Discussion Group Report
Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class
By Bob Mayhew
You cannot be middle-class if you earn the minimum wage in America today says Thom Hartman, author of Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class.
The American dream and the American reality have collided. In America we have always said that if you hard and play by the rules you can take care of yourself and your family. But the minimum wage is just $5.15 per hour. With a 40-hour work week, that comes to a gross income of $9,888 per year. Nobody can support a family, own a home, buy health insurance, or retire decently on $9,888 per year!
What’s more, 30 million Americans, one in four U.S. workers, make less than $9 per hour, or just $17, 280 a year. That’s not a living wage either.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics for 2004 show the official poverty rate at 12.7 percent of the population, which puts the number of people officially living in poverty in the United States at 37 million. For a family of four, the poverty threshold was listed as $19,307. If the head of that family of four were a single mother working full-time for the government-mandated minimum wages she couldn’t even rise above the government’s own definition of poverty.
Becoming middle-class in America today is like scaling a cliff. Most middle-class Americans are clinging to the edge with their fingernails, trying not to fall. In the 1950’s, middle-class families could live comfortably if just one parent worked. Today more than 60 percent of mothers with children under six are in the work force. Not only do both parents work but often at least one of those parents works two or more jobs.
Conservatives argue that we have to choose between having high wages and having low prices. They are wrong.
Take the case of Wal-Mart. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), Wal-Mart could pay each employee a dollar more per four if the company increased its prices by a half-penny per dollar. For example, a $2 pair of socks would then cost $2.01. This minimal increase would add up to $1800 annually for each employee.
I wouldn’t mind paying more for a pair of socks if it meant that my fellow Americans would bee able to pay for good health care. That would save me money because right now Wal-Mart’s uninsured employees run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills at emergency treatment centers when their problems often could have been solved more cheaply and with better results had they been caught earlier at a doctor’s office.
Here’s what all the talk about wages really comes down to: Would you rather pay 10% more at Wal-Mart and get 30 percent more in your paycheck, or would you rather have lower prices and an even lower paycheck? That’s the real choice: We are either spiraling up into a strong middle-class, or we’re spiraling down toward serfdom.
Looking at the arc of U.S. history, we discover we’ve been on a downward spiral ever since Ronald Reagan declared war on working people in 1981. Companies cut prices and then cut wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. Folks whose wages have been cut can’t afford to shop at midrange stores like Macy’s, so they have to go to low-wage discount stores like Wal-Mart. That drives more midrange stores out of business and increases pressure on discount stores to set their prices even lower. To compensate for lower prices, they lower wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. On and on it goes until the people working those jobs are no longer middle-class and have to work two or three jobs to survive.
Our choice is not between low prices at Wal-Mart and high prices at Wal-Mart. Its between low prices at Wal-Mart with lousy paychecks and no protection for labor, and the prices Wal-Mart had when Sam Walton ran the company and nearly everything was made in the United States and people had good union jobs and decent paychecks.
Today America is regressing; middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $15,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor) to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle-class is down by 0.6 percent. The problem is not the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.
What’s happening is simple: The rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle-class is disappearing.
We can easily trace this decline to Reagan’s first public declaration of war on the middle-class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers’ union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor traditionally the ally of workers against organized labor and working people.
Workplaces are not democracies “n the United States they’re run more like kingdoms. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to raise or lower wages, to change working conditions and job responsibilities, and to change hours and times and places. Workers have only the power to work or to not work (known as a strike.) The strike is a tool that can effectively be used only by organized labor is the only means by which workers can address the extreme imbalance of power in the workplace. And because organized labor is a democracy leadership is elected and strike decisions and contracts are voted on. Unions bring more democracy to America. We spend about half of our waking lives at work; at least we can have some democracy in the workplace, and a democracy means a strong middle-class.
The conservatives have almost succeeded in throttling American democracy by screwing over the middle-class. To fight back we must recognize and reclaim the government programs that create a middle-class:
When America has a strong middle-class, democracy will follow. The opposite is also true. To fight back, we must also make use of the ballot box. We can achieve the economic programs that make the middle-class possible by using the power of our democracy to vote for those politicians who support the middle-class. We’ve been conned for long enough. It is time to take back America.
Viginity or Death
Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have developed a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV), the primary cause of cervical cancer, which afflicts 10,000 American women a year. Yesterday I had the privilege of discussing this vaccine at a conference of the United Nations’ Division for the Advancement of Women.
This new vaccine is a cause of great controversy among Christian groups because it can be administered to teenagers before they become sexually active. Christian groups believe vaccination will provide teenagers and young adults with a false sense of security that will lead them to engage in sexual activity before marriage.
I recall when the right to abortion was opposed primarily because it was believe it would lead to more premarital sex; only secondarily were the rights of the fetus questioned. The HPV vaccination controversy demonstrates that no matter what the issue–sexually transmitted diseases or abortion–the religious right always concludes that the only solution is the maintenance of female virginity.
The belief that the vaccine will lead to “imoorality” implies that having sex before marriage is worse than getting cancer. This inconsistency is analogous to the pro-life refusal to help prevent abortion–which it claimes is its primary aim–by refusing to advocate the use of birth control. Opposition to the HPV vaccine and abortion has little to do with protecting human life; its primary aim is to ensure that women remain with the bonds of marriage.
–Ana Lita, Ph.D
Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in Blink of an Eye, by Michael R. LeGault, discusses the problem between egalitarian intelligence and critical thinking. Egalitarian intelligence is the notion that all ideas and opinions are of equal value, and that knowledge and reasoning tends towards the same conclusions. The importance of critical thinking is that it leads to innovative and creative thinking. These premises support the author’s theory that a breakdown in critical thinking, lack of planning, wavering indecisiveness, occurring at crucial moments can have devastating consequences. There are some issues, with some of the analogies the author uses; one problem being LeGault’s use of egalitarian thinking when he is trying to build a case for critical thinking. This only supports the fact that criticism should strive first to raise our consciousness, and encourage us to use our critical thinking intelligence skills.
Discussion Group Report
Theocons and Theocrats
By Art King
Is theocracy in the United States (1) a legitimate fear; (2) a joke, given the rising secular population and moral laxity in the US; or (3) a worrisome bias of major GOP constituencies and pressure groups? Kevin Phillips would argue “All of the above” in his recent article in The Nation (May 1, 2006 issue). The article is basically a condensation of some of the major points raised in Phillips’ recent book American Theocracy.
The religious excesses of the current administration seem to mirror the conviction of many rank and file Republicans that government should be guided by religion and religious leaders, and that implementation of domestic and international political agendas seems to be driven by religious motivations and biblical world views. The essential US conditions for a theocratic trend fell into place in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, with the growing mass of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christianity, expressed politically by the religious right. This was accompanied by the rise of the Republican Party as a powerful vehicle for religious policy-making, and the erosion of the separation of church and state.
The transformation at the state level was even more vivid, where fifteen to twenty state Republican parties came under control of the religious right, and some party conventions in the South and West endorsed so-called “Christian Nation” platforms. On the Utah scene, the Utah branch of the Constitution Party ran a broad slate of candidates for local and national offices in this past election. The Platform of this party is very theocratic, and includes such statements as: “This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It goes on to state: “All teaching is related to basic assumptions about God and man. Education as a whole, therefore, cannot be separated from religious faith.” Other parts of the platform advocate outlawing abortions (even in the case of rape and incest), and express anti-gay rights and anti-environmental positions (see their website at http://constitutionparty.com). Fortunately, none of their candidates did very well in the November elections, even in conservative Utah.
The article goes on to note that in the years since 1988, dozens of reports have surfaced quoting George Bush the Younger as telling ministers, supporters and foreign officials that God wanted him to run for President and that God speaks through him. In mid-2004 he told a local Amish audience “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” After September 11, 2001, Bush responded to the terrorist attacks by declaring the start of a war between good and evil.
The article points out that much of the American public is fertile ground for recruitment by fundamentalist ideas. A majority of Americans take the Bible literally in many dimensions, including subjects ranging from the creation and Noah’s Ark to the Book of Revelation. A Newsweek poll in 1999 revealed that 40 percent of American Christians believe in Armageddon, and about the same number feel that the Antichrist is already alive.
Another poll mentioned in the discussion group stated that fewer than 40 percent of Americans accept biological evolution as a scientifically valid principle, and this number has actually declined in the past 20 years, in spite of scientific research that has only reinforced the fact that evolution is the foundation of modern biological science. In Europe this is not the case, with upwards of 80-90 percent of the population accepting evolution as a valid principle. One of the reasons that America is so different in this regard is the success that fundamentalists have had in influencing school text books and coursework to de-emphasize evolution, and put it in a tentative position.
This gets to the fundamental goal of the religious right: to push their religious views and agenda onto all Americans, and gain power and control over the government in the process. Phillips points out that the federal judiciary is the arena in which the most critical battles of their agenda will be fought. This is why the court appointments made by the current administration will have an effect on our country that will last far longer than the short time Bush is in office, since many court appointments are lifetime appointments.
Fortunately, a few moderate Republicans are speaking out concerning what has happened to their party, and are trying to get control back from the extremists. Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut expressed that, regrettably, “The Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.” Perhaps the results of the November elections will help to reverse the theocratic trend that has become so evident in recent years.
On January 12, 2006 Nancy Melich was the featured speaker at our general meeting. Here is a synopsis of her remarks.
A unique combination of high culture and cowboy, because she grew up in rural Moab, former Salt Lake Tribune theater critic Nancy Melich delighted everyone with articulate and knowledgeable plain speak about theater. Now a literary seminar director for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Melich began with high praise for SLC’s plays now currently running which deal with universal themes of human struggle, particularly about those living on the margin.
Among them, she singled out Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” at Salt Lake Acting Company, Terrence McNally’s “Love, Valour, Compassion” at Rose Wagner, and California writer Claire Braz-Valentine’s “When Will I Dance?”, about Frida Kahlo, at Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Collectively, these three plays deal with death, sex, loneliness, and ultimately, freedom of expression.
If she still was a Tribune critic, the ideal would be to first review separately all three plays, then write a follow-up article about what the playwrights are saying, why these Utah companies chose to present these works now, look at the audition process, and so on.
However, in this age of diluted reporting, Melich doubted that she would be the one to review all three plays or have the luxury of writing a follow-up. Clearly frustrated, Melich asked how the Tribune has devoted so much space to film “Brokeback Mountain,” even before Larry Miller’s pull-out of it from his theater. Other questions included: Why is it there are full pages devoted weekly to capsule reviews of films, but not even a half-page to reviews of theater, dance, music, or visual art exhibits? Why do the two daily newspapers have movie and TV columnists, but no performing arts columnists? In her opinion, television coverage of local arts is almost nonexistent, and the only radio station that consistently shows interest in the cultural climate of Utah is KUER.
Recently on KUER’s “RadioWest” program, Doug Fabrizio interviewed poet laureate Ken Brewer, who is dying from cancer. An emotional intense interview, Melich described the scene from Brewer’s kitchen in Providence, Brewer’s poignant but humorous depiction of his failing body, and the proliferation of new poems since the fateful diagnosis.
Melich then posed additional questions: What if Doug Fabrizio never spoke to Ken Brewer on the air? What if Ballet West cancelled its fall season and no one wrote about it? What if Clear Channel bought the Utah Theatre, renovated it, and scheduled month-long runs of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and the local columnists had no opinion on the impact of such a decision? What if the only place to read about the current art scene was on a blog, written in cyberspace by someone you have never heard of and whose credentials are unknown?
An optimist, Melich doesn’t believe all that would happen. However, tangible signs are that informed, thoughtful arts coverage has been moving for some time in a bad direction: shorter stories, more listings, four stars and thumbs-up / thumbs-down reviews substituting for analysis, fulltime critics leaving major papers who are not replaced.
An active participant in the American Theater Critics Association, Melich cited that currently there are 270 members compared to 290 five years ago, and that members now are largely comprised of freelance writers. When they meet twice a year, the conversation inevitably turns to the shrinking space devoted to the arts, and how editors are giving that space to television, movies, pop culture stories, and DVD reviews.
Years ago after eight years reporting on a variety of subjects for the Tribune, including the arts, Melich said that no editor had ever asked if she knew anything about the arts. Recounting how in 1978 after being accepted into a month-long program called the National Critics Institute, her mentor named Ernie Schier, the Institute’s director, said, “Now go home and educate your editors that covering the arts is not the same as covering the police beat or the legislature, but just as important.”
For the next 21 years, she practiced that wisdom. At the Tribune, she spent countless hours interviewing actors, directors, and playwrights while also writing stories about truck drivers, softball players, symphony strikes, and consumer advocates in Washington. On the concrete pillar next to her desk at the Tribune, she’d taped this quote: “The job of a theater critic is not to get people to go to the theater, or to get them to stay home. The job of a theatre critic is to keep the reader interested in the theater.”
Interestingly, Eliot Hall has been the home of much theater. In 1973, Melich reviewed the anti-war musical “Hair,” not knowing whether the production would be shut down because a local official had said the play, with its nudity, violated community standards. Reason prevailed and the Salt Lake Acting Company production continued on. In 1978, Eliot Hall was the rehearsal place for “Saturday’s Voyeur,” and Melich was fortunate enough to see it in its infant stage.
According to Melich, the creative and performing arts and the dedicated critics are integral and essential to the growth and vitality of a community. When the arts are ignored by the media, the message is they are not that relevant. Asking why newspaper editors vigorously cover city halls, sports, businesses, and schools, and largely ignore the arts beat, there is no one answer. Her mentor, however, said editors and reporters need to be educated.
Melich has worked long hours and spoken up forcefully to push for more arts coverage. Whether as a reporter for the Tribune or in her current position at the Shakespearean Festival, everyone can learn from her knowledge and passion for the arts.
Sidebar: Two audience Q and A may interest some readers.
One question was how does SLC rate on arts venues compared to other cities of the same size. Melich answered that SLC fares very well with exciting regional theater, Westminster College’s poetry program, one of the best in the nation, great jazz at the Sheraton, Pioneer Theater, Salt Lake Acting Company, Ballet West, Repertory Dance Theater, an explosion of visual arts, Utah Shakespearean Festival.
Another question was how could an audience member benefit the most when attending a play. Melich’s answer was: Practice, practice, practice! Observe. Is the curtain up or down? If it is up, then most scenes will have the same setting. If there are more than two doors, then the play is probably a farce.
What do the props do? Everything on stage should have a purpose; if not, then it is not as professionally done. What do the costumes do? Are actors comfortable in their costumes? The audience must be able to hear the actors if you can’t, inform someone during intermission. Do you feel safe, or are you constantly thinking that the, e.g., chandelier might fall? Watch the actors. Look at the lighting. What is the energy of the play? After fifteen minutes, are you thinking about the weather or mowing the grass? If so, then something is amiss with the production.
That Damned Woman!
Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair
It was a privilege to hear Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists for the last ten years. Working tirelessly, she is furthering two goals of the American Atheists: 1] Keeping state and church separate; 2] Protecting the civil rights of atheists and other “freethinking” groups. With visiting freethinkers attending Johnson’s presentation, it was a good time for humanists to mingle and build solidarity for common objectives and issues.
Because Johnson speaks to many different groups and organizations, she has noticed that there are misperceptions and misinformation about the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In Johnson’s observation, the older population has negative thoughts about O’Hair, many from the media, while younger people know little or nothing about her.
Born in 1919, O’Hair came from a poor union family in Pennsylvania, where her father owned a glass manufacturing company that hired only union workers. Baptized into the Presbyterian Church and raised by church-going parents, O’Hair claimed that she became an atheist after reading the complete Bible in her early teen years.
Earning a law degree in 1952, O’Hair, among other activities, served both in World War II and for the Foreign Service.
Many people are aware that O’Hair in 1963 won in the Supreme Court decision of Murray vs. Curlett where school prayers across the U.S. were ended in the public education system. Describing herself in 1963 as “the most hated woman in America,” it was also later in 1963 that she founded American Atheists, working steadfastly and courageously as its leader for 32 years from 1964 to 1995 when Johnson then took over.
Undeterred by the backlash that she received for Murray vs. Curlett, like death threats and the victim of vandalism long after the 1963 decision, O’Hair continued to work toward the separation of church and state legal battles as the country’s atheist-in-chief.
Too numerous to detail completely, Johnson shared a list of some of O’Hair’s accomplishments.
Such objectives like eliminating prayers in public schools and public government meetings, stopping tax exemptions by church businesses, ensuring that public office is open for everyone no matter their beliefs, and promoting equal job security for everyone regardless of their beliefs should interest us all. Johnson concluded by saying that there is no question that Madalyn O’Hair’s lifetime of work has laid the foundation for successes today in keeping state and church separate and protecting the civil rights of all freethinkers.
I read a couple of books this past month that I recommend for your consideration. One concerns contemporary U.S. relations with the Islamic culture, the other our relations with the cosmos.
The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton administration. This is an important book for anyone seeking some clarification of the Islam-Jewish-Christian relationship, particularly the fundamentalist arms of those religions. She says, “People of diverse nations and faiths ought to be able to live in harmony.” Does she believe we can? In her words, “I am an optimist who worries a lot.”
The View from the Center of the Universe is written by Joel Primack, a professor of physics, and his wife Nancy Ellen Abrams, former Fulbright scholar with a special interest in history and philosophy. For a decade they have been co-teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, titled “Cosmology and Culture.”‘ The central thesis of their book supports the theory the universe began with a Big Bang and will continue to expand endlessly. How humans use their intelligence will determine how long they will be participants in this phenomena. This book is a good balance of science and philosophy.
Discussion Group Report
By Richard Layton
The doctrine of states’ rights has been the cause of bitter controversy at several periods in U.S. history. How it has been so is the subject of an article, “States’ Rights,” by Microsoft Corporation, 1993-2003. States’ rights are defined as, in U.S. history, the political doctrine advocating the strict limitation of the prerogatives of the federal government to those powers explicitly assigned to it in the U.S. Constitution and reserving to the several states all other powers not explicitly forbidden them.
Before the Civil War (1861-1865) supporters of the doctrine generally held that the federal government was only a voluntary compact of the states, and that the latter could legally refuse to carry out federal enactments that they regarded as unconstitutional encroachments on their sovereignty. Since 1865 states rights advocates have generally limited themselves to an insistence on a “strict construction” of the terms of the Constitution, whereby the federal government would be kept from such encroachment. Opponents of states’ rights have supported a liberal interpretation of the constitution, asserting that the federal government may legally exercise “implied” powers that, while not explicitly stated, are in accord with the general powers enunciated in the Constitution.
The doctrine of states’ rights was advanced by Thomas Jefferson, later the third president of the United States, against the Alien and Sedition Acts by the federal government. He held these enactments to be unconstitutional infringements of the rights of free speech and the press, and he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions and secured their passage by the Kentucky legislature. These advanced the thesis that the states had the power to determine the constitutionality of a federal law and to declare null and void a law they regarded as unconstitutional. Several actions carried out by Jefferson and his successor, James Madison–the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Embargo Act (1807) and the 1812 War–aroused the hostility of the New England states; and these in the abortive Hartford Convention (1814) drew a series of resolutions embodying states’ rights doctrines.
One of numerous controversies around the states’ rights issue was caused by the enactment of the federal tariff laws (1828, 1832). Several Southern states, led by John Calhoun, regarded these acts as inimical to their interests, and South Carolina passed an ordinance nullifying the tariff acts. This threat to national unity was allayed when Congress enacted a compromise tariff law and the South Carolina ordinance was repealed. During the next two decades, states’ rights became a paramount issue, inextricably interwoven with the conflict over the issue of slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency (1860), an avowed opponent of the extension of slavery, was viewed by the southern slaveholders as a direct threat to their constitutional rights, and they carried the states’ rights doctrine to the extreme of secession. The defeat of the confederacy in the Civil War marked the final collapse of attempts to arrogate to the states the power of the veto or otherwise contravene enactments and policies of the federal government.
The latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th were marked by an almost continues struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties. The Republicans were in power most of this period and therefore favored a strong central government, while the Democrats supported states’ rights to curb the power of the Republicans and to safeguard the traditional Democratic control over the southern states. This situation was reversed, however, after the election to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1932. In attempting to deal with the prevailing economic depression, he extended federal powers far beyond those explicitly granted the federal government by the Constitution. Many of the policies of the federal government under his sponsorship were denounced by conservative opponents of social legislation, including Republicans and Southern Democrats, as abridgements of states’ rights.
Following World War II, President Harry S. Truman continued expanding the prerogatives of the central government. In the 1948 Democratic convention the Northern majority got an extensive program of civil rights incorporated into the election platform. Southern opponents of these measures declared the program an outright abrogation of states’ rights and withdrew from the party to form a new party, the “States Rights Democrats” or the “Dixiecrats.”
The southern states’ rights movement gained momentum in 1954 after the Supreme Court ordered the state to end racial segregation in public schools. In the election of 1964 most states’ rights leaders stayed in the Democratic party, but some joined the Republican party. Some gave their support to the conservative Republican candidate, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who expressed strong support for a strict interpretation of states’ rights. In 1968 many states’ rights advocates supported former Alabama governor, George Wallace. The successful Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, employed a “southern strategy,” pledging support for an increased role for state governments and the appointment of conservative judges. In the late 1970’s, the states’ rights issue shifted to the West, where a “sagebrush rebellion” against federal and resource policies by development-minded business executives and politicians paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
In the 1990’s the Supreme Court, with a slim conservative majority, issued a series of rulings that significantly expanded states’ rights. These included the disposal of radioactive waste within a state; ruling unconstitutional a federal law compelling local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks of handgun purchasers; strengthening the principle of sovereign immunity; the idea that states are sovereign governments with immunity from lawsuits brought under federal law; and that states cannot be sued for violations of federal labor, patent and false advertising laws. The Court ruled that state employees cannot sue states for age discrimination under federal law or for money damages for employment discrimination violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the Court surprised some observers with decisions that sided with federal authority, that states have no authority to impose term limits on one’s service in Congress and that Congress has the power to prohibit states from selling personal information on state drivers’ licenses and motor-vehicle registration records.
The study group also discussed Andrew Jackson’s Second Inaugural Address (1833), which dealt with states’ rights. He said, “…the destruction of our State governments or the annihilation of the local concerns of the people would lead directly to revolution and anarchy, and finally to despotism and military domination. In proportion, therefore, as the general government encroaches on the rights of the States…does it impair its own power and detract from its ability to fulfill the purposes of its creation…But of equal and, indeed, of incalculable importance is the union of these States, and the sacred duty of all to contribute to its preservation by a liberal support of the General Government in the exercise of its just powers. You have been wisely admonished to ‘accustom yourselves to think of the Union as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity, watching for its preservation with Jealous anxiety, discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of any attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.’ Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they can never be maintained.”
Discussion Group Report
The State of Humanist Organizations
By Richard Layton
This month’s Humanist Discussion Group meeting featured as a speaker Vern Bullough, senior editor of Free Inquiry. Mr. Bullough has written numerous articles and is an internationally known leader in the humanist movement. He has helped bring about the inception of international humanist organizations.
He introduced us to the history of humanist organizations in the U.S. A key player in the humanist movement was Ed Wilson, who was the minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. I want to mention that Ed also played an important role in the organization of the Utah Humanist Association in Utah early in the 1990’s, when he returned to Utah at the age of 90. He served on the Board of Directors of Utah Humanists until his death at 93. I remember he was the featured speaker at our organizational meeting. I had received a letter from the organizing group, signed by a gentleman named Anne Zeilstra, which opened up by saying, “Surprise! You are not the only humanist in Utah!” At that time I lived near Ogden and thought I probably was the only humanist in Utah. Apparently the group had obtained my name from the list of subscribers to the Humanist. It was a real thrill to me to find out that the humanists were going to have an organization in Utah and to have the opportunity to participate in that endeavor.
Wilson organized a group of eminent scholars and leaders in the U.S. to sign the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933. His group chartered themselves as the American Humanist Association. Mr. Bullough said the humanist movement owes more to Ed for its development than to anyone else. Corliss LaMont also gave much to humanism and was very influential in keeping it alive.
In his speech Bullough, then went on to point out the problems humanism faces today. First, not all Unitarians are humanists. Some Unitarian congregations are empathetic to humanism, but most are not. Second, humanists disagree among themselves. They are highly individualistic and have divided up into several organizations.
Paul Kurtz became the editor of the Humanist. Then he started Free Inquiry and resigned from the Humanist. Bullough feels that the latter magazine is more political than the former. Free Inquiry has expanded tremendously. One thing that has helped is that Paul takes an idea and runs with it.
In spite of their differences, both of the largest humanist organizations, the American Humanist Association and the Council for Secular Humanism, have worked together effectively in several endeavors, especially in training humanist leaders. Humanist organizations have been created in several countries overseas. There is an International Humanist and Ethical Union. The largest humanist group in Europe is in Norway, and there is another large group in the Netherlands. Humanists are pretty friendly to each other everywhere.
How can humanists get more membership in their organizations? Bullough had several suggestions: One way is through study groups. In Los Angeles there is a theater, and humanist events are held there regularly. The internet is probably the best way to inform people about humanism, and its use for that purpose is the coming thing. Special groups centered on particular interests can be formed, for instance, single groups, gay groups, and retired people. Chapters can hold special conferences in their areas on a particular topic once a year. They should be given advance publicity in the media. Several years ago the Council on Secular Humanism held such a conference in Salt Lake City, which was highly successful. There are now 40 college chapters around the country. One difficulty with this approach is that students leave college. Youth conferences are another way to go.
We need paid organizers in humanism. There could be a conference of Rocky Mountain humanists. In Utah we could form new chapters in other nearby areas and then get together to talk about how we could work together. Humanists have much common ground with each other, but big egos are a problem for cooperation among humanist groups. T-shirts are a possibility. Sometimes humanists have issued sound bites to the media. We have at times gotten a good deal of publicity in the New York Times. We might be able to get some coverage in the University of Utah Daily Chronicle. We can write to our national organizations for press materials. Unfortunately, public service radio and TV stations won’t run humanist materials. Our president, Robert Lane, pointed out that we have sometimes had success in getting letters-to-the editor published. Bullough suggested writing manuals on subjects that are especially interesting to people, for example, divorce. Many books are published that advocate humanist ideas, but not many of the readers join our organizations. Nevertheless, humanist ideas are widely respected in our society. They played a role in the development of the U.S Constitution and in the promotion of human rights. He cautioned against taking the Madeline Murray O’Hare approach. She was unwilling to cooperate with groups other than her own.
We should, he said, promote strongly the idea that man is responsible for his own destiny. This would resonate well with many people.
1/15/1915 ~ 9/4/2006
Humanists of Utah expresses sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sherm Dickman. He was a long time chapter member who always provoked both thought and mirth. He encouraged critical thinking and respect for opinions contrary to our own.
Discussion Group Report
Scopes Monkey Trial
By Richard Layton
The Humanist Study Group this month discussed four articles by H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun of June 29, 1925. The esteemed (by some) American journalist discusses the then upcoming “Scopes Monkey Trial,” where a Tennessee teacher was tried and convicted of breaking a law against teaching the theory of evolution in the schools. I have decided, instead of attempting to describe in resume all four articles, to give you word-for-word his comments from one of the articles, with same name as my present article, so that you can enjoy his writing by getting a better taste of it. It may seem that Mencken is being overly blunt or that he oversimplifies. I think he has something important to say with some very penetrating humor, even though I cannot say I agree with every single thing he comes out with:”Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist , if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone–that even the dullest, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized–though I should not like to be put to giving names–but the great masses of, men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely what the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.
“Such immoral vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer–that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds in the air.
“On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.
“The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders–that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous–by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.
“Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob’s hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above their level of comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.
This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as something going on in the race in general, but as of something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, French Revolution, a war for democracy, and a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive–and a few are enough to carry on.”
“The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex–because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for shortcuts. All superstitions are short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged–and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple–and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.
“The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.
“Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throws up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth–a Coolidge, a Wilson, or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.
“What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes , almost two genera–a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.”
Living As If Religion Were Truth
Moral intuitions in a secular society are discussed by Dr. Patrick Loobuyck, department of philosophy, Ghent University, Belgium in the current issue of Religious Humanism. Dr. Loobuyck argues that western moral values are necessary for a civilized society and they are based on religious writings. He recognizes that many secularists no longer accept the theistic fantasy that an authoritarian God rewards and punishes individuals based on adherence to religious commandments.
Most of us agree that moral values are necessary for a peaceful, meaningful world. We use moral discourse daily, we say we must live with absolute prohibitions, adopt intrinsic values, and grant human dignity while denying there is an ultimate source of these values.
Dr. Loobuyck says the solution to this dilemma is fictionalism, living ‘as if’ there was a God who commands moral standards. Fictionalism, says Loobuyck, allows us to accept in practice what we reject in theory.
Religion vs. Religious
Former BYU philosophy adjunct instructor Jeffrey Nielsen spoke to an overflowing crowd at October’s general meeting. Not rehired because of his famous and infamous op ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune [6/4/06] supporting legalizing marriage for homosexual couples, Nielsen chronicled how he reached that point.
Considered to be the first humanist of the western tradition, Protagoras wrote (485 B.C.E.), “Man is the measure of all things…” Humanity being the ultimate context, individuals or groups should not sacrifice human rights for abstract beliefs, organizational interests, or institutional religion. Rather, the measure should be whether something improves the concrete circumstances of the human condition, increases our natural affections, or expands our sense of moral community.
Protagoras the foundation for Nielsen’s moral sensibilities, two basic principles emerged as the beacon for his life choices. 1] He is morally obliged to improve the well-being of other people by seeking their best interest and alleviating their suffering. 2] Every human being, regardless of his/her place or position, possesses an equal privilege to speak, and every human being shares an equal and reciprocal obligation to listen.
In seeking to improve the well-being of others, Nielsen said that we could follow a dialogical and non-hierarchical way of understanding and defining ethics and moral reasoning. Illustrating this is neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty’s thoughts on religion, the two primary aspects being 1] religious experience and 2] religious dogma or institutionalized religion. Often in tension are these two concepts.
To Nielsen, religious experience evokes the prophetic role of speaking truth to power, the primal experience of God as moral imperative. Upsetting the status quo, religious experience is protestant and on the side of the poor and dispossessed, fighting for social justice, calling an individual’s ego into question, and calling us to care for others as much as we care for ourselves.
Religious dogma or institutionalized religion, on the other hand, often becomes the very power structure that oppresses people, demanding absolute obedience, blind conformity, and unquestioning acquiescence: “do what your leaders tell you, and even if they are wrong, you’ll be blessed for it.” In this context, the preservation of the institution and of the power and privilege of the religious leaders becomes more important than the welfare of the ordinary members. Here religion becomes, in Peter Berger’s words, the sacred canopy of the status quo.
As can be seen, these two concepts may simultaneously be both an oppressor and a liberator: the opiate of the masses [Marx] and the prophetic voice that inspires people to e.g. sacrifice themselves to improve life for a complete stranger.
“Religious experience” [the golden rule and unconditional love] can be also viewed in a non-theistic, non-sectarian, and natural way.
Democracy is another powerful force that helps form our moral foundation. In the enlightenment age, it was realized that government could not both preserve individual freedoms and endorse any particular religious authority. John Locke provided persuasive arguments for the separation of church and state, which to Nielsen, was most significant in that religious faith should not be coerced or mandated, but must be freely chosen. Even if government was allowed to mandate religion, how could they sponsor the “right” religious authority? Government could just as easily mandate the wrong religious tradition.
Besides, institutional religion is inherently exclusive in nature and absolutist in claims, which can potentially lead to tyranny in unchecked religious influence. Nielsen added that institutional religion is by nature hierarchical, which would confute his second moral principle.
In the history of the American republic, religious experience [the prophetic role of God as moral imperative] has persuaded us to become more inclusive in guaranteeing individual rights and respect for individual dignity. At the same time, religious institutions have become more exclusive and more defiant of individual equal rights and respect for individual dignity of certain classes of people–the crossroads that Nielsen found himself in May this year regarding the LDS Church’s opposition against marriage for homosexual couples.
Gay Rights in the LDS Church:
A constitutional amendment to deny marriage equality, or in other words, to restrict individual rights solely for religious reasons strikes at the heart of the key safeguard protecting our democracy from falling into unchecked tyranny. Considering the two moral principles that guide his life, Nielsen could not but defend equal marriage rights for homosexual couples.
In light of the LDS Church’s stance, Nielsen said that the well-being of gay men and women and their families are harmed, both in and outside of the church, by labeling same-sex attraction as perverse and unnatural, and condemning that which is not fully understood. In fact, Nielsen believes that science is beginning to show that same-sex attraction is biological and hence, as natural as heterosexual attraction. Same-sex attraction may be caused by environmental conditions in the mother’s womb before birth, triggering the DNA that gives the fetus a homosexual orientation. If this is the case, neither the mother nor the child has a choice in the matter–it is a completely natural, biological condition.
Said Nielsen, “Truly God would be unjust if He wee the creator of a biological process that produced such uncommon but perfectly natural results, and then condemned the innocent person to a life of guilt, while denying him or her the ordinary privileges and fulfillment of the deep longing in all of us for family and a committed, loving relationship.”
Even if the scientific evidence does hot establish this beyond reasonable doubt, Nielsen said that virtuous moderation and loving kindness should move us to exercise caution before making constitutionally binding discrimination against a whole class of people based only on fear and superstition. In Nielsen’s opinion, there are few reasonable arguments, like claming gay marriage has not been historically recognized the same argument against civil rights for ethnic minorities and equal rights for women. Or how could gay marriage, the union of two committed and loving people, destroy his own traditional marriage?
Other Rights in the Church:
Equally passionate was Nielsen about other human rights denied in the church and out, like the harmful belief that people of color reflects pre-mortal levels of spiritual worthiness. More specifically, Nielsen would like the LDS Church to state clearly what their position is on the past denial of the priesthood to blacks. After all, Joseph Smith himself ordained at least one black man, Elijah Abel, to the priesthood. Then when Brigham Young took over the presidency, blacks were denied the priesthood. Could this reflect a certain cultural racism of the times and not divine will? Isn’t it time for the church to be honest?
Harmed also are women and children of polygamous sects. According to Nielsen, until the church acknowledges that modern polygamy is a direct result of the polygamous teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, there will be continued denial of accountability to polygamous families. Also, because many polygamists believe that the church will reinstate polygamy and receive them back into the fold the church has a responsibility to clearly state the nature of polygamy, past and present–and if polygamy becomes legal, would the church reinstate it.
People are harmed when they have a right to know the actual history of the church versus official history. Said Nielsen, “Church leaders have implied that to doubt or question is to jeopardize your family, and so those who find such inaccuracies in church publications are faced with alienation of love and affection in their families if they dare talk about it. This dilemma of choosing between the truth as they perceive it, or the love and affection of their families is the fault of the church’s failure to be more open and transparent, and it is harming real families.”
Other human rights that Nielsen believes the church denies are:
The only rationale, in Nielsen’s opinion, for keeping secret both membership numbers and finances is to protect the position and privilege of the church hierarchy.
In addressing these inequities, Nielsen emphasized that questioning them is not meant to challenge LDS Church leadership or doctrine, but rather to examine the injustices and to consider a moral reform.
Last but not least, Nielsen expressed desire for complete freedom to examine, question, and dialogue with church leaders and church members so that when he sustains leaders into official office, he could do so genuinely. Said Nielsen, “I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with out church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. Every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.”
Discussion Group Report
Religion, Identity, and Mideast Peace
By Richard Layton
“It is true that most conflicts that are portrayed as religious conflicts are not in essence anything of the sort. Whether between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, Christians and Muslims in Nigeria or Indonesia,…, or between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, these conflicts are not at all religious or theological in origin!” says Rabbi David Rosen in his article with same title as this article in the “10th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs,” September 23, 2005, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He states these conflicts are not religious or theological in origin but are territorial conflicts in which ethnic and religious differences are exploited and manipulated.
“Why and how,” he asks, “is it that religion is so easily exploited and abused?” Why is it that in many contexts of conflict in our world, religion appears more to be a part of the problem than the solution? The answer, I believe is to a great extent implicit in the aforementioned point itself–namely the socio-cultural territorial and political contexts in which religion functions.”
He says that because religion seeks to give meaning and purpose to who we are, it is inextricably bound up with all the different components of human identity–family, the larger components of communities, ethnic groups, nations and peoples, to the widest components of humanity and creation as a whole. These components of human identity are the building blocks of our psycho-spiritual well-being, and we deny them at our peril. The counterculture–drug abuse, violence, etc. are a search for identity by those who have lost the traditional compasses of orientation. He points to Robert Ardrey, who opines that because religion is so bound up with identity, religion itself acquires far greater prominence in times of threat and conflict, nurturing and strengthening the identity that senses itself as threatened, in opposition to that which is perceived as threatening it. The Hebrew prophets did not, in relation to the people when in exile, challenge their lack of moral responsiveness and ethical outreach, as when the people are secure, but, rather, saw their role as to protect and enhance the identity that was under threat.
However, the character that religion assumes under such circumstances is often not just one of nurturing , but often one of self-preoccupation and even of self-righteousness, that disregards “the other,” who is not perceived as part of one’s identity group, and even demonizes that “other” as hostile, as “a perfect picture of malice,” in the words of historian Richard Hofstadter. So it is in the Middle East. Religion does not provide a prophetic challenge to political authority, but is rather subject to it and is more part of the problem than part of the solution. Because religion is associated more with partisan insularity or hostility, peace initiatives in the Middle East tend to avoid religious institutions and their authorities, seeing them as obstacles to the peace process.
In this light, in 2002 a remarkable gathering took place in Alexandria, Egypt, bringing together the Three Faith religious communities–Jewish, Muslim, and Christian–for the first time in human history, to lend the voices of their respective traditions to an end of violence and to promote peace and reconciliation. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt sent Sheik Tantawi to host the meeting. The Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Christian Patriarchs of Jerusalem also participated. They developed a declaration that condemned the violent abuse of religion, suicidal homicides and all actions that are oppressive and destructive of human life and dignity. It also called on political leaders to eschew violence, return to the negotiating table, to recognize the importance or religion as a force of reconciliation; and it called for respect for the rights of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The outcome has been the establishment of a Council of the Religious Leadership Institutions of the Holy Land with the purpose of facilitating communication between religious leadership and to engage such leadership in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. The summit also led to the establishment of centers for the religious teaching on peace and reconciliation in Gaza, Kafr Kassem and Jerusalem. This work has led to a sense that religious institutions must play an active role in conflict resolution and has increased an understanding of this necessity among political leadership as well.
“Simply stated, if we do not want religion to be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution,” says Rosen. Although humanists are skeptical of religious claims to divine inspiration, it is encouraging to see some religious leaders from widely different religious orientations actively promoting the peace process.
The Prospect of Humanism
The three great ages of Western civilization are ancient Greece, the Renaissance, and the modern period of reason, enlightenment, science and democracy. These three great eras are periods in which humanistic thought has flourished.
Although the Western world has been dominated in its religious thought by Judaism and Christianity, humanism remains a strong candidate for any new worldwide philosophic synthesis of religion.
Everywhere we look in the modern world we see signs of humanist influence.
Consider the modern university. Although there are Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and individuals with all sorts of ideological commitments in university centers–the dominant faith in the academic world is humanism.
Humanism is the point of view one is likely to adopt if one surveys and attempts to integrate into a philosophy the scope of human knowledge to be found in physics, the behavioral sciences, the humanities and so forth.
Just as Aristotle’s attempt to integrate all that was known led him toward a humanist epistemology, so today the academic finds himself channeled by–his setting towards humanism.
This is not to suggest that humanists in the universities, or anywhere else, are apt to agree on most subjects. On almost every major question, humanists differ from their fellow humanists. The diversity among humanists is well illustrated in psychology. B. F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, all of them honored and avowed humanists, differed profoundly on the most basic issue of human freedom and human nature. On this question, though, as in so many other cases, we find that the important dialogue is occurring between humanists.
Although humanism is widespread in the academic world, it does not lead to agreement, and most of the significant theoretical discussions in the modern world are taking place among humanists who differ.
These differences between humanists may be more productive of new knowledge, and more to be valued for the contribution made to society at large, than the differences humanists have with non-humanists.
Humanists may be capitalists or Marxists, expounders of free enterprise or of a planned economy, believers in self- ethics or altruism, political activists or scholarly recluses. They do not necessarily come to agreement on the issues they debate.
Humanism is not a final set of strategies or of answers. It is a frame or orientation, an approach to the human situation.
The Summer Social on August 10 was a resounding success. Thanks to all Board members for their contributions in making this happen. Good wine and good conversation flowed freely (thanks to Flo and Rolf for the former, and all attendees for the latter). A special thanks to Rolf for providing us with quality entertainment in the form of singer/keyboardist Glenn Lanham. Of special note was the Board’s recognition of Rolf for his many years of committed service to the Humanists of Utah. Rolf was presented with a check to one of his favorite charities, The Gandhi Alliance, which works to eliminate landmines throughout the world.
This time next year, the Summer Social will likely look a bit different. Tentatively we will have a potluck picnic at the home of John and Wanda Young, as a change in scenery. Of course more information will follow as we approach this time next year.
The successes keep coming. I am pleased to report that our first ever “Video Night” was very well received. Thirteen interested humanists took over Bob and Julie Mayhew’s living room for an evening to view Heart of the Beholder. When the Board first began discussing holding a Video Night, we thought that perhaps it could be held on a quarterly basis. However, due to the strong interest of those in attendance, another Video Night will be scheduled sooner, with the specifics to follow in a subsequent newsletter. If you would like to volunteer your home as a viewing room or have a video suggestion, just let me know. Thanks to everyone who made this first event such a success, and a special thanks to Bob and Julie for the use of their home and the great popcorn.
I had the opportunity to see the Al Gore documentary on global warming An Inconvenient Truth recently, and encourage all of you to go see it if you haven’t yet already. This month’s Discussion Group reviewed another Al Gore piece, “The Moment of Truth,” an article from the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. The magazine calls global warming “a threat graver than terrorism” and when you see An Inconvenient Truth, you may agree. Never has the planet been so endangered, and the (urgent) call to save it must be answered by all of us, no matter what our political party or religious belief.
In closing, I would like to thank those of you who have heeded the plea for volunteers to help set up at the General Meeting. All of us on the Board are truly appreciative of those committed members who came to set up tables and chairs, and to help with refreshments. We are always looking for such helpers, and will appreciate any assistance in these areas that you can give.
Because of the popularity of the first “Movie Night”, we have decided to have another get together on October 26. It will be held at the home of Bob and Julie Mayhew, and we thank them for graciously serving as hosts once more. We plan to hold yet another such night in January with details to be announced at a later date.
At the last get together, a decision was not made on what we would view next, so I am taking the liberty of bringing a few items from my personal collection to give us some choices. My recommendation for October is the classic movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I think the movie is one of the best black humor films ever made, and is still timely even after 40 years. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, it stars Peter Sellers (in three roles!) George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens. Please join us for a fun evening and remember to RSVP Bob, Julie, or me as soon as possible.
At the September board meeting we began discussions regarding the upcoming elections. I know that February seems a long way off, but we want to get an early start looking for potential new directors. We have room on the board for two more members, and I hope that some of you will consider serving. If you are committed to the principles of humanism and would like to contribute to the chapter’s efforts to grow and to educate and inform, we would love to have you join with us.
Up for re-election in February are the officers: President Robert Lane, Vice President Robert Mayhew, Secretary Sarah Smith, and Treasurer Leona Blackbird. All of the officers have committed to run for office again.
I would also like to ask the members of HoU for some feedback. Are there individuals you would like us to try to book as a speaker at one of our meetings? Is there an alternative activity you think would be a good idea? Do you have a request for a different kind of cookie? We don’t get much feedback and would love to hear from you.
Finally, I want to recommend that you check out the podcasts from Point of Inquiry (pointofinquiry.org). Their guests are always excellent and the presentations thought-provoking and interesting; recent examples included Ann Druyan on “Science, Wonder and Spirituality,” and Michael Shermer discussing “Why Darwin Matters.” A new podcast is presented each Friday, and all previous interviews are also available.
That’s it for now. I hope you are enjoying the fall and that this wonderful weather will last.
Books, books ,books, I buy far too many books and magazines. But I can’t help it. I suspect that many of you, at times, find yourselves in the same boat. Recently I purchased several at places as diverse as a yard sale, Barnes and Noble, and Costco.
Three of them are on current best seller lists. This is encouraging because they are books I would hope become widely read. They include the most recent book by Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which you might suspect are both decidedly critical of religion. The third is Bob Woodward’s State of Denial. I have finished Letter, and have include a review of it on page x. The other two I have only started by thumbing through them a bit, but they give me reasons to read on. Although I think I will need to take Bob Woodward’s State of Denial a small piece at a time. A large chunk of George W. Bush and his administration is likely to make me ill.
The yard sale netted me two books that have a weird juxtaposition. I picked up John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which I have never read. The second one is titled, The End Times Are Here Now, by Charles Halff. I picked it up because I have been looking for a source of reference as to what these religious “End Timers” believe, with citations of biblical chapter and verse. But these two books do make a strange contrast when side-by-side. On one hand JFK gives us a readable and enlightening narrative about individuals in history that stood courageously for principles they believed in. Then on the other hand we have a book that is filled with the doom and gloom of the biblical end times. Well, that’s enough about books.
Until our membership meeting in February, I will continue to remind the membership of Humanists of Utah that we have room on our board of directors for a couple of new faces. Please give it some thought.
Finally, I would urge you to be sure and vote. I think that humanists probably vote at a higher percent than the general population, and I’m confident that we understand how important it is to do so.
The annual Membership Meeting and Social on February 9 was most enjoyable. The food by Distinctive Catering was excellent, and musical guests “Blue Sage Trio” played some wonderful bluegrass music. Many thanks to board members Rolf Kay and Flo Wineriter for providing the wine and handling all of the mailing of the ballots and invitations. Thanks also to Sarah Smith for arranging musical entertainment. I had a very good time, and hope that everyone in attendance did, too.
I am happy to report that everyone listed on this year’s ballot was elected/re-elected to the HoU Board. Long term board member Rolf Kay was re-elected to another term, as was Cindy King, who now begins her second term. We also have two new members joining us and extend a warm welcome to Julie Mayhew and Alan Burnham. Julie and Alan will be a fine addition to the chapter and we are very glad to have them with us. On behalf of the entire board and the membership at large, I would also like to thank John Chesley for serving a term as a board member. John has been a longtime supporter of the Humanists of Utah, and was instrumental in seeing that local libraries and other facilities had chapter literature available for the public.
The proposed bylaws change also passed with only a few ‘no’ votes. Because it is often difficult to find enough chapter members to serve on the board, we decided that we would change section IV. A (where it reads) “The Association shall be governed by its membership and between meetings thereof, by a Board of Directors consisting of a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and five other board members”. This has now been changed to read “…and up to five other members.”
I would like to invite everyone to attend the discussion group on March 2 at 7:30 p.m. This meeting will be a departure from the usual discussion format, as we are hosting a special guest, Vern Bullough, Ph.D., a Senior Editor at Free Inquiry magazine. Vern will be discussing the state of humanist organizations.
My turn of the century computer and I are back. In a way it was nice to have it turned off for a couple of weeks. As useful as computers are, I think we spend too much time sitting in front of these screens. Unless, of course, it is part of your job.
The May General Meeting with American Atheists’ President Ellen Johnson was a success. While there was some anxiety over the possibility of a protest by those opposed to the atheists’ challenge of the Utah Highway Patrol memorial markers, there were no protests and we had a good crowd. Although I must say I was a bit disappointed that there were more atheists in the crowd than humanists. I guess there are some among us who think some of the atheists strident attitude might rub off on us. It was also disappointing that the media reports had little to do with what Ellen spoke of and instead used her visit as yet another opportunity to wedge the roadside memorial issue in where it didn’t belong.
On a related subject, I have decided that I will not favor our chapter becoming affiliated with any other groups. I think it is best we stay as we are, a chapter of the AHA and nothing else. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ally ourselves with other groups when we agree on an issue. But I see no need to be affiliated in a formal way for that purpose.
At the board meeting, we discussed having a ‘video night’ where interested parties get together to visit and watch something of general interest. Bob and Julie Mayhew have agreed to host the event until the crowd grows too large. Suggestions on what to view include “Heart of the Beholder,” the documentary “Root of All Evil?” by Richard Dawkins, “The Corporation,” and “The God Who Wasn’t There”. On a less serious side, there is “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Of course, other suggestions are welcome.
We do need to know if there is sufficient interest in this idea to warrant further planning. Please contact me by email, email@example.com or by phone 801-486-4209, if you are interested.
I’m currently reading a very good book and heartily recommend Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. While many of you may have already read it, as it was published in 2004, it escaped me until recently. It is well worth reading and Susan is very good at, for one thing, setting the record straight about the mindset of the founding fathers.
I would also recommend the podcast pointofinquiry.org. It has excellent interviews with people like Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Paul Kurtz, Bill Nye, Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby and more. I think you will enjoy these interviews as much as I have.
That’s all for now. Hope to see you soon.
I would like to thank our June speaker, Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, for her presentation. The information about the state of reproductive rights was quite enlightening and we hope to have her back in the future.
At the June board meeting, we discussed the traditionally poor participation in Humanists of Utah events during the month of June. The board decided to make June a month without a Humanists of Utah event, other than the publication and distribution of the newsletter. June has never been the best in terms of attendance for either the General Meeting or the Discussion Group. In the many years I have been going to the discussion group regularly, the latest showing had the fewest attendees yet–just three of us. We hope that this change will be reviewed positively
I would like to take this opportunity to make a few comments about the environment and in particular, the recent discussions regarding the existence of global warming.
I’m sure that you are all aware of this controversy. Environmentalists, with the backing of many scientists, say it is a problem that needs our immediate attention. On the other side, a considerable effort is being made (mostly by conservatives and corporate spin doctors) to discredit the very notion of such an occurrence. It is my belief that the ongoing argument occupies us to the point of keeping us from working on and discussing the more important issues of the environment altogether.
Those of us concerned with environmental issues have unknowingly allowed our opponents to gain the upper hand when we fall in to the trap of trying to defend the proposition that global warming exists; the end result being the perception that until it is proven to exist, we don’t need to do much of anything.
I feel that arguing over whether global warming exists detracts from asking the more important questions: “Why do we allow any pollution, period? Why have we allowed entities that pollute to just go ahead (with a few weak regulations) and do as they please?”
The common man cannot do this sort of thing. For example, say I decide that I don’t like paying water and sewer charges. So I run a pipe out to the gutter and start flushing out to the street. My neighbors and the government would put a stop to that in a hurry, and rightly so. But you can also bet that the powers that be would not say “we’ll only make you reduce it by half, as we don’t want you to have too much of a hardship complying with the law.” Yet this is exactly what the entities and industries destroying the environment are told every day.
I realize that all pollution isn’t going away anytime soon. But we can reduce it considerably if we choose to. But it ain’t gonna be cheap or easy.
I am happy to announce that we have two nominees to run for the board of directors. Julie Mayhew and Alan Burnham have both thrown their hats into the ring. I have no doubt that they will be excellent additions to the board. I would also like to thank the board members who will not be running again. John Chesley has decided to step down and we thank him for his contributions to the chapter. Mike Huston will not be a candidate due to illness, and we also thank him for his efforts and contributions as a board member and want him to know that our thoughts are with him.
Next, I want to thank all of the board members for making the December social a success. All the good food and conversation made it a most enjoyable night. Thanks to Bob and Julie Mayhew for re-capping our trip in October to the “International Academy of Humanism World Congress” in Amherst, New York. Much thanks also to board member Sarah Smith and her son Darrell Smith for the lovely violin and guitar medleys, which concluded the evening.
My trip to the International Academy of Humanism World Congress held in Amherst, New York, was enjoyable in a number of ways. The fun began when they lost our luggage, and we were left wondering if we would be wearing the same clothes for the whole trip. But we did get our baggage before the first event.
Being part of a group of over 600 attendees at the World Congress was very satisfying. Meeting and talking to many like-minded freethinkers was wonderful. Having the opportunity to meet and speak to some of the panelists and presenters was, as the saying goes, awesome.
There isn’t space to tell the whole story here, but I want to relate a couple of things that happened to me. I spoke briefly to Richard Dawkins. In one of his presentations, he lamented that he wasn’t sure how effective his book Unweaving the Rainbow was, in debunking the idea that science and scientist are cold and unemotional. I assured him that the book had clearly expressed how I feel about deriving joy from science.
The reception for the opening of the new “Center for Inquiry” was especially enjoyable. It was there that I had a few minutes with Jean-Claude Pecker, a world-renowned astronomer, and we talked about the need to get youngsters interested in science and to urge them to be inquisitive.
I spoke to Ann Druyan about Carl Sagan, and she made my day by saying that Carl would have loved to have been here because “we were his kind of people.” At the reception I had a moment here and there with Paul Kurtz, Tom Flynn, Margaret Downy, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and several others. Again, all I can say is that it was awesome.
The only criticism I have is that the schedule was a bit frenzied, and I think that spreading it out another day or two would have been nice. I wish it could have gone on for another week or more. In closing, I would encourage any interested HoU members to attend such events as they can. They are informative and a joy to participate in.
As the year winds down, I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the Humanists of Utah. A big thanks to all of the board members for their numerous and continued efforts in directing the organization. It is a constant pleasure for me to serve with such hard working, intelligent, and committed individuals. Also, thanks to those who come early and stay late to help set up chairs and tables at our general meeting-these seemingly small tasks are in fact very helpful in helping the meetings run smoothly and successfully. And of course, thanks to all of the membership for your interest in humanism and continued support of our chapter.
The Board of Directors has been working to make some changes to the chapter’s calendar of events. We will still be having several speakers throughout the year to address the general meeting, and we are looking into hosting or co-hosting a forum and/or debate with groups. One change, however, is that we will be suspending the June and July Discussion Group and general meetings. After much discussion, the Board decided upon the suspension because of poor attendance in recent years, but do not feel the chapter will suffer with this change. Additionally, our August Social will be a picnic to start a new season of events. Our newest activity, “Movie Night,” has been a great success and will continue with date, venue, and films to be announced.
The month of February, as usual, will host the annual Membership Meeting at Distinctive Catering. There are currently vacancies for two additional board members, so I hope everyone will give it some thought and consider joining us. Any member of the Board of Directors would be happy to speak to anyone interested in serving, should you have any questions or need information before deciding to have your name placed on the ballot.
Finally, speaking for myself, I must state that the outcome of the recent national election was extremely gratifying. After six years of suffering with the current administration and even longer with a Republican majority in Congress, enough voters were tired of the many failed policies and voted for change. Hopefully the new majority will do a better job. In my opinion they certainly cannot do much worse!
Our annual membership meeting will be held February 9, 2006, at Distinctive Catering. I look forward to having an enjoyable evening. The Board of Directors encourages all members to attend and bring a guest. We would be delighted to see a number of new faces at the social. Many thanks to Flo Wineriter and Rolf Kay for supplying the wine again, and to Rolf for making the arrangements with Distinctive Catering. Thanks also to Sarah Smith for arranging the entertainment, a bluegrass group called the “Blue Sage Trio.”
As usual, we will be conducting some chapter business. We will announce the results of the board member elections and vote on a by-law change. Watch your mail for your ballots and be sure to return them.
The Board has voted to send a donation of $300 to the library at the Salt Lake Valley Juvenile Detention Center, in the name of deceased Board member Mike Huston, who passed away on December 25, 2005.We would also like to encourage Humanist of Utah members to make a personal donation. The library is mostly the result of the efforts of Mike, and is nationally recognized.
Board member Bob Mayhew has been corresponding with Vern Bullough, a distinguished humanist, columnist and senior editor of the magazine Free Inquiry, in an attempt to arrange for him to be the guest speaker for our March General Meeting. Vern, who is originally from Utah, is a SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, founder of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge. He is the author, co-author, or editor of over 50 books, many of which deal with sex and gender issues. He has served as President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and has earned numerous awards for his writing and research, including the Kinsey Award. He has written more than 150 articles and is a popular lecturer in the U.S. and abroad.
Unfortunately, Vern’s busy travel schedule makes it impossible for him to be here for the General Meeting. However, he will be here during the time our discussion group meets on March 2, 2006 and has agreed to speak to us. This will be a great opportunity to hear from Vern and to engage in an interesting questions and answers session. Tentatively, he will be speaking about “Competing Groups” in humanism and free thought areas. I urge you all to come and enjoy what should be an enlightening evening.
Next month I plan to write a few things about State Senator Chris Buttars, who’s recent and ongoing antics on Capitol Hill have provided so much amusement and irritation. Over the next several weeks, he will no doubt show how little he knows about…well, just about anything as far as I can tell, especially biology, evolution, and homosexuality.
I hope that your summer is going well. Please don’t ask me, “Is it hot enough for ya?” I might give a smart assed reply, or worse. I enjoy living where there are a variety of seasons, but the hot part of mid-summer is not my favorite. If it never got over 80 , that would be fine with me.
Speaking of summer, the Board has decided to look into making further changes to the meeting schedule. In my message for June, I announced that we were going to suspend activities for that month in the future. That may have been premature, as we are also contemplating suspending activities for July. The same reasoning applies in that attendance is rather poor in July as well. We are also planning to make the August Social a picnic to start the new season. These changes will take effect next year.
Additionally, we are starting a new activity, where we get together and watch a movie of the group’s choosing. We hope to do this on a quarterly basis, starting next month.
To start off “Video Night” we will present a showing of Heart of the Beholder. Of course admission is free, but we need you to let us know if you plan to attend. Notification is necessary because we are having the first event at the home of Board members Bob and Julie Mayhew and will need to restrict it to about 20 attendees. Lights will dim at 7:00 p.m. on August 24th. I hope we see some of you there. I think it will be an activity we can all look forward to.
The Board is looking for a few volunteers from the membership to help with some of the chores. At the General Meeting it can become a bit hectic getting everything set up and taken down. We think it would make for an easier evening if a few members would agree to come early to the general meeting, to set up chairs and tables, and some others who will help with the serving of refreshments on a regular basis. We don’t need a large crew, but a couple of volunteers would help keep some of us board members from working up sweat before the meeting.
Finally, invitations will be going out soon for our Summer Social at Distinctive Catering on August 10. We always have a good time, so try to keep the date open and join us. See you soon.
The March Discussion Group was a departure from our usual format of a selected reading. Through the efforts of Bob and Julie Mayhew, we had as a special guest Vern Bullough, a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a long time humanist. Before the discussion, Bob, Julie, and I had an enjoyable dinner and some chitchat with Vern and his wife. At the meeting, Vern gave a history of the humanist movement and talked about the competing groups that exist today. Afterwards he answered a number of questions from those in attendance.
I want to say a few things about the divisions in humanism. In the several years that I have been a chapter member and board member, I have been a bit dismayed by the divided nature of the humanist movement. That is, all of the “competing groups” that exist. While some diversification and duplication is inevitable and even necessary, I suspect that a lot of it has to do with some big egos and conflicting philosophies that were allowed to divide the movement unnecessarily.
It is also irritating for me to read letters on some of the Internet sites where sniping occurs by some atheists toward agnostics. There is certainly nothing wrong with discussing whether or not God exists, but to make snide remarks about people who would agree with you in nearly all other aspects of freethought, critical thinking, rationality and science isn’t at all helpful to humanism.
When a missionary or the Jehovah’s Witness comes calling I tell them that I am several things: a humanist, an evolutionist, and an agnostic. But I try to not call myself an agnostic-humanist. Hyphenated or modified names only tend to confuse, and all of the names or philosophies are able to stand alone while at the same time reinforcing the others where they overlap, i.e. humanism has a naturalistic viewpoint and evolution is certainly naturalistic.
In this regard, I recommend that you check out an article from the November/December 2002 Humanist by Edd Doerr called Humanism Unmodified. It can be found on the Internet…see our website for the link.
Finally, it is my sad duty to inform you that Rolf Kay has decided to resign from the Board of Directors of the Humanists of Utah. Because of health problems he is stepping down immediately. He informs me that he will remain a member and I am sure we will see him at our meetings often. I know that I speak for the entire board and indeed all of the membership in thanking Rolf for the many years he has served on the board. Rolf’s good humor, jokes and keen insights have benefited the chapter tremendously. He also arranged the February and August socials for many years-no small feat. Rolf, thanks you very much and good luck in all that you do.
Rolf’s departure leaves an empty seat on the board. Anyone interested should contact any board member.
The Politics of Enlightenment
The Enlightenment is about the power, the beauty, and the truth of reason. Emotion, desire, and magic may readily sway us to instant gratification but reason will lead us to reality.
In his book, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, the Politics of Enlightenment, Darren Staloff forcefully reminds us that America owes its guiding political traditions to three founding fathers whose lives embodied the collision of Europe’s grand Enlightenment project with the birth of our nation. Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson each steered his public life under the guideposts of Enlightenment principles. As a consequence we have a government that is modern and efficient, constrained by checks and balances and capable of appealing to lofty aspirations.
Staloff says no other nation bears the imprint of the Enlightenment as deeply as does the United States and our ideals are inconceivable outside of an Enlightenment context.
For an understanding of the Bush administration’s foreign policy I strongly recommend you read The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind. As the dust cover says, “Suskind has written a narrative of nonfiction, filled with exclusive, historically significant disclosures that will echo across America and the world.” For example, regarding a scheduled meeting with leaders of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis sent the president an advance letter outlining the important things they wanted to discuss. The problem was the president never saw the letter. It was diverted to VP Dick Cheney who failed to give it to President Bush. No wonder the president had no idea what the Saudis considered of importance and failed to address their vital concerns during the meeting at his Crawford ranch.
The title of the book refers to the Cheney doctrine, “if there is even a one percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction the United States must respond as it if were a certainty.” Suskind compares the post World War II containment policy of George Kennan with post 9-11 one per cent doctrine of Dick Cheney.
Enthusiastic Kilo Zamora, executive director of National Conference of Community and Justice of Utah (NCCJ), introduced this nonprofit organization housed currently at Westminster College. Founded in 1927, and known originally as The National Conference for Christians and Jews, NCCJ’s mission is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism. This organization promotes understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures through 1] advocacy, 2] conflict resolution, and 3] education.
The mission encompasses all people, and the organization finds all forms of oppression, prejudice and discrimination to be wrong so that no form of discrimination is acceptable. Therefore, the mission includes any type of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, and discrimination based on physical and mental disabilities.
People are not neutral, expressed Zamora. Learning new ways of thinking and understanding different perspectives, races, religions, and cultures can be difficult, and may mean that one steps back, cleans his or her slate, and listens carefully. Empathy is another way. Using the World Trade tragedy to illustrate how to be more empathetic, one could ask e.g. why would someone wish to attack us? What happened in their history to warrant such action? What lead the attackers to reach this critical point?
To respect differences, one also needs to move from mere tolerance to acceptance. “I don’t want to be just tolerated!” said Zamora. “You can’t bring out the best in me if I am just tolerated.”
Acceptance also means inviting different peoples into one’s home or inviting their children to play with ours.
Eliminating bigotry and changing biases requires conscious effort and conscious decision-making. For example, what are we willing to say when the “other” is not in the room?
Conscious museums is one societal effort to change biases and to educate, like the Museum of Tolerance in LA and the Holocaust Museum. (Built in 1993, the Museum of Tolerance is a high tech, hands-on experiential museum that focuses on two central themes through unique interactive exhibits: the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust, which is the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man. The genesis of the Museum, the first of its kind in the world, came from the leadership of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the internationally recognized Jewish human rights organization named in honor of Simon Wiesenthal)
Embodying education, conflict resolution and advocacy are two powerful statements that Zamora quoted, the first by Martin Luther King.
The second is a quote from LDS President Gordon Hinckley:
Zamora concluded by saying that NCCJ is about not knowing all the answers, having the ability to be criticized, being at the table together and building a better place together. Social justice is not only in our head and hearts, but in the way we live.
NCCJ, a part of the Salt Lake City community since 1966, has been active in a variety of community projects. The principal goal of these projects is making life for all people, and especially youth, more equitable, friendly, and free.
Key Facts about NCCJ:
Discussion Group Report
The Moment of Truth
By Bob Lane
The August Discussion Group reviewed Al Gore’s article “The Moment of Truth,” published in the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. Gore wastes no time in stating that the threat of global warming is real, deeply relevant, and a “true planetary emergency.” His article is part scientific, stating a number of recent, documented environmental crises, part withering criticism of the Bush administration’s lack of response to a number of these environmental crises (including Hurricane Katrina) and a call for action, urging readers to join in this “moral and spiritual challenge” to save Planet Earth.
Gore challenges the skeptics and deniers of global warming with actual facts of environmental devastation. Most of the mountain glaciers in the world (including the Rockies, Andes, Sierras and Alps) are melting, as is the floating ice cap in the Arctic Ocean. In a first documented occurrence, scientists have discovered large numbers of polar bears drowning in this newly expanded ocean. Even more serious, the ice cap on the top of Greenland is beginning to melt. This 20,000-foot thick ice cap is “now poised to slip into the sea.” When the ice caps melt into the ocean, the overall sea level worldwide will be raised by over 20 feet. With a raised sea level, the world’s climate system will be forever changed, with the Gulf Stream and the El Nino/La Nina ocean cycles, among others, all now “at risk of being pushed into new and unfamiliar patterns.”
The ocean is also becoming more acidic, as a result of the large amounts of carbon dioxide, the result of burning of fossil fuels, being absorbed by the ocean. While the acid this creates–carbonic acid–is fairly weak, it is enough to change the ions (carbonate and bicarbonate) in the ocean. As a result, corals are now unable to form their unique skeletons, “the base of many food chains in the ocean.” If this pattern continues, the acid will make ocean life unable to form shells, as the shells instantly dissolve in the acid. The ocean, the heretofore harbinger of life, will become a virtual wasteland, unfit for any living creature.
Despite these dire examples, and others cited, of the environmental catastrophes we will soon face, many within the next 10 years, our leaders, Gore writes, are “resisting the truth” and finding it “simply more convenient” to ignore the numerous warnings that abound. Of Hurricane Katrina, he writes that the current administration chose to ignore two crystal clear warnings: that the tropical storm that became Katrina was becoming a ‘deadly monster” poised to slam into New Orleans, and the other, perhaps even more serious, that the levees, not built for such powerful storms, were in grave danger. There is even a videotape of President Bush being presented with these facts, but not questioning or acting upon them.
Gore states that the criticism of the administration is not partisan as many naysayers would say. “A recent report by Republicans in the House of Representatives called the White House reaction (to Katrina) a ‘blinding act of situational awareness’ and that the administration, as well as Congress, “failed to act on the massive amounts of information at its disposal.”
As tragic as Hurricane Katrina was, Gore writes that it also served as a turning point in showing Americans that we are not immune to environmental catastrophes, that they can and will indeed arrive on our doorstep unless we act now. Americans “are beginning to demand that the administration open its eyes and look at the truth, no matter how inconvenient it might be for all of us–not least for the special interests that want us to ignore global warming.” He continues, “America is beginning to awaken. And now we will save our planet.”
Joining together to save the planet from the reality of global warming will give the world a shared purpose, Gore writes, a “generational mission,” a rare occurrence in the world’s history. He urges Americans to not miss the opportunity to come together for a “compelling moral purpose, a shared and unifying cause,” and the “opportunity to rise.” The survival of Planet Earth is something that all of us– regardless of geographic area, creed, race, gender–have in common and must do something about if we are to sustain ourselves as a people.
Gore closes by stating that despite the environmental crises that have already occurred and several impending challenges yet to come it is still not too late to act. We as a people have already taken on and successfully dealt with many crises, that at one time would have seemed insurmountable: eliminating Jim Crow and segregation laws, freeing the slaves, allowing women to vote and landing on the moon, among others. He writes that we can unite as a people and indeed as the world–to take on this challenge of protecting our planet and that we must do so now. Saving the earth cannot wait.
November 3, 1941 ~ December 25, 2005
Mike Huston served on the Humanists of Utah Board of Directors during his last year of life. He brought with him compassion his compassion for reading and helping troubled youth. He worked diligently on our Marion Craig Essay Contest last year, producing all of the printed materials for the contest. His death is a great loss to our chapter.
Here is some information from his published obiturary: Mike worked for many years as a truck driver. He loved books and people; he was a voracious reader and connected with people everywhere he went. After retiring, he devoted much of his time to establishing and maintaining a library for residents at the Salt Lake Valley Juvenile Detention Center. Recently named the Michael Huston Library Center in his honor, the facility now has more than 8,000 books. Mike was loved and respected by many other family members and friends. He will be remembered for his kindness, his generosity, his sense of humor, and his optimism.
Humanists of Utah extends our condolences to his family.
While we should not seek to be what we are not, I think that there are things we can do to add more “spirit” to what we believe and what we do as individual humanists and as a community. Among these is a deepening appreciation of humanism as a lived philosophy of life; that is, not merely beliefs we hold about life and reality, but beliefs we strive to put into practice in every aspect of our existence. A second emphasis is to see the connections between what we believe and what we do–to appreciate how our actions are rooted in our convictions and how our ideals inspire our actions. A third approach would be to deepen our relationship to the sources of our being.
For the traditional believer, this source is God. For the humanist, it is usually understood as Nature. It is the sense of rootedness in the cosmos and drawing strength from those forces in nature that sustain us. Lastly, it is openness to the “big” questions of life and reality, the reflections that inspire awe, wonder, cosmic piety and reverent humility in the face of the grandeur of existence.
–Joseph Chuman, Ethical Culture Leader
A Liberal’s Pledge to Disheartened Conservatives
This is a “letter” from Michael Moore in which he is encouraging people to sign and pass on. You can read the original and sign it here.
I know you are dismayed and disheartened at the results of last week’s election. You’re worried that the country is heading toward a very bad place you don’t want it to go. Your 12-year Republican Revolution has ended with so much yet to do, so many promises left unfulfilled. You are in a funk, and I understand.
Well, cheer up, my friends! Do not despair. I have good news for you. I, and the millions of others who are now in charge with our Democratic Congress, have a pledge we would like to make to you, a list of promises that we offer you because we value you as our fellow Americans. You deserve to know what we plan to do with our newfound power–and, to be specific, what we will do to you and for you.
Thus, here is our Liberal’s Pledge to Disheartened Conservatives:
Dear Conservatives and Republicans, I, and my fellow signatories, hereby make these promises to you:
Letter To A Christian Nation
Sam Harris’ new book is small in size and an easy read. His style is interesting in that he writes much of it as a response to what religious Christians assert. He often starts a section with the two words “you believe,” then after stating what they believe, he sets forth good arguments why many of these beliefs are not backed by any evidence, are illogical, sometimes disgusting, and often harmful to humanity.
This book contains more than just criticism of religion; it also has many cogent and useful passages like the following quotes.
Harris makes the point that we should be civil in or discourse and that religion brings much comfort to its adherents. But he also asserts that we should not be intimidated by criticism from fundamentalists or allow them to kill ethical discussions with claims of faith. I found this book a refreshing reply to many of the claims of fundamental Christians.
Latino Roles in Utah Society
John Florez, activist, newspaper columnist, and Mexican, reiterated familiar rhetoric that is being bandied about across the nation since the Bush administration said they wanted to toughen enforcement of immigration laws. “Rhetoric” is defined in the World English Dictionary as “persuasive speech that communicates its point persuasively.”
In his passionate rhetoric, Florez pointed out that racism is rampant for the Mexican and Latino people, that they contribute immeasurably to the economy of the US, that “Mexicans are not lazy,” that employers employing illegal immigrants need to be accountable for their illegal activities, and that the Hispanic and Latino people must continue to fight for their rights in America.
With so much talk about “borders, fences, and amnesty,” Florez said, “But lost in the talk is the human aspect.”
Immigrant life was difficult. Florez recalls a scene on highway five in San Diego where migrant workers lived in boxes in ditches; he marveled how in the mornings they would be lined up on the road, all clean and ready to work. Among them at the turn of the century was his father who knew no English but “wanted a better life for his family.” Someone had remarked, “I don’t know how these people do it,” to which Florez said, “If you’re hungry and your family is hungry, you’ll do anything to help your family.” Working in America with a pick and shovel until he retired, his father had stressed to his children the importance of education and learning English.
Florez said his father was discriminated against, as was he. Recalling experiences at the Capitol Theater where Mexicans had to sit in the balcony with the blacks, Florez became so paranoid that when he went to the store Kress’s, and the service bells rang, he thought that was a secret signal to others the Mexicans were coming.
Memories of his father are vivid. In 1941 when they went back to Mexico but then decided to return to the US “to get a better education,” on the trip back, they were all hungry so stopped to get sandwiches. Returning to the car empty-handed, his father cried because he was unable to get those sandwiches as they would not serve Mexicans.
When the legislature said his people were illegal felons was when Florez said the “kids hit the streets. In this community are kids who have the same hostility as I did because of my father. These kids see their folks suffer, and that’s enough. There is resentment, hostility, and racism.” In the legislature are “off the table subjects, immigration and environment, that people don’t want to talk about, and these are critical issues.”
Florez continued, “Every time America has needed workers, they brought in immigrants, and this renews and energizes the American dream. Anyone can talk all about this nonsense but every time they bring in immigrants, they brought in new energy. And we’re missing the whole boat on this because of many angry people.”
“Congressmen and senators say go back,” said Florez, adding that they are more concerned about being elected than doing the right thing. “We’re in for a hard time, no more legislation this year until after the election…come up with something like the guest worker program, which is the ultimate solution.”
“Lost in debates is the moral aspect and how this affects the country, and what it says about us that says we don’t care about people in need and their suffering.”
We have had Katrina, 9/11, and these people are concerned about border crossings because of the terrorists, Florez said. “Well, hell, the terrorists are not coming in from Mexico. They’re coming in from Canada. Look at it, that’s an open border…that’s how all the terrorists are coming in so this is a racist thing, a fear thing, and any time Americans are fearful, you find scapegoats…we’re the scapegoats.”
“Let’s be realistic that we do have problems. People coming here live in the shadows. They don’t have access to health care, they don’t have access to education…people now go to the emergency clinic, and Hispanics have a high incidence of diabetes, so we don’t treat diabetes but we treat the gangrene that sets in and cut off the leg. They don’t have prenatal care but we will deliver a child, and a child may have physical problems…they don’t have front-end care. This flames a lot of anger here.”
One question asked after Florez’s speech was why an exception has been made for the Latino people about learning English, as much is bilingual now. Florez answered that he believes the common language should be English and Americans should not lower the bar for his people. “We all know we need to speak English, don’t rub it in our faces, and we’ll get there.”
Another question was how many people can America assimilate and still make good use of everyone’s talents and aspirations. Plus how can there be a long-term solution until the economic system in Mexico improves so there isn’t such a large disparity between the two countries.
Florez answered that “it is a two-tier society, the haves and have nots.” In a KUED series called “Shadow of Hope,” Florez said, “In there, one of the priests…and this one mayor said that if we didn’t have the escape valve of people coming over here for economic reasons to find a better life, we’d have a revolution in Mexico.”
“The solution to immigration is really an economic issue and how do we really give Mexico the incentive to do something about It.” We are enablers here. Florez’s proposal is to look at this as a problem of the Western hemisphere; we need to “gather natural resources of this hemisphere,” use natural talents of these people, use the World Wide Web, educate everyone…to solve this.
FYI, Wikipedia states that although the United States currently has no official language, it is largely monolingual with English being the de facto national language.
On May 18, 2006 the Senate voted on an amendment to an immigration reform bill that would declare English the national language of the United States. The immigration reform bill itself, S. 2611, was passed in the Senate on May 25, 2006, and now has to go back to the House of Representatives in conference to make sure amendments are agreed upon.
Just Another @%#*^ Republican
Bob Bernick, Jr., in a recent column made a bold observation of politics in Utah. His concluding paragraph voiced what many think and some say in private but hesitate to express publicly:
“Many, if not most, of the Republican members of the Legislature (and some Democrats, as well) are or have been lay LDS leaders. LDS wards and stakes are natural political constituencies for bishops, counselors and stake presidents who decide to run for office.
“So into the political mix of Utah we see one-party domination and a social sense of not questioning authority figures.”
It reminded me of a comment made by an LDS Utah Democratic Party leader, Clinton Black, fifty years ago when he criticized then Apostle and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson. A listener said, “Don’t you believe brother Benson speaks with divine inspiration?” His reply, “Yes when he speaks for the church, but when he speaks about politics he is just another #%* Republican.”
Too many Utahns translate religious authority into political authority. An excellent example of the wisdom of our nations’ founders in emphasizing separation of church and state.
Discussion Group Report
Is God an Accident?
By Richard Layton
“Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently, psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question….”is God an Accident?This question is the title of an article by Paul Bloom in the Atlantic Monthly, December 2005. Bloom buttresses these “facts” with observations of the objective world which he believes lend support to them.
“When I was a teenager,” he says, “my rabbi believed that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was living in Crown heights, Brooklyn, was the Messiah, and that the world was soon to end. He believed that the world was a few thousand years old, and that the fossil record was a consequence of the Great Flood. He could describe the afterlife, and was able to answer adolescent questions about the fate of Hitler’s soul.
“My Rabbi was no crackpot; he was an intelligent and amiable man, a teacher and a scholar. But he held views which struck me as strange, even disturbing. Like many secular people, I am comfortable with religion as a source of spirituality and transcendence, tolerance and love, charity and good works… I am uncomfortable, however, with religion when it makes claims about the natural world, let alone a world beyond nature.” It is easy, Bloom says, for those of us who reject supernatural beliefs to agree with Stephen Jay Gould that the best way to accord dignity and respect to both science and religion is to recognize that they apply to “non-overlapping magisteria”: science gets the realm of facts, religion the realm of values.”
But religion, he argues, is much more than a set of ethical principles or a vague sense of transcendence. The anthropologist Edward Tylor got it right in 1871 when he noted that the “minimum definition of religion” is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural. My rabbi’s specific claims define religion as billions of people understand and practice it.
In the United States just about everyone–96 percent in one poll–believes in God. Well over half of Americans believe in miracles, the devil and angels. Most believe in an afterlife, not just in the sense that we will live on in the memories of other people, or in our own good deeds; most Americans believe that after death they will actually reunite with relatives and get to meet God. But Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Do these facts about America show how much we differ from European countries? Not necessarily, says Bloom. Church attendance is much lower in Europe, but most polls show that a majority of European people are believers. Iceland is the most secular country on earth with only two percent attendance, but four out of five Icelanders say that they pray, and the same proportion believe in life after death. And in America Steven Waldman in the on-line magazine Slate states that one of America’s two political parties is extremely religious. 61% of the party’s voters say they pray daily or more often. 92% believe in life after death. A hard-core subgroup of this party think Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51% believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Christ. The hardcore group Waldman is talking about is Democrats, and the hard-core subgroup is African-American Democrats.
Scientists? They are less likely than non-scientists to be religious but not by a huge amount. A 1996 poll asked them whether they believed in a real biblical God, one believers could pray to and actually get an answer from. About 40% said yes. Only among the most elite scientists–members of the National Academy of Sciences–do we find a strong majority of atheists and agnostics.
These findings require a new theory of why we are religious–one that draws on research in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology. One traditional approach is the observation that it is difficult to be a person. There is evil all around; everyone we love will soon die–slowly and probably unpleasantly or quickly and probably unpleasantly. For nearly all, life really is nasty, brutish and short. If our lives have some greater meaning, it is hardly obvious. So perhaps as Marx suggested, we have adopted religion as an opiate, to soothe the pain of existence. Supernatural beliefs solve the problem of this chaos by providing meaning. But, as scientist Steven Pinker reminds us, we don’t typically get solace from propositions we don’t already believe to be true. Hungry people don’t cheer themselves by believing they just had a large meal. Heaven is reassuring only insofar as people believe such a place exists. An adequate theory of religion has to explain why such a belief occurs in the first place. Another alternative theory is social; religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. It is survival of the fittest working at the level of the social group. The claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those who do not. This theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates. In the Old Testament “a jealous God” commands: “Should your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or your daughter or the wife of your bosom or your companion who is like your own self incite you in secret, saying let us go and worship other gods…you shall surely kill him.” This theory explains how rituals and sacrifices can bring people together and the possibility that a group that does such things may have an advantage over one that doesn’t, but it is not clear why religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, etc., brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, belief in the supernatural.
Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a different view–that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident. One version is the notion that a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. Morally, a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can.
Where does this distinction come from? Through experience, or is it somehow pre-wired into our brains? We can find out through the study of babies. It is hard to know what babies are thinking, since they can’t think and have little control over their bodies. But babies, like the rest of us, tend to look longer at something they find unusual or bizarre. Babies show surprise if you (1) put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object stays there held by a hidden wire (the baby expects the object to fall); (2) show a baby an object then put it behind a screen and later remove the screen and the object is not there. (they understand that objects persist over time if hidden); and (3) place first one object and then another behind a screen and when the screen drops, there are one or three objects, instead of two (they can do simple math). Other experiments find the same numerical understanding in nonhuman primates, including macaques and tamarins, and in dogs. Similar understandings show up in infants’ understanding of the social world. Before they are a year old, they can determine the target of an adult’s gaze and can learn by attending to the emotions of others. It is doubtful that these social capacities can be explained as a set of primitive responses, but rather there is evidence that they reflect a deeper understanding. When twelve-month-olds see one inanimate object chasing another, they seem to understand that it really is chasing it, and they are surprised when it does not continue its pursuit along the most direct path. When babies see one character in a movie help an individual and a different one hurt him, they later expect the individual to approach the character that helped it and avoid the one that hurt it.
How do these findings relate to supernatural belief? Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand–and when they get older, to manipulate–physical and social entities. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and the afterlife. Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.
Richard Dawkins may be right when he describes the theory of natural selection as one of our species’ finest accomplishments; it is an intellectually satisfying and empirically supported account of our own existence. But almost nobody believes it. One poll found that more than a third of college undergraduates believe that the Garden of Eden was where the first human beings appeared. And even among those who claim to endorse Darwinian evolution, many distort it in one way or another, often seeing it as a mysterious internal force driving species toward perfection. Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if “the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.”
Religious authorities and scholars are often motivated to explore and reach out to science, as when the pope embraced evolution and the Dalai Lama became involved with neuroscience. But Bloom argues that “this scenario assumes the wrong account of where supernatural ideas come from. Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”
An Irish girl had not been home for over five years. Upon her return, her father cussed, “Where have ye been all this time? Why did ye not write to us, not even a line? Why didn’t ye call? Can ye not understand what ye put yer ol’ mum thru?”
The girl cried “Sniff, sniff, Dad, I became a prostitute.”
“Ye what!!? Out of here ye shameless harlot! Sinner! You’re a disgrace to this family.”
“OK dad, as ye wish. I just came back to give mum this fur coat, and you a mansion and $5 million bank account. And …”
“Now what was it ye said ye had become?” interrupted her father.
“Oh forgive me…a prostitute!”
“Oh, be Jesus! Ye scared me half to death girl! I thought ye said PROTESTANT!”
–Humanist Network News dot Org
Beauty Parlor: A place where women curl up and dye.
Cannibal: Someone who is fed up with people.
Chickens: The only creatures you eat before they are born and after they are dead.
Dust: Mud with the juice squeezed out.
Egotistic: Someone who is usually me-deep in conversation.
Gossip: A person who will never tell a lie if the truth will do more damage.
Handkerchief: Cold Storage.
Inflation: Cutting money in half without damaging the paper.
Mosquito: An insect that makes you like flies better.
Secret: Something you tell to one person at a time.
A Humanist Conclusion
“…I caught my toe on a loose stone and stumbled, grazing the hand that I flung out to break my fall. My anger magnified this small hurt and I cursed. As I sucked at the injured place, a question began to press upon me. Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands? Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally. Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe.”
Discussion Group Report
Creating Secular and Humanist Alternatives to Religion
By Cindy King
Is it possible to develop secular and humanistic alternatives to theistic religions of God and the promises of salvation? According to author Paul Kurtz, not everyone on the planet is fixated on the transcendental realm, or tempted by its false lures. Religion has declined dramatically in secular Europe, Japan, China and some other countries of the world.
Kurtz asks two questions: First, why does religion persist? One reason is the vast number of human beings who have been exposed to pro-religion propaganda through the ages by proponents of the Bible, Qur’an, and other so-called sacred books. Non-belief was punishable by death in many Islamic countries. Although Western countries no longer torture or burn heretics, all sorts of sanctions are applied to non-believers. The “transcendental temptations” are expressed by human beings overcome by fragility of life and yearning for deeper purpose to the universe; ergo, this is possibly one explanation for the current persistence of religiosity. The second question, is it possible to create nationalistic-existential-moral poetries and narratives of sufficient power and intensity to attract and supplant the ancient memetic systems of religion? Memetic refers to imitative process whereby humans transmit ideas, values, beliefs, and practices to each other. Kurtz claims that inherently fundamentalist religions are not only false but dysfunctional, insofar as they have blocked scientific research, denigrated individual autonomy, repressed sexual freedom, and denied the possibility of human beings solving their own problems without reliance on God. Religionist creeds have provided important support systems, and they have cultivated charitable efforts and bonds of moral cohesion.
Humanists differ from the religious in that they are unable to make the leap of faith required to believe in the messianic messages of the ancient prophets, even if reinterpreted in metaphorical or symbolic language. Humanists, skeptics, and rationalists affirm that they believe in the unvarnished truth and not mythological poetry. They prefer new truths and values, based on conceptions of reality drawn from scientific understanding, and not from the ancient religions classics. The humanist outlook relies heavily on cognition and reason. It is committed to the following principles: (1) the consistent use of objective methods of inquiry for testing truth, based on scientific method and critical thinking. (2) Conceptions of “reality” derived largely from empirical research; its cosmic view is naturalistic and evolutionary, and the human species is viewed as part of nature, not separate from it. (3) Sharp skepticism of theistic God or immortality of the soul, for it finds insufficient evidence for these claims. (4) The belief that human values are the relevant human experiences, interests, and needs, and that objective principles can be developed for realizing human happiness and improving the human conditions, including the belief in maximizing individual freedom and expressing altruistic concerns for the needs of others. (5) Commitment to the democratic society, predicated on freedom, equality, tolerance, and the right of dissent; respect for the open society and the rule of law, majority rule and that the minority have rights, and the separation of church and state. And (6) Recognition of our global interdependence; it believes that we need to develop a new planetary civilization in which all members of the human species are considered equal in dignity and value. This new planetary humanism seeks to transcend the ancient racial, religious, ethnic, national, and gender differences of the past, in order to develop a peaceful and prosperous world community.
Kurtz concludes by claiming the humanist can be effective in creating institutions that provide alternatives, and submits that humanists must satisfy the following conditions: (1) We need to confront directly the root existential questions about the “meaning of life” and respond cogently to the quandaries that trouble so many human beings. (2) We need to develop an appreciation for the ethical values and principles that are firmly grounded in human experience and reason; which, when rigorously tested by their consequences in practice, are yet sufficiently attractive to inspire dedication, a sense that life is really worth living, and a respect for the obligations that we owe to others. This includes a moral recognition that we ought to help build a better world for our fellow human beings and ourselves. (3) We need to appeal to the heart as well as the mind, the passionate and the emotional dimensions of life as well as the cognitive and the intellectual. (4) We need to use the arts to create new narratives that celebrate life (not deny or denigrate it). We need to arouse emotional commitment to inspiring humanistic values, the beauty of life and shared experiences, the joys of discovery and the satisfaction of reaching accords. (5) We need to build naturalistic alternatives to religion; become progressive battlers for beloved causes for the betterment of all living things. And (6) we need especially to develop communities of sympathetic persons committed to science, reason, and free inquiry in every area human interest; yet able to cultivate goodwill and moral regards for others. These institutions must demonstrate by example that it is possible to be a creative individual, a loving person and friend, a loyal member of the society in which he or she lives; yet be rational, affective, intelligent and empathetic to those within one’s communities of interaction.
How Religious Were America’s Founders?
The Founders are once again in vogue. More than 35 books have been published about them just since January according to Gordon Wood, the foremost authority on that era. One of the subtopics of these books concerns the depth of the religious convictions of these men, particularly the Big Six: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams.
Authors coming from a conservative religious perspective believe that the Founders were highly religious and that the religious convictions of these men have been underestimated or deliberately ignored. This view is supported by a large and powerful group of Evangelicals who make up about a third of America’s population. President Bush–who famously said God had called him to run for President in 2000 and whose inner circle is deeply religious–is a member of this group.
Conversely, many liberal academics are equally fearful that the Religious Right is creating an inaccurate and distorted view of the Founders to promote their current political agenda. This group includes authors like Garry Wills, Esther Kaplan, Frank Lambert, David Holmes and a host of others.
The purpose of this essay is to carefully examine all of the available data on this topic as dispassionately as possible in order to determine, in so far as that is possible given the sensitivity of this subject and the fact that many Founders deliberately disguised their unorthodox views to avoid criticism, the mature religious views of the most important Founders. This is best begun by looking at them one by one roughly in order of their importance.
Washington was clearly a “child of the Enlightenment” and as such was not a particularly religious person. According to his major biographer, Douglass Southall Freeman, there is “no evidence [Washington] expressed personal belief in any credal religion. Nor was he particularly ardent in what little faith he had. He was not religious as a youth, unlike Madison and Hamilton, and never used the name of Jesus in any of his massive correspondence. Nor did he ever quote scripture, or mention Jesus Christ in any public statement as President. But Washington did believe in Providence and thought compelled support for the religion of one’s choice was not incompatible with liberty.
Washington was baptized as an infant and raised in the Episcopal Church of Virginia, and by the standards for elite Virginians of his day he was “religiously active” according to David Holmes in his excellent book, The Faiths of the Founders. What this means is that our first president read service for his soldiers when no chaplain was available, observed fast days prescribed for the English army, and served as a vestryman and church warden and occasionally said grace at table. He stood, rather than kneeled, for public prayer in church and was never confirmed in his faith nor did he take Holy Communion.
Like most of the other Founders, Washington firmly believed in “the Hand of Providence.” Accordingly, he believed that God had intervened on America’s side in the Revolution. Washington’s recorded appearances at church were rare; when he did attend he went to a variety of religious denominations, including Catholic churches, suggesting that he thought religious was necessary for public morality, but that activity in a single church was not important. Later in his life Washington had a pew in Christ Church, Alexandria, but generally spent his Sundays devoted to correspondence. Nor did he give much to charity. Virtue, rather than living in accord with God’s commandments, was perceived among America’s elite as politeness, sociability, honor, service, and disinterestedness in. Washington’s day, and our first President was a model of that code of ethics. In short, religion to Washington was not much more than a belief in Providence as a support for public morality. Many historians have labeled him a “moderate Deist.”
Instead of being a religious person, Washington had the code of a “gentleman.” Restraint, temperance, fortitude, dignity, and independence–the values of classical antiquity–were his core ideals. His beliefs and actions were not based on hope for rewards or fear of punishments in an afterlife, but on the esteem and of wise men here on earth. Honor, not faith, was his north star. Given a choice of whether to conform to an established church or stand for individual freedom, Washington would clearly have chosen the latter. He simply had no interest in theology. In short, Washington was a good man, but not a particularly a religious man.
Like Washington, Franklin was clearly outside the Christian tradition virtually all of his life. An establishment of religion made no sense to him; he was a Deist and not a church-goer. Being from Pennsylvania, where there was no establishment, made it easier for Franklin to live out his life when he was in America. He died before the First Amendment was ratified, but had he lived, he surely would have supported it.
Raised as a Congregationalist, Franklin was never an active member in any church as an adult. Rather, he was a patron of the Enlightenment with a deep dislike for religious enthusiasm. Basically, this means that Franklin instinctively doubted tradition and was inclined toward anti-clericalism. He celebrated the classics, stressed reason over revelation, believed in natural law, and had a deep distaste of religious excess. Franklin, above all other Americans then, exemplified the importance of science. His scientific world view embodied a rational perspective free from superstition. The “pursuit of happiness” outlined in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was his goal in life, not submission and obedience to a particular creed.
In 1790 Franklin told Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, that he believe in “one God, Creator of the Universe.” God governed this universe by his Providence. As such he ought to be worshiped and the worship most acceptable to Him was in doing good to others. He went on to say that he believed in an afterlife, that the Christian system of morals were the best ever created, but that he had “some doubts as to the divinity of Jesus.” Franklin contributed to a variety of sects and never publicly opposed their doctrines.
Franklin read deistic books and liked deistic ideas. Religion was to him instrumental–necessary for society at large to keep the vulgar in line and to be used for utilitarian purposes. The churches were aids to rectitude, not the means to salvation. A good example of how Franklin used religion was his suggestion for holding a prayer when the Convention was deadlocked. One calls on God when in a tight spot, hoping to break a logjam. The idea for holding a prayer was, as is well-known, rejected. Rather than praying, the Founders adjourned for the day.
Isaac Kramnick writes: “If America was the embodiment and the natural home of the Enlightenment, according to Europe’s advance thinkers, then the American who best personified the Enlightenment idea was Benjamin Franklin.
All Jefferson scholars agree that Jefferson was not a believer in Christianity in any ordinary sense. Like most of the Founders, Jefferson believed in an overriding Providence that guided the affairs of the United States. But he valued intellectual and religious freedom far more than Christian dogmatism, and strongly believed that government had no authority to mandate religious conformity. One of Jefferson’s three most important achievements, in his view, was his Act to Establish Religious Freedom (1786) which largely disestablished the Episcopal Church in Virginia and was one of the major sources for the eventual separation of church and state in America. The other two were the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.
Most writers have concluded that Jefferson was a Deist or a Unitarian. Several comment on the fact that Jefferson excised all supernatural references from the Gospels and created his own deistic Bible. He rarely discussed religion and then only among “reasonable” company according to Dumas Malone, his chief biographer. He believed in a “creator,” and an afterlife, but not in the divinity of Jesus, the trinity (which he called “abracadabra”), original sin, or the atonement. Happiness was the end of life, Jefferson thought, and that can be attained without the need of any religious sacraments. Strongly anti-clerical his whole life, Jefferson believed that priests had corrupted the scriptures for their own selfish purposes. He read and re-read Priestly’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity, one of the few books upon which he rested his faith. Nevertheless, he contributed generously to several local churches and attended religious services in the House of Representatives when he was President. This was largely to counter his opponents charges that he was an “atheist.” Jefferson always felt that a moral person would “never be questioned at the gates of heaven” as to the dogmas he mayor may not have believed in. Jefferson also had high regard for Locke, Hume, Bolingbroke, and Montesquieu as representatives of the Enlightenment, which was central to his religious views. This, of course, included Hume’s famous rejection of all Christian or religious miracles.
Jefferson’s famous call for “a wall of separation” between church and state was not influential in his day and was a deviation from “disestablishment”, the core value of that day and a genuine constitutional norm. Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State virtually demolished the idea that separation was then the primary view of the Founders. Most of the Founders, if not all of them, assumed republican government depended on a religious citizenry, and that some forum of religion-without a preference for anyone faith-was necessary to achieve this end. In other words, religion is the foundation of morals and morality is essential for a successful republic. Jefferson rejected this view. He thought that all people had an innate sense of right and wrong and hence organized religion was unnecessary, even harmful. Separation of church and state took a long time to develop, arising more in the 19th century than in the 18th as a reaction to increasing Catholic immigration which was much feared by Protestants. It was an evolutionary development; not an achievement of the Founders. In this Jefferson was way ahead of his time, and much closer to ours in his religious sentiments and his desire for a high wall of separation. In 1785 Jefferson advocated freedom from religion; most of his colleagues argued for freedom of religion. But since most Americans were not church members during the era of the founding of America, Jefferson’s views–even though largely private–would have then and certainly eventually did have a special resonance.
As a youth Madison may have had some interest in religion but the evidence is skimpy. Certainly religion was not of any significance in Madison’s mature life and there is no evidence Madison ever joined a church. As the years progressed whatever interest Madison did have in religion seemed to have vanished, and his sympathies passed from some interest in Unitarianism to outright skepticism. He also held religious enthusiasm in low regard and had little respect for the Anglican Church in Virginia. After about 1776, Madison seems to have had no personal interest in religion whatsoever, or at least he was very private about what interests he did have. There is almost no evidence that he was a practicing Christian in his mature years. I say “almost” because he did occasionally attend services in the House of Representatives after he became President. But one suspects there could have been more than one reason for these visits, especially since his friend Jefferson did so as well when he was President. Hutson speculates that Madison perhaps “thought with the wise and acted with the vulgar.” Madison’s fondness for the works of Voltaire lends support for this view.
Both of Madison’s major 20th century biographers call Madison a “Deist.” But unlike his friend Jefferson, Madison was not hostile to revealed religion per se. He did however believe strongly that an established religion was deleterious to society, a view he famously elaborated in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). In this document he wrote that established religious organizations cause “pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” They have erected “spiritual tyranny” and have upheld the “thrones of political tyranny”; and “in no instance have they been seen as the guardian of the liberties of the people.” Established churches differ only in degree from the Inquisition, Madison wrote, and are the first step toward intolerance. Establishments destroy the moderation and harmony in society and have produced “torrents of blood” in the old world in a vain attempt to extinguish religious discord. They also discourage those who wish to become more religious. Finally, Madison believed that freedom of conscience was a “gift of Nature” and was beyond the power of government to regulate in any manner. Such beliefs led Madison to advocate a “complete” or “perfect separation” of church and state, including no fast days, chaplains, or any other federal OR state support for religion. Based largely on Madison’s “Remonstrance” the Virginia legislature effectively disestablished the Anglican Church in that state by a vote of 67 to 20.
Of all of the Founders, Madison wanted the wall of separation to be the highest and the most formidable barrier between church and state. His biggest disappointment in the ratification process of the First Amendment was that the First Amendment did not also apply to the states. It was not until after World War II that the U.S. was able to achieve that goal, although state establishments actually ended in 1833. Indeed, to this day we are not even close to a “perfect separation.”
Adams was certainly a religious man, but not an orthodox Christian. David McCullough, in his enormously popular biography of John Adams, says Adams was a “devout Christian,” but there are only five brief references to Adams’ religion in his 751 page biography. These refer to his reluctance to travel on the Sabbath, his baptism, the connection between religion and morality, and that Adams visited several Christian churches as he moved around the nation’s capital.
Adams began his life as a Congregationalist with Calvinist inclinations, but early in his illustrious career he became a Unitarian. Like most of his countrymen he believed in divine Providence, including the notion that the American Revolution was the result of a divine plan. Adams rejected the Calvinist ideas of election, predestination, man’s total depravity, and the Trinity. He also rejected the divinity of Jesus, and was always suspicious of any religious enthusiasm or anyone who claimed to be a prophet. This, to my mind, would take him out of the category of a “devout Christian.” Adams further believed that religion gave order, dignity, and purpose to man’s life, and that Calvinism had served his ancestors well in a hostile New England environment. He was always assessing the state of his soul and worrying about his vanity, and in that struggle doubted the doctrines of original sin, election, and limited atonement.
Adams was much influenced by Locke’s idea that religion should be reasonable and, again like Locke, tried to exclude all superstition from his own religion. Nevertheless, Adams did believe in prayer and in an afterlife. Like Jefferson, Adams tried to reduce his religion to its “primitive simplicity’ and thought clergymen were “dangerous.” Like Washington, Adams thought creeds were not very important and denied all human authority over him in matters of faith. Adams was never quite a Deist, but he was a firm believer in natural religion. In short, John Adams was much more concerned with his personal virtue than he was with his religious orthodoxy.
Adams eventually came to believe in the complete separation of church and state. In 1812 he declared that “nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with religion.” As President, however, he did proclaim two national fasts, but later came to believe that is what cost him the election of 1800. Many Americans, he felt, feared he wanted to establish a national religion. Earlier in his career Adams had thought an established religion was as natural as the solar system The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was largely Adams’ handiwork, and it proclaimed the “duty of all men” to worship the “Supreme Being,” that happiness depended on piety, religion, and morality, and that the state was to support Protestant teachers of the citizens own religion or denomination. Although the Massachusetts Constitution compelled support of the Protestant religion it did protect the free exercise of other religions. These constitutional provisions were based on Adams’ firm belief that religion was “essential” to morals and that any government required a moral people. To Adams anyone who was not religious was a “rascal.” Presumably that included Thomas Jefferson.
One suspects that the very close friendship between Jefferson and Adams-except for the period between the 1790s and 1812–and the extensive correspondence between them later in their lives reflected generally compatible views on religion, once their political differences were put aside. Their mature religious views were clearly more similar than different, despite the very great differences in background, personality, and political outlook.
Hamilton had no formal church affiliation although he was somewhat religious as a student at King’s College (now Columbia University). Hutson incorrectly states that Hamilton was a “member of the Episcopal Church.” More likely he meant that Hamilton was an “adherent”. At most Hamilton was a nominal, non-participating adherent of that church. By the time of the American Revolution, Hamilton was a skeptic regarding organized religion and apparently completely indifferent towards religion generally, a position he retained until just before his death, despite his wife’s deep religiosity. His wife Eliza firmly believed in religious instruction for their children and Hamilton did not object when she rented a pew at Trinity Church in New York City. But he did not attend regularly or take communion. Ron Chernow, author of the best biography of Hamilton to date, writes that “Like Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, Hamilton had probably fallen under the sway of deism, which sought to substitute reason for revelation and dropped the notion of an active God who intervened in human affairs. At the same time he never doubted God’s existence, embracing Christianity as a system of morality and cosmic justice.
Later in life Hamilton became more religious and following his famous duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked to receive the last rites from the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Bishop refused him because Hamilton had been shot in a duel and was not a regular church-goer. Hamilton also sought communion from the Scotch Presbyterian Church and was similarly refused. The Episcopal Bishop later relented and Hamilton received communion just before he died.
When he was alive Hamilton once advocated a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, which he believed could be politically useful in influencing public opinion against the French in 1797. He also believed at the same time that “morality must fail without religion. Hamilton also believed that God had created a “law of nature” binding on all men at all times, much like the Providential Deists, and that all rights come from God, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But he famously opposed Franklin’s suggestion to have a prayer at the Philadelphia Convention, thinking that would signal a stalemate in the proceedings.
Far less is known about the religious views of those Founders who played a significant but not a dominant role in creating the Establishment Clause. These men would include James Wilson, PA, Roger Sherman, CT, Gouverneur Morris, PA, Oliver Ellsworth, CT, Luther Martin, MD, George Mason, VA, Edmund Randolph, VA, John Rutledge, SC, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, SC, Nathaniel Gorham, MA, Robert Morris, PA, and a few others.
The key ingredient here is a belief in free inquiry and separation of church and state. Perhaps the best way to get to the heart of these beliefs is to determine their degree of Christian orthodoxy as opposed to their inclinations towards deism-with its emphasis on rationalism, freedom of inquiry, individuality, toleration, and hostility towards dogma. It is striking how many of these second-echelon Founders were influenced by deism, and as a consequence favored some form of separation between religion and politics.
Gouverneur Morris, the most frequent speaker in the Convention and the man who penned the final draft of the Constitution, was strongly opposed to the union of church and state. There is no evidence he believed in, belonged to, or attended any church. The most witty and engaging of the Convention goers, Morris also had the most salacious reputation. He was also the most anti-slavery advocate. He was a man of, “astounding intellect, enviable discernment, prodigious learning and immense intellect.”
James Wilson, who spoke more times than anyone except Gouverneur Morris, was a Deist. Wilson was the dominant figure in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, holding the floor for days. Wilson became America’s foremost legal scholar and helped to move the country from a jurisprudence based on authority of rules to one based on the consent of the people. One of the best educated men in America, Wilson studied at St. Andrews, Scotland, and, like Tom Paine, was inclined to follow where reason lead. Wilson also thought natural law had a “deistic origin” rather than a religious basis.
George Mason of Virginia was also a frequent speaker (136 times) at the Convention and was “largely responsible for the proposal of a bill of rights by the First Congress of the United States. He joined Madison in his call for the disestablishment of the Anglican religion in Virginia and the separation of the church and state in the United States. He also famously refused to sign the Constitution at the Convention because, among other things, it did not include a bill of rights. Mason was a Man of the Enlightenment and, like Wilson, showed no interest in religion. In fact, there is not a single reference to religion in all three volumes of his papers.
As one moves down the list of major Founders to less significant participants, commitment to separation of church and state appears to decline. It seems that the greater the prestige, the less religious the Founders were. Nathan Gorham who came from one of the most religious of states, Massachusetts, did not play any recorded role in the battle for disestablishment. He showed no commitment to natural rights theory and played no role in politics after 1788. Oliver Ellsworth favored the established church in Connecticut and was generally suspicious of change. Roger Sherman of the same state was the second oldest man at the Convention (after Franklin) and was a lay theologian. John Adams describes him as “an old Puritan. He at first opposed a bill of rights, thought of his state as “a closed society,” and had little tolerance for different views, either politically or religiously. Sherman believed in both the “threatenings and the promises” of the Gospel, a characteristic of Puritanism. On the other hand, John Dickenson, from that same state, was anti-clerical and therefore an exception to the idea that the less prominent one was the more religious one tended to be. Finally, John Rutledge of South Carolina appeared to be at least a nominal Episcopalian, and there is no evidence he favored disestablishment.
When one turns to those who refused to sign the Constitution or opposed its ratification (people like Mason, Gerry, Martin, Randolph, Yates, Lansing; and Patrick Henry) opposition to disestablishment is even more evident. Gerry, a sober Puritan, was determined to protect the established religion of his state against the “excesses of democracy.” He was one of the most “provincial of the Founders and no friend of separation of church and state. Luther Martin came from a family of evangelical Protestants and all his life supported Maryland’s social and religious establishment. Not only his ideas, but also his dress was old fashioned. More significantly, he favored religious tests for political office and would have prohibited absolutely non-believers from serving in any public office. Governor Randolph of Virginia did favor a bill of rights, but not to separate church and state. He wanted a Bill of Rights to limit the powers of the federal government.
By way of summary, it seems fair to me to say that looking at the most respected and the most vocal of the Founders one can conclude the following: They were for the most part as concerned with religious tyranny and they were with political tyranny; those who were the best educated and most traveled tended to be the least religious; those most concerned with free inquiry were the least orthodox; and almost to a man they were suspicious of religious enthusiasm.
Those who were most steeped in the values of the Enlightenment-and that clearly included most of the most influential Founders–were those most suspicious of the value of organized religion. The leaders of the effort to disestablish religion read the Bible critically, attended church irregularly, if at all, seldom if ever took communion, and were generally suspicious of the clergy. Among all of the Founders the elite leaders were the most hostile to religious tests to hold office. They looked to nature rather than theology for knowledge; to themselves rather than tradition; and wanted to establish a “new order of the ages” rather than preserving a repressive religious theocracy. To them, state sponsored religion not only fostered sectarianism, but also encouraged intolerance and persecution and restricted freedom of thought and speech.
To be really free and to achieve the ends they were seeking, religious oaths and churches established by law simply had to go into the dustbin of history, if not at the state level at least at the federal level. Madison would have ended established churches at the state level as well but the Senate refused to go this far.
If there was a single, all encompassing value which motivated the Founders it was a profound respect for the Lockean value of rational inquiry. They set out to create an age of reason, not an age of faith. History, not theology, was their primary guide. Bacon, Newton, and Locke were their Trinity; and rational inquiry, rather than revelation from on high, their north star. Not one of the Big Six believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but all of them believed in Providence or Nature’s God. It was in this sense-as believers in a divinely created universe and a purposeful God-that the Founders could be called religious.
The impact of these philosophers was much different in the United States. In the wake of the European Enlightenment, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine and a host of others set about evicting religion from the public sphere. They wanted an America free from political and religious tyranny. Like Descartes they instinctively doubted tradition and subjected religious claims to reason and experience. Nor did they accept the notion that religion was necessary for people to behave morally. Like Hume, Smith, and others, they thought morality is better rooted in sympathy for others or, as with Jefferson, was innate in human beings themselves. Their efforts were embodied in the First Amendment free exercise and no establishment clause. They succeeded in prohibiting an establishment religion at the national level, where it did not in fact exist, but not at the state level, where it did. But these state establishments could not maintain themselves because there was too much diversity. America and all were one by 1833. Thus Madison eventually got his most cherished desire, it took several more decades to reach that goal. It took even longer for Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor to be officially recognized. That came in 1878 when the Supreme Court included it as the basis for prohibiting the religiously motivated practice of polygamy in Reynolds v. United States, and in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education where the Court cited it in reference to the Establishment Clause.
For several decades now Americans have generally accepted the idea of separation of church and state as part of the Constitution and one of the most cherished ideals in our history. Not everyone agrees with Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, and some the Religious Right would like to see it lowered, giving aid to religion generally, but the idea itself is certainly mainstream. How high that wall should be is a matter of emerging public values extensive discussion, as it should be. But that we should have a separation between church and state, not just denominational neutrality, is no longer in serious dispute. The fundamental issue of whether religion needs the help of the state to prosper or whether the rights of conscience thrive best left alone–a view that Christian evangelicals as well as Deists subscribe to–is now one of America’s founding principles.
–James L. Clayton
Humanists of Utah By Laws
The purpose of the Humanists of Utah is to offer an affirmative nontheistic educational program based on developing one’s human talents in order to practice the art of living; to promote meaningful activities and compassionate services that exemplify humanism; and to be an association where humanists can have a sense of belonging to a larger community that supports a positive philosophy of reason, integrity, and dignity.
II. NAME and AFFILIATION
VII. AMENDING BYLAWS
April 19, 1926 ~ February 12, 2006
On Sunday, February 12, 2006, my Grandpa completed his meaningful and well lived life. Harvey Gerald Gaster was born April 9, 1926 to Harvey and Pearl Gaster of Dayton, Wyoming. At eighteen he enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served for two years during World War II. In the summer of ’49 he met the love of his life, Beulah Redding of Vernal, Utah whom he married three months later on November 17th. One year later they had a son, James, and three years later a daughter, Tamara “Tami” (Wilcox). In 1965 he moved his family to American Fork and was employed with the meter department of Utah Power & Light where he remained until retirement. My Grandpa was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He taught compassion and logic not through preaching, but through his own actions. My Grandpa’s motto was “practice random acts of kindness” and he took much pleasure in making people’s lives brighter with everything from a heart felt “howdy” to giving a helping hand. A proud skeptic my Grandpa was passionate about science, history and the humanities. He also enjoyed his memberships with the Humanists of Utah and the American Atheist Association. He always delighted in a good debate and always made his point in a pleasant, non-condescending manner. My Grandpa was a true believer of tolerance and peace. He and my Grandma spent many happy years together doing things like traveling, taking their kids and grandkids camping and fishing, or just conversations over a cup of coffee. They have also stood by each other during difficult times like the death of their daughter, and ongoing illness of the last few years. Their favorite activity as of recent was spending time with our small but very close family, especially their great-granddaughter.
Humanists of Utah extends our warmest wishes and condolences to the family. More about Harvey can be found here.
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
or Pearls Before Swine
I have reviewed a number of Kurt Vonnegut’s books on these pages over the years. Looking back I see that I have frequently said something like, “this is not a good first book to read from the Vonnegut canon.” God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a good place to start. This book, first published in 1965, formulates Mr. Vonnegut’s credentials as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Eliot Rosewater, the central character of the book, is rich man who obtained his wealth as an inheritance rather than accumulating it himself.
Eliot gets into trouble with his family because he not only has no interest in growing the fortune, but he also believes that it should be shared with everyone and anyone who needs financial assistance. He writes a letter to the unknown heir of his fortune that concludes, “And Eliot became a drunkard, a Utopina dreamer, a tinhorn saint, an aimless fool. Begat he not a soul. Bon voyage, dear Cousin or whoever you are. Be generous. Be kind. You can safely ignore the arts and sciences. They have never helped anybody. Be a sincere, attentive friend of the poor.”
Kilgore Trout, a Vonnegut icon, plays a major part in this story. He describes Eliot, “it is news that a man was able to give that kind of love over a long period of time. If one man can do it, perhaps others can do it, too. It means that our hatred of useless human beings and the cruelties we inflict upon them for their own good need not be parts of human nature. Thanks to the example of Eliot Rosewater, millions upon millions of people may learn to love and help whomever they see.”
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine is a seminal work that belongs in the library of all humanists.
Ethics and Religion
Editor’s Note: Utah Valley University Professor of Philosophy David Keller died Saturday December 28, 2013. Dr. Keller was well known among the freethought community as a public debater and defender of science and reason. His father, Richard Keller, MD is a longtime member of Humanists of Utah. We offer Richard our most sincere condolences. To remember David here is a report of his presentation to our chapter in November 2005:
With the time constraint of a subject requiring an entire semester, oft awarded philosophy professor, critical thinker, and writer Dr. David Keller could only cover a few philosophers who have influenced him about religion and morality.
In the Western intellectual tradition, beginning with the Greeks and Hebrews and passed down by the Romans and Judeo-Christian traditions emerged the tight, overt, and seemingly necessary connection between religion and ethics. In other words, one cannot be ethical without religion, a belief espoused by philosopher John Locke who wrote, “The atheist is a moral outlaw.”
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha, who is studying for the seminary, criticizes his brother, Ivan, for his beliefs in secular humanism, reason, and rationality, arguing that without God, everything is permitted and that without religion, there is no morality.
Similarly, in the Salt Lake Tribune letters are frequently published where this belief is expressed, one man writing that without religion, he would be a drunkard and a philanderer.
In one of his books The Gay Science, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche wrote about a madman who in the middle of the day runs into the town square saying that he sees God. Because many people did not believe in God, the madman caused a great amusement, and they ask if God has strayed or hidden. In reply, the madman says we have killed God.
Nietzsche’s meaning is that after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, people devoted to reason and rationality had killed God so that if God no longer exists to provide a moral compass, then either everything is permitted, or we need a new morality not based on God but on something else like reason or human creativity.
The counterclaim made by many Enlightenment thinkers of which secular humanism is an outgrowth, Scottish philosopher David Hume, French philosopher Francois Voltaire, and compatriot Jean Rousseau all opposed Locke, believing that no necessary connection exists between religion and morality. In fact, most Enlightenment philosophers believed religion was dying, and if they were alive today, Keller asserted that they would be aghast to find religion so prominent.
Thomas Jefferson was also an Enlightenment believer. However, many people believe, and this has recently been in the Tribune, that our founding fathers intended the US to be a Christian nation when in fact, Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker, believing that religion was acceptable for the time being but would shortly disappear.
Benjamin Franklin, a deist, believed that if there was a God, God created the world or cosmos like he creates a watch and then allows it to operate on its own. Thus God could hardly be a personal God who cared about the individual.
Keller’s thesis was that although religion and morality overlap, and both are codes of conduct, it is entirely possible to have morality without religion. In fact, in a pluralistic society like ours, it is more desirable to not connect public policy with religion.
Keller then discussed definitions of religion beginning with the popular US belief in a theistic being. But in belief systems like Buddhism and other agnostic or atheistic systems, many do not believe in a theistic being. Thus obviously, the theist definition is lacking.
Another definition by philosopher Paul Tillich defined religion as “an ultimate concern.” However, patriotism, avarice, political power, national chauvinism, etc., where people have an ultimate concern, can hardly be defined as religion.
A third definition by UC Santa Barbara philosopher Ninian Smart, defines religion as “the belief in an unseen order behind the phenomenal or empirical world.” To Keller, this is a good definition of religion which does justice to theism and belief systems like Buddhism.
As he was working on his book The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis, Keller realized that if you present two ecologists with, for example, the marsh ecosystems of the Jordan River or the Great Salt Lake, they could map out the food web and completely agree on the biota, food chain, and all the empirical data, such as this organism eats this organism, and this organism eats that organism, and so on.
Yet if you ask how did nature get to be this way, one ecologist who is a theist might say that God designed it. The ecologist who is agnostic or atheist might say that the world randomly turned out this way. Thus, one ecologist explains that an ecosystem or a world of order is created by a supernatural being based on his or her religion–the key point in intelligent design; otherwise we could not explain random mutation or natural selection.
It is also interesting to briefly think about different metaphysical views in the Western traditions as groundwork in investigating whether morality must have the foundation of religion. In the Western intellectual tradition, Keller continued, supernaturalism or the idea of a natural world and a supernatural realm is prevalent. At the same time, many philosophers who believe in supernaturalism do not necessarily believe morality and religion must be connected
Aristotle, for example, argued that God is “a prime mover or the unmoved mover.” He believed the natural world was characterized by motion but as a logician, he could not fathom having an infinite regress where one moving thing was caused by another moving thing caused by another moving thing, as this would merely return to infinity. Consequently, he deemed the prime mover of the universe to be a perfect being and called this unmoved mover God. However, his metaphysical conceptualization of God had no connection to ethics or morality. This unmoved mover merely got the natural world started; there was no evidence that this unmoved mover cared about human beings, human suffering, or the destiny of one’s soul. Thus, an impersonal concept of God.
Rene Descartes, like Franklin, held a similar view of God–a deistic view where God made the world and wound it up like a watch, and then departed. In short, this group of thinkers believed that God exists but He is not the foundation for morality.
Other thinkers, like Locke, believed that God exists and is the foundation for morality.
Keller then referred back to the twin pillars of the Hebrews and Greeks from where most of our beliefs and the Western intellectual tradition can be traced. The Hebrews epitomized faith, and the ancient Greeks epitomized adherence to reason. Interestingly, these two strands of beliefs exist comfortably together for philosophers like St. Thomas of Aquinas, St. Augustine, and other great Christian philosophers. Unlike Aristotle, the Hebrews believed in a personal, empathetic God concerned with the destiny of humans or at least chosen humans.
Plato, on the other hand, did not argue for a personal concept of God, but believed in some kind of connection between God or “the good” and ethics. In his allegory The Cave and the Republic, Socrates throws his chains off, goes to earth, sees the sun illuminating everything, experiences what can be called an awakening, and sees “the good” or what Christians later interpret as God. So with this knowledge of the sun, Socrates learns what is right and wrong, what good is and what morality is, and that the sun, the good, or God provides that ethical guidance. Plato famously held that once you know what is good or right, you are compelled to do the good or the right.
Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that people have weakness of will and therefore, even when we know what is right, we fail to do it whereas Plato held the belief that knowing the good and doing the good were intimately connected.
It is Plato who laid the groundwork for much of Christian thinking. Knowing the good and doing the good, and knowing God’s will and doing God’s will resulted in one of the most powerful ethical theories in the Western intellectual traditions: divine command theory. This theory holds that God wills or commands morality, the belief of the majority in Utah.
St Augustine, a philosopher of the Roman Empire living around 4th or 5th century AD, said there were two kinds of societies: citizens of the city of God who use as their principle of conduct in everyday life the love of God, turning to God will and God’s commandments.
The other society were the citizens of the city of man whose principle of conduct was the love of self, saying this group has no morality because they do not follow God whereas the citizens of the city of God are moral. Thus, a tight connection exists between morality and God according to St. Augustine.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal also believed in this connection although it is less tight.
Keller then summarized the four possible situations. 1] If you’re an atheist and God doesn’t exist, you’re safe. So you die, your body disintegrates, and nothing happens. 2] If you believe in God, and you’re misguided and there isn’t a God, you’re safe. 3] If you’re an atheist and God exists, you’re in trouble. 4] If you’re a theist and Gods does exist, you’re safe.
For Immanuel Kant, the connection between God and morality was more subtle, arguing that for the moral life to have meaning, the cosmos must have meaning. In other words, there would be no motivation for people to be moral unless one believed the cosmos has some moral order or some moral. Said another way, it would be irrational to live a moral life and not believe in God. Kant’s position was complex because he believed that morality was based on reason and rationality just like any other Enlightenment philosopher but he also added that none of this would make sense unless there is some afterlife or reward after death.
Naturalism is also a robust train of thought for Western intellectual tradition, represented by thinkers like English philosopher and political scientist Thomas Hobbes. An outspoken atheist, he maintained that the motivation for ethics is pure self-interest where people are willing to give up some freedoms and compromise for the good of all.
Another atheist, Karl Marx, believed that religion was an ideology used to maintain the power of the ruling class. A harsh critique of religion, he wrote about this belief in The Communist Manifesto saying essentially that God intends there to be a class hierarchy, and if you’re low on the hierarchy, bear it patently as your reward would be in the after-life.
The great sociologist Max Weber in his book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues in a similar vein that Protestantism and capitalism are good for each other. What Weber may have been addressing was why there was not the revolution or uprising of the proletarian that Marx envisioned; Weber asserted it was religion that suppressed such an uprising.
Nietzsche believed moral systems or morality was nothing more than human constructs so there is no connection between a supernatural being and morality. Values and such systems come and go so they are not permanent; they can be created and can be destroyed such as the moral systems of the Romans when it was good to be strong, arrogant, and individualistic, and bad to be weak, meek, and humble. Then the early Christians and Christ appeared, and in Nietzsche’s language, transvaluated the Roman value system and turned it around where it was good to be weak, meek, and humble and bad to be strong, arrogant, and individualistic.
As was illustrated in William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Second Coming, he portrayed the death of Christianity and the birth of the anti-Christ, an example of what Nietzsche meant–the coming and going of moral systems, the disillusion of one, and the usurpation by another one.
Another great thinker, Freud, believed God was the projection of a protective father figure.
French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that truth or what is true is defined by whoever has the power–e.g. religion, military, and politics. The significance of this claim is that truth is not absolute but is changeable depending on who has the power.
With only a very sweeping overview, Keller asked what are the
philosophical problems of connecting religion and morality. In the divine command theory, a theory of ethics, X is right because God says X is right. Plato critiqued this theory 2500 years in the dialogue Euthyphro where he asked does God will something because it is good, or is something good because God wills it-very different claims. Is something intrinsically right or wrong in and of itself, and then God simply affirms or rejects what is right or wrong independently of his will, or is what is right or wrong completely contingent on what God wills?
What is wrong with divine command theory is that it pegs what is right or wrong solely on God’s will. For example, torturing infants is not in of itself wrong but only wrong because God wills it. So in theory, if God changes its mind, what is wrong today could be right tomorrow.
So in conclusion, Keller argued along with Plato that moral standards are either independent of God’s will so religion is not necessary for morality, or what appears to be morality is really the arbitrary worship of a brute power. And the divine theorists are forced to affirm the latter.
Philosophically, if people want to connect morality with religion, they have the problem of authority because to know right or wrong, the proper authority needs to be identified. Philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, said there logically can only be one true religion since all religions claim they have the most correct belief systems. Therefore, connecting religion with morality creates the predicament of identifying the one true religion–logically impossible.
Unfortunately scriptures are vague, ambiguous, or silent on the subject. Empirically observable, people who grow up in a certain location will be a certain religion. Why are there more Mormons than Buddhists in SLC and more Buddhists in Taipei than Utah? Did people in Taipei pick the right religion, or those living in Utah chose the correct religion? Russell would say that either stance is unlikely.
When Matthew Shepherd was murdered, Keller was struck by signs saying “God hates fags,” questioning how did those people know that? Is that what God really was thinking? In other words, these people identified their so-called authority.
The issue of motivation: when you hear religious people talk about the connection between religion and morality, often there is an undercurrent of egoism where they believe if you’re not living a certain way, you’re going to pay for it, which is what Pascal alluded to with his wager. In Dante’s Inferno is the same message where the punishment matches the sin, or in other words, a person is motivated to do the right thing because of fear of punishment.
Keller cited an incident about a friend who believed that Goethe’s Faust was the best piece of literature ever. He agreed although Keller told his friend that he was troubled by Faust being a mean person who mistreated Gertrude and stole the elderly couple’s land but suddenly in the last moment after doing terrible things all his life, Faust is to be saved by God. Thus a person could live a horrible life but in the end, God would forgive him; this was also Luther’s condemnation of Catholicism where a person could be forgiven simply by paying. So Keller asked, is this a strong basis for morality?
While it might be disturbing for many people to disconnect religion from morality, it is completely faithful to the political foundations of this country that government does not have the right or authority in public policy to tell us what religion to believe or what is right or wrong; we should be able to choose these for ourselves. Persons of faith, in Keller’s view, should actually be arguing that it is absolutely essential to disconnect morality and public policy on one hand, and religion on the other. Otherwise we would have people with authority and power within the social structure defining morality for us and telling us what to do.
As Keller was growing up in Utah in the Olympus Hills area, the prevailing belief was that religion and morality were necessarily connected. When he moved to California at 18, he met people from all over the country of all religious backgrounds–agnostics, Catholics, Jews, atheists, etc. In time, it was empirically observable and clear that there were immoral theists or people who believed in God but were not very moral, or maybe moral one day in a week like his classmates at Skyline high where they conveyed a pious image but did mean nasty things to other people. On the other hand, he met people who claimed they did not believe in any higher supernatural being but appeared to him as being empathetic, compassionate people. So there are moral atheists and immoral theists in the world, and the only conclusion is religion cannot be connected with morality.
Many people like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov worry if we disconnect religion from morality, there would be a moral relativism where everything is permitted. If God is dead, as Nietzsche claimed, and we have killed God with our science and our reason, we need a new moral horizon to guide us. Otherwise we would be cast into the pit of ethical moral relativism without any moral guidance as to what is right and wrong.
As an answer to moral relativism, Keller proposed that we ground ethics in universal human rights, or biology. Because each of us, independent of religion, culture, belief systems, upbringing, and so on, are organic beings, and we either flourish or we do not. Thus it is possible to develop an ethics on universal human rights where to compromise the bodily integrity or to injure another person is wrong, and to help people flourish is right. So here we have a non-relativistic ethic that is true for all people at all times in all places but is not morally relative. Consequently it is possible to overcome the problem of moral relativism without God.
Essay Contest Winners
The winners of the Marian Craig 2005-2006 Essay contest read their winning entries and received their prize money at the April 13th Humanist of Utah meeting. Kendra Walbeck, 9th grade student at South Jordan Middle School, was awarded first place, receiving $500.00 for her essay Why Join a Gang?” She says, “Teens join gangs for many reasons including low self esteem and a need for a sense of belonging.” She urged parents and friends to help teens meet those needs “by giving them love, support and recognition.”
A check for $250.00 was awarded to second place winner Megan Hurst for her entry regarding “Pressing Environmental Concerns.” Megan is also a 9th grade student at South Jordan Middle School. Her essay observes that “Air along the Wasatch Front can get so dirty the pollution can be seen with the naked eye.” She concluded, “If people took tiny steps and did little things to help, the environment would be much cleaner and everyone would benefit.”
Both winners are students of Ms. Jill Moses, who received $250.00 for encouraging her students to participate in the Marian Craig Essay competition. She thanked the Humanists of Utah for getting students involved in community affairs.
Congratulations to all of the participants and especially the winners!
Essay Contest Winners
The entries to the Humanists of Utah Marion Craig Essay Competition have been read and evaluated by our chapter’s essay committee, Bob Lane, Bob Mayhew, Cindy King, Julie Mayhew, and Flo Wineriter. First place winner is Kendra Walbeck; her winning essay was titled “Why Join a Gang.” Second place winner is Megan Hurst, who titled her essay “Keeping the Environment Clean.” Both winners are 9th grade students of Mrs. Moses at South Jordan Middle school.
They have been invited to read their essays at our April 13th meeting at which time they will receive their respective awards, $500 and $250. Mrs. Moses will receive $250 for encouraging her students to participate in our essay competition.
This was the third year of our chapter’s essay competition and is funded by money left to the chapter by the late Marion Craig, an active humanist and Salt Lake City school teacher.
Discussion Group Report
Essays From Isaac Asimov
By Bob Lane
As is always the case, the discussion group was lively and interesting. I enjoy the discussion group very much, and every chance I get I want to encourage everyone to come and check it out sometime. Like I have said before, “we won’t force you to say anything.”
December’s discussion group readings were five essays by Isaac Asimov. Because Isaac Asimov died in 1992, some of his writings are a little dated. But his pure intellect, knowledge of science, and style of writing make most of his work a pleasure to read and a great source of information. I picked them for those very reasons and also as an effort to continually support and popularize science. The selected essays from two books, The Roving Mind and 66 Essays on the Past, Present & Future were: “The Perennial Fringe,” “Popularizing Science,” “For Public Understanding of Science,” “Science Corps,” and “Losing the Debate.” All of the essays shared common threads, one by simply advocating science, and the other the importance of starting the science education of children early. Now, these threads are actually nothing new. Education in general is an ongoing concern. But how do we enhance the teaching of science in order to attract the young mind and give them a chance to find something they find irresistible?
In the essay “Popularizing Science,” Asimov makes several observations and suggestions. One worthwhile quotation:
We can’t all be science writers, but we can find other ways to popularize science and critical thinking.
In another of the essays, “The Perennial Fringe,” Asimov writes of the furious letters he gets from creationists, and goes on to say that he could send them letters back, but never does. He does, however, sum things up in the way he was so very good at:
Marion Craig Memorial Essay Contest
2nd Place Entry
Keeping the environment clean has become a more pressing concern, especially in Utah. Issues such as clean air, energy losses, and using up landfills are becoming even more of a cause for concern. These issues are especially important to Utah. If citizens took a bit more time and effort to recycle, carpool, and other little various things, we could help the environment immensely. Utah could have cleaner air; fossil fuels and other types of nonrenewable energy would be saved longer. The environment would be much cleaner.
Air along the Wasatch Front can get so dirty the pollution can be seen with the naked eye. Pollution is a major concern with Utah environmentalists. The pollution is mostly caused by automobile emissions and major industries. Research has proven that air pollution has a direct relationship to increased strokes and asthma attacks in America. Cleaning up the air will have good effect on asthma victims, and fewer strokes will occur. Power plants are also a major cause for air pollution in Utah. If scientists spend more time looking for a sufficient non-polluting renewable source of energy, the sooner the air can be cleaned up.
Energy is a growing concern not only in Utah, but internationally as well. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are rapidly diminishing. Not only are the amounts decreasing, but coal, oil, and nuclear power has been detrimental to human health. Using renewable resources are practical to use; hybrid cars and other ways of using nonpolluting renewable resources have been introduced to the public. The problem is that the public isn’t purchasing them. The knowledge that better energy sources are out there needs to be advertised. There are many ways that knowledge about saving energy can be given to the public so that more energy can be saved.
Recycling is a very easy and efficient way to help the environment. Many of Utah’s local waste management companies provide recycling. Recycling reduces the costs of waste management and it is much cheaper than harvesting virgin material. Landfills, apart from being very ugly to look at anyway, threaten water supplies also. Recycling helps reduce these risks, and can also help air quality. It is a very useful and efficient way to help the environment.
All in all, if people took these tiny steps and tried to do little things to help, the environment would be much cleaner and everyone would benefit. If air pollution is reduced, people would have less strokes and asthma attacks. Advertisement of renewable energy saving products will help air pollution and countless other types of pollution decrease. Finally, if recycling were used more, water supplies wouldn’t be as threatened and unsightly landfills wouldn’t have to grow. It is so simple to make little changes; Utah’s citizens should consider the benefits of doing these things.
Marion Craig Memorial Essay Contest
Why Join a Gang?
Adolescents will do anything to feel a sense of belonging. They’ll try everything; even if it means joining a gang. Teenagers lacking love, support, and a place of security often turn to gangs. The home environment can greatly impact the way teenagers feel about themselves. Having a low self esteem can also be a factor in adolescents’ choices. Especially during the teenage years, friends have a big influence on their peers. The reasons in joining a gang can vary, but it’s basically to feel like they belong.
In the world today, there can be many problems in the family and environment of the home. As in the book Oliver Twist, teenagers and kids without a source of stability commonly make poor choices that could have been prevented. Lacking support from the family can greatly affect children. Without love from a family, which every child needs, where else can they find comfort? Obviously one answer is gangs. On the other hand, there are some teenagers who join gangs despite the fact that they come from a loving home. Home support is very important and is vital to the lives of adolescents.
Having a low self esteem can explain why some youth feel as though they need to be part of a gang. A low self esteem can be caused by many things, including peers and friends. Bullying is also one of the many events that can lead to the lowering of one’s self esteem. Those who are victims of bullying can easily become angry and bitter. Therefore, in turn, they feel as though they need to treat others in the same way. As a result of these irate feelings, gangs can become an ideal, but mistaken, solution. A low self esteem can lead to events that take place in gangs.
Especially during one’s adolescent years, the social environment in which they interact plays a big role in their choices. “Hanging out” with the wrong group of friends usually has dire consequences. Friends have a big influence over friends. Peer pressure is hard to ignore for a teenager with an unstable background. One may be lured into joining a gang if his peers choose to become involved. They can become self conscious or taunted by their “friends.” It is very important for adolescents to have friends that will influence them for the good.
Teenagers join gangs for a variety of reasons. First, youth who don’t have a supportive family feel neglected and want to belong. Secondly, possessing a low self esteem can explain why some become part of a gang. Finally, the influence of a friend is one of the most vital influences in one’s life. Overall, the joining of teenagers to gangs can be prevented if they are given the love and support they need. Without love and support, adolescents will seek it somewhere else; and it is often i>thought to be found in a gang.
Environmental and political activist and author Chip Ward struck a chord with humanists as he spoke about his work keeping the Great Basin Desert from becoming a nuclear waste dump. A resident of Grantsville, Ward believes that because Tooele County has for years been trading environmental quality for jobs, revenues, and profits, many people are now sick.
Ward recalls going to a public hearing ten years ago about a plan to build toxic waste incinerators on Utah’s West Desert. At the hearing, an industry expert hired by the corporations who build incinerators said the emissions from hazardous waste facilities would be so safe and legal that people could eat it spread on their breakfast cereal.
Such a statement seemed to reassure many in the audience, but Ward was left with the urge to run home to examine his breakfast cereal. His alarm increased when a Greenpeace activist there said if we lived downwind from toxic waste incinerators, we would give birth to two-headed babies and die. New to such issues, Ward found the conflicting testimonies confusing and alarming. As he walked out the door that evening, he said to a neighbor, “Let me see if I got that right–we’re going to eat breakfast cereal for two-headed babies.”
After the hearing, Ward decided to do his own research and discovered that each side of the debate had convincing evidence and experts to support their arguments. As citizens, people are supposed to process that information and be the ultimate arbiters of its credibility and integrity. That, Ward realized, was why politics has become an information war.
Before Grantsville, Ward and his wife worked in Capitol Reef National Park where they took responsibility for their own water source and growing their own food; this taught him that people are really what they eat, drink and breathe, and that the collective decisions made about what to allow into the air, water, soil, and food get translated into flesh and blood.
As a result of this intimate experience, Ward was able to extrapolate that for people who live near incinerators, chemical industry facilities, and toxic or radioactive wastes, their own bodies will eventually be affected. Ward learned that environmental laws and policies are not precautionary, and so are not wise. Aside from a reckless orientation, those laws and policies are interpreted and enforced in a political arena where increasing numbers of citizens are turned away or turned off. And when citizens do not get involved, the situation worsens.
Reluctant at first to get involved himself, Ward tells how he and a neighbor gathered signatures on a petition for improved air monitoring, a modest attempt to introduce some accountability and consensus. Hoping for 50 signatures, they obtained 500–because so many were worried about cancer and the chronic illnesses plaguing their community.
Ward admits to having a difficult time sorting out the information because he realized that the nature of consciousness and perception is we see what we look for, so he was wary of jumping to conclusions. Then one revelatory Saturday morning as he was reading and drinking his coffee on the front porch, Ward realized that from where he sat, he could point to three homes where children were in wheel chairs, to a home where a child had been born with one kidney, to a house where another child had Spina Bifida, to a home where a child had recently died from leukemia, and to two homes where mothers in their early thirties had just died of cancer. Ward recounts how all his alarms went off, and he asked himself, “Have I moved my children into harm’s way?” Precaution compels action before conclusion.
Although politics appear disguised as laws, policies, campaigns, budgets, and rhetoric, Ward says they are really about how we live and die. In his book, Canaries on the Rim, Ward captures the story of his activist quest to address the ongoing controversies over the use of the West Desert as an enabler for some very toxic collective behaviors.
As an aside, Ward explains that the “canaries” in the title is a metaphor and a reference to the coal mine canaries that were kept to warn miners about poisonous fumes in the air, something which he has had to point out to the local Barnes & Noble stores because they insist on restocking his book in the bird guide section next to manuals on parakeet care.
Continuing on, Ward admonishes that if we want to have an interesting life and meet compelling people, we should get involved. As we go about our daily lives, we are constantly given the choice to avoid or embrace our responsibilities as citizens. When we avoid the challenges of creating viable and healthy communities, the consequences are often dire while embracing those challenges, we create hope. In a personal testimony, Ward states that passionate commitment is not a burden but a blessing, and that when people practice their heartfelt convictions, he believes life becomes richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
Discussion Group Report
The Enlightenment Under Threat
By Richard Layton
“Across the world, millions of people feel threatened. They sense a dangerous enemy at the gates, committed to values and beliefs they fear and despise, and ready to impose its alien ideology on their government, their life and their children’s future,” declares an article in New Scientist, October 8, 2005.
It says that this statement shows how religious fundamentalists feel. The secular world of the early 21st century is a threat to all they hold dear. In response increasing numbers are joining militant religious groups and living, voting and battling for their beliefs. Like it or not, they already outnumber the secular rationalists whose thinking underpins today’s western urban societies. Much of the past century was characterized by a widespread belief, at least in the west, that as the world developed materially, religion would dwindle in importance. But the opposite has happened. Fundamentalist Islamic movements are gaining strength across the Muslim world and beyond. In the U.S. Christian fundamentalism holds more political and cultural power than ever before. Fundamentalist movements have arisen within Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. The world, in short, is witnessing an explosion of movements that reject rational inquiry as the best way to explain the world and empirical evidence as the best way to formulate policy. Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms are often portrayed as being on opposite sides in a “cosmic struggle” of good against evil. “But they are the same,” says New Scientist.
Fundamentalist religions are driven by a desire to get “back to basics,” to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age when their religion was untainted by secular influences. They fervently believe they alone have the truth–usually an overtly literal interpretation of a sacred text–and an equally fervent desire to impose that truth on others. Unlike mainstream religion, they cannot tolerate dissent.
What is driving the growth of such intolerant belief systems? “There is,” says the article, “palpable unease that fundamentalism represents a mortal threat to the accomplishments of modern society; that the achievements of the Enlightenment are in danger of being rolled back.” Does it pose a threat to the scientific world view? A study by Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame concludes that the very force that was once expected to render religion obsolete, modernity, is in fact causing it to mutate and gather strength. Modernity is a mode of thinking that is exemplified by science. It focuses on change and progress, empirical evidence rather than revealed truth, and skepticism of traditional (including religious) authority. It has proved enormously powerful.
Surprising was the ability of religion to fight back and to spawn an entirely new way of looking at the world. What characterizes traditional religions, says Karen Armstrong, a British writer on religion, and an expert on fundamentalism, is that they are geared to the needs of people in traditional agrarian societies. They focus on the permanence of mythical truths behind superficial reality, and the divine will behind apparent injustice. They see life as cyclical, not progressive, and offer an understanding of the cosmos and a system of morals which provide rules, reassurance and meaning that people in such societies need.
Against this background, modernity can be deeply unsettling. It “undermines all the old certainties,” writes Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion at Boston University. Traditional societies are culturally uniform, but as people from this background are drawn into industrialized urban life, they come up against others who believe different things. What scandalizes people is startlingly similar across countries and cultures: pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles and sexual behavior, reliance on human reason rather than divine revelation, or democracy, which grants power to people rather than God.
“It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that lie at the heart of the fundamentalist vision,” Armstrong advises. “Only then will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching evil.”
Should secularists feel threatened? Yes and no. sometimes fundamentalists embrace an approach based on reason. Nearly half of evangelists, one study showed, opposed banning stem cell research; and their views on homosexuality and abortion differed little from those of the general population. But evangelical Christians in the U.S. have successfully fostered a belief that science is somehow anti-religious, and that this imbalance must be redressed. Only 26% of Americans are evangelicals but in 2004 37% of Americans wanted creationism taught in the schools. Erosion of popular support for scientific research makes it easier to sell politically motivated denial of scientific discoveries such as global warming. George W. Bush has talked openly of running a “faith-based presidency;” and a member of his inner circle has been quoted referring disdainfully to the “reality-based community–that is, people who believe policy should be based on empirical evidence rather than faith. “George Bush was not elected by a majority of voters in the United States. He was appointed by God,” according to one senior U.S. politician. Commentator Thomas Frank has argued that by allying itself with evangelical beliefs, the U.S. Republican Party has managed to dupe poor people into voting for economic policies that damage their interests, such as tax cuts for the rich.
The challenge for the secular inheritors of the Enlightenment is to remain true to their values and be tolerant and pluralistic–even in the face of an opponent that can never reciprocate. That means understanding fundamentalist mentality, and at least not adding to the alienation that inspires the more extreme among them. “We must accept seriously held public belief as a normal part of modern living,” says sociologist Grace Davie. “The more you deny and attack it, the more defensive it gets.”
Humanism has been demonized frequently by its opponents. As a proponent of humanism, I would like to defend its proud history and lofty ideals based on the Enlightenment, Liberalism, and Progressivism. Humanism admires the human potential for true greatness through reasoning. We believe that humans have the ability to intellectually resolve social, moral, and political problems to the benefit of the individual and the community. This optimistic view of human nature was first proposed by the ancient Greeks, who questioned the belief that supernatural forces governed human activities. Protagoras around 450 BCE wrote, “Man is the measure of all things. As for gods, I do not know whether they exist or not. Life is too short for such difficult inquiries.” Later, Epicures taught that death is neither a reward nor a punishment but simply a natural event. He wrote, “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the deprivation of sensation.”
The Renaissance declared that humans with the use of reason were their own authority in the formation of knowledge, tastes, and beliefs. Ancient dogma such as “the earth is flat,” and “the sun rotates around the earth” were abandoned with the Age of the Renaissance beginning in the 15th century. This was the first stage of the cultural evolution which led to the reestablishment of ancient Greek humanism.
The Enlightenment had its theoretical roots in Europe with the thoughts and writings of Hume, Locke, and Voltaire but its practical roots are in the United States with the optimism of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. The Enlightenment was concerned about the nature of the universe, the nature of humans, and the relationship of the two. The human relationship to the indifferent universe can be discovered only through reason. Only the human mind can determine moral values and build better societies.
The Enlightenment encouraged confidence in an orderly universe and optimism in human nature. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution exemplify our founder’s faith in humans to govern themselves with reason. At the end of the Revolution, George Washington said: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.”
Liberalism, the political philosophy that promotes a fair and decent society, is based on reason, liberty and equality. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, influenced by the writings of John Locke, envisioned this nation as a republican social culture, and a democratic political culture with a strong national government supporting diversity, prosperity, and opportunity. Future presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy continued to govern from a liberal stance urging a highly productive society with a strong federal government assuring economic security for all.
A Liberal democracy promotes decency, privacy, and tolerance. Liberalism works toward excellence in public education, public safety, and a moral society. Liberals expect fair wages for workers, honesty in business, and transparency in government. A Liberal government taxes according to ability to pay, is the employer of last resort, and ensures domestic peace and international security.
Progressivism, the political philosophy aimed at furthering the enhancement of a republican culture, envisions a society absent a privileged class and royalty. Progressives encourage government to develop a social conscience concerned with the economic plight of the under privileged. President Theodore Roosevelt was a 19th century icon for political progressives, Lincoln Steffens a journalist icon, Upton Sinclair the novelist representative, and John Dewey the theoretician for progressive education.
Progressive legislation included the Sherman Antitrust Act intended to breakup corporate monopolies, the Pure Food and Drug Act designed to protect consumers from tainted goods, and the Interstate Commerce Commission established to stop the gouging of consumers. Free public education promised increased learning opportunity, latent talent development, and social equality for each individual.
The moral compass for humanism is the Rousseau social contract theory of voluntary agreement among people to respect human rights and natural law.
Today humanism proudly continues to extol the human virtues, social values, and political principles historically espoused by the Enlightenment, Liberalism, and Progressivism.
Francis Fukuyama says it is very hard to see how developments in Iraq justify the blood and treasurer the United States has spent on the project. The conservative professor at John Hopkins University says Neo-conservatism has evolved into something he can no longer support.
His comments were published in the New York Times Magazine February 19th. In the lengthy article Fukuyama said the president and his supporters underestimated the difficulty of forcing political change in places like Iraq. He calls for a return to Wilsonianism that calls attention to how rulers treat their citizens. He says “outsiders can’t impose democracy on a country that doesn’t want it, demand for democracy and reform must be domestic.”
He calls for new ideas on how America is to relate to the rest the world.
His New York Times Magazine commentary was based on his new book, America at the Crossroads.
Boy Scouts Liable for Discrimination
According to The Humanist Monthly, August 2006, published by Capital District Humanist Society, the city of Philadelphia is challenging discriminatory practices of Boy Scouts of America. This is hopeful because BSA could really be a great program for young men if it welcomed leaders and members regardless of their religion or lack thereof, and sexual preference.
The Philadelphia City Council voted in 1928 to let the Philadelphia Boy Scouts use a downtown building rent free “in perpetuity” (the scouts pay for upkeep.) In 2003, the local council voted to adopt a nondiscrimination policy regarding homosexuals, but then weeks later ousted an 18-year old-scout who publicly acknowledged he was gay.
Now the City Solicitor has written to the president of local BSA Council: “For several years we have attempted to convince (your Council) that its discriminatory policies are untenable and violate the express City policy and law. Regrettably, we have been unable to obtain adequate assurances that the Boy Scouts will not, while headquartered on City property, discriminate. We believe that ejectment, subject to a fair-market rent agreement, is an appropriate measure that recognizes the many contributions made by your organization.”
Image — A Positive Image
I think a major mistake, perhaps the biggest mistake, of organized humanism over the last few decades has been the failure to build a positive image of humanism and nontheism in the public mindset. Few Americans even know what humanism is, and even fewer choose to identify as humanists. Whatever we call ourselves, eventually our non-supernaturalism will become the focus of our identity in the minds of others. As a result, our culture demonizes nonbelief, whether under the title of atheism, agnosticism, Humanism, Religious Humanism or secular humanism. Why is this?
Organized humanism should not point to the religious right or any other segment of society in placing blame for the poor state of affairs, because “image management” is our own responsibility, and we have been dropping the ball for decades. It appears that, somewhere along the line, those responsible for the ship of humanism decided that organized humanism should be a “club” for elite intellectuals, rather than a “movement” to change society by spreading humanism itself in the wider culture-a near-fatal mistake, and we live with the results today.
I’m not suggesting that we should brazenly assert an in-your-face kind of humanism/atheism, but we can’t hide from our core identity, nor from the accompanying views. Even demonized terms such as “atheism” and “secular humanism” can be rehabilitated, in our culture, by making tactful image management a major priority. If it is done well, the public will eventually realize that nonbelievers are decent, ordinary people, sometimes even working for noble causes, such as cures for cancer. It’s a delicate job, but not an impossible one.
Internecine squabbling over words is non-productive. Clearly, the answer to our demonization is not to hide from the humanist/atheist identity. Rather, the answer is to work on improving the public image of those identities.
Quotes from introduction of this book written by Kevin Phillips:
“…the White House is courting end-times theologians and electorates for whom the holy lands are already a battleground of Christian destiny. Both pursuits, oil and biblical expectations, require a dissimulation in Washington that undercuts the U.S. tradition of commitment to the role of an informed electorate.”
“…During the 1970’s and part of the 1980’s,I agreed with the predominating Republican argument that ‘secular’ liberals, by badly misjudging the depth and importance of religion in the United States, had given conservatives a powerful and legitimate electoral opportunity.”
Discussion Group Report
All Political Ideas Are Local
By Richard Layton
In 1861 while southern states were in the process of seceding from the union, Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York, made a proposal to his city council that, if the South severed its ties to the United States, New York should, too. That city profited from the shipping of Southern cotton, and its people weren’t crazy about the idea of a civil war. The city would refashion itself into a free city called Tri-Insula, which would do business with both the North and the South, thus sidestepping carnage and substituting business sense for patriotic fervor.
Tri-Insula never happened, but Americans have always tended to treat New York as if it had, says Russell Shorto in his article with same title as this one in the October 2, 2005 New York Times. The “it feels like a foreign country” line is a standard souvenir that visitors from other parts of the nation take home with them. New York is different, both literally and metaphorically insular. New York for a generation has been far from the center of American politics.
Yet in recent polls for 2008, America’s top choices include New York’s junior senator, Hillary Clinton, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Governor George Pataki. These factors relate to New York’s uniqueness: the World Trade Center was attacked because of what the city is and represents, and Hillary chose it as her base for similar reasons. New York once held sway over the national political scene, but there hasn’t been a New Yorker in the White House since F.D.R.
What is it that New York had in its glory days–when it fostered political ideas and programs that transformed the nation–and does it still have it?
To approach these questions and to get at some of the political tensions roiling the country today, we need to go back to the beginning. You could think of it as springing from two sources, each of which flows back to the earliest stratum of the country’s existence–the dominant one–call it American–and the subordinate one, the new York source.
The American strain, which has soared triumphant in recent years, is overtly and unashamedly moralistic. It comes straight out of the Puritans who settled New England. Their worldview was theological to the core; Europe was corrupt and despoiled; the New World was the Promised Land. Success was a sign of God’s favor. They were “the new Israel,” the chosen people. Succeeding generations adopted this theological template. In the 19th century the Puritans exceptionalism was reframed as manifest destiny: the notion that Americans had, as John O’Sullivan put it, the right “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said the United States had “seen visions that other nations have not seen, and had become a determining factor in the history of mankind,” and “the light of the world.” President Bush hewed to the same theme while pressing to invade Iraq, “We go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country.” This straight-up claim to a religious basis for the entire national project has always been a source of tremendous strength for the U.S., and for a leader who can evoke it convincingly it is even better than wrapping yourself in the flag. It rallies popular support around the holy trinity: God, America, and liberty.
“Somehow,” says Shorto, “New York has never played along with this morality play. On the contrary its lowlife image hangs on in the American consciousness–corruption- and chaos-ridden, the scabby home base of all the world’s hustlers and scammers–never mind the layers of gentrification and Disneyfication. The image extends to politics as well. ‘Ungovernable’ is the adjective that has been endlessly applied to new York City, from the Tammany Hall days to John Lindsay’s wobbly Vietnam- era morality, through blackouts and riots, from Son of Sam to the squeegee guys.
“The conundrum is that New York is also, historically, the fertile soul from which some of the richest ideas and policies have been harvested,” which have defined the relationship between the American people and their government. Why is it that the first American parties burst into being in the 1730’s along with the idea of an organized opposition to their British rulers, and these things happened in New York? Why was the idea of a free press first articulated in 1735 by a New York printer, John Peter Zenger? Why is it that New York played a crucial role in developing the concept of the government protecting the environment (Theodore Roosevelt, New York governor) and Franklin Roosevelt took New Deal policies–the concept of the government protecting people from the darkest chasms of fate and corporate greed– from Albany to Washington? The America Communist Party, the National Association for the advancement of Colored People and the gay rights movement all started in the city. And both liberalism and the modern conservative movement started there.
All of these disparate political forces and innovations have behind them a single theme: factions. America is a pluralistic nation, but its founding was largely an English affair. The exception is New York: or to be precise, the Dutch colony of New Netherland along the Middle Atlantic which had as its capital New Amsterdam. This colony was one of the most culturally mixed places on earth in the 17th century. Eighteen languages were being spoken in New York.