthroughs in the humanities, and no final answers to the kinds of questions they ask. They relate present danger to past danger, present injustice to past injustice, our tragedy to old tragedy, our hopes and fears to past ones. The great questions of the humanities are timeless, but they require continual redefinition and reexamination because the old answers and the old methods may no longer serve.
3. The humanities may be and often are disturbers of the peace
They ask troubling questions, heighten consciousness, start revolutions in the mind, challenge the status quo, and raise expectations for ourselves and society. The humanities should be cultivated, not for intellectual adornment, even less to legitimate existing social and political institutions, but as instruments of self-discovery, of critical understanding, and creative social imagination. They are the enemies of passivity and the abettors of vigorous intellectual life.
4. The humanities have a moral dimension
They foster awareness of the complexity of human conduct and disdain simplistic judgments of good and evil. The claim may be made, if cautiously, that study of the humanities enlarges sympathies toward other peoples and cultures, other times and places. Yet knowledge of the humanities is no guarantee of humaneness; and the one should never be confused with the other.
5. The humanities cultivate critical intelligence
They may not be very good at “solving” practical problems, but they develop the capacity to evaluate and judge what is a necessary part of the solutions. The humanities involve what Matthew Arnold called the “free play of the mind on all subjects it touches.” Their study develops habits of mind applicable to virtually all human endeavors.
Today, it is fashionable to denigrate the humanities disciplines, to charge them with considerable responsibility for a perceived breakdown in traditional moral and social values, and to regard them as in a perhaps fatal crisis.
The humanities, we have been hearing from former Secretary of Education William Bennett, from Allen Bloom, from the popular press, and from some quite serious journals and books, are suffering from a failure of confidence, of coherence, and particularly of nerve to defend and disseminate the great traditions of philosophy, literature, and the arts. Lynne Cheney’s Humanities in America: “Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People” is the latest, but perhaps the most politically significant of these attacks. Our society, with a tradition of anti-intellectualism and interest in science, engineering, economics, has been finding it convenient to indict the humanities for their intellectual weaknesses in attempting to engage practical moral and social issues; they have, so the charge goes, lapsed from the Arnoldian ideals of seeing the object as it really is and of learning the best that has been thought and said.
Allan Bloom’s disturbingly popular The Closing of the American Mind seems, for example, to attribute major moral and social changes in America to the failure of the humanities to insist on and teach the great philosophical tradition from Plato through Rousseau. Neither Bloom nor any of the other major denigrators of the condition of the humanities disciplines in higher education attends to the possibility that changes in curriculum as well as changes in the social and moral structure of our society might reflect America’s changing position in the world economic community or the emergence of non-Western powers on the world scene.
To many who have devoted their lives to work in the humanities the indictment seems peculiarly off the mark. It is not that the humanities are cheerily unaware of major problems: the question of what to teach remains a critical and still unresolved one, as does the problem of the varied backgrounds and academic preparations of our students. But such difficulties are not new, and they well predate the decade of the 1960’s when, according to recent detractors, higher education lapsed from its austere and classical standards. It is, then, particularly ironic that the humanities are receiving their most severe criticism at a moment when for many of us their significance and strength have never been greater.
In fact, precisely those things now identified as failings in the humanities actually indicate enlivening transformations. The characteristic approach of the humanities has always been to ask questions. At present, teachers of the humanities are asking questions about everything: about the “canon,” about the great ideas of the West, about curriculum, about the structure and possibilities of language itself, about the organization of knowledge, and about the hierarchies that govern our intellectual and political lives. Question asking is inevitably uncomfortable, and satisfactory answers, as the great traditions of the humanities from Plato forward have vitally demonstrated, are difficult to come by and usually prove to be transitory. Teachers of the humanities tend to encourage that discomfort and find it a source of creativity: it could not have been easy to sit at Socrates’ feet.
Indeed, while American universities once took a back seat to European universities with a tradition of strength in the Humanities–Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Bologna, Berlin–this is no longer the case. Our best institutions are as strong in the humanities as the best institutions in the world. And the American system is the envy of other nations, for its contribution to scholarship and research and the liveliness of its educational and intellectual activities.
Still, no sector of the population is more disturbed than teachers of the humanities about signs of “cultural illiteracy” and even literal illiteracy among students. It is, after all, in the interest of humanities teachers that more people care more about art, philosophy, literature, and history. And no group of people is more likely than humanities teachers to be critical of what goes on in the humanities–indeed, most of the anecdotal material used against the humanities is provided by humanities professors themselves. It is the humanities scholars’ self-consciousness about their own achievements and methods that leads many critics to imagine that the humanities are in crisis when, in fact, that self-consciousness is one of the signs of their health. Plato notoriously began a radical criticism of the humanities in one of those texts–The Republic–routinely taken as essential to our understanding of the West.
We have currently at the humanities center a fellow working on understanding some specific concepts of the “everyday.” I find this a fascinating subject because, I feel that nearly all of my life is lived in an “everyday” context. It is that context, the everyday/human being part of my life that the humanities serves most completely as glue, as solvent, as catalyst and as agent to that which is my human component, what John Ciardi called, “the you in you”.
I would share some thoughts from Gary Holthaus, Director of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I will use his framework and interject thoughts of my own. Thought tinged with my Western (and west) roots.
We are unique in the West. Our universities are eastern, and behind that, European, institutions brought to the West. They represent an elite, intellectual, privileged people who know things that we don’t. As such they remind westerners of common insecurities about our own nature. We know we are on the geographical fringes of the culture, more familiar with rattlesnakes and cactus than with Perrida and deconstruction.
Unlike regions that have a history of support for the liberal arts, as is reflected in their numerous small private colleges, the West has always favored doers over thinkers. Small western towns often built a schoolhouse among their earliest developments, but it was more to attract additional settlers than because of esteem for education. Though some book learning was useful, too much was a liability.
The West’s history also features a boom/bust economy that may be inevitable in a region built on resource extraction. Although agriculture is risky everywhere, more benign rains afford a more stable farm culture in the Midwest and East than in the arid West. From fur to oil to agribusiness, the West’s economy has been at the mercy of forces outside the region. During the boom times higher education doesn’t have the priority we might wish; during the busts the decline in revenue hamstrings even those legislators who are committed to it. Thus the split between town and gown in the West sometimes seems like a bitter divorce.
I think it is hard to overestimate the width of the gulf. It is reflected in the number of state legislators who cut the university budget because it is not their priority and it will not hurt them with their constituents, and in the comments of the rancher who defines an academic as “a guy who can’t find his rear-end with both hands.” It is also reflected in the condescension exhibited by scholars who assume that there is a vast public out there which is only marginally literate, largely unthinking, and certainly in need of any culture we can bring its way.
Recently, sitting in a lecture on postmodernism, I was dazzled by the pyrotechnic language, but after a short time my mind turns away. I can appreciate the skill involved in creating such language, and I admire the silver-fluid use of it, but I finally realize that I do not admire what the language does. It manages to be both rich and sterile–rich on the surface and sterile underneath.
My mind drifts to Hank, a dryland farmer. What does he think about and how does he think about it? What does he know and how does he know it? He has an intellectual life too. His texts are not located in libraries, but they have some parallels with the scholar’s. He does read journals, and he talks with his colleagues; but his real texts are the land, his cows, his dryland grain. He reads those with the same disciplined skill that the scholar brings to her work. And his view of the culture is also limited. He is not all that appreciative of book learning, and his culture does not include much of the urban or the academic. He drives a couple of hundred miles to a town of 65,000 people to trade his pickup, and he stops while he is there, but he does not go to the library, the play, or the concert. If he goes to the theater, which is unlikely, it will be to see a movie, not a play.
The point here is not to denigrate one kind of knowing and elevate another. It is to show that there are different lives, with different knowings, and we must find the common ground between them. If we cannot do that, the humanities and our public programs in them will fail to involve a portion of the public we want to engage in thought and conversation. If we can find some grounds for mutual appreciation, then we may also find ways to heal the breech between town and gown. In my view what the scholar of postmodernism and Hank have in common is that both are humanists.
Hank’s frankly anti-intellectual attitude is unwarranted, for he might learn that Plato does indeed have something useful to say about the schoolboard, Title IX, the education of his daughters, and why he can’t get the county commissioners to fix the bridge. If he had time to know the scholar, he might learn what he does not get from our professional papers: that scholars too must grope toward tentative answers to the hard questions that rise when life strikes us a hard blow, and the answers are often couched in language that is fumbling, simple, and without great confidence.
By the same token, our sense of having superior knowledge, or the condescending view we sometimes exhibit toward “the great unwashed” who have no culture (so we must bring it to them), is also wrong. Though there may be many without our peculiar form of it, there are no people without culture. Life, not learning, thrusts Hank into the practice of the humanities as they consider the fundamental issues of life’s purpose and meaning every day.
In fact I was wrong to call his attitude “anti-intellectual.” Hank uses his intellect as we all do, bringing it to bear as best he can when life demands it. What he is “anti” is jargon and meandering obfuscation. He is opposed to the cuteness that sometimes afflicts our self-conscious display of how well educated we residents of academe are–a display that the academy often requires and the public invariable deplores. So Hank is, as we are, committed to intelligence, decidedly pro intellectual, and resolutely anti unessential academic rhetoric. He has a good eye for the latter, and like the boy pointing at the emperor, will call us on our nakedness, though he rarely bothers to point a find; he simply stays away. He is not a slow learner; one or two meaningless meetings are enough to convince him that there is nothing in university scholarship he needs. If he does participate in a discussion at the university, he may convince scholars that there is nothing he can contribute to their erudition.
But we do need each other. Rooted as he is in such a different life, Hank’s comments sometimes seem to scholars to come from left field; we are disconcerted and may have a hard time tracking his thought. If we dismiss it therefore, and if, for the same reasons, he dismisses ours, our thinking our dialogue about serious issues fail to gain the richness that is possible. We need each other for the conversation to have the complexity and depth that match the questions life asks us. If we can learn to listen, as we ask Hank to listen, then we all learn something.
Hank is not bent on remaining ignorant, as we sometimes believe in our disappointment and frustration at his refusal to attend to our offerings. Rather he is bent, as we are, on finding some meaning in a life that is puzzling, demanding, and filled with grief and epiphanies. In that he is one with us all, and like our scholarly friends, a colleague and companion worthy of attention, good to be around. For me then, like Hank, it is the personal micro enlightenments and epiphanies that make my personal adjacencies to the humanities most meaningful.
In conclusion, I would like to share three or four of those epiphanies with you. Rather than explain why they were important to me, I would hope they might suggest a new, if small, revelation for you.
Preceding the last Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion, I sat across the table from Sterling at lunch discussing his lecture and then turned the subject to Wallace Stegner. Sterling knew Wally of course, not well, but well enough. “I liked Stegner because he admired Utah. I like people who like Utah,” he said. Sterling then paused with spoon in mid-air and said, “As a matter of fact, I don’t much give a damn for people who don’t like Utah.”
I loved Stegner because he helped make me proud of being just what I was–a boy, now a man, from Utah. I have read every word he has published. I was devastated at this death knowing there would be no more new “Recapitulations” or “Angles of Repose.” I will never forget my first reading of the Overture to Sound of Mountain Water.
“I discovered mountain rivers late, for I was a prairie child, and knew only flatland and dryland until we toured the Yellowstone country in 1920, loaded with all the camp beds, auto tents, grub-boxes, and auxiliary water and gas cans that 1920 thought necessary. Our road between Great Falls, Montana, and Salt Lake City was the rutted track that is now Highway 89. Beside a marvelous torrent, one of the first I ever saw, we camped several days. That was Henry’s Fork of the Snake.
“I didn’t know that it rose on the west side of Targhee Pass and flowed barely a hundred miles, through two Idaho counties, before joining the Snake near Rexburg; or that in 1810 Andrew Henry built on its bank near modern St. Anthony the first American post west of the continental divide. The divide itself meant nothing to me. My imagination was not stretched by the wonder of the parted waters, the Yellowstone rising only a few miles eastward to flow out toward the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Gulf, while this bright pounding stream was starting through its thousand miles of canyons to the Columbia and the Pacific.
“All I knew was that it was pure delight to be where the land lifted in peaks and plunged in canyons, and to sniff air thin, spray-cooled, full of pine and spruce smells, and to be so close-seeming to the improbable indigo sky. I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me.
“When the sun dropped over the rim the shadows chilled sharply; evening lingered until foam on water was ghostly and luminous in the near-dark. Alders caught in the current sawed like things alive, and the noise was louder. It was rare and comforting to waken late and hear the undiminished shouting of the water in the night. And at sunup it was still there, powerful and incessant, with the slant sun tangled in its rainbow spray, the grass blue with wetness, and the air heady as ether and scented with campfire smoke.
“By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute. Watch its racing current, its steady renewal of force: it is transient and eternal. And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath–a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to blow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.”
Early in married life I had one of those remarkable experiences that can bless a parent’s life.
I was in the state of near sleep that parents with very young children experience. At perhaps 2:30 or 3:00 AM I had the sense I was being watched. In the eerie glow of a winter’s night when snow and moon create more light than usual, I sensed I was being watched. I turned in the bed to face my son Chris, age 4, eye to eye, though the eye’s axis were perpendicular. He stared at me then said, “I’m hungry.” With parental care and concern I said, “Get out or I will break your leg.” He persisted. We had Cheerios. Then putting him back to bed he insisted on a story. “We just had a story 5 hours ago,” I reminded. He persisted. “You tell me a story, it’s your turn,” I said.
There followed this remarkable little tale. At least this one time I was smart enough to capture it the next day.
“My name is Chris, and just the other day we were going on a trip–just Daddy and me, you see. And it was going to be very nice and an awful lot of fun because he called me partner, and whenever he does that (you know, calls me partner), we always have a wonderful time.
“We bought a very old station wagon so that it would break down. When things break, I have to help Daddy fix them, and that is very nice.
“We left in the middle of the night. Daddy woke me up and said, “It’s time to go, old partner. Let’s get dressed.” So we did and had a banana for breakfast.
“The old station wagon broke before we left, but we fixed it and started to drive to the mountains. The day came and we drove into the trees. They were so thick that it got dark right in the daytime.
“The road got so narrow that pretty soon we had to stop. It was dark, and there were lots of beasts and animals and things outside–but just Daddy and me in the car.
“You know the glove box in a regular car–well, in our station wagon it’s a stove, and I fixed dinner, and we had a cheeseburger with french fries, root beer, and another banana for dessert.
“Then we got out because it was light again. We had four flat tires, and Daddy said, ‘Partner, we’d better get to work and fix these tires!’ So we did, and I helped.
“Then we got back in the car again because it was dark. The seats had turned to wolf fur, and there were seven blankets to get under while the beasts and animals came out. Daddy laughed and got under the covers too, and we waited for it to be light again because–you know what–we had four flat tires again! And I had to help, ’cause Daddy called me his partner–and partners always help their Dads!”
Finally, a simple western poem by John Sterling Harris, awakens me to ideas and feelings about myself.
The Assassination of Emma Gray
Old Jerome, as the local story goes,
Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
Jerome’s pigs were pampered pigs
His Berkshires followed him about like dogs,
But even Jerome understood
Ed Lee, his neighbor, was a practical man
One of the pigs was Emma Gray
The squirming, squealing, hairless thing
When the bottle-fed baby grew
Now Emma Gray was getting very old;
Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
Ed Lee had said she must be killed–
On the appointed day Ed built a fire
Jerome then called to Emma Gray
Wet-eyed Jerome looked down at his pig
Emma Gray, he said, I thank the Lord for thee
Thy children have been many and fat and
But thy days are fulfilled, and now I deliver
Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
–Lowell M. Durham, Jr., Ph.D.
Forming A Moral Community
The following is a summary of an address by Morris Litton, Senior Legal Counsel, Intermountain Health Care, October 13, 1994 to the Humanists of Utah.
The forming of a moral community from a bioethics community is made necessary because, in our society, advancement of medical technology has changed life. And it has also changed death. It has changed life in that many of us have experienced life or know of someone who would have been deprived of life a generation ago. Many of us have also known or heard about what medical technology can do to keep bodily functions going after sapience, or awareness, has disappeared.
The record is of a person who lived on a ventilator in a comatose state for over thirty years. An example of this condition is the Nancy Krusan case of Missouri, who drove off the road into a ditch and was found face down. She was without oxygen about nine to thirteen minutes. She was revived and breathed on her own but was in a persistent vegetative state; she had no cognizance. Reviewing this case, the Supreme Court cited expert testimony saying that Nancy was not in a terminal condition because she could be sustained in that condition for thirty years.
Older people as well as others are horrified at the possibility that they might face a prolonged death or a sustained dying period hooked up to machines to keep them alive after they are no longer sapient. They have nightmares of spending their life savings and their children’s inheritance or causing their families financial hardship at their insistence during that time. There is also the fear that government regulators or health care providers, who are supposed to be advocates, will cut their lives short because they are old, or sick, or no longer sufficiently productive. They worry that they will be prohibited access to modern medical technology.
As response to these concerns, several movements have begun in the United States and the world at large. The most popular is that related to advanced directives, such as Living Wills and Medical Treatment Plans. This is in partial response to the advancement of medical technology and the feeling that we are somehow being deprived of the right to make decisions regarding our own care. Another movement is Death With Dignity which promotes self determination both in terms of time and means of death. A third, perhaps a less radical and less publicized movement, is Bioethics.
(A video was presented by Mr. Litton which portrayed the anguish experienced by a typical family facing ethical decisions after being swept into the health care system by misfortune. A discussion then followed about how a Bioethics Committee functions and how it responds to the ethical needs not only of the patient but also the family members.)
A Bioethics Committee, or Interdisciplinary Ethical Committee (IEC), is a group of individuals who are brought together not to make decisions but to engage in an evaluation to recommend ethical alternatives to dilemmas that arise in health care. This Committee does its best work when functioning as a moral community. The following is from a handout:
When the family asks the Physician how to make a decision, they are invited to be a part of a Bioethics Committee, or an IEC, to deliberate all the medical, ethical, and personal concerns involving the patient’s care. The Committee would include all the physicians involved with the patient, the nurses, the care personnel, representatives of the care facility, and the family members. The outside world would be shut out, the door literally closed so a sense of security and confidentiality would prevail. There would be great effort to form a close relationship within the group. Everyone would be able to speak and everyone would be heard. Someone will be conducting the Committee meeting but no one should be afraid to speak out, even to the Physician.
The following handout, read as the “IHC Home Health Bioethics Committee Opening Statement”, explains how this Committee functions:
Guidelines have been established to help the Committee make their recommendations. They are as follows:
Thus, the purpose of the Committee is to make ethical recommendations, not decisions, about the care of the patient. All concerns of everyone in the group will be discussed and evaluated. The group does not jump to conclusions but goes through a process to identify the problem, to present diagnosis and prognosis, and to understand the problems of the family. What are the ideal pictures: who is the number one to be effected, what are the burdens and benefits; who else will be burdened or benefited. The process allows everyone an opportunity to learn and be involved. Everyone has a chance to see how they feel about what has been discussed and then the family can make a thoughtful decision.
A Bioethics Committee, working as a Moral Community, can work to resolve ethical conflicts. It guarantees (1) that similar cases are treated in the same manner; (2) that practitioners attend to all aspects of the case that should be considered; (3) that the quality of a Committee’s work from case to case is consistent; (4) and that it amplifies members’ capacity to learn from their experience and develop a transmissible knowledge base.
–Bob Green and Willa Mae Helmick
Awaken Old Men!
A poem written in response to the talk by Paul and Margaret Toscano at a meeting of The Unitarian Fellowship of Provo last February. Paul’s story of his excommunication from the LDS Church was so touching, Nancy felt inclined to write this poem.
The old men grope for power that will never
They stumble over their own words and
Awaken, old men of worn out creeds
Listen to your soul!
Dance with democracy,
1945 – 1994
Stan Ford, a humanist, died of a heart attack on June 16, 1994 at the age of 49. He was a 20-year veteran of the United States Army, and was employed by Unisys as a Computer Specialist. Since his next-of-kin are from out of State, no obituary appeared locally, and his remains were cremated and buried in the family plot in Montana.
Stan was a friend to his neighbors, volunteered his services to local groups, and opened his home to friends and those in need. He was known as a strong individualist, a private and solitary person, and somewhat idiosyncratic. A long time member of the American Humanist Association, he generously volunteered his computer services as the first publisher of journal of the Humanists of Utah. The Utah Humanist continues to follow the format and style which he established.
A memorial service for his many friends were held at his home.
Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors: The Search for Who We Are
by Carl Sagan and Ann Druya
I love books that elucidate scientific thinking in terms that I can understand. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors begins discussing genealogy, a popular subject in this State. How many preceding generations do you have personal knowledge of? Do you know even the names of your progenitors three generations removed? Five generations? Some of us might be able to answer affirmatively, but how about 50 generations or 500 generations? We do not remember these ancestors but they are part of us, our genetic code comes directly from them and their forebears.
Our DNA contains the history of millions of years of evolution. Only a small fraction of our genetic code is actually used to define us as individuals. About 97% of our DNA is “throw-away”, evidence of past tried and failed or no longer necessary experiments. All animals have about the same percentage of nonsense DNA and all share large common sequences of functional nucleotide. This is compelling evidence all organisms can be judged by similarity of current DNA sequences. Modern human’s closest relative is the chimpanzee. “If the sequences of humans and chimpanzees are compared nucleotide by nucleotide, they differ only by l.7%. Humans and gorillas differ by 1.8%; humans and orangutans, 3.3%; humans and gibbons, 4.3%; humans and rhesus monkeys, 7%; humans and lemurs, 22.6%.
There are some very interesting insights into the character and life of Charles Darwin in the book. Included are some of Darwin’s contemporary’s criticisms of his work. They rejected his ideas “…not because the evidence was against it, but because of where it led: seemingly, to a world in which humans were degraded, souls denied, God and morality scorned, and monkeys, worms, and primeval ooze elevated; ‘a system uncaring of man.’ Thomas Carlyle called it ‘a Gospel of dirt.'” (p.63)
A large portion of the book deals with Psychological and Sociological studies of animals. In the middle of this section there is a fascinating chapter told from the point of view of a young female animal. She describes a typical day for her group that includes a mixture of fear and respect for the dominant male leader. Illicit liaisons with other males are acceptable as long as they are discrete. Indeed, when patrolling near their “borders” an occasional tryst with a male from a rival group is exciting and not particularly dangerous as long as one displays a reasonable amount of discretion. By the end of the chapter I was sure the subject was a modern day big-city gang and it’s social structure. Actually, the basis for the story was behavior of a wild troop of chimpanzees. The implication is clear. Group or gang behavior can be described in a large measure as a throw back to feelings and actions we all possess but have forgotten; a kind of reverse civilization.
The book is a wonderful marriage of traditional and social scientific knowledge presented in terms that most people can comprehend. It is well documented with extensive footnotes and a useful index. There are many quotes from intellectual luminaries spread throughout the work. I highly recommend the book as a pleasurable and informative experience.
Journey to Humanism
When Flo asked if I would be on this panel—give a feminist perspective on humanism, I was very reluctant; I didn’t want to open a “Pandora’s Box” or revisit old “battles and war-wounds.” However, for what it may be worth….
I was born five years after women could finally vote in this country and seven years before scientists unlocked the secret of the timing of human ovulation. I was the fifth child of immigrant parents, and by the time of that last discovery, my mother already had 10 of her 11 children. By then we were also experiencing the effects of the deepening depression. (My father built houses and specialized as a plasterer. More than once he was given property in lieu of money and, in turn, also lost the property when he couldn’t both feed us and pay property taxes.)
In my formative years, before Congress adopted the Pledge of Allegiance, the school day began with “Good Morning, Miss ______.” We attended Sunday School at the neighborhood “wardhouse,” but aside from “grace” at dinner, we were not expected to say prayers, with one notable exception when my youngest sister had pneumonia and might not live. My father decided that we’d better say a prayer, just in case it might help (and it could do no harm). We gathered around a chair, on our knees, with clasped hands resting on the chair while he asked god to intervene.
A few years later, I heard a sister ask him whether a belief in god might not be just superstition and Pop answered that it probably was but “who could be sure?” Well, I never needed to ask that question so I knew one person who was sure: myself.
In the context of the time in which I grew up, how could anyone become other than a feminist and a humanist? We learned early that men and even boys had more freedom and independence than girls did, and mothers were practically slaves to their families; most had no identities apart from their families and men ruled the roost in every walk of life.
Fifty-five years ago, being Unitarian in Salt Lake City was all but synonymous with being a humanist. That was the time when the Sunday Evening Forum was the only place in town where one could hear well-informed people address challenging subjects and match wits with their audiences after the talk.
Later, when I began attending morning services, Ed Wilson was minister and his services were not theistic. If god existed, he was almost certainly deistic, although some regarded “him” as a life-force only, comparable to Spinoza’s “life-force” that was “in all and through all.” Madalyn Murray’s lawsuit against Maryland re prayers in school was frequently reported on and collections were taken to assist her. She communicated via a newsletter and spoke here several times. Unitarians wanted to believe that mankind (including females) should and would aspire to high standards of interaction. The negative public view of humanism was a reaction to the fight to separate church and state and to the second Humanist Manifesto.
On the subject of Feminism, we have not yet achieved equality even though many laws have been changed “on the books”, and are even being observed some of the time; it feels light years beyond where we were 30 years ago until an O. J. Simpson-type problem percolates to the surface reminding us that many in society still think of us as the property of our spouses or fathers or brothers. Recently we’ve heard of women in India and elsewhere who were burned so that the husband could be rid of his wife if she hadn’t pleased well enough. In our own country, women won greater independence and freedom after wars because they had been needed and served well in industry and the military, and spouses were elsewhere jumping to someone else’s tune.
I was pleased to be reminded that Betty Friedan was acclaimed “Humanist of the Year” in 1975 by the American Humanist Association for her “Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963, it presaged the firestorm of our collective anger and our determination to improve the lot of women.
Today I celebrate being a Humanist. I am grateful to Anna Zielstra (who began this Chapter), and the many of you, along with Ed Wilson, who have cast Humanism in positive, enlightening terms in this valley and around the world. You are the leaven in life’s loaf.
Journey to Humanism
Perhaps I am a bit naive; I have never thought that there should be anything like a male point of view of Humanism, as possibly something distinct from feminist Humanist views. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” I have been supportive of this theory for many years now and consider myself to be a feminist.
Humanist Manifesto II says, “The principal of moral equality must be furthered through elimination of all discrimination based upon race, religion, sex, age, or national origin. This means equality of opportunity and recognition of talent and merit.” As a Humanist who agrees with this statement, I feel that being a Humanist means being a feminist. The viewpoint I am presenting here tonight is simply that of one Humanist who happens to be a male.
I am citing some quotations from great writers in which the word man or men is used in the old sense, as referring to human beings, that is to both men and women. If I had the right to modify these quotations, I would add the words and woman or and women after the words man and men in order to emphasize that no sexist connotation was intended.
And now to the main point I want to make tonight.
Every person can choose either of two ways of viewing the world into which he or she is born. In the first, the way of the true adventurer, she has an active and profound interest in seeking truth through using her reason and looking critically at the evidence in an atmosphere of free inquiry. In the second, he merely accepts as true the mythology of his culture or subculture and conforms to its expectations of him. The vast majority of people who have this choice pick the second option, the easier, more effortless one, in which one merely surrenders her right to think for herself to certain “authorities” who are considered the arbiters of correct behavior and belief by virtue of being spokesmen for god, the gods, or other heroes of the culture or subculture.
Robert Ingersoll states succinctly, “The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave, and is a traitor to himself and to his fellowmen.”
Joseph Campbell describes the search for truth by the true adventurer in the analogy of the thirteenth-century legend in which King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table set forth from his castle, each on his own steed, in quest of the Holy Grail:
“And now each one went the way upon which he had decided, and they set out into the forest at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest so that each would experience the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way.”
He goes on to say:
“Today the walls and towers of the culture-world that then were in the building are dissolving; and whereas heroes then could set forth of their own will from the known to the unknown, we today willy-nilly, must enter the forest…and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.
“But of course, on the other hand, for those who can still contrive to live within the fold of a traditional mythology of some kind, protection is still afforded against the dangers of an individual life; and for many the possibility of adhering in this way to established formulas is a birthright they rightly cherish, since it will contribute meaning and nobility to their unadventured lives, from birth to marriage and its duties and, with the gradual failure of powers, a peaceful passage of the last gate. For, as the psalmist sings, ‘Steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord’ (Psalm 32:10); and to those for whom such protection seems a prospect worthy of all sacrifice, an orthodox mythology will afford both the patterns and the sentiments of a lifetime of good repute.
“However, by those to whom such living would be not life, but anticipated death, the circumvallating mountains that to others appear to be of stone are recognized as of the mist of dream, and precisely between their God and Devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. Out beyond those walls, in the uncharted forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul, tangled ways may lead to madness. They may also lead, however, as one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages tells, to ‘all those things that go to make heaven and earth.'”
Campbell alludes to the dispiriting effect of orthodox belief in another statement:
“Coerced to the social pattern, the individual can only harden to some figure of living death; and if any considerable number of the members of civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have been passed.”
Two and-a-half years ago I told an assembled group of people that, if I were to return to belief in the traditional mythology I used to espouse, I would feel like a “walking zombie.” I would feel less alive in being untrue to my real self and having given up my precious individuality, my right to think for myself and to seek truth with an untrammeled mind. It was interesting to note the similarity between the phraseology I used in that statement and that used by Campbell in the above quotations, which I first encountered a couple of months ago. I used the term “walking zombie,” and he uses the terms “anticipated death” and “living death” to describe how an adventurer would feel about returning to an orthodox mythology.
I do sometimes, however, feel some frustration in the limitations of my own intellectual capacity; I would like to soar even higher than I realistically can in feeling the elation of discovery about the mysteries of the Universe that I would have if I had the larger capacity for understanding that geniuses like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or William Shakespeare had. But Friedrich Nietzsche says we more limited human beings can also be useful:
“That the Great Man should be able to appear and dwell among you again, again, and again, that is the sense of all your efforts here on earth. That there should ever and again be men among you able to elevate you to your heights: that is the prize for which you strive. For it is only through the occasional coming to light of such human beings that your own existence can be justified….And if you are not yourself a great exception, well then be a small one at least! and so you will foster on earth that holy fire from which genius may arise.”
Fellow Humanist Adventurers, isn’t it nice to feel truly alive?
Journey to Humanism
My great-grandparents were Mormon pioneers who crossed the country into Utah pulling handcarts. Some of their offspring settled in Panguitch in Southern Utah where I was born in 1950, one of the “baby-boomers.” The story goes that my father took one look at me and said that he was not going to raise his family in the depressed economy where he grew up. He promptly packed up and made a trip to Provo where he secured a job as an apprentice at the Geneva steel mill. We went to the Provo area and then just before my 6th birthday we moved into the house in Pleasant Grove where my parents still live.
Both of my parents are active LDS, in fact they are currently serving on a “Mission.” They raised me to be faithful to LDS doctrines and I graduated with honors from “Seminary” (LDS daily classes where students are excused from regular school-work). It is ironic that one of the first sparks of humanism I encountered came from these religious classes. In my senior year the instructor vowed to prove “beyond any shadow of a doubt” the existence of God. He disassembled a pocket watch and placed all the parts in a shoe box and challenged anyone to shake the box and have the pieces come together so that the watch would work. This, he argued, was analogous to the building blocks of life being able to come together and produce the world as we know it without God’s intervention.
I doubted that I would live long enough to shake the box so that the watch would come together but I imagined that it might be possible to design some kind of shaking apparatus that would keep the box in motion for hundreds or thousands or maybe even millions of years and that maybe, just maybe, the parts might come together in a working piece. I was not alone; two or three of my friends were of similar opinion and we had many lively discussions over the subject.
As I have said this is all happening in Pleasant Grove. The High School student body was 95% LDS and the staff was virtually 100% LDS with one very notable exception: Max Shifrer (a Unitarian) who taught math. I had his class for four years and he was a truly great teacher. I remember Max raising his voice maybe once or twice during those four years. We all hated to sit in alphabetical order and would complain vociferously in other classes, but not in Max’s (I sat behind Jackie West for four years: no questions no comments). If I completed 39 of the 40 homework problems, Max would call on me to demonstrate the 40th one on the blackboard. He nearly always responded to questions with another question that would lead to an answer for the student’s query. (This is making me nervous referring to him as Max instead of Mr. Shifrer!)
Anyway back to the watch in the box: we were seniors, yearbooks were distributed, and even Max could not hope for much school work. He overheard some of our discussion, asked a couple of questions and presented what I now call the Carl Sagan argument. Namely, that by counting the number of observable stars in the visible universe and by taking very conservative estimates for the conditions for life to spontaneously evolve, the chances are overwhelming that life exists, did exist and/or will exist elsewhere in the universe. That was the beginning of the end of my Mormonism; I call it my personal Awakening.
I went on to be the only graduate from my class to attend the University of Utah (Sin City) for a year. Early in my second year I was successful in the only lottery I have ever won in my life: the Draft Lottery. I was very naive about military service and had not maintained enough credit hours to keep my student deferment. When I found out that service was inevitable, I elected to take four years in the Air Force instead of two in the Army as I thought this would decrease my chances on going to Viet Nam. I spent the four years in Germany and had a chance to see that life and living elsewhere are indeed very diverse. This is in stark contrast to what I had been taught at home, church, and school. I read and studied Existentialism, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and others. I came to an uneasy conclusion that I was an atheist, but I did not know why I was uneasy until several years later I read a letter to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune saying how dehumanizing it is to be non-anything (non-white, non-Mormon, etc.). But I am getting ahead of myself.
I was naive about everything Military. I had no idea that a codified class system existed. I did not know how precious I held the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and it’s Amendments until the Uniform Code of Military ‘Injustice’ was inserted between me and freedom. My four years of service were an enigma: I hated everything Military and yet made many life-time friends and had a chance to go places and see things in Europe that I may never have again and might not ever have had. One of the most enduring impressions from my travels is the feelings I experienced within ancient cathedrals where everything is on a grandiose scale and you look up until your neck aches. The effect is to feel puny in the presence of God. (Thousands of people died building those shrines.) My dismay and questioning of Christianity grew into aversion, resentment and revulsion.
I attended the University of Maryland Overseas while stationed in Germany. There I had the opportunity to study under two more very good teachers: one a German national who taught physics. He impressed me with the concept that there probably isn’t anything that is not knowable–not that we know everything–only that it can be found out through application of the Scientific Method. The second professor taught Shakespeare. We had a group of eight or nine who worked together for two semesters on about ten of the plays. Each of us had a different interest or orientation in our studies. Professor Stephens emphasized the importance of a different point-of-view and showed us that if we listened to each other, we all came away with a better understanding of our subject.
The Scientific Method and tolerance for other’s point-of-view are the two most important things I learned in the Air Farce. I was discharged and returned to SLC in December, 1973. I went back to the University of Utah where I never managed to earn enough credits in one department to qualify for a degree. One day I saw a production of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Happy Birthday Wanda June.” I was amazed and went back and saw a different actor play the lead role and experienced a different play–equally good. I became a Vonnegut fanatic buying and reading all his books. Some of his middle works I read backwards, last chapter first then next to last chapter and so on to the beginning. They are as cohesive in reverse as in normal page order, which I consider a remarkable achievement. I think it is very appropriate to have Mr. Vonnegut as our Honorary President.
About this time I began to notice the right-wing decrying the evils of secular humanism. I found a definition somewhere in a dictionary or encyclopedia and decided that I was not an atheist after all: I am a humanist! I was very proud of this discovery and told nearly every one but nobody really seemed to care. Then, one Saturday a couple of years ago, I happened to notice the word “humanists” on the front of the Religion section in the Salt Lake Tribune. I read that there existed a formal organization of humanists and that a Chapter was alive and well in Salt Lake City. I could not believe it.
Since there was only one Florien Wineriter in the telephone book, I called him and he had a packet of information sent and invited me to the next monthly meeting. I have been a regular member ever since.
Journey to Humanism
I am certain I am a humanist for the same reason Hindus are Hindus, Catholics are Catholics, Lutherans are Lutherans. I was born to humanists and raised humanist. My father was a Unitarian minister for thirty-nine years, and Editor of the Religious Humanist from 1972 to 1977. My mother was second generation Unitarian, and her influence on my belief system is strong and deep.
When we are little we believe everyone thinks as we do and believes as we do. My childhood beliefs did not include god, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, heaven or hell. When Christmas came, I thought everyone was pretending there was a Santa Claus. Easter was a time to celebrate spring and take flowers to church, not to celebrate the rising of the dead.
But, along with an excellent religious education through the Unitarian church, and two best friends, Marilyn O’Sullivan, red-headed Irish Catholic, and Laura Weiss, dark-haired Jew, I soon learned that other people really did believe in: God or gods; reincarnation; heaven; hell; angels; sin, immaculate conception, and yes, even Santa. Wasn’t life wondrous enough without all this paraphernalia?
Although I was open to discussions, it soon became apparent to me that many religious beliefs were stranger than fiction. Marilyn told me animals did not go to heaven. Animal lover that I am, I knew at the ripe age of 7 that there was surely no heaven if animals couldn’t attend. Marilyn went to a bazaar at my church, and she was in terrible trouble with her priest. She had to confess to that awful sin of entering a place where others believed differently than she. Laura couldn’t eat pork! And, how could the strange stories in the Old and New Testament be true? People carrying around rock tablets, wandering lost for 40 years, living hundreds of years, rising from the dead. It was too much!
My favorite childhood story was, and still is, “The Churkendoose. It was about a creature, part chicken, turkey, duck and goose. Every barnyard bird was afraid of him because he was different. I began to feel like the Churkendoose, quite different than the majority of people around me. And, no matter how loudly I might sing the Churkendoose song, different was not allowed.
Does the green grass ask the sky so blue,
Quite often the answer is “no.” Different is too scary.
In high school, in the early ’60’s, I lost, what I thought were friends, when I was the only one in a social studies class to respond “More Alike” to the question: “Are the Russians more like us or more different?” Friends told me to go live in Russia. The logic must have been: We must all be alike to get along; we don’t get along with the Russians; therefore, they must be different; and different is bad.
For a year and one half I went to a Lutheran College in Minnesota. My boy friend told me I was the sweetest girl he had ever met, but he knew I was going to hell because I did not believe what he did. I checked out the church and was told men were better than women and we were all sinners. Hogwash. I finished my studies at the University of Wisconsin, where, because of the diversity, and encouragement of thinking just for thinkings’ sake, I felt alive, safe, sane.
(How difficult it is to have minority beliefs. I couldn’t imagine being a black humanist!) Yet with each obstacle I faced, I found my humanist beliefs becoming stronger. In order to rent an apartment in a small town in Kansas, I had to convince my landlord that I had a conscience even though I did not believe in God. I got the apartment.
When we moved to Salt Lake, my son was constantly asked, “Are you Mormon?”, “Are you Republican?” He told me that after a while it was easier to lie than to face constant rejection. We moved into a new neighborhood. The lady across the street came over to welcome us. “Are you Mormon?” “No.” “Well, that’s all right.” We went to a block party, “Let us pray before we eat.” A mother does not know when to register her child for kindergarten because the information was distributed at the ward house. A Native American friend says he has no prejudices but requires that his children marry Mormons, have the ceremony in the Temple, and that they love each other because they will be together for eternity. The Boy Scouts have Mormon troops and non-Mormon troops. The message is always: different is bad. Different will be punished.
Well, I remain a humanist, despite all the obstacles, because nothing else makes much sense to me. Humans have brains. If we use our brains, we create religions, philosophies, art, languages, sciences. Humans, in my eyes, are no better than trees, animals, fish. We are different, just as the Churkendoose is different. I value differences. I treasure my life as a humanist.
Is There Anything Else You’d Like To Tell Us?
In the course of an extensive investigation designed, planned, and implemented with the cooperation of my colleagues from the Division of Medical Ethics at the LDS Hospital and University of Utah School of Medicine, we learned some surprising things about how family members feel treated during the course of their relative’s final illness. We set out to determine how the relatives of patients who died in Utah in 1992 believed their family member would have responded to an offer of physician-assisted death or euthanasia. The last question in our structured telephone interview was: “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”
Over 80% of the informants we contacted agreed to participate in our study. We interviewed over 1,400 survivors of patients who had died at least six months before our interview. While 90% of the individuals we talked to were satisfied with the medical care that their relative had received, their answers to our final question alerted us to a different issue that we had not systematically investigated. When we categorized these spontaneous responses under the headings: Involvement in Medical Care, Emotional Support for the Family, and Communication About the Patient’s Illness, we found that more of the responses were negative than positive. This is important, we believe, because family members help shape public opinion about medical care, and they may project some of the concerns they feel as relatives to a future situation in which they may be patients themselves.
We were pleased that many of them even offered constructive suggestions about how to solve some of the problems they experienced. They recognized that families need to be better educated about the medical facts of a patient’s case, that they need more frequent and more straight-forward communication from the medical professionals, and that they should be able to get some emotional support near the time of the patient’s death, and for some time thereafter.
We plan to share this information and insight with our fellow health professionals, and hope that it will lead to improvement in the care we give to patients and to a significant change in the care and attention we direct to their family members.
–Jay A. Jacobson, M.D.
How Does One Live Without Belief in a Hereafter?
The following was prepared from the article Afterlife, by Gerald A. Larue, Ph.D., published in Humanism Today, the Journal of the North American Committee for Humanism.
If one observes everyday existence, the non-believer lives a life not too dissimilar from that of a believing neighbor. Non-believers make the same sort of choice in terms of life style. It is often assumed that without the restraints of the threat of punishment in an afterlife that a person would probably live a to-hell-with-everything-and-everybody life, greedily absorbing pleasures, ruthlessly exploiting others, indifferent to the future of humankind and the environment. Of course anyone can choose such a way of life, whether or not one believes in an afterlife.
On the other hand, a non-believer, a humanist, can choose to live this life to the full, seeking that which enhances the human spirit and contributes to the future. Art, music, the dance, the theater, great literature, glorious sunsets, magnificent forests, amazing wild life, beautiful fauna, and so on to enrich the soul and the mind. Warm companionship, love and friendship, work that contributes to human welfare enliven and give meaning to the precious moments of existence. Where there is pain and suffering, the caring person, whether or not he or she entertains belief in a future life, reaches out in compassion. Where others hunger and are in poverty, the full human responds as best he or she can. Morals, values and ethical principles are drawn from the highest and noblest dreams of philosophers, psychologists, poets and painters, realists and dreamers, theologians and skeptics, and most of all, lovers. The non-believer, the humanist, chooses, not out of fear of punishment but out of love and commitment to life, to living so that one feels within the self a sense of achievement and fulfillment, believing that because one is here and is committed, the world will, at death, be just a little better than it was at the individual’s birth.
What is different is that although the humanist path parallels that of the highest ethical concepts entertained by the great religions, the path is freely chosen because it is good and satisfying, rather than out of fear of consequences.
In other words, one may live a fine, meaning-filled life without belief in a hereafter. One chooses so to live with the only reward being an internal awareness and satisfaction experienced in the here and now.
Freedom Of The Will And Determinism
— Bob Green
Bible Teachings Mask Bigotry Against Gays
Published in the Salt Lake Tribune, November 7, 1993, as the Common Carrier article.
In the 1992 election, an Oregon initiative aiming to keep homosexuals from being employed as schoolteachers, police, or in other public capacities, received 44 percent of the vote. A Colorado initiative denying homosexuals protection against discrimination in employment and housing was enacted and is likely to provide a model for others elsewhere.
Meanwhile, skinheads and other thugs regularly mug homosexuals. These thugs and the supporters of anti-gay legislation would appear to be totally different. While the thugs are motivated by irrational hatred of those who differ from themselves, those behind the initiatives are mostly decent people who wouldn’t think of physically injuring gays. They do want to deprive gays of jobs, housing and self-respect. But they, like the members of the Eagle Forum in Utah, are acting out of moral conviction. Most are, indeed, religious people who believe that in opposing homosexuality, they are bearing religious witness to a moral fact, since the Bible asserts that homosexuality is a great and terrible sin.
So there is mindless hatred of difference on the one side and moral decency on the other. Biblical inspiration does lead the religious opponents of homosexuality to do things that would have a disastrous impact on many of their fellow citizens. But unlike the gay-bashers, these people can see themselves as thoroughly upright and decent individuals.
Yet, when I hear people condemning homosexuality on the basis of the Bible, I wonder whether they also accept the rest of the Bible’s many views about what is right or wrong in human behavior and, if not, why they make an exception for what it says of homosexuality. Do they agree, as Deuteronomy commands, that individuals who commit adultery should be put to death or that the clothes they wear must not be made of more than one sort of material or that dissolute sons should be stoned to death? Or with the Old Testament’s acceptance of polygamy? Or with Jesus’ emphatic prohibition of divorce found in Matthew?
Very few religious people would accept all of what is to be found in the Bible as morally binding. Most of us find the idea of cutting off the hands of a thief, as the Koran requires, to be barbaric. And most of the decent people supporting anti-gay initiatives would be equally appalled at stoning to death dissolute sons, punishing someone for wearing a shirt of polyester and cotton mix, and otherwise turning all of the Bible into law or morality.
But how, then, can they believe that they know that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says it is? Simple consistency requires them to either accept all of the Bible’s moral rules or to have some good reason for holding some of its commands to be authoritative when others are clearly not.
If they thought seriously about it, most of the religiously motivated opponents of homosexuality would have to conclude, I believe, that they simply see that the Bible is to be followed in this case and that is not to be followed in what it says of adulterers or dissolute sons. But if this is so, they are actually in the position of holding that they know the Bible to be correct about homosexuality because they are certain that homosexuality is wrong and unnatural and not that it’s wrong because of what the Bible says.
I believe that it is important for these people to understand that their view does not in fact rest on the Bible. It’s important because they are largely decent people who would not inflict great injury on others unless they had the best of reasons to do so. Since depriving gays of jobs, housing and self-respect is a great injury, these decent people should seriously consider whether their conviction that homosexually is wrong is simply a residue of bigotry and not much different from the hatred of the skinheads. Consensual gay behavior is not, after all, injurious to those who have a different sexual orientation. It is not pillage, theft, rape, murder, or manipulative deception, but merely people having sex in ways that they find rewarding.
Many of us would find these ways distasteful or even disgusting. But many of us also intensely dislike some forms of heterosexual sex, the ways that other people dress, the foods they eat and, in general, how they conduct their lives. We recognize, however, that such feelings are not an adequate reason for coercing people to change their behavior.
That we shouldn’t punish homosexuality seems to me to be especially clear when we consider that sexual identity and preferences are so deeply rooted and that for most people a satisfying sex life is essential for happiness. There are those who hold the Coke-Pepsi theory of sexuality. They seem to think that gays could just as easily be straight: “No Cokes? OK. I’ll have a Pepsi.” But anyone with even minimal sex drive who has thought seriously about his or her own sexual preference can see how misguided this view is.
In conclusion, I believe that those religious crusaders against homosexuality who are unwilling to reflect deeply about the issues touched on here can’t be taking their moral convictions seriously. They are running the risk that their opposition to gays is not that much different from the bigotry and hatred of skinheads, that it is bigotry clad in a tie and white shirt.
One of the books I’ve recently read for my August class at the Humanist Institute is Judaism Beyond God, by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. I highly recommend reading it to gain a better understanding of both Judaism and humanism. Rabbi Wine is one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
To paraphrase the author’s conclusions, humanists want to bring their beliefs and their behavior together and are eager to affirm the following:
Humanists want to translate these affirmations and commitments into an effective life-style. They need a community of believers to work with and to share with in this venture. They also need a cadre of trained leaders and spokespeople to provide scholarship and guidance.
— Flo Wineriter
What Humanistic Education Is…And Is Not
In the field of education and especially in society today, “humanistic education” is the subject of considerable interest and controversy. Many people of good will immediately react “for it” or “against it,” depending on previous experience with the term…Actually, the term means many different things to different people. What follows is a very brief attempt by a number of educators to clarify the term “humanistic education” by describing what it is and what it is not…
Humanistic education is an educational approach. Most educators who advocate humanistic education typically intend this approach to mean one or more of three things:
Humanistic education methods are used in public and private schools, the family, religious education, business and other settings.
Humanistic education is not a religion. In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled that non-theistic religions such as “Buddhism…Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others” are entitled to the same tax-exempt status as traditional, theistic religions. Ever since then, some people have confused humanistic education with the religion of secular humanism; because both terms have a common Latin root, humanus, meaning “human” (in turn derived from homo, meaning “man” or “mankind”). But humanistic education is not the same as secular humanism. In fact, there are thousands of priests, rabbis, and ministers of all faiths who disagree with secular humanism but who strongly support humanistic education. They believe the educational approach is entirely consistent with their religious beliefs, and can actually provide effective tools for teaching in religious settings.
James E. Wood, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, summed it up by saying, “The myth of ‘secular humanism’ in the public schools must be rejected as dangerous, unfounded, and unjustified.” When a Maryland group in 1972 charged the Montgomery County Schools with teaching secular humanism, the State Board of Education took twenty-one months and spent $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money investigating this claim, produced over 1600 pages of documentation and concluded that there was ‘no evidence sufficient’ to show that secular humanism was being taught in the schools.
Humanistic education enhances the teaching of the basics. Many of the major books and articles on humanistic education show teachers how to do a more effective job of teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, etc. Many of the best traditional-subject-matter teachers integrate humanistic education methods and materials into their basic curriculum. Rather than ignoring the basics, humanistic educators seek to expand our concept of what basic education is, saying that basic skills for surviving in today’s world go beyond reading, writing, computation, and vocational skills and include other skills for communicating, problem-solving and decision-making.
Humanistic education is supported by years of research and experience. One of the strongest reasons for supporting humanistic education is that, when done effectively, students learn! Considerable evidence shows that cooperative learning structures higher self-concepts, and the student’s motivation and interest in learning all are related to greater academic achievement. Studies also show that humanistic education can lead to fewer discipline problems, less vandalism and reduced use of illegal drugs…Such research findings do not prove that particular humanistic education methods should be used in all situations. These results do show that humanistic education is a valid educational approach that deserves serious attention and respect.
Humanistic education supports many goals of parents. What parent does not sometimes wish his or her children would listen more respectfully, choose less impulsively, calm down when overexcited, learn to be assertive without being aggressive, or make better use of their time? Many humanistic education methods teach students how to do these things. “Effectiveness training” teaches students how to really listen to others, including parents. “Values clarification” teaches students to “thoughtfully consider the consequences” of their decisions. Several humanistic education approaches teach students to relax and control their nervous energy and to plan and take more responsibility for their time. Humanistic educators often report that parents have told them how good communication was increased in their families as a result of some of the class activities and new skills the students learned.
Humanistic education encourages parent involvement in the schools. Many humanistic educators are parents themselves, who are very active in their children’s education in and out of school. Humanistic educators believe that parents should be knowledgeable about their children’s curriculum, should be active in parent-teaching activities, should be able to visit the school and observe, should have a way to make suggestions or register complaints about their child’s program, and within reasonable limits, should be allowed to request alternative learning options for their children when they disagree strongly with school practices.
Humanistic educators believe that schools have a role to play in the “values education” of students. While the home and religion have the major responsibility in the value development and moral development of children, the school also has a legitimate role. Few parents have ever questioned the school’s role in encouraging the values of punctuality, fairness, health, courtesy, respect for property, neatness and the like. Humanistic educators believe schools also should encourage the democratic and humanitarian values of tolerance, self-respect, freedom of thought, respect for others, social responsibility and the like. Schools cannot and should not be “value-free.”
Humanistic education is not psychotherapy. It is not the goal of humanistic education to help students overcome deep-seated emotional problems. Rather, humanistic education seeks to help students to lean useful skills for living and to deepen their understanding of issues relevant to their academic and social development. Teachers do not need to be trained psychologists to conduct humanistic education activities. They do require sensitivity to students, classroom management skills, and the ability to conduct a class discussion. These skills are within the grasp of all good teachers.
Humanistic education is not responsible for the increase in drug and alcohol abuse, vandalism, teenage pregnancies, violent crime and other problems besetting our nation’s youth. It seems absurd to have to state this, but a number of groups are irresponsibly scapegoating humanistic education by blaming it for all or most of the problems of schools and society today. They ignore the fact that these serious problems exist in school districts that have barely even heard of humanistic education, let alone use it. Rather than causing these problems, humanistic education has been one of the few serious attempts to try to deal with these problems which are disturbing to us all.
Humanistic education is not a panacea. No one claims that implementing humanistic education methods and approaches will instantly, or even eventually solve all of society’s problems. There are many problems in our communities, country and world which require complex and long-term solutions. At best, humanistic education can better equip young people with the skills and attitudes to play a more effective role in seeking these solutions.
Humanistic education is not necessarily synonymous with good teaching. Just as there are many “traditional” teachers who do a poor job of teaching reading and writing, there are also ineffective “humanistic” educators. We all probably know of teachers of both varieties who are open to criticism. This should not lead us to a wholesale attack upon the public schools or upon any particular approach to teaching. Rather than eliminate important goals from the curriculum, we should encourage all teachers to get the training they need to do the best possible job. And we should provide the support and funding to help the schools continue attracting qualified and competent professionals and find better ways to guarantee that each and every child will have the opportunity for the maximum learning and growth.
Humanistic education is essential for preparing young people to be citizens in a democracy. If democracy is to work, its citizens must be educated. They must know how to gather information, distinguish fact from opinion, analyze propaganda, understand many different viewpoints, understand justice, think for themselves, communicate their opinions clearly, and work with others for the common good. These are among the most important skills that humanistic education seeks to teach our youth.
The Moral Effect of Suffering
In those three years [in the wards of St. Thomas’s Hospital] I must have witnessed pretty well every emotion of which man is capable…I saw how men died. I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul.
At that time (a time to most people of sufficient ease, when peace seemed certain and prosperity secure) there was a school of writers who enlarged upon the moral value of suffering. They claimed that it was salutary. They claimed that it increased sympathy and enhanced the sensibilities. They claimed that it opened to the spirit new avenues of beauty and enabled it to get into touch with the mystical kingdom of God. They claimed that it strengthened the character, purified it from its human grossness and brought to him who did not avoid but sought it a more perfect happiness.
Several books on these lines had a great success and their authors, who lived in comfortable homes, had three meals a day and were in robust health, gained much reputation. I set down in my note-books, not once or twice, but in a dozen places the facts that I had seen. I knew that suffering did not ennoble; it degraded. It made men selfish, mean, petty and suspicious. It absorbed them in small things. It did not make them more than men; it made them less than men; and I wrote ferociously that we learn resignation not by our own suffering, but by the suffering of others…
It is curious to note that when they speak of evil, philosophers so often use toothache as their example. They point out with justice that you cannot feel my toothache. In their sheltered, easy lives it looks as though this were the only pain that had much afflicted them and one might almost conclude that with the improvement of American dentistry the whole problem could be conveniently shelved.
I have sometimes thought that it would be a very good thing if before philosophers were granted the degrees that will enable them to impart their wisdom to the young, they had to spend a year in social service in the slums of a great city or earn their living by manual labour. If they had ever seen a child die of meningitis they would face some of the problems that concern them with other eyes.
–William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
Humanist Religion for the Troubled
All of us who are troubled–and who is not?–should try to accept ourselves as part of nature in an indifferent universe from which we should not expect too much. We should try to be our own providence and our neighbors’, helping them to help themselves and others.
So many of us are troubled nowadays! We wonder what religion or philosophy can offer us. I confess that I have been one of these, so this subject has been close to my mind and heart for a long time. I have found answers that help me, and I wish to encourage you through my own experience and knowledge.
I shall not try to analyze why we are troubled. That is a task for psychiatrists and sociologists. May I merely remind you that, in general, we have difficulty adjusting ourselves, first to the new atomic age with danger of destruction of civilization and life itself, and second, to our artificial, industrial, urban society, which still is somewhat strange to us. Third, and more fundamental, we have trouble finding our relationship to the vast, impersonal, and indifferent universe that science reveals to us. We feel lost, and life seems to have no purpose or meaning for many of us. This is our basic trouble. I wish to consider with you what really modern religion can say to us about our relationship to this universe and the meaning of life.
Neither orthodox Christianity nor theism satisfy some of us any longer in the light of modern scientific knowledge. They are out of scale with the world of science. They present only a make-believe, dollhouse world in comparison with the vast world of science. They offer an escapist theology.
Moreover, orthodoxy and theism also present an unreal picture of the world as ruled by a power of righteousness and justice. Science, many great philosophers, and my own experience and observation all agree in finding too little evidence of such power and purpose. We see far too much evil and undeserved suffering in this world, both natural and man-made. I conclude, with science, that this is, at best only a neutral or indifferent universe. So conventional religion’s view of the world seems false.
Righteousness and justice exist to some extent, it is true. But they exist only as we ourselves create and sustain them. They are human, social concepts and qualities. They are the products of civilization. We do not find them in nature or the lower orders of life. So modern religion depends on humankind and our society as the only known creators of purpose and meaning. Thus modern religion must be human-centered, not God-centered. So we call this religion humanism.
We who are humanists do not necessarily deny the possibility of an impersonal, abstract God such as Henri Bergson’s l’elan vital, or life force, innate in nature. We simply say, with many scientists, that this is unknown and perhaps unknowable. We add, to mature people it also is unnecessary for living the good life.
We humanists feel awe at the majesty and the mystery of the universe. But we consider this too amorphous to be called God. We believe that the central mystery of the universe is part of the not yet understood natural, rather than supernatural or divine. We believe that we should spend our time and thought not on mystery but on what we can know something about: humankind in this life and this world, here and now. The late John H. Dietrich, well-known Unitarian minister in Minneapolis, quoted Cardinal Newman’s definition of religion as “a knowledge of God and our own duties towards Him.” Then Dietrich defined humanist religion as “the knowledge of man and our duties towards him.”
Humanism is not new. It has a long and distinguished history. It includes two of the oldest and greatest religions, Buddhism and Confucianism. Both Buddha and Confucius ignored God and immortality. They emphasized ethics, not theology. They stressed this life and this world, not salvation hereafter. But it is ironical that some forms of Buddhism, like Christianity, later developed superstition.
Many of the leading philosophers of the world have been humanists, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among these are philosophers of naturalism from Aristotle to John Dewey; philosophers of materialism from Democratus to Santayana; rationalists from Descartes to Bertrand Russell; positivists like Comte, Mill, Spencer; and recent existentialists such as Sartre and Camus.
Let us confess at once that we who are humanists in religion are at a great disadvantage in comparison with orthodox Christians. Especially is this true when we face trouble. For the orthodox beliefs in divine Providence and future life are perfectly fitted to human needs. They offer us a God-father, or father image, as psychologists term it. We all sometimes yearn for this, particularly when we are troubled. This is why Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”
Indeed, humanists believe, this is what happened. In our immense need for security and meaning in life and death, some great thinkers have rationalized our longing into comforting theistic beliefs. This is why orthodox religion maintains its strength in our scientific era. I cannot help but respect theories that so satisfy the yearnings of the human heart, and sometimes I wish that I could believe them. At such times, I agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote more than two thousand years ago, “in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
But we must, first of all, be honest with ourselves as well as others. Integrity is a basic virtue. If we are educated and modern, we should not stultify ourselves by believing what seem to us rationalizations, however comforting. We humanists consider science, not needs or wishes or divine revelation, the surest means to truth. Science is not infallible, but it is the only self-correcting method of seeking truth.
Our first duty is to be realistic in facing life as our best scientific knowledge reveals it. Science, as well as much philosophy through the ages, reveals a neutral or indifferent universe in which evolution has developed life in a continuing process or complex of processes, subject to natural catastrophes, accidents, luck, and interruptions. We are simply a part of nature. This is a cold prospect. But as I shall point out, we have ways of warming it.
Along with this acceptance of our place as a part of nature, we also should try to develop an attitude of not expecting too much from life. In an indifferent universe, we are lucky if we have more good fortune than bad. Whether we have cancer or a heart attack is usually beyond our control. It is as matter of chance. We can, by intelligence, knowledge, foresight, and effort, do much to achieve success. But other factors beyond our control can nullify the best that we can do. This was beautifully expressed by the ancient existential author of Ecclesiastes: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor net riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill but time and chance happeneth to them all.” So we must not expect automatic success–or even the success we believe that we deserve.
Nor can we expect happiness in this life or any other. The Declaration of Independence asserts our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but not to happiness itself. Thomas Jefferson knew as well as others that happiness can be assured to no one. Henry Thoreau, who lived an idyllic life over a century ago beside Walden Pond, said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Statistics on the increase of mental and emotional illness indicate that this is even truer today. For many of us, life is a struggle, psychologically much more than economically.
On suffering bereavement or misfortune, people sometimes exclaim, “Why does this happen to me?” The answer is, why not? Who am I, who are you, who is anyone, that we should be exempt from the inevitable tragedy of an indifferent universe? Dreadful things happen to some of the finest and dearest people whom we know! Natural catastrophes (which insurance companies term “acts of God”) and sheer accidents kill many thousands of good people every year. We usually consider war the greatest killer and tragedy. But at the end of World War I, an influenza epidemic killed 22,000,000 people–four times as many as died in that war! During the Korean and Vietnam Wars many more Americans were killed at home in automobile accidents than on the battlefield.
Many of us are disturbed, not only by the evil inherent in the nature of things, but also by the evil in human nature. Anyone who lives in a modern city sees juvenile delinquency, violence, and crime increase every year. We sometimes refer to cities, indeed even to schools, as “jungles” because predatory human animals prowl and prey on one another. Even some of our leading citizens are ruthless. Big business men resort to illegal and exploitative practices in order to limit the free competition; to which they give such fervent lip-service. A large American automobile company hired a private detective to dig up some dirt on Ralph Nader, the champion of auto safety, in order to blackmail him into silence or discredit him before the public. They failed, but still with us are illegal and criminal practices known as “white collar crime.”
Christian theologians call this evil in human nature original sin or total depravity. They attribute it to God or Satan. Indeed, we all sometimes refer to the devil in us, and we have reason! But this evil in human nature, according to humanists, is not the devil but the animal in us. Sin or evil is simply part of our animal heritage, through evolution. We have not yet surmounted it in our very incomplete evolution from animal towards angel.
For example, our human qualities of selfishness and greed are simply extensions of the instinct of self-preservation, which appears throughout the animal world. Yet some animals sacrifice their individual lives for the good of their society or species. Our animal heritage is a mixed bag of good and evil that we call human nature.
We are not totally depraved, of course. Nor will we ever become angels. But evolution has brought us a notable distance from the other animals, although we sometimes doubt it. Human improvement is measurable if we compare human society of the Stone Age with our own. This period of 20,000 years is only a day in the sight of God or scientists. So even though evil is inevitable in an indifferent universe, may we not reasonably have faith that good increases with further evolution?
Moreover, only those who believe that divine providence created and controls the universe can logically protest evil. For providence should be able to do anything, including creating a world much better than this. But we who believe that the universe is simply the product of evolution and accident should be astonished that the world is as fine as it is. Should we not accept it with appreciation?
Our basic attitude of accepting an indifferent universe and not expecting too much are only the first essentials for facing trouble realistically. We can be consistent with science and have constructive beliefs. For one thing, if in this indifferent universe we can find no inherent purpose or meaning, then we face the challenge, opportunity, and responsibility to create purpose and meaning for ourselves. Nature has provided us with the raw materials, including intelligence, and we can build. At the Darwin Centennial in 1959 at the University of Chicago, the humanist Sir Julian Huxley declared that we now have reached the point where we can consciously and intelligently direct our evolution–if we will. This is our responsibility, and responsibility is the second of the chief virtues, after integrity. This responsibility for our further evolution should be the meaning and purpose of our life. If we wait for George or God to do it, we shall never find purpose or meaning for ourselves. Charles Francis Potter, founder and leader of the First Humanist Society of New York, wrote that we must “make a religion out of human improvement….The improvement of human personality, individually and socially, is a sufficiently challenging task, a sufficiently worthwhile object to make a religion.”
Further, if in this imperfect world we cannot believe in a divine providence that takes care of us, we at least have one another. If we cannot love or worship God because we do not know what God is, not being able to follow Jesus’ first commandment, we have all the more responsibility to follow Jesus’ second commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves–or at least to help them when they need us. For helpfulness, along with integrity and responsibility, is a third chief virtue. But it behooves us to be helpful even more, for we do not believe that God will do anything for anyone. We who are humanists have a special obligation to be our own providence–and that of our neighbors who need us. This point needs repeated emphasis: we must be rugged individualists and at the same time our brothers’ keepers; better yet, let us be our neighbors’ brothers.
This does not mean that we should do things merely for people. Rather, we should do things with people. We should help people indeed, but help them to help themselves. Charles Francis Potter proposed this as a new Gold Rule. It seems to me better than Jesus’ rule of “doing unto others as if we were the others,” as Elbert Hubbard rephrased it. Potter’s rule is that we should “so help others…that they can help themselves and others.”
Sociology reinforces the Christian insight of St. Paul that “we are members one of another.” Sociology demonstrates that society is essential for culture and humanness: without human relationships, we cannot become human. Psychologists observe that unwanted, isolated infants do not evolve beyond the animal level until after they have been rescued and receive special care and attention. Indeed, whole societies isolated from other societies remain static and primitive. It was no accident that the most primitive society ever found by anthropologists was in Tasmania and they did not know that any other people exist. So while we make society, society also makes us. Not merely all Christians but all humankind are “members one of another.”
Indeed, not only people but all things, situations, and events are inextricably bound together. The eminent philosopher Alfred North Whitehead emphasized that nothing in the universe can be sufficient unto itself. Everything is the product of evolution, of the total past. Everything, in turn, participates in the creation of the future. Whitehead wrote, “The concept of an organism includes, therefore, the concept of the interaction of organism….Actuality is through and through togetherness.” So by the very nature of things we are forced to depend upon one another. And we have one another–if not divine providence.
Further, if science does not support belief in immortality, we have all the greater responsibility to make this life and this world worthwhile, here and now. Theodore Roosevelt was an Episcopalian, but he had the humanist attitude when he said, “We have a responsibility to do what we can with what we have, where we are, now.” In doing this we will find science to be a great help. For it has found ways to prevent or cure disease and suffering, improve sanitation and living conditions, enlarge and disseminate knowledge and culture. The Unitarian Universalist and the Friends Service Committees are among the finest examples of the use of science to minister to people, regardless of creed, color, or condition. These committees operate privately financed programs for technical assistance both at home and abroad. Their purpose is to help people to help themselves by showing them how to do things. They plan and organize pilot projects in education, democratic procedures, interracial living, health and sanitation. Instead of sending missionaries to get people into a heaven of our own devising, Unitarian Universalists and Quakers provide scientific aid to make this life more worthwhile for many who most need help. Humanists should strongly support these enterprises. Everything that makes life better for more people, here and now, should be our first concern. We should indeed “make a religion of human improvement.” This humanist ideal was summed up in the simplest terms a century ago by Robert G. Ingersoll, the great Victorian humanist. He said, “My creed is this: happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”
I have proposed action and commitment to certain values as ways to give purpose and meaning to our lives. For action and commitment lift us out of ourselves or enable us to transcend ourselves, as Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists have emphasized. Action and commitment overcome our feelings of alienation and futility. Sartre well summed up this point in his essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism”: “It is not by turning back into himself, but always by seeking an aim beyond himself,…that man can realize [or fulfill] himself as truly human.”
Finally, besides action there is also what philosophers call being. We should use our inevitable trouble and misfortune to enrich our own experience and being. Emerson wrote in his essay on “Compensation,” “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor. As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” I would add, we similarly gain strength from trouble if we accept it as an inevitable part of life and then transform it into valuable experience that enriches our being.
One fruit of this should be compassion for everything that lives. This is the fourth of the chief virtues. By compassion, I mean understanding and sympathy, not mere pity. We should try to be able to say with Clarence Darrow, the famous Chicago lawyer who was a fine humanist, “I have always felt sympathy for all living things, and have done the best I could to make easier their lot….I believe that I have excused all who are forced to live a while upon the earth. I am satisfied that they have done their best with what they had.”
In summary, I suggest that all of us who are troubled–and who is not?–should try to accept ourselves as part of nature in an indifferent universe from which we should not expect too much. We should try to be our own providence and our neighbors’, helping them to help themselves and others. We can thus transcend ourselves, and make this life as good as possible, here and now. If we do the best we can with what we have, we really live. And we shall be as well prepared as possible for anything–or nothing.
–Wallace P. Rusterholtz
Taken from Religious Humanism, Vol. XXV, No.2 Spring 1991, published by The Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Inc. The author is a retired college professor who has been an active layman in the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He has published several articles in that journal.
A Matter of Choice
Let us recognize that humanism is for the thinking, reasoning, educated person because of its appeal to the intellect, rather than the emotions.
Let us acknowledge that there has been much progress since the days of Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther. Western Civilization has become largely humanized.
This means two things. First, organized humanists no longer need to define themselves in terms of how they differ from Christians. This can offend the Christian and may confuse the would-be humanist. Humanism can stand on its own.
Secondly, we should recognize that being a Christian or being a humanist is a choice which should be available to everyone. Each can live a meaningful, happy life. I have been a Christian (Mormon); now I choose to be a humanist, and I don’t regret either choice.
Philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, the author of the first draft of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto wrote: “…religion…has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things–which every human being in some degree and in some fashion, makes.” There was now a need for “a new framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers…to those basic questions.” Sellars continues, “Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist [humanist] simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist.”
There are now two frames of reference for answers to that “basic interrogation”: Christianity and humanism, both to compete equally in the marketplace of ideas. It isn’t necessary for the one to disprove the other, it is now a matter of choice.
What is really the question?
In the past three years I have talked to many would-be humanists of various religious backgrounds and have also tried to understand the problem of Mormon intellectuals in the controversy over freedom of inquiry. What holds them back from becoming humanists?
I have concluded that the reason they stay where they are is the continued belief in God (by whatever name and formulation). When there is a belief in a God, that there is an immortal soul and an afterlife, and that how one spends eternity depends on how life is lived here on earth, then continued belief is all-important–more important than anything else. Therefore, to change from belief to not believing is a very difficult, sensitive matter and not easily done. Having the choice of an alternative makes this change much easier. This was my experience of three years ago.
What is the alternative?
Perhaps this can be illustrated by a true story. One warm sunny day fourteen years ago I was driving my old ’64 Thunderbird along the back country roads around Portland, Oregon. I rounded a bend and saw a sight that made me slow down. In front of me was a straight, narrow lane bordered by tall trees forming a dark umbrella. At the end of it was a massive, tall tree. A shaft of light broke through the overhead and illuminated a sign nailed to that tree. On an orange day-glo background were the words, “Believe and be Saved, John 3:16”. I knew the passage: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I also knew the theology. If at that moment I were to make the leap of faith, and in the rapture of my conversion were to push down on the accelerator and ram into that tree, I would go straight into Heaven, all my sins forgiven. Well, I wasn’t that certain. Besides, I was lost, and had to know what was beyond that hard right turn at that well-scarred tree trunk.
The point is: I had a choice. I could believe, or not believe. This leads to what has by now become self-evident. It is not possible to prove that God exists, and neither is it possible to prove that God does not exist. It is a matter of choice. Unfortunately, the clarity of an informed choice is not always presented. Christianity, or Mormonism, the kind we know in Utah, presents a very complete theology to those who choose to believe in God. Humanism presents an equally clear but new frame of reference for those who choose to question that belief.
It is often asked why our Chapter or those organizations which represent humanists aren’t larger. I answer that humanism is doing quite well. It is taught in most institutions of higher education and primary and secondary schools, and in many Centers for the humanities. The influence of humanism is felt in liberal religions and politics. Almost everyone uses the Scientific Method and naturalistic evolution is regularly explained in newspapers, magazines and television. Since humanism is a system of ideas arising out of civilization itself, and becoming a humanist is primarily an educational process, no organization can claim or contain it.
What should we do?
First, let’s congratulate ourselves on our progress. Our Chapter leadership has learned much about humanism and is now presenting it to the public. We are seeking innovative and untried public relations methods to make our efforts more effective. Recognizing that because it isn’t necessary to belong to the Chapter to be a humanist, we may not grow as much as we would like. But, all we need are enough people to attend our meetings and fund activities.
We know we will present information about humanism to many people who only seek information and may not want to make the choice to be a humanist. We do have the obligation to enable them to make an informed choice. Yes, there is room for improvement and new ideas. The Chapter leadership has always been open to suggestions.
Everything Is Of Some Importance;
Nothing Is Of Absolute Importance
As is typical of oldsters, my thoughts turn more and more to the past. I have been quite lucky: my parents brought me up “right” and my biological background is conducive to congenial survival. Possibly I have been a bit over-thrifty and more suspicious than necessary, but generally when I have trusted with inadequate justification I have suffered the consequences. In my early 20’s I read a book that had much influence on me: Walter Pitkin’s, “Life Begins at Forty.” Then I thought forty was a long way ahead. Now at twice that age plus ten, forty seems quite youthful. Where have these 65 years gone? Somewhere in his book Pitkin wrote,everything is of some importance: nothing is of absolute importance. I have lived with that aphorism. I enjoy watching ants in their endless search. I like to drop a shred of bread in front of them and observe them get it into their nest. How mightily they struggle. The project is of supreme importance to them. Who am I to say their effort is trivial? Neitzche, when pressed for an example of his ideal superman, finally came up with Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe was a great poet and influenced the growth of Romanticism. But he was in some ways a first rate fool and lacked many desirable traits. Yes, he was a Mensch (an Authentic Personality) but he was also painfully menschlich. Human, all too human.
Much of life is a contradiction. We want to live forever, but realize what a bore it would be and what a god-awful mess we would be at 120. We want adventure but not at the expense of safety. We want to be with people, but find them annoying. So we learn to live with compromise. We hedge in varying degrees and find that there never is a perfect adjustment. We seek the pie in the sky, but we do not have the sense to recognize it for what it is–just a slice of theory. We want democracy to be perfect though we know the evolutionary process does not seek or produce perfection. It is sufficient if a process works. If for a brief period it works better than necessary it soon becomes lazy and does not adjust. General Motors, I.B.M., Sears, Apple are good current examples. Sometimes when they go down they learn to adjust and get a second wind. It would be pleasant to live long enough to find out what happens to these fallen giants. Why expect more from democracy? All it can do is a bit better than alternate systems. And when it isn’t, then another system takes its place. It has happened many times in the history of humanity. Evolution does not result in perfection. It operates on the principle–if it works, don’t fix it. If a species doesn’t work it disappears. Of all the species that have existed, over 99 per cent have disappeared. The odds are even greater against a complicated and neurotic species like humankind. Neitzsche, despite his great insights, was naive. The very nature of man prevents an Ubermensch from happening.
Yes, all in all moderation seems to be the best goal. But not too much moderation for that in itself is immoderate. An immoderate moderation or moderate immoderation seems the best stance to seek. But how to attain it–that is the elusive goal that none of us attains with more than moderate success. There is coherence to these seeming incoherent statements, say I, but there is no conclusion. Maybe that is a conclusion.
–Herbert A. Tonne
Mr. Tonne, of Northvale, NJ, will be 90 years old/young in January, 1994. To mark that occasion, he was asked to submit some reflections on his philosophy of life. Originally published in News and Views the journal of Humanists of North Jersey in January 1994.
The Humanist Institute
Humanism has an important contribution to make to the modern world. In order to give reality to humanist ideals and practices, humanism must be effectively organized and organization demands leadership. To provide the training of humanist leaders is the role of The Humanist Institute.
The Institute is an opportunity to study the origins and history of Humanism and to explore the ways in which Humanism offers perspectives on life’s experiences and opportunities. The course of study includes organizational leadership training.
Classes are held three weekends a year for three years in New York City. Participants are required to read from an extensive reading list in preparation for each session. Class number Seven begins in the fall of this year. If you are interested in more information about enrolling, contact Flo Wineriter.
— Flo Wineriter
Mothers, Evolution, and Traditional Values
“Traditional values” is a sort of code phrase that refers to imaginary good old days when mother and father and children lived in a stable unit as the father earned the living and the mother ran the home.
Our real traditional values go back way beyond the supposititious times, and we can strengthen families and society if we learn from the implications of our evolutionary roots, the real traditional values that shaped us–especially that prolonged and intensive maternal care is imperative for our young. This traditional value, extending from past eons, is the single most important factor for an infant’s start toward success or failure. The recent and alarming Carnegie Report tells us this.
We can and must learn from anthropology that our hominid and ape-like ancestors were anything but the brutish and aggressive creatures of stereotype. On the contrary, they lived in small, cohesive bands in which each individual knew the others and each mattered. Each had to rely on the others. As bodies stood upright and eye-hand coordination grew greater and brains expanded, tribal ties and communication intensified. People lived at peace with each other, trusting and cooperating, and taught their young to live so. Had they not, our species never could have evolved.
In this context, the mother who carried, bore and suckled her infant was the primary caretaker. Infants born in an increasingly unfinished state required increased care as their brains enlarged after birth and sought it first and foremost from their mothers. But the mother could carry out her caring function during this crucial period only with unstinting support from the tribe.
The report on American children at risk states what is screamingly obvious to anyone who knows how we became human: Our young cannot thrive without “nurturing love, protection, guidance, stimulation and support.” Lacking these traditional values, a young, brainy creature can no more mature normally than a seedling deprived of water, weeding, fertilizer and sun. Worse, these sorts of learning, if not available when the infant is programmed to receive them, are permanently lost.
The human mother nurtures heart and mind and soul as well as body. She is the earliest source of love and trust and interaction. Cuddling her newborn, she contributes significantly to the proliferation of cells in the miraculously exploding brain. Her love and tenderness for her tiny new human are as nourishing and necessary as her milk.
In our heedless ignorance of how we got the way we are, we have sowed the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. Inevitably, unwanted children born to mothers who can’t care for them–and into a society that cannot feed, clothe, educate or protect them–turn into the warped, brutalized products of illness and neglect, cruelty and crime who infest our social fabric and send us screaming for more police and jails.
That’s attacking the problem at the wrong end. It’s wholly futile. It was caring and sharing, structure and family, a tribe that offered a sense of belonging and being important, that brought us to our lofty human status. These were taught to newborns from day one.
These qualities are not adequately taught in our society. Especially in America, young girls bear young long before they are physically or emotionally ready, and without a social structure to lean on. We do not take motherhood and child care seriously. You might suppose women got pregnant all by themselves. Fifty-thousand years ago (when, for all anyone knew, they did) mother and infant nevertheless drew sustenance from the tribe from before the infant’s birth through its puberty.
And they had role models. We are pre-eminently learning animals. Among our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins, zoo-raised mothers must be taught how to handle the offspring. If this is so with animals whose brains only double in size, how much truer must it be for us, whose brains quadruple. As N.J. Berrill explains:
This is why attention to the beginning years, not those when the child is almost grown, has incalculable importance. Only caring for our young at the very start–in the womb, in fact–and understanding that devoted maternal care is indispensable to our babies’ future, and therefore our own, has a chance of abating our contemporary pathologies.
That is the most important of all the traditional values to which we must return.
Ms. McCollister is editor of the newsletter of the Iowa Chapter of the American Humanist Association. She has long been a humanist activist in her area and with the AHA, writes for humanist publications, and has a regular column in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Humanists of Utah Statements of Belief and Purpose
At the annual membership meeting in February of this year, President Flo Wineriter appointed a special committee and charged it to “create some public relations materials that will succinctly define humanism.” Former Board member Nancy Moore agreed to chair this ad hoc committee consisting of all present Board members with the exception President Wineriter.
Much information was circulated among committee members. Finally, a meeting was set for Saturday, September 17, 1994, at Nancy’s home in Provo.
In preparation for the meeting, we studied and thought and wrote down our own ideas for everyone to read. During our discussion, we first discarded the word “Mission” and rejected anything negative. Then, we put the phrases and words together that we could all agree on and the result is our new Statements of Belief and Purpose of the Humanists of Utah. At the Board meeting held September 22, 1994 the Statements were approved and adopted as written.
Humanism is a natural way of life that promotes living joyfully and compassionately in the present, using innate intelligence, science, the humanities and experience as the methods for discovering truths.
The purpose of Humanists of Utah is to offer an affirmative educational program based on developing one’s natural inner strengths in order to practice the art of living; to promote meaningful activities and compassionate service that champion humanism; and to be an association where all can have a sense of belonging to a larger community that supports a positive philosophy of reason, integrity and dignity.
A Humanist’s Faith
I use the word humanist to mean someone who believes that man is just as much a natural phenomenon as an animal or a plant, that his body, his mind, and his soul were not supernaturally created but are all products of evolution, and that he is not under the control or guidance of any supernatural Being or beings, but has to rely on himself and his own powers. And I use faith in the sense or a set of essentially religious beliefs.
How then can a humanist be religious? Is not religion necessarily concerned with supernatural beings? The answer is ‘No’. Religion of some sort seems always to have been a feature of man’s life; but some religions are not concerned with God, and some not with any sort of supernatural beings at all. Religions are of many kinds, good and bad, primitive and advanced: but they all have one thing in common–they help man to cope with the problem of his place and role in the strange universe in which he lives.
Religion…always involves the sense of sacredness or reverence, and it is always concerned with what is felt to be more absolute, with what transcends immediate, particular, everyday experience. It aims at helping people to transcend their petty or selfish or guilty selves. All organized religions not only have a set of rituals but a moral code–what is right and what is wrong: and a system of beliefs. In the long run, the beliefs determine the moral code, and they in their turn are based on man’s knowledge of himself and the world.
Humanist beliefs are based on human knowledge, especially on the knowledge-explosion of the hundred years since Darwin published The Origin of Species, which has revealed to us a wholly new picture of the universe and of our place in it. We now believe with confidence that the whole of reality is one gigantic process of evolution. This produces increased novelty and variety, and ever higher types of organization; in a few spots it has produced life; and, in a few of those spots of life, it has produced mind and consciousness.
This universal process is divisible into three phases or sectors, each with its own method working, its own rate of change, and its own kind of results. Over most of the universe it is in the lifeless or inorganic phase. On earth (and undoubtedly on some planets or other suns) it is in the organic or biological phase. This works by natural selection and has produced a huge variety of animals and plants, some astonishingly high organizations (like our own bodies, or an ant colony), and the emergence of mind.
Finally man (and possibly a few other organisms elsewhere) has entered the human or, as we may call it, psychosocial phase, which is based on the accumulation of knowledge and the organization of experience. It works chiefly by a conscious selection of ideas and aims, and produces extremely rapid change. Evolution in this phase is mainly cultural, not genetic; it is no longer focused solely on survival, but is increasingly directed towards fulfillment and towards quality of achievement.
Man is the latest dominant type of life on this earth, and the sole agent for its further evolution. He is the product of more than two and a half million years of past evolution; and we believe that he has at least an equally vast span of future evolution before him.
Though human evolution has been accompanied by much evil and terror it has led to real advance (for instance, in health and length of life), and has produced great new achievements (such as cathedrals and aeroplanes, poems and philosophies, arts and sciences). And this has been due to the increase of human experience and knowledge and its better organization in concepts and scientific laws, in ideas and works of art. We know that a large number of things that used to be supposed to be due to super-natural intervention are nothing of the sort, but are the result of perfectly natural causes. We do not believe that epidemics are divine punishments, or earthquakes divine warnings; prayers for rain are still offered in church, but very few people (and no humanists) believe that God has any influence on the weather. We know that there is no hell full of devils inside the earth, and nothing like the traditional orthodox Christian idea of heaven up in the sky.
But we have faith in the capacities and possibilities of man: most immediately in his capacity to accumulate his experience, and in the resultant possibilities of increasing his knowledge and understanding. We have seen their results in science and medicine; we have faith in their possibilities for psychology and politics, for conservation and eugenics. But we must think of man’s other capacities, too. His capacity for disinterested curiosity and wonder leads him both to seek and to enjoy knowledge. His capacity for enjoying beauty pushes him to create, to preserve, and to contemplate it. His capacity to feel guilt impels him towards morality, his sense of incompleteness leads him to seek greater wholeness. He is endowed with a sense of justice which slowly but steadily brings about the remedy of injustice. He has a capacity for compassion which leads him to care for the sick, the aged, and the persecuted, and a capacity for love which could (and sometimes does) override his capacity for hate.
Many human possibilities are still unrealized save by a few: the possibility of enjoying experiences of transcendent rapture, physical and mystical, aesthetic and religious, or that of attaining an inner harmony and peace that puts a man above the cares and worries of daily life. Indeed man as a species has not yet realized more than a fraction of his possibilities of health, physical and mental, and spiritual well-being, of achievement and knowledge, of wisdom and enjoyment, or of satisfaction in participating in worth-while or enduring projects, including that most enduring of all projects, man’s further evolution.
So man’s most sacred duty is to realize his possibilities of knowing, feeling, and willing to the fullest extent, in the achievements of human societies, and in the evolution of the whole human species. I believe that an understanding of the extent to which man falls short of realizing his splendid possibilities will stimulate him to learn how they can be realized, and that this will be the most powerful religious motive in the next stage of our human evolution. As a humanist, that is my faith.
— Julian Huxley (1887-1975)
A Day In The Park
Sunday, June 12, 1994 KRCL Radio presented its annual Day in he Park at Liberty Park. Booth space for non-profit organizations was available. I made up a banner that said “Humanists of Utah” and assembled some literature. Flo Wineriter and I were a little late in getting there so all the “good” spots in the shade seemed to be gone. It looked like we were doomed to sit in the hot sun. I noticed some prime real estate between a socialist workers group and a table representing Trees of Utah. We asked them both to scoot just a little to the side and make room for our modest table. It worked out very well. Flo and I spent four-plus hours talking to dozens of people about humanism. We handed out upwards of 100 “What is Humanism” and “Humanist Manifesto” flyers and had 17 people sign up for free 3-month trial subscriptions to The Utah Humanist.
KRCL-91 FM is a public supported, non-commercial radio station. Programming is almost exclusively done by volunteers from the community. Programming by and for many diverse groups is heard weekly on KRCL. I wish to thank KRCL for the opportunity to put Humanists of Utah on public display. I also would like to encourage you to give KRCL a listen. If you tune in and are totally appalled–try again in an hour or two the next day. The programming changes drastically from hour to hour. Program guides are available to subscribers.
— Wayne Wilson