Y0K: Humor from the Internet
Are you still working on the Y zero K problem? This change from BC to AD is giving us a lot of headaches and we haven’t much time left. I don’t know how people will cope with working the wrong way around. Having been working happily downwards forever, now we have to start thinking upwards. You would think that someone would have thought of it earlier and not left it to us to sort it all out at this last minute.
I spoke to Caesar the other evening. He was livid that Julius hadn’t done something about it when he was sorting out the calendar. He said he could see why Brutus turned nasty. We called in the consulting astrologers, but they simply said that continuing downwards using minus BC won’t work. As usual, the consultants charged a fortune for doing nothing useful. As for myself, I just can’t see the sand in an hour glass flowing upwards. We have heard that there are three wise men in the East who are working on the problem, but unfortunately they won’t arrive until it’s all over. Some say the world will cease to exist at the moment of transition. Anyway we are still continuing to work on this blasted Y zero K problem and I will send you a parchment if anything further develops.
Discussion Group Report
Why Do So Many Bright Persons Believe
So Many Dumb Things?
By Richard Layton
The question in the title of this article raises an intriguing question, one of several that were raised at a Council for Media Integrity conference in Los Angeles on November 14, 1998. Other questions raised there were: Is there empirical evidence that portrayals of the paranormal really do have an influence on what people believe? Do the media have a responsibility to maintain balanced reporting? Why do the media hype the unexplained while casting science in a negative light? Is there any hope that the situation will change?
Here are some opinions expressed by conference speakers:
STEVE ALLEN (author-entertainer): There has been a loss of cultural standards in the media. Television and radio have succumbed to vulgarity, the “Howard Stern-ization” of entertainment. The loss of standards encroaches on media treatment of science. “Why do so many bright people believe so many dumb things?” Part of the problem rests with Hollywood writers, who may want to produce intelligent stories using science but lack the basic knowledge.
JUSTIN GUNN (twenty-something Hollywood insider): Television producers don’t aim to give science short shrift but are simply reacting to perceived viewer demand and response. The paranormal is treated uncritically because sensationalized presentations gain high ratings. The quest for ratings has blurred the line between hard news and entertainment. Tabloid journalism shows like Inside Edition and A Current Affair are examples of how producers fell in love with easily packaged story lines and programming that streamlined costs and reduced staff size. “With ratings controlling content and few qualified editors available to review reports, the need to generate controversy is paramount regardless of the actual events or facts of a story.”
TREY STOKES (special effects artist and a skeptic with a comedic flair): After the airing of the Fox network show, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction, Stokes set up a Web site to address the numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the footage. He polled the opinions of fellow effects artists on its authenticity and found none who supported the alien body as genuine. Similar alien autopsy videos have since popped up in Canada, Europe, and Argentina.
PETER BONERZ (TV director of Friends, Murphy Brown, and Home Improvement): His cynical take on the paranormal fads of Southern California was not always appreciated. There is a desire among producers to favor mystery over science.
JERE LIPPS (University of California at Berkeley) Passionately indicted the media for promoting scientific illiteracy and superstition. National Research Council statistics describe 98 percent of Americans as scientifically illiterate. The media are the major cause. “Television is allowed to run rampant over science.” The media are central to reinvigorating interest in science. Film and television “ignore the beauty and excitement of science and scientists, turning a blind eye to a wealth of viable subjects” that are “creative, inspiring, thrilling, intriguing and fun.” A drama with scientists as central characters similar to ABC’s ER could be just as dynamic, successful, and entertaining, while inspiring generations of Americans. For an example of positive potential media images of science, visit the popular paleontology Web site at: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu.
WILLIAM EVANS (Georgia State University): Television and film have frequently portrayed science and scientists as inhibiting progress, deranged, and villainous. Research suggests that positive portrayals of scientists are rare. Scientists are the occupational group in dramas most likely to kill or be killed. They are usually depicted as physically peculiar, socially incompetent, neglectful of family and friends, and unable to initiate or maintain romantic relationships. Science is portrayed not only as dangerous but as useless in solving problems. Scientists are stubborn, dogmatic, or idiotic, and only after they have been “removed” from the action can the paranormal danger be eliminated. These negative presentations of science appear to affect viewer opinions. One study found that habitual TV viewers are more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that scientists are dangerous, that they are odd and peculiar, and that a career in science is undesirable. Visit his Web site at http://www2.gsu.edu/~jouwee/evans.html.
GLENN SPARKS (Purdue): Presented empirical evidence that media portrayals of the paranormal can influence public belief. However, any type of disclaimer before a television program may trigger a more critical reception from audiences. For summaries of his research, look in the Summer 1994 and July/August 1998 issues of Skeptical Inquirer.
Suggestions made by these speakers to bring good science to television and the media are: to write letters of protest to publication editors and news producers about bad science or hype, to contact television reviewers or offer to write reviews ourselves, to issue statements about bad science, to provide science stories to television news and newspapers, to petition the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences to institute a “Best Science” category, to lecture and discuss the need for sound media presentations of science with teachers, to produce television drama that features the work and lives of scientists, to do a “strategic framing” of the science and media question into that of a consumer angle, and to conduct further research and publicity surrounding the link between media depictions and paranormal belief. Television dramas that feature the work and lives of scientists are in the works through efforts by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, with some money going to NYPD Blue, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ongoing discussions with the entertainment industry are continuing. The Council for Media Integrity is proactively working for balanced presentations of science in the media. Their Web site is http://www.csicop.org/cmi. For a discussion of the vulnerability of children to media promotion of the paranormal and bad science, read the recently published book Mommy, I’m Scared by Joanne Cantor.
Discussion Group Report
Why Are We So Different?
-A Canadian View-
By Richard Layton
A recent survey by a leading Canadian pollster, Angus Reid, of 3,000 American and 3,000 Canadian adults shows the following percentages answered “yes” in these comparisons (Canadian percentages listed first, Americans second): religion an important part of one’s life 58% and 79%; pray weekly, 47% and 71%; attend church weekly, 21% and 40%; read the Bible weekly, 21% and 43%; the Bible is God’s word, 28% and 55%, religion important to your political thinking, 19% and 41%; would vote for an atheist as government leader, 72% and 43%; would vote for a Muslim as government leader, 74% and 62%.
Don Page, a Canadian and former editor of The Humanist, in his article with the same name as this one in Humanism Today, volume 11, 1997, claims that Canadians are profoundly different from Americans in their religious commitment and expression and that they are among the leading Western countries in progressing toward the tolerant, secular and open society espoused by humanists. Why has Canadian society developed in this way while the United States is the most overtly religious and the least secular of Western countries? Readers will probably, as Discussion Group members in this month’s meeting did, have differing views on Page’s suggested answers to this question.
He says Canadians and Americans have fundamentally different histories. Canada inherited from Britain an empirical (evolutionary) approach to government and emphatically rejected the American idealistic (revolutionary) approach. “Americans have as secular a constitution as can be found anywhere–on paper. But human nature is perverse where prohibitions are involved, so that the practical result can be very different from that which was intended.”
Canada’s more empirical approach to its social institutions has allowed its society to become profoundly secular in a practical sense that American society has not. Contrary to the American view of Canada, the French-speaking and English-speaking parts of Canada are two communities that have been joined historically by a very strong tie–their mutual rejection of American-style libertarianism. The people of Quebec will vote for separate sovereignty only when it can be achieved while maintaining a close association with the rest of Canada, following the model of the European union. They have much more in common with each other than with their American neighbor. Except for the six million “true Quebecois” who wish to form an ethnic nation, Canada is a modern, cosmopolitan, democratic, new world state made up of a bewildering array of ethnic groups, more or less integrated. Richard Gwyn concludes that Canada is emerging as a new kind of nation-state. It is becoming the first truly postmodern society, the most open, pluralistic, multiethnic, multicultural society on the world scene. It exists as an act of will–to build a more gentle and ordered society than that of its American neighbor.
“The difference in the understanding and practice of pluralism,” says Page, “is one of the reasons why Canadian and American religious norms differ–and in particular, why Canadian society is so much more secular in practice.” The Canadian political culture reflects a classic social democracy on the European model–a result of the fact that Canadians never accepted the philosophy of individualism espoused in the American Declaration of Independence. Over succeeding generations, Canadian society developed and democratized more gradually, through an evolutionary process. Canadian society retains that organic characteristic that distinguishes a social democracy from the liberal American model, where the individual is held to be supreme and independent. This fundamental difference explains the distinctive characteristics that Americans notice about Canada–the relative absence of crime, the higher respect for governmental authority, making possible the enforcement of gun-control laws and the like–and the expectation of a social role for government in aspects of life such as the health care system with Medicare for everyone. “This organic quality in a social democracy is due to the imbedded sense of being a collective–or extended family” he opines. There is a sense of government as “us,” in contrast to the “they” in the American attitude.
Page offers the explanation that the high incidence of conservative religious beliefs and narrow attitudes held by Americans that are disappearing elsewhere may be related to the American interpretation of separation of church and state. Statutory forms of prohibition usually lead to stubborn resistance by those affected and can only be effectively enforced if they have the support of an overwhelming majority of the population. It seems clear to an outside observer that the First Amendment is a constant spur that energizes the sizable minority of evangelical Christians. It is counterproductive to humanist objectives–leading to an endless social war and preventing real secularity in the U.S.
Why is success so elusive in the United States while pluralistic secularism is becoming the norm in the rest of the developed world? Page says the answer must be found in the structural differences between the United States and other countries. The U.S. is unique in being a libertarian democracy rather than a social democracy and in its rigid constitutional prohibitions regarding religion. In Canada taxes are used to support religious as well as secular schools. Its concern is with an end result using a different criterion. Canadians say, let humanists in each country do what is necessary to ensure that the system is fair to them. According to Page, “An idealistic mindset makes it difficult to see the other’s viewpoint–and in its pathological form it makes compromise impossible.” He charges that American idealism is the destructive factor in the American humanist movement.
Page’s views are provocative and deserve consideration, but in reading them, I found myself asking, would eliminating the First Amendment requirement for separation of church and state really change the minds of many American Christian Fundamentalists about their determination to make America a Christian state?
Discussion Group Report
Was Jesus Man or Myth?
By Richard Layton
“Was Jesus Christ man or myth?” asks Charles Bradlaugh in his essay, “Who was Jesus Christ?” “Born of a virgin and of divine parentage? So too were many mythic Sun-gods and so was Krishna, a Hindu god, whose story, similar in many respects with that of Jesus, was current long before the Christian era.”
A booklet, Our Pagan Christmas, by R. J. Condon, very readable for the general reader, elucidates these questions. “It is doubtful if those Christians who annually bemoan the festive season as pagan realize the extent to which they are right,” says Condon. In celebrating Christmas, we continue a practice of our remote ancestors that began many centuries before the coming of Christianity.
Romans of various creeds celebrated Saturnalia from the 17th to the 24th of December. At that time slaves changed places with their masters, and all kinds of license was permitted. Then on December 25th there was a great feast, the Brumalia, when parties were given and presents exchanged. This day was called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, when the sun, three days after reaching its lowest point on its annual course, began to rise higher in the sky indicating the coming end of winter, when animal and plant life, necessary for life, would flourish anew. The sun-god Mithra had many followers in Rome. At midnight at the beginning of December 25th, the Mithraic temples were lit up with priests in white robes at the altars, and boys burning incense, much as we see in Roman Catholic churches at midnight on Christmas Eve at the present time. Mithra’s worshippers believed that he had come from heaven to be born as a man in order to redeem men from their sins and that he had been born of a virgin on December 25th. Shepherds were the first to learn of his birth, just as shepherds are said, according to “Luke,” to have been the first told of Jesus’ birth. Then would come a meal representing the Last Supper when Mithra ate with his disciples before ascending to heaven. The German Yule and the Jewish Hanukah were also winter solstice festivals. The Egyptians believed that their god, Horus, was born of a virgin as the savior of mankind and was cradled in a manger. Egyptian statues from centuries before Jesus was born showing the infant god Horus with his virgin mother Isis standing alongside were remarkably similar to later statues of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Until the fourth century, the Christians stood aloof, protesting that the birth of Christ could not have been fixed on so notorious a day as that of so many pagan sun-gods, but once they garnered enough power to silence their rivals, they brazenly announced that henceforth the birth of the Sun of Righteousness would be celebrated on the day of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
The Nativity story itself was borrowed from paganism. The story of The Annunciation, the Conception, the Birth, and the Adoration of Jesus as told by Luke’s gospel were all depicted about 1700 BCE on the wall of the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Amen at Luxor, built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III. And, oh yes, The Three Kings or Wise Men from the east were known to the Egyptians ages before they are supposed to have followed a star to Bethlehem. On a clear evening in midwinter, looking eastward we see the most striking of all the constellations in the sky, the three stars in Orion’s belt pointing to the east from where they came, as if announcing a marvel. Then the marvel comes. Sirius, the most brilliant in all the heavens, rises in the east in line with those three stars. To the Egyptians, it was the most important of all the stars; they regulated their calendars by its rising. At one period in Egypt, it reached its highest point at midnight on December 24. Astronomically speaking, the Three Kings had “seen his star in the East.”
The legends of the stable at Bethlehem, the crib, and the manger, and the star of Bethlehem all have their origins in Greek, Egyptian, Buddhist, Hindu, Persian, and Roman mythology. The prototype of King Herod’s massacre of innocent children can be found in Exodus 1:15-22; the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus; the legends of Krishna and Jason; and the story of Abraham and King Nimrod. The “dangerous child” is the infant sun-god, who is destined to destroy the evil tyrant, Winter. The name Christ may be traced to the Chaldean Chris, a name of the sun. Races as far apart as the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Etruscans, the Teutons, and the Scandinavians all knew the virgin-mother goddess. There can be little doubt that the Virgin Mary has been modeled directly upon the Egyptian goddess Isis, for the two are virtually indistinguishable. Both were gentle mothers who could intercede with the all-powerful creator and stern judge more effectively than their sons, and they have been styled Intercessor. Titles shared by both are Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Savior of Souls, and Immaculate Virgin.
Also pagan are such time-honored customs as the pantomime of the Christmas mumming play, the Christmas tree, mistletoe and holly, the boar’s head Christmas dish, the Christmas goose, mince pies, and Christmas pudding–the fun Christmas customs. The pagans, in their appreciation of and respect for nature and her cycles and the joyous, “human” aspect of life, seem to have discovered something worthwhile that has lasted through the ages.
Discussion Group Report
The Village Atheist Syndrome
By Richard Layton
Some humanists say Vern and Bonnie Bullough suffer from a dysphoria called the Village Atheist Syndrome, described in their article named after it. The Bulloughs say the village atheist is a figure who is often found in fictional and non-fictional works. He or she is a nonbeliever who proclaims atheism in small communities made up of devoted and unquestioning believers. In outward appearances the persons afflicted are no different from anyone else. They hold respectable positions in society, have normative family affiliations, and do most of the things other people of their age or economic condition do.
A few psychologists have suggested that the syndrome could be classified as a form of obsessive compulsive behavior. A good place to observe this type of behavior, say the Bulloughs, is in board and committee meetings of humanist and free thought organizations. Sometimes in such settings the individual becomes so dominating, we might even say irrational, that the proceedings are totally disrupted. Certain words, for example, “God” or “religion” seem to set them off, sometimes with a reaction so severe that it seems to be an apoplectic attack. The symptoms also seem to become more severe with age, although beginning at age 80 there is a gradual decline in the response pattern.
The most obvious symptom, the authors go on, is an inability to compromise, to get along with others. This is first noticed where the village atheist is attempting to get his/her way. It has been suggested that a genetic factor may be involved in the development of this syndrome. If so, it must be carried on one portion of an X chromosome and is a recessive trait in females, where it can be overshadowed by the genetic inheritance on the paired X chromosome unless this, too, carries the trait. It would be dominant in males because it is not carried on the Y chromosome. This observation would explain why the syndrome is more prevalent in men and also why women with the syndrome suffer such severe dysphoria. Apparently when individuals with a proclivity for the syndrome find themselves among what they had believed to be like-minded free thinkers, they find themselves shocked and appalled to find that others disagree with them, often on major issues. This disagreement is marked by antisocial behavior, a clear mark of the village atheist syndrome. There is an almost total intolerance of “religious” belief by those afflicted. This hostility to religion is often accompanied by a feeling of superiority in their ability to function without religion. Sometimes this superiority is outright arrogance, which only the possessor of truth can have. At other times the arrogance seems accompanied by insecurity because the sufferers seem almost to lose control of their reason if a fellow humanist or free thinker does not view religion in the same way they do. In severe cases they seem almost to foam at the mouth, their voices rise, and their whole body shakes.
The pathogenesis of this syndrome seems to be as follows: There are many similarities in the backgrounds of persons with the syndrome. Often in the communities in which they live, they are the only professed free thinkers. They have gained a reputation for their free thinking, and although the locals cannot understand how they believe as they do, their place in the community as a dissident is recognized. They are often the lone voice; and, while few bother to listen to them, they are tolerated, and often the stands they take are adopted by others. The atheist often feels isolated from others and is suspicious of them. As humanists we tend to admire the person who is willing to stand up and be counted. When the village atheist joins a group of free thinkers, he is not sure how to act. Once you have disagreed with such a person on an issue, even in a minor way, it is almost impossible for him or her to trust you again. In a group of nonconformist humanist free thinkers, the village atheist is denied the position of nonconformist they held in their own communities, and so has to resort to ever more outrageous behavior to achieve it. The person afflicted also spends considerable time hunting up obscure facts and loses him/herself in detail and ignores the larger picture. This behavior is self-destructive and destructive to the free thought group.
A significant percentage of those with the village atheist syndrome were born into religiously orthodox traditions. Usually they themselves were very religious. As they found more and more errors and superstitions in their religion, they became real experts on various systems of belief. Rejecting religion was difficult for them, since usually it meant breaking with their family and loved ones; in many cases the trauma was severe. Viewing what their own commitment to free thought has cost them, they find it difficult to accept those who arrived at a free thought pattern more casually. Not infrequently the new convert to free thought, like any other convert, is convinced that he/she has the truth and believes erroneously that others would also believe as the atheist does if they were presented with the facts. When the others don’t, and the atheists are forced to keep quiet with the others about such issues, they often become embittered about religion. Although they might compromise in their own communities, giving nominal lip service to community customs, to compromise as a free thinker because other free thinkers do not agree with them is an idea that is overwhelming to them. Much of their hostility is directed at their fellow free thinkers, particularly those who claim that humanism is a religion.
How can the syndrome be treated? The first step for free thinkers is to recognize that all of us are carriers of some elements of the syndrome. Second, we should recognize the emotional trauma that some of us had to go through to become humanists and free thinkers. We should also recognize that not everybody is willing to undergo such a process but, rather, prefer to drift, to retain old contacts, and to gradually change their beliefs without making any sudden or dramatic break. This is demonstrated by the decline in religious commitment all across the spectrum and the willingness of a larger and larger number of churches to emphasize fellowship and good feeling rather than doctrine. It might be easier in the future for many to break away from traditional religion. Whether or not this happens, we need to have the very elements that exist in the village atheist in order to survive. But we also need to learn to cooperate with each other. We need to emphasize the diversity of the humanist camp. There is room for all kinds of organizations with slightly different approaches and backgrounds, as well as organizations which hold us together for the common good, such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union or the North American Committee for Humanism; and we need to keep a core belief, that humans are the key to their own future, and the problems we create have to be solved by us. Moreover, there is a need to curtail some of the isolation under which many humanists live. The Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association have sponsored traveling seminars which have made it possible for those living far away from a humanist free thought group to meet and discuss important topics. The various humanist and atheist communities of Los Angeles have organized an annual get together where they can socialize and exchange ideas. Humanists can form centers, similar to the Jewish Community Centers, where free thinkers can get together for more social occasions and joint programs occasionally. We need joint educational programs for the young, since growing up in a free thinking family tends to isolate them from community activities. We need humanist coffee houses, book stores, social events, dating services, homes for senior citizens; and we need to put a humanist imprint on dealing with the world’s problems. If we join other existing secular organizations, we should put a humanist imprint on them. Very importantly, we need to recognize the village atheist syndrome in ourselves and in others and offer each other support that will help us on the way to recovery. “We want,” say the Bulloughs, “and need most of the characteristics which go into the village atheist syndrome, but we need to curtail the destructiveness that results from those who have the most serious dysphoria.”
Discussion Group Report
Transcendentalism or Empiricism
Which Will Triumph?
By Richard Layton
“Physics has very little to say about the conjunction of science and religion, beyond what it has already said: namely, that the entire material universe is ultimately obedient to a small number of physical laws. The origin of those laws remains an open and possibly unanswerable question: whether or not energy and law were designed by a heavenly creator–in other words, a cosmological god or god-equivalent force, as conceived in the world view of deism. This line of reasoning leads back to the problem that interested the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists like Einstein, who said that what interested him most is whether God must obey his own laws.”
With this statement the eminent world authority on biodiversity and the evolution of social behavior, Edward O. Wilson, introduces his article, “The Two Hypotheses of Human Meaning,” in The Humanist, September-October ’99.
Biology and the social sciences have everything to say about the relation of science and religion because they address with growing clarity the origin of mind and the relation of mind to culture, and thence the origin and meaning of religious belief itself. The central question in the relationship of science and religion is: Are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental? Do they exist apart from human contrivance awaiting discovery, as the laws of physics do? Or are they instead contrivances of the human mind and culture arising from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution? This latter empiricist worldview of the human condition increasingly is being addressed by biologists and social scientists, as well as some liberal theologians whose attention has been focused on the study of mind and evolution by the advance of science.
Spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and are apparently necessary parts of the human condition, even if they assume an atheistic or deistic rationale. The inability of secular humanist thinkers to satisfy this instinct, even with evidence and reason on their side, is part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But truth is not settled by a poll. Does the power and universality of the instinct mean that religious behavior and spirituality are transcendental? Or does their strength merely mean that we cannot see their origins clearly and distinctly, that we have to rely on novel analytic methods to grasp how the whole system works? If science, the most efficient means of acquiring and verifying objective knowledge ever devised, cannot take the citadel, the religious part of the mind, where will this failure leave theology and the great world religious traditions? Intact, with continued validation by means of authority through alleged divine authorship. But if it can take the citadel, where does that leave theology? Still culturally astride one of the most important domains of human behavior but forced to base its authority more upon empirical evidence and reason than upon claims of divine guidance plainly contradicted by the evidence.
As much as the great majority of people might wish otherwise, the evidence points increasingly to the correctness of the empiricist world view and away from the existence of a supreme designer who had anything to do with the origin of the human species–except, perhaps, as a bemused spectator of a grand experiment begun twelve to fifteen billion years ago when the physical laws of the universe were first manifested, a spectator who makes no response to our travail and prayers. The empiricist world view will be hotly disputed, and it should be. But it would be foolish to deny its existence and say, as a few scientists have, pandering to popular opinion it sometimes seems, that science has its domain and that all existence can be cleaved, as Pope Alexander VI did in 1493 in his recommendation to the Castilian monarchs.
Meanwhile, we would do very well to bring into concert the most powerful voices in the world today–those of science and religion–to achieve what we can agree are some morally compelling goals. One such is the preservation of the natural environment, which well-informed scientists and religionists both are agreed is being destroyed by human action.
And what of the contest between the empiricist and transcendentalist views? What is new in our understanding of the world is that these two views are competing hypotheses and that it is within our power to prove one or the other to be correct but not both. Some thoughtful writers say such an important issue cannot be that simple. But the time has come to say yes, it can be that simple. Science should not flank, as it has been doing, the case of spiritual and moral authority. This distinction is the central intellectual question of humanism. The clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses–transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the 21st century’s version of the struggle for human souls. The winner of this struggle will be empiricism with the recognition that while we evolved to believe one truth, in the end with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth.
We can say to the transcendentalists that there is a thousand times more to the human condition–more history, more complexity, more nobility–than you thought. There is more to being human than dreamt in your philosophy. And humanity has opened the way to base spirituality and ethics on a more rational, benign foundation. As a biological species we got where we are alone, we will flourish or die as a species together alone, and our reverence is therefore better directed not to tribal gods and iron age mythologies–which were conceived in the brutal Darwinian past and still carry the stench of arrogance and oppression that made them possible–but to each other, our species, our intellect, our planet, and our future together.
Discussion Group Report
Thomas Paine: A Bright Light From the Enlightenment
By Richard Layton
“…when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail,” declared Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason. “Every part of science, whether connected with the geometry of the universe, with the systems of animal and vegetable life, or with the properties of inanimate matter, is a text as well for devotion as for philosophy–for gratitude as for human improvement. It will perhaps be said, that if such a revolution in the system of religion takes place, every preacher ought to be a philosopher. Most certainly; and every house of devotion a school of science.”
Here he shows the optimism for the human race which was characteristic of the Enlightenment, if people would base their search for truth on the use of reason. He strongly emphasized science as the trustworthiest source for knowledge and understanding. As a deist, he argued that the true Bible was the Creation itself, not the Old and New Testaments. He believed in a Creator but denied the interference of the Creator with the laws of the Universe. Perhaps, if he had lived after Darwin’s theory of evolution was published, he would have been an unbeliever. He certainly was humanistic in that his ideas centered on human interests and values and stressed an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.
The Age of Reason was a brilliant expose of the absurdities, the contradictions, the glorification of tyranny and violence, and the frauds of the Old and New Testaments.
“The disordered state of the history in those four books [The Gospels],” he said, “the silence of one book on matters related in the other, and the disagreement that is to be found among them implies that they are the production of some unconnected individuals, many years after the things they pretend to relate, each of whom made his own legend; and not the writings of men living intimately together, as the men called the apostles are supposed to have done–in fine, that they have been manufactured, as the books in the Old Testament have been, by other persons than those whose names they bear…”
“The story [the fable of Jesus Christ], taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene.
“It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement she is, to speak plain language debauched by a ghost, under the impious pretense that ‘the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.’ Notwithstanding which, Joseph afterward marries her, cohabits with her as his wife, and in his turn rivals the ghost. This is putting the story into intelligible language, and when told in this manner, there is not a priest but must be ashamed to own it.
“Obscenity in matters of faith, however wrapped up, is always a token of fable and imposture; for it is necessary to our serious belief of God that we do not connect it with stories that run, as this does, into ludicrous interpretations. This story is upon the face of it, the same kind of story as that of Jupiter and Leda, or Jupiter and Europa, or any of the amorous adventures of Jupiter; and shows…that the Christian faith is built upon the heathen mythology…”
“Were any girl that is now with child to say, and even to swear it, that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Of course not. Why then are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where. How strange and inconsistent it is, that the same circumstance that would weaken the belief even of a probable story should be given as a motive for believing this one, that has upon the face of it every token of absolute impossibility and imposture!”
One of the Founding Fathers of our nation, Paine wrote the marvelous pamphlets that played so important a role in stirring up the people to rebel against the British in the American Revolution, and then he went to France to support their Revolution. He was imprisoned under horrible conditions and almost lost his life when he took a humanitarian stance against executing the aristocracy. After returning to America, he was reviled and persecuted for his views about religion and ignored by such luminaries as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yet his influence in behalf of liberty, democracy, and science, as well as against the tyranny that comes from a lack of separation of church and state, has been significant.
Taslima Nasrin has not asked for financial assistance, but she could use funds to help her further her causes. In January, the 36-year-old Bangladeshi physician barely escaped from Islamic fundamentalists who call her an atheist and who placed a fatwa on her head and hunted her in order to kill her in a Dhaka public square. Now safely in Sweden, she cannot practice medicine and receives funds only from speaking and from poetry royalties.
Once the subject of a “60 Minutes” telecast and featured in Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Women Without Superstition: No Gods–No Masters, Nasrin is interviewed in the current Winter 1998/99 Free Inquiry. She has variously been termed “the most dangerous woman in the world,” “the 20th Century Humanist Heroine,” “Asia’s Antigone,” and “the female Salman Rushdie.”
Dr. Nasrin’s homepage with photos and samples of her poetry are located here
–Warren Allen Smith
Replies to “Pernicious Philosophy”
The first published response to “Pernicious Philosophy” was written by chapter member Virginia Leonard and published in the Salt Lake Tribune August 11, 1999.
We all have reason to be grateful for the “pernicious philosophy” of secular humanism that Jess Bushman holds in such fear and contempt (Forum, July 30).
Religious diversity, the right to private judgment, the necessity of free inquiry are essential ingredients of democracy and guaranteed by our Constitution. Escaping ignorance and superstition has never been without controversy.
Chapter president Flo Wineriter’s response was published August 13, 1999
In response to Jess R. Bushman’s “Pernicious Philosophy” (Forum, July 30), I challenge him to quote even one sentence in the Constitution of the United States indicating that the founders of our nation were influenced by Christianity or intended for this land to be a Christian nation, or that makes any mention of its being a religious document.
To the contrary, I cite Article VI of our Constitution, paragraph 2, which clearly states that the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance to it and all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the law of the land, and paragraph 3, which says “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”
Regarding his insinuation that secular humanism lacks moral standards and is a destructive influence on society, I point out that Humanism is committed to rational thought, responsible behavior and compassion; human dignity, community involvement and peaceful conflict resolution. Humanists do believe that moral values are not the special property of any religious tradition.
If he and others are sincere about a careful examination of the origin and influence of Humanism, I suggest they begin by reading Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Stuart Mill. For an understanding of contemporary Humanism, go to www.HumanistsOfUtah.org.
I wholeheartedly agree with Bushman on two things: (1) The U.S. Constitution is one of the greatest documents human minds have created, and (2) everyone should take time to study the Constitution and fully understand it.
Board Member Earl Wunderli’s response was published August 14, 1999
I certainly agree with Jess Bushman’s view (Forum, July 30) that the U.S. Constitution “played a major role in making our country great,” but I disagree with just about everything else he wrote.
I fail to see how he could urge us to study the Constitution and then extol its “religious emphasis.” The Constitution is a secular document. It was inspired more by such 18th-century Enlightenment ideas as reason, equality and freedom than anything else, including the Christian religion. It does not mention God. It states that no religious test shall be a qualification for public office. It requires the government’s strict neutrality on matters of religion, erecting, as Jefferson wrote, a wall of separation between church and state. Because of this, the Supreme Court has prohibited prayer in public (not private) schools and displays of the Ten Commandments on government (not private) property. And because of this, we can practice any religion or no religion as we choose. This freedom is one of the great strengths of our country.
As for secular humanism, Bushman would do well to understand rather than demonize what he opposes. According to the American Humanist Association, for example, secular humanists believe in the dignity of each human being, individual liberty, social responsibility, participatory democracy, open societies, human rights and social justice. Yes, they are nontheistic and believe that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny, but they also believe in all the basic moral values such as integrity, honesty, and fairness, and believe that schools should teach these values. Therefore, Bushman is wrong in stating that because of secular humanism, “moral integrity is no longer a major issue for consideration in the teaching of our children.” If he has in mind his particular religious moral code, then the Constitution itself would prohibit teaching it, and secular humanists would agree.
Chapter member James Carroll’s letter has not been published yet.
In his July 30th letter to the editor (“Pernicious Philosophy”) Jess Bushman asks the question “Do you fully understand the Constitution…?”, and then goes on to show that he clearly does not. He claims that Americans do not have prayer and the 10 Commandments in school because of Secular Humanism when in fact it is because his beloved U.S. Constitution that he maintains is a Christianity-inspired document. I wonder how he squares this view with the 1797 statement (Treaty with Tripoli) by framers of the Constitution that “…the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
Mr. Bushman goes on to ask “do you realize that the Constitution is being misinterpreted and abused by many individuals and organizations seeking political and monetary gain?” It has likely ever been thus, but the current abusers appear to be Christian revisionists like Mr. Bushman, and not the Secular Humanists he supposes. Thankfully the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution is not these individuals or organizations but an entity created by the Constitution itself-the U.S. Supreme Court.
Discussion Group Report
Religion and Public Education
By Richard Layton
The Religious Freedom Amendment, strongly opposed by education organizations, mainstream religious groups, and civil liberties groups, failed to get enough votes to pass in the U.S. House of Representatives this past June. It would have embroiled school districts and communities in prolonged divisive conflicts over religious activities in the classroom, and it would have cleared the way for massive tax support to sectarian and other institutions.
In an article with the same title as the present one, Edd Doerr, the executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, describes the current status of the controversy over separation of church and state. He says that two weeks after the above-mentioned vote, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held the first of three hearings and concluded that the relevant Supreme Court rulings and other developments have pretty much brought public education into line with the religious neutrality required by the First Amendment and the increasingly pluralistic nature of our society. “A fair balance has been established between the free exercise rights of students and constitutional obligations of neutrality.”
In 1995 the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines called “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” which grew out of another publication that same year by a broad coalition of 36 religious and civil liberties groups. Julie Underwood of the National School Boards Association says inquiries to her organization about what is or is not permitted have dropped almost to the vanishing point since the publication of the former document. That same year President Clinton directed the secretary of education to send the guidelines to every school district. They have proved useful to school boards, administrators, teachers, students, parents and religious leaders. Following is a summary of them.
Permitted: “Purely private religious speech by students”; nondisruptive individual or group prayer, grace before meals, religious literature reading, student speech about religion or anything else, including that intended to persuade, so long as it stops short of harassment; private baccalaureate services; teaching about religion; inclusion by students of religious matter in written or oral assignments where not inappropriate; student distribution of religious literature on the same terms as other material not related to school curricula or activities; some degree of right to excusal from lessons objectionable on religious or conscientious grounds, subject to applicable state laws; off-campus released time or dismissed time for religious instruction; teaching civic values; student-initiated “equal access” religious groups of secondary students during noninstructional time.Prohibited: School endorsement of any religious activity or doctrine; coerced participation in religious activity; engaging in or leading student religious activity by teachers, coaches, or officials acting as advisors to student groups; allowing harassment of or religious imposition on “captive audiences”; observing holidays as religious events or promoting such observance; imposing restrictions on religious expression more stringent than those on non-religious expression; allowing religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day.Required: “Official neutrality regarding religious activity.”Secretary Riley urged school districts to use the guidelines or to develop their own, preferably in cooperation with parents, teachers, and the “broader community.” President Clinton on May 30 declared, “Since we’ve issued these guidelines, appropriate religious activity has flourished in our schools, and there apparently has been a substantial decline in the contentious argument and litigation that has accompanied this issue for too long.”
There remain three areas in which problems continue: proselytizing by adults in public schools, music programs that fall short of the desired neutrality, and teaching appropriately about religion.
The late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan summed up the constitutional ideal neatly, “It is implicit in the history and character of American public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort–an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic.”
“We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives,” says the author in the prologue of this book. Much of the blame he places on forces opposed to humanism but some recognized humanists have contributed to the problem. He calls for a renewed focus on the goals of the Enlightenment Philosophies: reason, freedom, and science. Bookchin makes some strong statements contrasting “science” and “scientism.” He defines “science” as disciplines dealing with external realities that can be systematized into verifiable, testable, and predictable laws while “scientism” deals with speculative theories of human activities. He then claims that E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Paul Ehrlich are posing as scientist but practicing scientism! His challenge of these sacred personages of humanism will keep your attention and generate some serious thinking regarding his conclusions concerning the human evolutionary biological and sociological potential.
We have just celebrated the beginning of our great nation. The Constitution played a major role in making our country great.
Do you fully understand the Constitution and do you realize that the Constitution is being misinterpreted and abused by many individuals and organizations seeking political and monetary gain?
The Constitution was clearly constructed under the influence of the Christian religion and that influence played a major role in determining what it is composed of. We need to remember that the Constitution was considered to be the greatest political document ever written by man and its influence has been felt throughout the world.
We have allowed secular humanism, an atheistic organization, to displace the Christian influence in our schools and in our society.
We must examine carefully the origin and present influence of secular humanism. For example, today because of secular humanism, prayer is not allowed in many schools, displays of the Ten Commandments, etc. are not allowed and moral integrity is no longer a major issue for consideration in the teaching of our children.
Secular humanism was the controlling doctrine of government in Russia under Lenin and Stalin. It failed completely and was associated with the loss of millions of lives. History clearly shows that secular humanism is of no benefit to mankind and we must do everything we can to prevent it from having any influence in our society today.
The United States Constitution with its religious emphasis played a major role in the growth and development of our country and it helped our country become the most powerful and influential country in the world today.
If you claim to be an American citizen, you must take the time to study the Constitution, be willing to stand up in defense of its principles, do all you can to remove the influence of secular humanism from our schools, and remove from our society all aspects of its destructive influence.
The Salt Lake Tribune published the following letter to the editor written by Jess R. Bushman of Provo on July 30, (also published in the Provo Herald, July 20, and in the Deseret News). The Utah Humanist, Humanists of Utah, and any other humanist publication or group obviously take exception to Dr. Bushman’s comments. Several letters with a more enlightened viewpoint have since been published. Other letters have been written but not published yet. These comments are contained inside this issue.
What Do Humanists Do?
Above all, humanists practice critical inquiry by regularly asking, “What do you mean? How do you know? and Why?” This requires listening, looking, and finding out what happens in the world around us. Secular and naturalistic constant questioning lets humanists sleep late on Sunday morning and eat dinner without prayer. Like scientists, we search for natural causes to events. We prefer information that comes from careful thinking about things we see, hear, or observe.
Maintaining relationships with other people requires respect for boundaries, truth telling, keeping promises, and expressions of interest. We cannot have quality lives without practicing basic ethical principles.
We solve problems by human effort and intelligence. This means we consider the facts, options, consequences, and feelings of people involved in an issue.
We practice democracy when we give input on decisions affecting us or encourage others to have input on decisions affecting them.
We have contact with people who do not share our values or background. We look for the things we have in common. We show others the kindness we hope to receive from them.
–by Derrick Strobl
Discussion Group Report
Loyalty and Its Conflicts
By Richard Layton
Is loyalty really a virtue? Joseph Chuman raises this question in an address, “Loyalty and Its Conflicts,” which he gave to the Ethical Culture Society on February 2, 1997. What often comes to mind are members of street gangs or of organized crime, who through powerful loyalty to their own think nothing of mugging and killing people who are not members of the gang; or maybe we think of mindless chauvinism, patriotism or nationalism, which declares its incorrigible allegiance to one group or nation. Loyalty to my own clan or nation used to justify the slaughter of those defined outside of it.
Loyalty seems to justify much negative and cynical behavior these days; it is often preceded by the adjectives “misguided,” “misplaced,” or “blind.” Loyalties seem to arise almost unconsciously from visceral ties which have more to do with chance than choice or deliberation. People often have strong loyalties to their families, clans, religions and countries, not because on any objective scale their associations are better than others, but merely because of an accident of birth. Loyalty often seems to be governed by arbitrary and not reflected upon associations, the strongest pre-rational.
Chuman suggests using the definition of loyalty proffered by Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, author of what is probably the only philosophic text on this subject, The Philosophy of Loyalty: “The willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” By this definition loyalty is not something blind; but rather it involves a free act of the will. One has to choose one’s loyalties or at least approve them. In the truest sense, loyalty is enlightened, not merely a matter of gut affinities. It is also practical. If you are loyal to a person or a cause, you need to mobilize it. If you don’t, it is worthless.
Chuman says loyalty also imposes upon us certain duties and obligations. We often think of duties as something negative that we would rather not deal with. But when we have a sense of loyalty, duty and personal desire no longer stand opposed to each other. What we have to do, we want to do. My love and loyalty transform the tasks I perform into an intrinsic expression of who I am. A sense of love and loyalty and of long-range commitments can have very basic personal payoffs for those who develop them.
The cultivation of personal loyalties can take us even into the realm of personal fulfillment. Cultivating happiness “has something to do with resonating with our inner voice, of marching to our distinctive drummer, of realizing our authentic potentialities, of acting in accordance with what the Greeks called our “daimon,” the defining sense of our self. Yet…a program of self-realization that remains unguided by anything outside of us remains shallow.”
When we anchor our best talents and efforts onto ideals, causes and persons to whom we are loyal, then we have accomplished several sublime tasks: We have helped define who we are to ourselves and others. He is a man of integrity; she is a woman of valor. Furthermore, if self-fulfillment alone is the glue which keeps us bonded to others, then we have created very shaky foundations. If we can see our human relations as commitments to something that transcends self-interest or individual fulfillment, then we have reached an understanding of loyalty which is far richer and deeper. We have opened a gateway to a type of spiritual appreciation which is also distinctively humanistic. “Spirituality in a humanist sense,” suggests Chuman, “understands grasping and working to realize the ideal which lies beneath the surface of things, how my helping the person in need not only helps the person but pushes forward the ideal of compassion; how my working to build a just society helps to bring to the light of day the justice which latently lies within the unjust realities to which I apply my best efforts. A spiritual sensibility about life emerges from being able to see the wheat within the chaff, the ideal within the actual.”
What about loyalty as it affects marriage? We can see marriage in one of three ways:
How should we deal with the problem when our own loyalties conflict with those of others? Professor Royce counseled not to attempt to demolish the other person’s loyalties in such situations, but rather to try to work things out through a larger resolution, which encompasses the loyalties of both, possibly involving compromise. “But,” says Chuman, “in some of the nitty-gritty conflicts of life this approach is not useful. If I’m a federal law-enforcement agent, I’m not really interested in preserving the loyalties of criminal gangs. In the resolution of many conflicts both with others and within ourselves, said Jean Paul Sartre, ‘There is no comforting way out.'”
“As we travel through life,” says Chuman, “we engage experience on many levels…But it is through our loves and loyalties to others and to the ideals which move us that over time our lives are nurtured and we achieve a meaning in life we could not find otherwise.”
Has Science Found God?
Contrary to a recent report in Newsweek, the answer is “no.” Religion’s approach to determining truth is contradictory to the scientific method; the vast majority of practicing scientists do not believe in a god; and recent scientific discoveries have not revealed any evidence for the existence of a god. If current scientific knowledge has any theological implications at all, it is that our universe is probably not the result of a personal Creator.
Consider the radically different ways of knowing things in science vs. religion:
Thus, although religious epistemology may sometimes reach the same conclusions as the scientific method, there is no guarantee that it will do so. Thus religious epistemology is inconsistent with the scientific method.
The vast majority of scientists are atheists or agnostics. According to a letter by EJ Larson and L Witham, just published in Nature 394:313, a recent survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences showed that 72% are outright atheists, 21% are agnostic and only 7% admit to belief in a personal God. Figures from an almost identical survey in 1914 and 1933 show a steady decline in God-belief among scientists.
Why is the percentage of scientists who believe in God so much lower than the general U.S. population? One possible explanation is that scientists understand (much better than the scientifically illiterate general population of the U.S.) that science offers no evidence for the existence of God. Big Bang cosmology only entails that our universe is expanding as the result of a cosmic explosion which took place billions of years ago. From this it does not follow that the Big Bang was caused by a god, much less a personal god. Indeed, most scientists hold just the opposite conclusion. As the late Carl Sagan said, if Big Bang cosmology is true, “there is nothing for a Creator to do.” But what about the claim that the universe must have been “fine-tuned” by a cosmic designer? Simply put, the argument begs the question. The argument assumes that the values of the physical constants of our universe (e.g., the speed of light) are extremely unlikely. But how could anyone know that? We have no idea how likely or unlikely variations in the physical constants are. We do not even know that the values of the constants are in fact “tunable!”
Although these points do not constitute a strict disproof of the existence of a personal God, the nonexistence of a personal God is the best explanation for these points. They support a naturalistic worldview.
To paraphrase a point made by Robby Berry, atheists and agnostics may find articles about “science finding god” upsetting, but there is a positive side to all this. Theists have tried to give scientific evidence for the existence of God. Their arguments may not be successful, but they clearly want others to think that their theism is supported by science. This in itself is a sign that skepticism is slowly but surely taking the place of faith. It wasn’t that long ago when the vast majority of religious believers simply ignored science, or condemned it outright. But nowadays, most theists are trying to make their religious claims appear scientifically sound. It would seem that science (and thus its methods) have gained the respect of a large proportion of the populace, such that science can no longer be ignored by those who don’t like its implications. As a result, Christians dare not condemn science outright; they must instead make it appear that science really agreed with them all along. Thus witness the onslaught of books attempting to integrate science and religion: Hugh Ross’s Fingerprint of God, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, J.P. Moreland’s (ed.) Creation Hypothesis, Patrick Glynn’s God: The Evidence, and so on. All of these are attempts to make it appear that science is on the Christians’ side.
So guess what? The skeptics are winning. While its still too early to toast our victory, we can take comfort in the fact that we’ve managed to dictate the terms of engagement.
–by Jeffery Jay Lowder, Internet Infidel
The Tribune’s editorial about Utah teachers’ pay (June 15) was welcome in identifying “the real reason there is not more money for schools: the higher number of children per household.” But like Mark Twain’s weather, we talk about it (occasionally) but do nothing about it. Envision Utah, for example, decided only to manage growth, not control it.
Well, someone has to stick his neck out if we’re ever going to address this problem. I suggest, at the risk of being run out of town, that society deny economic incentives for couples to have more than two children. Radical, I know, but our society today should be interested only in maintaining the population, not growing it. Parents who have more than two children should have to pay for them.
More specifically, our Legislature might consider that for a couple’s third child and beyond, born one year or more after the Legislature acts, tax exemptions would be eliminated and parents would pay the entire cost of educating such children. The one-year period would be, of course, so parents would not be penalized who already have more than two children, and so couples could plan their families in light of the new law.
I am writing in support of the actions of Kay Peterson, the principal of East High School. I am a retired AP Biology teacher. I taught at Kearns High School for 30 years. My children attend schools in Salt Lake City School District and both graduated from Highland High School. My children and I experienced in the schools, on an almost daily basis, the intense, irrational hatred of homosexuals. The worst epithet that a student can hurl is “faggot” and “dyke.” I heard it all the time and rarely do teachers or students try to stop this behavior.
My claim that it is irrational is based on the evidence from modern biology and psychology that homosexuality is not chosen. It is simply one of the endless ways that all of humanity is diverse. The hatred has its roots in Christianity and Mormonism in our particular community. I see a parallel here with Nazi Germany. If it were not for the anti-Semitism of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in Germany, Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism would never have taken root. Just as Germany, and much of the world, was blind to their own irrational hatred of Jews, so is this community blind to the hatred of homosexuals. The hatred is wrong and unjust.
I am very proud of the way that Kay Peterson, his choices and policy, took a stand against irrational hatred. I see Salt Lake City School District as being frightened to stand against this irrational hatred. That Kay Peterson received no support for his decision to allow a six-minute presentation about the discrimination against homosexuals at an assembly at East High School is appalling.
It sends a chilling message to teachers and administrators that if you take a stand against the irrational hatred of homosexuals you will be abandoned to face on your own the hateful judgments that Kay Peterson received. Kay Peterson’s courage to stand against irrational hatred is rare in this community.
— Richard Teerlink
The Humanists of Utah extend sympathy to Mary Schultz as she grieves the death of her husband Bill.
Bill Schultz, one of the original signers of the application to the American Humanist Association to form a Utah chapter, died New Years day. Bill served on our board of directors during our formative years. He helped to shape the policies and decisions that resulted in the Humanists of Utah being recognized nationally as one of the AHA’s outstanding chapters in its second year of operations. Bill was a student of ancient Greek and Roman history, and at age 70 he returned to the University of Utah to study Latin because he wanted to read Cicero in the original text. He was a stimulating, thoughtful humanist and his senior citizen charm will be missed.
The Humanists of Utah extend sympathy to Sue Bradford as she grieves the death of her husband Buzz Bradford. He died of a heart attack November 30th while returning from a trip to California.
Buzz and Sue have been chapter members for two years. He returned to Utah to live in his 132-year-old family home in Murray following his retirement as a geophysicist with Shell Oil Company. As a scientist and humanist, Buzz believed that the pursuit of truth is the highest and noblest human endeavor. He was a beacon of integrity. He made this world a better place.
Buzz was a strong supporter of humanism and Sue suggests contributions in his memory to our chapter’s Trust Fund.
Discussion Group Report
The Impeachment: A Contest for the American Soul
By Richard Layton
“Anyone who thinks the impeachment trial is just about William Jefferson Clinton, his behavior and his opponents should think again,” says Ken Ringle in the International Herald Tribune of January 21, 1999. Rather, the trial, “…according to a number of thinkers on language, ethics and history is one of the great morality plays of this century: a contest for the moral soul of the United States of America. It is not really about Monica Lewinski or Linda Tripp or lying or perjury or thong underwear and cigars in the oval office.” Nor is it about partisan political gamesmanship.
“It is about something far deeper and more basic to our culture,” says Jan Shipps, a historian of Christian conservatism. “It is about the behavioral boundaries once defined by class but increasingly in flux everywhere since World War II.” She, along with George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, posit that impeachment is a surrogate battleground for culture wars over issues from abortion and race to economics and gay rights.
Lakoff says the trial is about two very different but equally sincere ways of looking at and thinking and talking about American society, and it is not as simple as it is often pictured: Mr. Clinton’s baby boom generation against everyone else. Shipps says the baby boomers are the very ones fueling growth in fundamentalist churches.
Accountability and discipline are less important to liberals than nurturing is, opines Lakoff. “But to conservatives they are the foundation of American character: without them the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.” Clinton’s opponents argued for punishment of moral transgression. His defenders saw greater morality in leaving him in office to help the disadvantaged.
Shipps sees the roots of the nation’s political and cultural split not in the Woodstocks and riots of the 1960’s, but in the passage of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944. With its promise of college and home ownership for returning veterans, it “did what nothing else in history probably ever has: it transformed the class structure of an entire nation almost overnight. Sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers, often threadbare survivors of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, whose lives might well have duplicated their parents’ instead found themselves suburban college graduates living a middle class life style. The structures of class and community, both urban and rural, “pretty much defined acceptable limits of behavior” in the 1930’s, but the GI Bill boosted the majority of Americans into the middle class.
Lakoff views the baby boomer generation as reacting against the “stern father” governmental model of the president, which had served so well during the Great Depression and World War II. They demanded a different “nurturing parent” model, which recognized that plenty alone was not enough. To liberals moral authority comes from a president’s success in meeting public needs. This Clinton has done. To them Clinton is a moral president, however they may view him as a moral man. Conservatives believe that, if we close our eyes to a lying, philandering president, the republic is going to crumble.
Humanist Paul Kurtz also thinks the impeachment trial was manifestation of the clash of two cultures, but he identifies them differently than the aforementioned writers. Two contending conceptions are engulfing America–the humanistic morality, which prizes individual freedom and autonomy and the pre-modern conception, which has its roots in historical religious tradition. The humanist ethical principle, the core principle of large sectors of life in Western civilization, is “the right of privacy,” which states that society should respect the right of an individual to control his or her own personal life as long as he or she does not intrude upon or deny the rights of other individuals. Traditional morality is Biblical (or Koranic). It is guided by a set of absolute moral commandments. Some of its advocates would call upon the state to legislate moral conduct. The Christian Coalition of the United States and fundamentalist religions in other parts of the world are intent on overthrowing humanist morality and imposing a puritanical inquisition.
The new Puritans, says Kurtz, insist that the president should have no private life; he must be a Paragon of Virtue. He has committed two unpardonable sins: adultery and lying. “It is also apparent that many of those who wish to impeach the president also wish to fundamentally remake all our institutions; to solidify their control of Congress, the presidency, and the courts,” states Kurtz. “In my view, they pose a real threat to the very fabric of our society.”
The Two Hypotheses of Human Meaning
Physics has very little to say about the conjunction of science and religion, beyond what it has already said: namely, that the entire material universe is ultimately obedient to a small number of physical laws. The origin of those laws remains an open and possibly unanswerable question: whether or not energy and law were designed by a heavenly creator-in other words, a cosmological god or god-equivalent force, as conceived in the world view of deism. This line of reasoning leads back to the problem that interested the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists like Einstein, who said that what interested him most is whether God must obey his own laws. This is a fundamental problem, but it is far removed from the ordinary concerns of theology and the practice of religion and our everyday lives. On the other hand, biology and the social sciences have everything to say about the relation of science and religion, because they address with growing clarity the origin of mind and the relation of mind to culture, and thence the origin and meaning of religious belief itself.
It seems to follow that the central question-in the relation of science and religion is something else. It is as follows: are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental? In other words, do they exist apart from human contrivance awaiting discovery, in the way the laws of physics exist and await discovery?
Or, contrary to this transcendental metaphysics, which is the core of traditional theology, are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and ethical precepts instead contrivances of the human mind and culture arising from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution? This is the empiricist world view of the human condition, and to an increasing degree it is being addressed by biologists and social scientists, as well as some liberal theologians, whose attention has been newly focused on the study of mind and evolution by the advance of science.
There is no doubt that spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and, it appears, necessary parts of the human condition. We have a compelling instinct for religion and spirituality in some form or other, even if they assume an atheistic or deistic rationale. The inability of secular humanist thinkers to satisfy this instinct, even when evidence and reason are on their side, is surely part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But truth is not settled by a poll. Our attention is focused back on the important question: does the power and universality of the instinct necessarily mean that religious behavior and spirituality are transcendental-that is, exist outside of human contrivance, waiting to be discovered by human contemplation, grace, and revelation? Or, in contrast, does their strength merely mean that we cannot see the origins of religion and spirituality clearly and directly, just as we cannot understand the mind by introspection alone-that we have to rely on novel analytic methods to grasp how the whole system works? Of the study of mind, Charles Darwin said (and he could have been speaking most relevantly of the religious part of the mind) that the citadel cannot be taken by direct assault. We cannot know how the brain works, much less where it came from, by introspection and the sampling of our own emotions during visionary revelation.
If science-the most efficient means of acquiring and verifying objective knowledge ever devised-cannot take the citadel, if the empiricist worldview fails at this level, where will this failure leave theology and the traditions of the great world religions? Intact, with continued validation by means of authority through alleged divine authorship. But if science can take the citadel and plumb the organic function and origin of religious behavior to its evolutionary roots, as it seems set on doing, where does that leave theology? It leaves it still culturally astride one of the most important domains of human behavior but forced to base its authority more upon empirical evidence and reason than upon claims of divine guidance plainly contradicted by the evidence.
I’ve just mentioned physics and the cosmological god and the divine author conceived by deism. Now I will mention biology and its relation to the biological god, the author of theism, who has created humanity (or at least the human mind) and watches over our lives today-at least in the tradition of the great Abrahamic religions. What is happening, in my opinion, is that, as much as the great majority of people might wish otherwise, the evidence points increasingly to the correctness of the empiricist world view and away from the existence of a supreme designer who had anything to do with the origin of the human species-except, perhaps, as a bemused spectator of a grand experiment begun twelve billion to fifteen billion years ago when the physical laws of the universe were first manifested, a spectator who makes no response to our travail and prayers.
No doubt the empiricist worldview, taken to its logical conclusion, will be hotly disputed-and it should be. It is located in one of the eternally shifting, creative borderlands between science and religion-our intellectual ring of fire, so to speak, with volcanoes and tsunamis that episodically change the intellectual landscape. It would be foolish to deny its existence and say, as a few scientists have said, pandering to popular opinion it sometimes seems, that science has its domain and that all existence can be divided as the world was cleaved, on paper at least, by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 in his recommendation to the Castilian monarchs.
Meanwhile, as I have urged our many colleagues of different persuasions in the past, there are a number of moral issues on the near side of metaphysics, and we would do very well to bring into concert the most powerful voices in the world today-those of science and organized religion-to achieve what we can readily agree are morally compelling goals. One of the outstanding of these goals is the preservation of the natural environment, and most particularly the fauna and flora-the Creation, if you will, with a capital C. Religious traditionalists believe that the global biota were put here in one way or another by heavenly design, and secularists believe that it was self-assembled through evolution by natural selection. But both will agree, if at all informed, that the Creation is being destroyed by human action-for example, in the rain forests, which alone contain more than half the species on Earth-at the rate of about 0.25 percent per year. And the two sides will agree that, on this one issue at least, ultimate beliefs can be set aside in order to achieve a common goal that can be properly labeled, in one sense or another, as sacred. Whether from a God intimately concerned with the fall of each sparrow or the god of process theology immanent in all existence or a world that was exquisitely self-assembled by natural selection, the salvation of what we have been bequeathed deserves to be a primary precept.
Finally, how are we to assess the contest between the empiricist and transcendentalist views? As the century closes, what is new in our understanding of the world is that these two views are competing hypotheses, and testable hypotheses, and that it is within our power to prove one or the other to be correct but not both. Many thoughtful writers have said no, such an important issue as the meaning of God and of the spirit cannot be that simple. But the time has come to say yes, it can be that simple. Sometimes a seemingly impossible problem can be flanked, especially when it is composed mostly of metaphor, as this one is. That in essence is what science is doing in the case of spiritual and moral authority. This distinction, and the prospect it holds for clear thought, is the central intellectual question of humanism.
I believe that the clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses-transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the twenty-first century’s version of the struggle for human souls. I believe also that the winner of this struggle will be empiricism, with the recognition that, while throughout the genetic history of the human brain we evolved to believe one truth, in the end, with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth.
We can say to the transcendentalists that there is a thousand times more to the human condition-more history, more complexity, more nobility–than you thought. There is more to being human than dreamt in your philosophy. And having arrived at this position, humanity has opened the way to base spirituality and ethics on a more rational, benign foundation. As a biological species we got where we are alone, we will flourish or die as a species together alone, and our reverence is therefore better directed not to tribal gods and Iron Age mythologies-which were conceived in the brutal Darwinian past and still carry the stench of arrogance and oppression that made them possible-but to each other, our species, our intellect, our planet, and our future, together
Edward O. Wilson is a world authority on biodiversity and the evolution of social behavior A research professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University he is the author and editor of twenty books, two of which received Pulitzer Prizes. This article is adapted from his acceptance speech for the 1999 Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the American Humanist Association. The Humanist September/October 1999
Discussion Group Report
History Belongs to the Powers in Control
By Richard Layton
Those who control the directions society takes are those who control the words we hear and read maintains Patty Henetz in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune on May 2, 1999.
In earlier times history was forged in poetry. In the West troubadours mixed their traditional love songs with word of the land beyond the tiny rural villages where most people lived. Ordinary people, almost exclusively illiterate, memorized poetry and stories that contained all the information they needed to live–their family histories as well as ancient sagas.
“History, though, has always kneeled before power,”says Henetz. “The stories we accept today…have the earmarks of victors’ spoils. But as the new millennium approaches, it may be possible to loosen the hold the powerful have on knowledge.”
“History,” she quotes historian Rick Perlstein as saying, “embarrasses us, reminds us that it is first and foremost story, shifting and contingent, and that we are in its thrall.”
It is often said that a dog is man’s best friend. This stripped-down version of the bond between humans and canines isn’t quite the whole story. Crucial elements of the conventional wisdom have been purged from our memory. Traditional narrative points to women, not men, as the original domesticators of dogs. In pagan legends dogs were the companions of the Goddess in many different contexts. Our culture doesn’t remember all the parts of this story and ignores others.
“You know the old saying,” Peristein says, “History is written by the winners…How we communicate is always interrelated with power.”
Women’s stories suffered as Christians took control of the West. The parts of the Bible that asserted women’s equality were suppressed. The inherent wickedness of women was written into the Bible from its opening tale of the fall of man. In the sixth century churchmen even denied women had souls. Countless numbers of women who refused to renounce the stories of the old religions were murdered during the Inquisition. Women who might have remained non-Christian gave in and adopted the faith written by the men of the church. And even men who tried to sidestep papal authority were dealt with swiftly and harshly. The first men who published the Bible in the language of the ordinary people were burned at the stake.
The dark ages were a time of vast spiritual struggle during which religious and political leaders forcibly abolished the study of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and geography. Temples and libraries were smashed and burned, pagan intellectuals and teachers persecuted, and schools closed. Church control of information was nearly absolute because few beyond the monasteries were literate, and even there learning and writing was in Latin, which was not understood by the general public. For 1,500 years, writes historian Barbara G. Walker, “the church maintained a monopoly of written records, and virtually wrote its own history to its own order.” But the human impulse to share a good yarn persisted. It was the bards who preserved the scraps of history in spite of the suppression. Finally, a revival of interest in historical documents occurred. Paperwork became big business. Then the invention of the printing press brought about an immense change; it took information out of the hands of a few. The press pumped out 8 million books in its first 40 years of operation.
“Publishing allowed passionate stories wide circulation,” says Henetz. Information had forever slipped the bonds of the church moralists.
But a new kind of “uber-control” has emerged, she says. “Publishing today is increasingly ruled by gigantic multimedia corporations. As storytellers, they seem far less concerned about their hearts than their pockets. As institutions, they exert massive control over information, just like their church forebears. Television, but a half-century old, is the prophet of the age.”
Brenda Cooper, director of women’s studies at Utah State University, states, “Kids learn more about their culture and society today from media than any other source.” And those who tell the stories are overwhelmingly homogeneous. “Ninety percent of the executives involved are white men.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“It’s all about power, baby,” Perlstein says. “Whether a certain story will still endure 100 years from now will have little to do with how true it is.”
But Cooper wishes women could take over the media industry and control the stories we embrace. Henetz comments with reason, “Unfortunately the only previous example of such a total media takeover involved five centuries of relentless social pressure via thumbscrew, rack and pyre with a public relations assist from Torquemada.”
Henetz suggests that the Internet, with its global access to information and relative gender indifference, may be a way for women to reclaim chapters left out of his-story. Anyone can be a troubadour in the electronic community.
Mahatma Gandhi Birthday Celebration
The Utah Gandhi Alliance for Peace sponsored a celebration to observe the 130th birthday of the Indian Prophet of Peace. The program included the presentation of the first Gandhi Peace Award to a prominent Utah citizen with an outstanding record of achievement in furthering the Gandhian principles of peace, non-violent conflict resolution, social justice, and selfless community service. Participants paid tribute to Gandhi, the man who sought economic and political independence for his homeland, with prayers from local religious leaders, songs from youth groups and the planting of a tree in his memory. The Gandhi celebration was held at noon, Saturday, October 2, 1999 at the southwest pavilion amphitheater in Jordan Park, 9th West and 10th South. Several HoU Chapter members are involved with this group
Dr. Deidre Tyler, sociologist, was the guest speaker at the September meeting of Humanists of Utah. Here is the text of her presentation:
When we hear of racism in our society, what do we think about? Many of us think about acts of violence that the news media has ingrained in our heads. We think about the man who walked into the Jewish Community Center and wounded five people and killed a Philippine postal worker. We think about the Black man in Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to death.
But what really is racism and how can we prevent it from happening in our society? Some scholars have defined it as prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race. If we look at the term prejudice it means an attitude of prejudging someone, usually in a negative way. Thinking “Well she is a black woman so therefore her morals and values are low,” is an example. The individual who thinks like this does not try to get to know that all women in this society, including black women, are very diverse. We are not all the same. This prevailing view is found among people in respected positions in our society.
When we examine the term discrimination we are referring to an act of unfair treatment directed against an individual or group. When I talk to my father, who is 84 years old, about discrimination he plainly says that I have never experienced discrimination before in my life. He talks about the fact that he had to walk off the sidewalk when a white person was on the sidewalk. If he applied for a job, his application was immediately placed in the garbage because he was black.
Growing up in Mississippi in the 60’s and 70’s I saw the change in our society. No longer did black people have to go in a different door at the movies or to the library. I can remember our first family vacation in 1968. My family was able to take a trip to Texas. This was the first time we stayed in a hotel and ate in the hotel restaurant.
In my short life I have witnessed many changes on this earth but how can we prevent racism in our society in 1999? How can we make sure that all racial groups are treated fairly and not judged based on race? I have contemplated an answer to these questions and it centers on a macro level and a micro level. I have concluded that there are certain steps that we have to take to prevent racism or our society is doomed to destruction.
On a macro level policies should be made by people who have tolerance and a fair agenda. For example, the policy of affirmative action is perceived to be helping blacks more than any other group in the United States. This perception is totally wrong because white women have benefited from affirmative action more than any other group in the United States. In this misconception, certain groups of people feel that black people are getting jobs and being admitted to school based on their race. There is a small percentage of black people who have obtained a job or been admitted into a school because of their race but only a small percent. This policy is in need of a major overhaul because only the middle class black people are gaining from these policies and the poor blacks are remaining in the ghetto.
There is a need for some method of making sure that all job applicants are treated fairly and people are admitted into schools on a fair basis. But this simple term “affirmative action” is creating a lot of animosity against blacks because majority groups feel threatened when they feel that a certain group is gaining more than they are. If we look at our society today, white people are under stress-the standard of living is threatened and they only have to look down the street to find someone to blame. And the scapegoat is “affirmative action.” This is human nature. At no time in our history have people been so full of hate and envious of others than today and we just don’t need anything to set people off. Who would think that the color of your skin would get you killed doing your job and not bothering anyone else?
Let’s find a fair and equal way of making sure that everyone is included in our society. Let me give you a case scenario-we have a principal of a school making about $60,000 a year and his wife making about $40,000 a year. They have only one child going to college and this child is going free because he is black. Is this fair? These parents could be black or white but they don’t need the government paying for their child’s education. I can say this because my parents worked extremely hard to educate five black children without government help. My father worked 3 jobs and my mother worked as a beautician. They were working-class people who did without a car for 30 years or a vacation. Their goal was to make sure their children were prepared to be productive workers in our society.
What has happened to hard work, fairness, and sacrifice? We don’t see these traits in families anymore.
The perception that blacks and other minorities are climbing up the social ladder of success because of their race is a false notion that needs to be cleared. We are living in a fast paced technological society where millions of middle-age white males are being displaced. These males are looking for scapegoats and the scapegoat just happens to be racial minorities.
In essence, policymakers should be clear-thinking individuals; people who will look at the manifest and latent consequences of a law. In my estimation, this will help prevent racism.
On a micro level some of the things that we can do to prevent racism fall directly on parenting. He who rules the cradle rules the world. Mothers in our society have the primary responsibility to socialize their children. This responsibility is not the school’s responsibility because the school did not have a child. In our society, over 65% of mothers with children under the age of 5 are working outside the home. These mothers are so busy with work they are forgetting to teach their children right from wrong. I had a student tell me she went to the video store to buy the computer game Doom for her son. She said she didn’t check out the game’s content, she just bought it. She said she raised a red flag when the 7-year-old said “Mama, I feel like just killing someone.” She then examined the software and found out that it was a game that focused on killing.
Dr. Cole, former president of Spellman College in Atlanta, said, “Womenfolk are still the major socializers” the first and principal teachers of our children’s values, attitudes and behavior patterns-as such they can be a catalyst for confronting racism.” Cole goes on to say socializing our children to respect multiculturalism, diversity and urging our schools to include a diverse history will help in this effort.
We live in a society where people think something is wrong when you prepare a meal and look for people to sit down together as a family. I think there is something wrong with this picture. Have we gotten so busy we don’t even know who is in our house or what they are doing?
Another Micro level suggestion would be to accept people on all levels. I look at the television stations in Salt Lake City and nobody has a black woman anchor person. Why? If professional black people are not in the public, individuals may think there are no professional black people.
Lastly, talk to your neighbor and realize that we are all people. The majority of people in America are law-abiding people who go to work and pay their bills and take care of their children. We are all in this boat together. I was having problems with my neighbor’s cat and I just walked up to my neighbor and asked him to please keep his cat away from my door. This man said he didn’t realize that his cat was bothering me.
In essence, if the state of Mississippi can change, I know that the state of Utah can change too.
Popular Myths About Human Genetic Differences
“Nature versus nurture. The pendulum swings back and forth, and right now we’re in the midst of a major lurch towards preoccupation with ‘nature,'” said Professor Jon Seger at the April meeting of Humanists of Utah. There are current books by well-respected geneticists espousing an “enthusiasm for this modern form of predestinationism.”
Professor Seger identified four “myths” about human genetic variation and spent the bulk of his presentation debunking them:
The first argument against these common conceptions was general in nature: the propositions could, in principle, be true. “The problem is that these beliefs lend themselves to odious applications involving nonfactual value judgments and rationalizations of events in which we could intervene. It is just good luck that these myths are untrue, or at least not true in the forms commonly believed. Thus a correct understanding of the facts can undermine certain kinds of social and political arguments by depriving them of key factual premises.”
Professor Seger presented a variety of charts and statistics to undermine each of the four statements. Among the items discussed were genetic distribution schemes for common markers found on blood cells. The distribution of “blood types” is an effective argument that the whole notion of “race” among humans is fallacious. (myth one) Other studies showed that the vast majority of variation in human genetic makeup is found in small, isolated populations. For example, if an alien, wanting to capture breeding stock for an extraterrestrial human zoo, landed at a basketball game in Nephi and abducted the basketball players and cheerleaders, it would take with it some 80% of human genetic variation! (myth two) In fact humans are more genetically homogeneous than our nearest relative the chimpanzee (which goes to show you that if you have seen one chimp, you haven’t seen them all!) (myth three) Finally, “bad genes” found in isolated populations often serve to provide a level of protection against some environmental threat. The classic example is that of hemoglobin variations among Africans and Mediterranean peoples that provide a natural resistance to malaria. (myth four)
After the lecture I overheard a small group exclaiming that at last they had “proof” of humanism. While I agree, I think it prudent to quote Professor Seger’s disclaimer: “My comments on these myths will necessarily be very brief and in many respects very superficial and inadequate…I’m not the leading expert on any of these issues; I’m here because you invited me, and I decided to take on this issue because I think it is important, and timely, and close to the central concerns of your organization. I’ll be quite happy if I succeed in raising your awareness of the issues and motivating you to learn more, and think more about them.” He shouldstill be happy!
Morality and Community Values
When we find ourselves quite uncertain whether particular human institutions, practices or behavior are morally right or wrong, we have some reason to stand back from our moral convictions, whatever they may be, and ask deep philosophical questions about the strange things that moral belief and practice are. These questions arise also when we see how deep and pervasive moral disagreements can be.
Noting our own uncertainty or the conflicting views of others, we might wonder, for example, whether moral principles or convictions can be correct or mistaken in the way that, say, scientific claims can be. If someone maintains that there is liquid water on Mars, he’s either right or wrong. Does it make sense to think that her belief that homosexuality is morally prohibited is similarly either correct or incorrect? Or are what we call moral beliefs really more like matters or taste, to which the notions of truth or falsity, correctness or incorrectness are inapplicable? And if are to think of morality in terms of truth or falsity, how can we establish which moral principles are correct?
Historically many deep thinkers about morality have held that moral convictions are no more than deeply felt likings and dislikings. I think that I understand why they have come to this view, but it appears quite obvious to me that we cannot think of morality as being like matters of taste. If my neighbor likes pickles covered with hot chocolate sauce, I’ll think he’s odd, but not that he’s mistaken. But if he also thinks it is okay for him to have sex with his six-year-old daughter, and I think that his behavior is immoral, I can’t also think that we simply differ in what we like, different folks, different strokes.
Once we see, however, that moral convictions must be assessed in terms of correctness and truth, we come up against one of the most difficult philosophical questions about morality: how can we verify or justify any moral principle?
Many people in our culture think that there is an easy answer to this question, for the Bible tells us how we should behave. But this answer won’t do, because at best the Bible says both too little and too much about what is right or wrong in human behavior. Too little, because it says nothing or nothing determinate about many of the moral problems of contemporary life. Too much, because no reasonable person can accept all of the views that are relatively specifically expressed. So people who rely on the Bible-or on what others tell them comes from the Bible-are kidding themselves. The Bible is used very selectively and is interpreted in terms of moral convictions that can’t themselves be traced to the Bible.
In our community, these convictions are, of course, often widely held. But different communities often have different and even contradictory views about how people should behave. Twentieth century anthropology has extensively documented these differences. And, interestingly, it has frequently concluded from these differences that the beliefs of one’s community determine how one should behave. In Rome do as the Romans do, and in Utah county do as the Mormons do, not because this well keep you popular and out of trouble, but because the community is the source of moral values. (There is something similar to this view, for example, in the frequent assertion that there should be prayers in the schools because this is what most people want.)
Scholars advancing this view hold, first, that the empirical investigation of cultures establishes that people in different cultures have quite different beliefs about what is right or wrong in human behavior. This is taken to show that there are no standards on which people everywhere across time would agree. Next, this is taken to show that everyone’s beliefs about how people should behave are pretty much due to how he or she has been reared or “enculturated,” to use the academic term.
Finally it is held that since every culture must have standards of behavior, it follows from the above that the values of each culture determine in an empirically verifiable way what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong for the members of the culture.
Some of you may begin to wonder how all of this can apply to a society as diverse in its beliefs as our own. This is a problem that I can’t pursue here, as I want to note just a few features, pro and con, of this cultural relativism. The first is that some philosophers have argued that this view is mistaken in thinking that there are such differences in moral convictions. These philosophers have said that we must recognize that many of our moral disagreements are due to differing beliefs about nonmoral facts. Two individuals might disagree on the morality of the death penalty, for example, because one of them thinks that it is an effective deterrent to murder and the other does not. It seems to me that there is some truth to this but that even when we have taken disagreements of this sort into account, we shall have to concede that there are extensive and systematic differences in moral beliefs across space and time.
More basically, philosophers have pointed out that the view of the cultural relativist is self-contradictory. It uses the fact of differences in moral convictions to conclude that there are no moral principles that apply to everyone, and then it immediately turns around and says, “Oh, by the way there is a principle that applies to everyone, namely, act as your culture expects you to act”. We have to wonder what this principle was drawn from.
In more recent years some philosophers have come, correctly I think, to agree with the importance of enculturation and to hold that much of what is right or wrong for an individual is determined by the convictions of his or her culture. These philosophers maintain, however, that there are some principles that apply to everyone, everywhere. This would be an extremely interesting subject to pursue, but it quite obviously puts us back where we came into this discussion. At best, we are again faced with the question of how we are going to verify these principles.
Annual Meeting Report
The continued growth of our chapter was evident at the February 4th Annual Business Meeting. Sixty-five people enjoyed a variety of wines and light discussion during the social hour followed by a delicious sit-down dinner. The record setting attendance heard encouraging reports regarding the chapter’s financial condition from outgoing treasurer Irene Fryer, membership growth figures from secretary Wayne Wilson, and from Earl Wunderli a progress report on establishing a Humanist of Utah Foundation to solicit major contributions for the construction of a Utah Humanist Center.
Chapter president Flo Wineriter reported highlights of the past year including a year-long newspaper advertising campaign that resulted in a 25% increase in membership, a 50% increase in average attendance at our public meetings and a big increase in the number of people seeking information about humanism. Another major note of progress was the establishing of the chapters presence on the Internet, thanks to the creative energies and electronic expertise of board member David Evans and secretary Wayne Wilson.
Unanimously elected to serve on the board for the next year were: Joyce Barnes, Mendel Cohen, David Evans, Rolf Kay, Brenda Wright and Earl Wunderli. Elected as chapter officers were: Flo Wineriter, president; Hugh Gillilan, vice-president; Wayne Wilson, secretary; Anna Hoagland, treasurer.
Thanks to Rolf Kay, the annual business membership meeting and dinner concluded with a beautiful musical program, a mandolin-guitar duet featuring Martin Zwick and Michael Lucarelli.
Neutrality: Switzerland in the Crosshair
A high rate of unemployment, an influx of refugees, trade restrictions, foreign military forces on every border, and the constant fear of invasion were some of the economic and psychological wages Switzerland paid for its position of neutrality during WWII. This argument was presented by Dr. Robert Helbling when he spoke at the May 13th meeting of the Humanists of Utah.
Dr. Helbling, retired University of Utah professor of languages and literature, reviewed the legalistic history beginning in the sixteenth century that led to the recognition of Switzerland’s “perpetual duty” of neutrality by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. However, being recognized as neutral did not relieve the government of the landlocked nation from the constant fear of that status being violated. Its dependence on Germany for coal and on Italy for the transit of oil subjected the nation to intense economic and military pressure from the WWII Axis powers. The right to asylum, deeply rooted in Swiss history, sent 300,000 refugees fleeing France, Poland, and Germany across its borders, straining its communal welfare rolls to the breaking point. More than 100,000 military internees from both sides of the conflict added to the economic stress of the nations resources.
Early in the war, German bomber squadrons frequently invaded Swiss airspace. Later Allied planes violated Swiss neutrality nightly as they made bombing raids on southern Germany and northern Italy.
The wages of neutrality proved very costly, but through it all, Switzerland was able to preserve its territorial integrity and alleviate a great deal of human suffering on both sides through its humanitarian efforts and cooperation with organizations such as the International Red Cross.
“Today,” said Professor Helbling, “Switzerland continues to be a haven for the victims of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Over the last four months Switzerland has accepted over 50,000 Kosovar refugees. Switzerland’s foreign residents constitute slightly more than 20% of its population.”
“Minorities are the majority of the Swiss population.” said Dr. Helbling. “We might take note that this year’s Swiss president is a Jewish woman, a Social-democrat from the Suizze Romande, thus representing a number of so-called minorities in her single person, concluded Helbling. “When applied to Switzerland, the term is a misnomer, for the case can be made that Switzerland consists of nothing but minorities.”
Censorship is Power
It was a difficult culling process, but Dr. Aden Ross cited six serious examples of ‘Censorship in Utah’ when she spoke to more than 70 people attending our June meeting. Saying there are myriad examples of local censorship, she chose just six of the most egregious just in the visual arts in recent years. She began with citing the photograph of a nude woman entered in the 1992 Utah Women’s Art Project. When the exhibit reached the Springville Museum of Art, two women publicly complained, saying nudity does not represent the maternal, family oriented, moral woman of Utah. The director, Vern Swanson, said he agreed, removed the photos from the exhibit, and hid them in his office. The photos were returned to the exhibit when it left Utah and were highly acclaimed when the exhibit became part of the national showing of women in the arts.
Aden’s final example happened in 1995 at Utah Valley State College. An abstract sculpture displayed on the campus was criticized by the vice president for college relations, Gill Cook. His personal displeasure was so intense that he had the sculpture cut into pieces with a blow torch and hauled away. Dr. Ross reminded her audience that this sculpture was public property, purchased with their tax dollars.
Why is such censorship tolerated in Utah? One reason might be Utah’s’ cultural lag: the reluctance of many Utahns to recognize the national and world changes from 19th century ideas to the 21st century attitudes. Our difficulty in differentiating nudity and obscenity. The changing definition of family. The evolution of attitudes toward divorce, single parents and homosexuality. Ross said it reminds her of a statement by Marlene Dietrich, “In America sex is an obsession, in the rest of the world it’s a fact.”
Subtle forms of censorship in Utah have effectively removed classic literature from school libraries, changed exclamatory dialogue from classic stage plays, removed magazines from news stands and placed plain brown paper covers on others.
Dr. Ross said she believes censorship in Utah and in the nation is not so much about art, music, or literature but it is about power, the power to control the culture.
“Cloning of an entire human will not be a serious issue because of the risks involved and the limited benefits,” concluded Dr. Jeff Botkin when he spoke to the Humanists of Utah December 10th. The Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Utah graciously took the time to provide an appreciative nonprofessional audience the basic fundamentals of the reproductive process. He explained how a new life is produced by the combining of cells of two mature members of a species. Cloning is a new science that has developed the ability to mimic the process in a nonsexual design. Cloning creates a new life from a single member of a species by simply growing a genetic copy of that individual.
Cloning of plants has been a successful practice for years but the breakthrough in the cloning of animal life is a new phenomenon and to date is a very inefficient way to produce a new life. But with improving efficiency, science is on the edge of being successful in cloning human life. And that is raising ethical questions in many minds.
Dr.Botkin explored the question, “Why would someone want to clone a human?” He discussed four scenarios:
The National Bioethics Advisory Committee finds the fourth case to be the most compelling, but Dr. Botkin says even though the fourth case might justify human cloning, there are many questions that need exploration before we embark on developing the technology. One challenge is the need to increase the efficiency of the cloning process, and second is creating clones free of abnormalities. He also called attention to philosophic questions and societal attitudes.
In response to the fear that human cloning could create an army of identical human robots that could be used for evil purposes, he said this concern can be dismissed quickly because human personalities are the result of nurture as well as nature.
“Dedication to research on these issues and informed public dialogue are essential,” said Dr. Botkin. The audience of nearly 100 engaged Dr. Botkin in a lively and interesting discussion following his formal presentation.
Role of Religion in the American Revolution
The statement by Jerry Fallwell, “We need to recommit ourselves to the faith of our fathers,” indicates that the United States was founded on biblical morality and the Christian religion, but this is not reflected in real history, Dr. Steven Epperson, former BYU history professor, told the January 14th meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Following the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Dr. Epperson said Alexander Hamilton encountered on a Philadelphia street a Princeton professor who told him the Princeton faculty was shocked that the constitution proposed for ratification contained no recognition of God or the Christian religion. Hamilton replied, “Upon my word, we forgot.” That historical anecdote should put to rest the claims that this nation was founded on Judaic-Christian religious principles, said Epperson.
Efforts to institute mandatory classroom prayers, references to the Faith of our Fathers, Judeo-Christian Heritage, Spiritual Foundations, America–A Christian Nation, continued Professor Epperson, are mere sentimentalism and trivialization of this nation’s history. The founding of this nation was much more complex and complicated. In reality, he said, more than half of the colonial population was non-churched. Many colonial residents were born, married, and died without benefit of religious ceremonies.
Many pilgrims came to North America to escape from the dominance of religion in the political structures of Europe. History records hundreds of years of the two power structures, religion and government, working together to dominate the lives of citizens, and people came to this geographical location to escape from such tyranny. Because of their experience with the heavy burdens imposed on people by the combined powers of civil government and religion the founders of this nation were determined that no such collusion would ever be permitted in their new nation. Thus the strong constitutional language that separates religion and government.
Asking the audience to take out a dollar bill and look on the back at the pyramid, the eye, and the two slogans engraved around the symbol, Epperson pointed out that the pyramid consists of 13 blocks watched over by the All Seeing Eye of Providence. The slogans, in Latin, do not come from the bible but from the pagan writings of Virgil.
In conclusion Dr. Epperson, currently the Program Coordinator for the Utah Humanities Council, said, “In the new nation one found no uniformity of opinion, nor any ever-present harmony. One did find, however, vision, courage and hope. They had this vision because they believed very strongly that great were the possibilities and challenges that faced the American people in establishing this nation.”
Pop Culture and the Television
John Schaefer, Curator of Education at the Salt Lake Art Center and director of the Salt Lake Ethics Project, led a lively discussion at the November general meeting of the Humanists of Utah. He pointed out that while we often consider ourselves in Utah to be different from everybody else, we really are more like everyone else in the world than we think.
The average child watches 5 hours and 15 minutes of television every day. After the age of four, most of this time is NOT public television. Public Television is compelling; unfortunately most of the other available broadcast material is not compelling. The television is the “myth-maker, the heart of our society; we couldn’t be in worse hands in my opinion.” Schaefer utilized several video presentations to facilitate the discussion. The first clip demonstrated how a “magician” could predict which playing card 95% of the viewing audience will identify by watching a simple flipping through of the card deck. By deftly pausing a split-second longer on any given card, that card will imprint on the majority of people’s minds. The artist can then “magically or psychically” identify the card that the average person on the street only “thinks” about.
There are many ways to control the mind. People in the television industry are aware of many of these methods. Schaefer is currently teaching a Media Literacy class at West High, helping young people to understand (interpret) what is spewing from the boob tube. The people who control the television media are all the same: they have a single goal of making money. They are not necessarily malicious towards us, they only want to make money.
Schaefer posed the question, “I ask children, teachers, anyone: ‘what is the purpose of the news on channels 2, 4, 5, and 13?’ and without exception they always reply, ‘to get information, to learn about the weather, to find out what’s going on.'” This is not the correct answer. The purpose of the “news” is to sell things. 99% of society does not know this. For example, crime is down drastically, but the reporting of crime on the local news is up almost 400%. This is a skewed look of who we are. Senior citizens get most of the information about society from the TV. Consequently many older people are afraid to leave their own homes. The “news” is a television program; its main purpose is to sell things, not to pass along information.
Television commercials are about the dumbing down of the masses. If you don’t have skepticism when viewing TV, you are in trouble. Four hours after a tornado hit Salt Lake City, it became an “event” complete with a name: Tornado Terror, complete with a logo. It became a TV show, it became a vehicle to sell.
Some of television is rich, full of content, and compelling. Most of the material on PBS is of this nature. Unfortunately there are no media literacy classes below the level of college in Utah. Schaefer believes that this subject should start being taught at the Kindergarten level. After all, since we spend so much time with the TV, we should understand what it is doing to us.
Feminism: Progress and Potential
The political struggle to get the Equal Rights Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution awakened millions of people to the plight of American women, Ms. Luci Malin told more than 60 people attending the July meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Ms. Malin related her coming to Utah 18 years ago to organize support in the Beehive state for the ERA. The efforts of the National Organization of Women to get two-thirds of the state legislatures to approve the proposal failed but the campaign succeeded in educating millions of citizens to the lower salaries paid women, the limited career opportunities they have, and the glass ceiling that keeps them from high-level corporate executive positions.
The ERA campaign encouraged women and men to join the feminist movement, which has opened doors of opportunity for women in medical schools, colleges of law, science, and engineering. Today more women are willing to get involved in party politics and to run for elective offices. Malin cited examples of women being more empowered now than they were 20 years ago but said that there is much more to be done to create a genuine culture of gender equality, a culture where every person has the opportunity to fulfill his or her individual potential.
The former president of NOW said eventual passage of ERA remains a primary goal of the organization. Other NOW goals are improved abortion laws, better access to reproductive health care, more child care facilities, and effective affirmative action laws that will equalize opportunities for women of all races.
Malin said the feminist movement has in some areas been more effective in generating cultural changes than it has in causing political and legal changes. An increasing number of women are expressing their opinions on public issues, more women are visible in professional sports, and a higher percentage of the work force are women. She says the feminist movement has stimulated a positive change toward equality and urged both men and women to keep the momentum going.
Competition And Drug Abuse
Dr. Doug Rollins presented the following lecture at our March meeting. Professor Rollins is a Professor of Pharmacology, Medical Director of the Poison Control Center, in charge of monitoring and detecting illegal drug usage among athletes at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and husband of Humanists of Utah chapter member Helen Rollins.
Think about these statements:
Now a little background. What are we talking about when we talk about doping.
The ancient classic the Iliad describes how Odysseus defeated Ajax in a footrace by enlisting the goddess Athena to trip his competitor. The notion of cheating seems to be as old as sport itself, though today the cheating “goddesses” come in different forms.
Well clearly it refers to the use of illegal substances such as narcotics and cocaine and amphetamines. But in the sport world it also refers to anabolic steroids, stimulants such as ephedrine, diuretics that can serve as masking agents, some heart drugs such as beta blockers, and some hormones such as human growth hormone and erythropoietin.
What do these drugs or hormones do that is so bad? Cocaine and amphetamines are pretty clear and most persons already know that they are general stimulants. Cocaine can produce an intense craving.
Anabolic steroids in large doses promote muscle growth and strength and may enhance performance particularly where strength is a major component.
Diuretics will cause the urine to become dilute and have known to be used to cause a false negative test. Thus, they can mask the presence of a prohibited substance.
Beta blockers are used medically to lower blood pressure and heart rate. This later use may be of benefit where steadiness and a low level of nervousness are required. For example, in the biathlon an athlete may take a beta blocker to lower his or her pulse thus allowing them to shoot between heart beats.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is used by athletes in which endurance is important. It increases the number of red blood cells and thus increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
Why do doping control? Doping control is the same as drug testing. So what if an athlete wants to increase their performances who are we to be concerned. Doping control is designed to benefit the health of the athlete and to provide a level playing field.
If an athlete takes anabolic steroids they are not only gaining an unfair performance enhancement, but they are also putting their health at risk. Perhaps the coach or trainer is making that decision.
An athlete that increases his or her red blood cell count with EPO is at risk for blood clots, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attack, particularly when they become dehydrated during a long event. There is concern that EPO use resulted in the death of several cyclists a few years ago. EPO use resulted in the elimination of several teams from the Tour de France last summer.
Anabolic steroids are allegedly in wide use by athletes not only at the elite level but also during the formative years of ages 10-18. Anabolic steroids cause adverse effects in virtually every organ. They can cause inflammation of the liver; tumors of the liver, decreased sperm count in men and loss of menstrual activity in women. They have also been associated with aggressive behavior “Zoid rage.”
What is the history of doping? During the ancient Olympic games various brandy and wine concoctions or ingested mushrooms were taken to enhance performance.
The doping crisis arrived in the modern Olympics at the turn of the century when the American marathoner used a combination of strychnine in raw egg whites during his race. He required extreme medical measures to be revived at the end of the race.
After World War II amphetamines became popular. In 1968 a cyclist and a soccer player died in France due to amphetamine-related causes.
Most of us can remember Len Bias the Maryland basketball player who died of a single cocaine dose.
It has long been suspected that athletes from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries have used anabolic steroids. These feelings were reinforced during the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. There, when the head of the East German swimming delegation was asked about the curiously deep voices his women swimmers had, he replied in a thick accent, “Ve have come to svim, not to sing.”
In the mid-1980s four Canadian weight lifters were caught in the Montreal Airport with 22,515 capsules of anabolic steroids and 414 vials of testosterone, purchased for next to nothing behind the Iron Curtain.
North American athletes have not been immune from doping violations. Ben Johnson. Randy Barnes, shot-put champion. And what about Mark McGwire our national hero while taking a substance, androstendione, that was banned by baseball it is banned by almost every other sport including the NFL and the IOC.
IF THERE IS A MAGIC PILL THAT COULD MAKE YOU WIN, WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT OF SPORT?
It seems like a simple problem, test everyone on a random basis and let that be a deterrent to taking drugs. Let me give you an idea of the complexity of the problem:
Each sport in the U.S.–alpine skiing, bobsledding, and luge, ice skating, hockey, Nordic skiing, etc. have there own federation called a National Governing Body (NGB). There is an alpine skiing NGB, a Nordic skiing NGB, etc. Each nation also has an Olympic Committee a National Olympic Committee (NOC). In the United States it is the USOC. Each sport has its own International Federation (IF). So there is an alpine skiing IF, a Nordic skiing IF, etc.
The National Governing Bodies, the International Federations, and the National Olympic Committees may have different rules and guidelines for doping control. On top of this is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Each of these groups is a player in the doping control process.
In between Olympics, the National Governing Bodies have a great say in doping for National Events such as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships held earlier this month or the bobsled event held this past weekend.
During international events the International Federations have a great say in doping control.
During the Olympics, the IOC has the final say in doping control (or so they think). To complicate things even further, the doping control rules and guidelines may vary from NGB to NGB, from NOC to NOC, from IF to IF and between all of these and the IOC.
The detection of marijuana in the urine of a snowboarder at the Nagano Olympics in 1997 is a case in point. Although he claimed to have been exposed to marijuana smoke from his friends at a party (an unlikely story) he also pointed out that although the IOC bans the use of marijuana at Games, the International Skiing Federation does not list it as a prohibited substance because they do not feel it is performance enhancing. In this confusion it was determined that he should get his gold medal back.
Where is the U.S. government in all of this? General Barry McCaffery was at the IOC Doping Control Conference in Lausanne and he made several negative comments about the IOC and drug use in sports. But he also TOOK several negative comments about the fact that Mark McGwire was using anabolic steroids. Furthermore, The National Drug Control Strategy for 1998 does not contain a word about drugs in sports. So it appears that McCaffery wants to tell others how to do it, but he doesn’t have a plan.
HOW WILL DOPING CONTROL WORK AT THE 2002 GAMES IN SLC?
At each venue there will be a doping control station which will be nothing more than a large room with bathroom facilities within. For each event there will be a doping control site coordinator, at least one, and perhaps two doping control officers. These will be physicians. As the event is finished the top four finishers will be identified for testing. In addition, in most cases a random athlete among the rest will be chosen for testing. Each of these athletes will be assigned an escort who must remain with the athlete until they reach the doping control station. They have 60 minutes to reach the doping control station.
Once inside the doping control station they can not leave, but they are allowed to have one person with them, a friend, trainer, coach etc. Inside the doping control station there are sealed drinks that they may have. When they are ready to produce a urine specimen they go into the bathroom with a validator who observes the urine collection. They must collect 100 mL of urine. When this is done, they sit down with the doping control officer who instructs the athlete to how to put the urine into tamper-proof containers A and B. These are sealed and then the doping control officer talks to the athlete about drugs they have taken including vitamins and supplements. The samples are then placed in a courier container which is also tamper-proof and sent or taken to lab. The form the athlete fills out serves as a chain of custody.
For the 2002 Games we have selected one of the best labs in the world. It is an IOC Certified Lab at Indiana University in Indianapolis. The lab director Dr. Larry Bowers will come to Utah and set up a temporary lab. In the lab the samples are screened for drugs using nonspecific methods.
The positive specimens are then confirmed for the presence of specific drugs using highly sophisticated and extremely specific and sensitive methods. In the laboratory, none of the personnel would be able to identify a particular specimen with a particular athlete so that if they wanted to contaminate a specific sample they would not know which one it was.
Once a specimen has been identified as positive, the athlete is notified and they then have the right to have the B sample tested in their presence to assure that no contamination has occurred.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS; WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
We are a society that thrives on competition in all aspects of our lives. We are a society that wants all of our problems to be taken care of with a pill. Is it any surprise, therefore, that competition and drug abuse are linked together? I think not.
Finally, let’s talk about the issue of competition and drug abuse. Why would an athlete risk his or her career by using drugs to win? The answer seems obvious: greed. As long as our athletes are paid tremendous sums of money for their performance by sponsors there will be cheating and substance abuse.
This is not localized to athletes and sports. What if a stock broker performed consistently better and picked winning stocks while under the influence of a new enzyme. And what if this became known either via word of mouth or by public information. Do you think others would try it–of course they would. And what if the Federal Trade Commission outlawed the use of this particular enzyme because it was jeopardizing the health of brokers who use it. Would brokers continue to abuse it–of course. Particularly, if there were no way of detecting its use.
The use of abused substances throughout society is rooted in our competitive nature. The person living in a large urban ghetto competes daily to get on with life. In far too many cases drugs facilitate that competition.
Competition occurs with high pressure jobs and drugs and alcohol facilitate the handling of these jobs. When someone can not compete on the level playing field they may rely on drugs to get them through.
We encourage our children to be competitive and when they can not do it on their own they are likely to explore chemical means of increasing their advantage. This is happening in far too many elementary and middle school sport programs particularly football and basketball. It is sad to know that parents are often encouraging drug use by their children to make them more competitive on the playing field.
Now I am not implying that competition is the cause for all drug abuse. But in many cases the need to compete in society, or to compete in business, or to compete in education, or to compete in daily life, or to compete in sport is the seed for the development of a desire to do anything that will allow us to get ahead.
On April 13, 1999, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison after being found guilty of second degree murder in the mercy killing of Thomas Youk. This seems to be a confrontation with the law that Dr. Kevorkian wanted.
In the United States (except for the state of Oregon) the law recognizes no formal grounds of defense for someone accused of killing to relieve someone else’s suffering from an incurable disease. Dr. Kevorkian is challenging that law. I applaud Dr. Kevorkian’s effort and suggest that the law in the United States regarding euthanasia needs to change.
Many elderly people are trapped in their own bodies, not knowing who or where they are and living out the last part of their lives, often disoriented, in a nursing home. This is a waste of billions of dollars annually that is badly needed in other areas of society. However, money is not my main motivation for wanting the law changed regarding euthanasia. My main reason is to reduce the suffering of individuals and their loved ones. I have never met one person who wants to end up living in a nursing home. Yet millions of us do just that.
I became a proponent of euthanasia after watching my mother die and then later my first wife die of cancer. I was further influenced by visiting my mother in a nursing home over an 18-month period. My mother was able to live independently past her 90th birthday with a lot of help and love from her five children. One day during my weekly visit my mother informed me that she had lived too long, that she was worn out, and hoped that we would soon find her dead. Instead of dying she had a partial stroke, fell, broke her hip, and after repairs in a hospital ended up in a nursing home. She did not know who she was nor did she recognize her family. She was unable to communicate her needs in any way. She became extremely tearful if she ever got close to being reminded of her painful reality. Under the law, we were unable to deny any treatment that would prolong her life; it would have been better if we could have released her from the indignity of the last eighteen months of her life.
My first wife Nancy died of cancer eighteen months after diagnosis. The last nine months of her life were agonizing for everyone close to her. Thanks to the help from Hospice, medication helped control most of her pain. However, the control of pain came at tremendous cost such as disorientation and hallucinations. She begged for help to die. We surely wished that we personally knew Dr. Kevorkian at that time.
I realize that life is precious and that society needs to move carefully regarding euthanasia, but I have found that there are conditions worse than death. We can create new laws that would protect life but not interfere with the free, informed choices of citizens in matters that do not cause others harm.
Discussion Group Report
Envision Utah: Does It Have Enough Vision?
By Richard Layton
Recently Utahns were asked by the Envision Utah project to think and express their views about what kind of growth pattern they would like to see the state follow in future years. Governor Mike Leavitt said citizens had an “obligation” to make their views known by sending in questionnaires published in the newspapers, or by responses on the Internet. The responses, we have been told, will be used by leaders to help them make planning decisions.
Four scenarios are presented as planning alternatives:
The discussion group felt it was commendable that planning leaders have provided this opportunity for the public to make its views known about the future course of development in our state. However, the group expressed some concerns about the limited scope of the study. For example, it seems to assume the desirability of continued population growth; it does not consider the alternative of limiting population growth, a scenario that could be realized if people were to limit family size. The recent announcement by the Mormon Church of a change in its position on family planning to a more liberal approach should help with this problem. Planners in Utah apparently assume that continued rapid growth is necessary to maintain prosperity. Is this necessarily the case?
Envision Utah doesn’t take into account worldwide macro-problems like the depletion of our natural resources, especially our oil reserves. Petroleum in the ground is rapidly becoming more and more in short supply and much of what is left is less readily accessible than in the past. Work on the development of alternative fuels for motor vehicles is not progressing rapidly enough. The development of alternative modes of transportation is going ahead, but it may not be enough. Many people will still probably continue preferring the automobile because it is so enormously convenient. Add in the problem of global warming, which nearly all scientists who are informed on the problem except those who work for the oil and coal companies say is already upon us. Perhaps Utah could do more to promote awareness of these problems. There is no more important planning activity. However, the prevalent assumption in Utah, as elsewhere, seems to be that we will somehow come up with the answers when disaster is near, but this assumption could prove to be unfortunate. We seem to be headed toward a collision with a brick wall. Are our long-range planning problems outrunning our vision?
Ben Franklin’s Virtues
Franklin placed each of the 13 virtues on a separate page in a little book which he carried with him for more than 50 years. Each day he evaluated his performance with regard to each of them. Every week he selected one of the virtues as a point of special focus, concentrating his attention on the selected trait for seven days.
Did Ben Franklin feel that this focus on his governing values was helpful? As he wrote in his autobiography, “I always carried my little book with me . . . and it may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owes the constant felicity of his life down to his seventy-ninth year, in which this is written.”
These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
AHA Board Meeting
Flo Wineriter, our chapter president and the AHA national treasurer, attended the fall AHA board meeting that was held in Washington D.C. November12-14. Tony Hileman, who was hired as the AHA National Director at the June conference, was elevated to Executive Director at the board meeting and announced he is designing a public relations program that will increase public awareness of our organization and build membership. The new executive director said his long-range plans include developing closer alliances with other Humanists and Free Thought organizations. The board visited the new AHA office, a modest facility that now gives AHA a presence in the nation’s capitol.
Fred Edwards, who has been both the AHA Executive Director and Managing Editor of The Humanist for several years, is now the Executive Editor and will devote full time to our national magazine. Fred reported he is working on a complete redesigning of the magazine that will result in a more attractive appearance and more relevant content.
Flo said board members are excited with the organizational changes and expect the American Humanist Association will be much more visible and influential in the new millennium
Real Fondness for the First Amendment
From your March 5 edition are two interesting articles: In the first one, at a prayer breakfast, a government official (Provo Mayor, Lewis Billings), is quoted as saying, “I have always found those who are seeking a supreme deity are those who are our best citizens.” Always?! Turn over the page and read about a man guilty of sexually abusing children: “Van Wagoner was able to use his leadership position in the Mormon Church to gain trust of male students.”
Obviously, Billings needs a reality check, a lesson on the separation of church and state and a profound look at his biases. Isn’t it horribly ironic how so many local politicians wave the banner of religion to get re-elected, thereby breaking the fundamental law of the land. Honestly, Mayor Billings, research confirms that most criminals in U.S. prisons believe in God. And believe it or not, most of us non-theists pay our taxes, obey the law, serve the community, believe in this great country and fully support the U.S. Constitution, with a REAL fondness for the First Amendment.
Now that the Salt Lake Olympic scandal seems to be settling down it may be appropriate to point out that in less than three short years Utah and Salt Lake City will be involved in welcoming the world right here in our neighborhood.
So, what is that world in a nutshell? Someone from the League of Women Voters has created a truncated description of our world today. If we could shrink the population of the Earth to a village of precisely 100 people, with all of the human ratios remaining the same it would look like this: There would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 Western Hemisphere people (both North and South America), and 8 Africans. Seventy persons would be non-Christian and 30 would be Christian. Fifty percent of the entire world’s wealth would be in the hands of only six people, and these six would all be citizens of the United States. Seventy people would be unable to read. Fifty would suffer from malnutrition. Only one would have a university education.
When one considers our world from such an incredibly compressed perspective, the need for both tolerance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent.
— David Blackbird
What Is Man? A Humanist View
by Waldemar P. Read
Presented at an Inter-faith Panel
December 2, 1963
I hope the figure will not be misunderstood when I say that I feel about as I imagine a lion would if he were in a den of Daniel’s. I assume that such a lion would be frantically lunging toward the windows, seeking escape.
In the brief time that has been allotted to me, I have chosen to say three things about the humanist’s conception of man: he is a child of nature, he is a myth-maker, and he is morally concerned and responsible.
Humanists accept the world view that has been encouraged by the development of modern science. That is to say two things: humanism is naturalistic as opposed to supernaturalistic, and it believes that we should answer all such questions as the one we have before us tonight on the basis of empirical observations–just as we would the question, what is a squirrel?
Man is a child of nature. He is a product of the processes of evolution. He is kin to the animals; indeed, he is an animal, having developed from pre-human animal forms. Moreover, humanists regard man monastically. They reject the dualistic account which conceives man as having an in-dwelling spook within the body–a modern British philosopher has written, not approvingly, of the concept of the “ghost in the machine.” I have used the word “spook” deliberately because I did not want to use either of the two more ambiguous terms, “spirit” or “soul.” Humanists are willing to talk about the spirit of man, the soul of man; but they do not mean by these terms what the dualists mean. For the humanists, man is simply a responding, behaving organism. To say of an individual that he is a great soul or a kind spirit is to speak of the pattern and duality of his intelligent behavior. Humanists regard “soul” as having ethical rather than metaphysical import.
In common with all of the children of nature, whether mosquitoes, mice, or mountains, the individual man exists but a little while. He is mortal. Humanists accept this fact, without then trying to talk themselves out of it. This means that the values available to man are to be enjoyed here, in this life, or not at all.
If time allowed, we should discuss the intelligence of man, his imagination, his creativeness, his freedom, his essentially social nature, his brotherhood ( no man is an island), his awareness of time, and of death. As I observed earlier, all these matters should be discussed on the basis of empirical observation–and, in that sense, the discussion should be scientifically grounded. I must content myself with very brief development of two points.
First, man is a myth-maker. He conducts his day-to-day affairs largely in terms of a world view that is structured by myth. His purposes and his values cluster around activities inspired by myth. Of course we are wont to speak of early Greek and Roman religious beliefs as so much mythology, and of their gods and demigods as mythological characters. But, please, let me speak frankly and realistically here tonight. For example, either the Catholic purgatory or the Mormon paradise is a myth. And either the Catholic mass or the Mormon temple work is mythologically oriented. It is the humanists’ conviction that they are both, equally, mythological in significance. For the humanists it is a toss-up as to whether one should speak of the angel Moroni or of the Virgin Mother as a myth. The same is true of Hades, hell, and heaven. Of course, humanists acknowledge the great importance of these myths in the lives of men, as these lives are lived. Indeed, these myths give rise to or qualify many of the most important values of many men. However, this is not to say that myths are as indispensable to the life of the spirit as, for instance, air and water are to the life of the body. For they are not.
I should make two distinctions. First, myth is not to be confused, identified, with simple fiction. “Little Red Riding-Hood” is fiction: the story of the Garden of Eden is a myth. Gulliver’s Travels is fiction; Noah is a myth. King Lear is fiction; Jonah and Job are myths. Myth is, among other things, fiction not so regarded. This distinction is important. We encourage our young children to distinguish the real from the imagined; but we do not, or should not, discourage their continued writing of fiction. The distinction is important in another way, since myths are so much more fertile than mere fiction, as generators of ritual and the nurturing of values.
In the second place myth must not be confused with symbol. Marriage, for instance, involves symbols; the ceremony is symbolic; but marriage is not a myth. Animals pair and copulate; humans marry; and the difference is an affair of symbols. Human life is shot through with meaning; mere animal life is not. The cultural anthropologist defines man as the symboling animal, and refers to the products of this symboling activity as symbolates. It is through symbols that meaning enters into and transforms the quality and dimensions of human life.
Myths are but an aspect of this symboling activity. The marriage of Jacqueline and John Kennedy was real, though effected by and involving symbols; the marriage of Figaro is fiction; that of Adam and Eve is symbolic.
In the first place, man is under the strict discipline of nature. Everything in life, nay, even life itself is based upon conditions–and if life, then long life, and health. In ignorance we ignore dietetic laws; in ignorance we may formulate injurious dietetic principles. There is no substitute for iron in the blood; nor for proteins and carbohydrates in the diet, and vitamins, etc. One of the functions of intelligence is to decipher and then observe these conditions of life and health. Equally, sanity, mental health, happiness, friendship, and peace, are conditional. War is as truly an effect as is diabetes. Each is symptomatic of failure to observe the conditions which make for peace in the one case, and health in the other. Given the fact of the importance of causal conditions, and given intelligence and desire, man finds himself under natural commandments to behave in certain ways. These are hypothetical imperatives (to use Kant’s phrase): if you want to live, to live long and well, and joyously (and who doesn’t), then do such and such.
In the second place, man is self-disciplined to a remarkable degree. I do not mean that he is perfectly disciplined, He is guilty of stupid, lawless, brutal, immoral behavior. But this is true under any theory of man that is honest. Theists with their belief in God as the source of moral obligation and duty, and with their doctrine of supernatural rewards and punishments, can show us a human race no better disciplined than the race to which the humanists point. So let us merely say that man is self-disciplined. His intelligence, his emotions, his devotions, and his needs are at the bottom of this. There is no higher authority known to man than the authority of his own ideals. On the basis of this authority and with these ideals as his standards, he even picks and chooses among the many gods that are offered for him to serve. Modern man is even inclined to read the Bible with discrimination. Ideals are the work of man’s intelligent imagination.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Originally published in the July 1999 issue of Humanist News and Views by the Humanist Association of Minnesota, this article was written by Bob Kern.
Last month’s article by Richard Dean observed that Duane Gish again brought up the Second Law of Thermodynamics in his argument for Creationism. It’s not clear how he used it this time, but in the past Creationists have claimed that evolution is a violation of this law of physics.
I studied thermodynamics when I was an undergraduate engineering student. When I first saw someone argue that evolution violates this law I thought to myself that they would really be embarrassed when they found out that they had totally misinterpreted the law. Silly me. About twenty-five years have gone by and they are still making this bad argument.
Unfortunately, relatively few people have studied thermodynamics and so most people don’t understand what is wrong with the argument. I’d like to take a stab at explaining it to the humanist readership.
The Second Law says that in a closed system, entropy is always increasing. I will talk about “disorder” rather than the scientific quantity “entropy” since disorder is probably more meaningful to people and entropy does imply a certain kind of disorder.
The argument made by the creationist is that the Second Law says that the universe is becoming increasingly disordered, but evolution represents a steady increase in “orderedness,” so evolution violates the law. Bearing in mind that the word “ordered” is a bit sloppy compared to the actual definition used by physicists, the very simple rebuttal is this: The Second Law only says the universe as a whole (or any part of it that doesn’t have energy flowing in or out) has increasing disorder. It is extremely obvious to physicists that there can be increasing order in one place if it makes use of a greater decrease in order someplace else.
In the case of evolution, the sun is losing “order” at a staggering rate as it radiates energy out into space and onto the earth. The process of evolution makes use of a tiny amount of the “order” lost by the sun to produce increasingly complex life forms in a thin layer on the surface of our small planet. The Second Law does reliably tell us that without the sun or some suitable replacement source of energy, evolution could not take place, and I’m sure there would be little disagreement among scientists about that.
The absurdity of the Creationist position is even clearer if we consider the context in which the Second Law is ordinarily used. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy is conserved, meaning that no process can create or destroy energy. If we have a boulder at 500 degrees and an equal sized one at 0 degrees and put them together in a perfectly insulated chamber, they will both wind up with a temperature of 250 degrees. Heat being a form of energy, the energy one gains will equal the energy the other loses. However, when there was a big temperature difference, it would have been possible to use this energy to run a steam engine by having the cold boulder cool water and the hot boulder boil it. This engine could create useful work, but it could not run once the boulders have reached the same temperature. The second law of thermodynamics captures the idea that the ability to do useful work declines over time even though the total energy doesn’t.
Discussion Group Report
Applying Humanism to Personal and Social Problems
By Richard Layton
Can humanism really help one to solve personal problems? Or social problems? Don’t the seemingly easy answers provided by authoritarian religion give a more uncomplicated and emotionally comforting approach to life’s problems?
Lloyd and Mary Morain in their book Humanism As the Next Step argue persuasively that humanism as the basis for an upbeat, constructive way of life without any ready-made formulas makes it easier to work problems through to solution and prevents us from creating new problems while meeting old ones. First, it is a state of mind of self-reliance and confidence which prompts people to act from perfectly natural causes rather than occult ones. This approach gives hope of understanding and perhaps even controlling the causes. Success and failure depends on whether we can see the chains of cause and effect leading up to the present situation and whether we act on the basis of this knowledge. We are allowed no transcendental alibis and are freed from insoluble riddles. We are encouraged to feel that there is usually some kind of answer to a problem if we could but find it. Second, humanism involves reliance on a common-sense realistic method, basically the thoughtful scientific method, which consists of observing keenly, gathering facts, questioning traditional authority, and carefully checking assumptions. It encourages keeping the mind open for new knowledge and being always reluctant to jump to conclusions.
A humanist looks at problems in social relations as problems in human happiness, in working out what will be best for the people concerned. One doesn’t ask who is right or wrong or recognize hard and fast categories of good and evil, but, rather, is interested in workable solutions and happy relationships. The point-of-view of others is respected; they have an equal right to their respective slants. The aim is to be nondogmatic and democratic, to keep the mind open for new insights. Only by accepting people as they are and trying to understand them can we live with them successfully. We do not make hard and fast judgments about people on the basis of past actions alone. We recognize that people change, and we have faith in them.
The Morains present too sugar-coated a picture of human relations. While in many situations their approach works, what about those where it doesn’t, where other people refuse to work with us in good faith. Should we have respected the point-of-view of Hitler and Stalin? I suggest that we humanists should work to get people to resist prejudice, hatred, murder, and other evils that bring unnecessary suffering and death to human beings.
The authors counsel correctly that we can free ourselves of fears, tensions, frustrations, and hostilities–the inner demons urging us to self-destruction–through the humanist orientation, which gives self-respect, security, inspiration, and independence. This point of view is also valid in dealing with the social and economic situations of our time. “We ourselves must take responsibility for making the world a better place in which to live, as there is no being or power, called by whatever name, to whom we can shift this task.”