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President Obama has thrown open the curtains of the Executive Branch. This website details his administration’s goals and the progress that is being made. A few years ago Humanists of Utah heard Pete Ashdown discuss Democracy 2.0 where he said the government should be open for public inspection. President Obama is making real strides towards this goal.



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National Public Radio

National Public Radio (NPR) is a privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization that serves as a national syndicator to 797 public radio stations in the United States. NPR was created in 1970, following congressional passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and also led to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service.



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Utah Humanities Council

Welcome to the Utah Humanities Council, your bridge to programs and resources that promote understanding of diverse traditions, values, and ideas. We’re proud of our thirty-four year history expanding minds “one story at a time.”

Thanks to HoU member Lauren Florence, MD for recommending this website.

Utah Humanities Council


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National Day of Reason

Many who value the separation of religion and government have sought an appropriate response to the federally-supported National Day of Prayer, an annual abuse of the constitution. Nontheistic Americans (including freethinkers, humanists, atheists, agnostics, and deists), along with many traditionally religious allies, view such government-sanctioned sectarianism as unduly exclusionary.

National Day of Reason


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Nod to The Ladies

This month’s website is A Nod to the Ladies: Atheist Women-A Breed Apart

Reserve your right to think.
For even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.


Nod to the Ladies


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Secular Seasons

Want to know what is going on this month for secular groups? Next month? What you missed last month?

Check out Secular Seasons, a well designed website with info of interest to freethinkers everywhere.

Thanks to Bob Mayhew for suggesting this site.

Secular Seasons


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This site contains a good list of arguments from both sides of a number of issues. The specific link chosen for this feature concerns the phrase “under God” and whether it belongs on our coinage and in the pledge to the flag.



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The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) is a think tank whose mission is to promote greater public awareness, understanding, and support for humanism. The Institute specializes in pioneering new technology and methods for the advancement of humanism.

Institute for Humanists Studies


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Ann Dunham

Ann Dunham was President Obama’s mother. This Wikipedia page details her history as a freethinking feminist who was in many respects, years ahead of her time. President Obama has acknowledged that she had great influence on his thinking. This is apparent by his recurring inclusion of “non-believers” when he talks about the people of the United States.

Thanks to Flo Wineriter for suggesting this page.

Ann Dunham Soertoro


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Texas Freedom Network

The Texas Freedom Network bills itself as a “mainstream voice to counter the religious right.” It is packed with current events and presents reasoned approaches to today’s issues.Thanks to HoU member Flo Wineriter for recommending this website.

Texas Freedom Network


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SHIFT – Secular Humanism, Inquiry and Freethought at the University of Utah

This is a Blog Spot for a new student humanist organization at the U. We have invited them to our picnic on 8/13 and some have said they plan to attend



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Web Site of the Month

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Humanists of Central Ohio

This is the webpage of an active humanist chapter in central Ohio. It is interesting to see what other chapters do and how they are organized.

Humanists of Central Ohio


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Urban Pioneers

June 2009

At its May 14 meeting the Humanists of Utah were treated to a show by the “Urban Pioneers”–an informal name loosely applied to a group of about 30 Utah singers and musicians who participated in the Urban Folk Music Revival of the 1960s in Utah, reunited over the past five years as part of an extended oral history project conducted by Humanists of Utah member Polly Stewart.

An article about two early Urban Pioneers, Bruce “Utah” Phillips (1935-2008) and Rosalie Sorrels, appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly. A full-scale Urban Pioneers concert was held in Salt Lake City’s Highland High School auditorium in January 2007. Urban Pioneers Polly Stewart and Heather Dorrell (a former president of Humanists of Utah) also gave a concert of folk songs for the March 2008 Humanists of Utah meeting.

The May 2009 Humanists of Utah concert of Urban Pioneers, attended by about 50 humanists and other Utahns, was presented in partial fulfillment of an oral-history grant jointly provided by the Utah Humanities Council and Utah State History. Under the grant, a professional was hired in August 2008 to devote approximately 120 hours toward transcribing taped oral history interviews conducted between November 2004 and August 2007 by Polly and her associate, Jennifer Bott Bateman. The transcription work of this grant accounted for approximately half of the interviews and other audio documentation connected with the project. At the May 14 show, eight of the original Urban Pioneers were present; Jennifer played selections from their interviews to help give a sense of the oral history of the 1960s Urban Folk Revival in Utah, and the playing of the clips was followed by actual performances by the musicians and singers. Performing were Urban Pioneers Hal Cannon, Chris Montague, and Tom Carter (who played in the 1960s in an old-time string-band called Uncle Lumpy); Heather Dorrell and Peter Netka performing in a duo for the evening; Steve Barnes and Tom Drury, who in the early 1960s played in several commercial folk music groups; and Polly Stewart, who performed with the instrumental and vocal backing of the full ensemble.

Polly, who emceed the concert, expressed gratitude to the Utah Humanities Council and Utah State History for its valued contribution to the completion of the project, and also thanked Cultural Conservation Corps (or CCC), a Utah nonprofit formed to promote the arts in all fields and to help present “research come to life,” for supporting the grant application and also for administering the grant. The grant period ends August 1, 2009, by which time the full grant will have been expended. About a quarter of the grant is devoted to photocopying and other expenses related to preparation of the Urban Pioneers Oral History Project in three identical research troves (containing interview CDs, transcriptions, concert CDs, a DVD of the January 2007 concert, CDs of historic photographs and ephemera) to be donated to three Utah public facilities: Utah State History, the Folk Arts Program of the Utah Arts Council (both in Salt Lake City), and the Special Collections Division of the library at Weber State University, Ogden. Polly said she hopes the Urban Pioneers Oral History Project will be completed by the end of 2009.

–Polly Stewart


Thomas Paine Day 2009

Bruce Daine Speaks to Humanists of Utah

November 2009

Professor Bruce DainStarting off with a movie critique of HBO’s mini series about John Adams, Associate Professor Bruce Dain said that a movie about Thomas Paine would have been a better story. Why? For starters, Dain said that Paine believed in divorce, was separated and was remarried, had many personal problems. He antagonized people, was the most famous writer in America, and supported the American Revolution.

And almost killed in the French Revolution, Paine was not freed by the US government in France. So he blamed George Washington; this caused a big public fight though Washington was not at fault. Eventually James Monroe had him released from French jail.

Paine also became infamous for writing The Age of Reason, a defense of deism. This writing was vilified by the American founding fathers, even though most of them agreed with him. For example, John Adams loathed what Paine wrote yet agreed with virtually everything but didn’t think it was a good idea to express it in public.

Another interesting fact about Paine was that he died in NYC not quite impoverished but not well off either. Buried in a pauper-like grave, almost no one went to his funeral. Nearly a year passed before his followers and family moved him to a proper grave.

Though Paine’s life would have been a much better mini series than John Adams, he is ignored although educated people may have heard about him, said Dain, and the question is why. Dain said he was actually grateful about giving this talk, motivating him to read about Paine and think about him.

Paine was an exceedingly popular writer in the 18th century, Dain said, but he doesn’t seem to speak to us now, especially for the left, liberal, or university level. Something in Paine’s tone appeals to the right wing, which is why Glen Beck just published Glen Beck’s Common Sense. Unwilling to buy it, Dain said he went to a bookstore and read Beck’s book, adding that there is something in Beck’s tone that he got right about Paine.

Nevertheless there is much about Paine that does not fit into our sensibilities today, like his deliberate simplicity, radical anti-elitism, and contempt for protest against disinterest and objectivity in politics, which may be the biggest reason why he is forgotten. Paine identified himself completely with his ideas, never distinguishing between the private and public man, despising people who did; this set him apart from virtually all the other founding fathers. Plus he attacked them personally if he didn’t like their ideas since he believed that the idea and the man were the same things.

One of the famous lines from Common Sense was Paine’s belief that the American Revolution was important for all mankind. Interestingly, Paine disregarded “American” in American Revolution because America did not have hundreds of years of aristocracy; it was a democratic revolution first. To Paine, there was nothing special about Americans per se. In fact, they were only Americans if they acted out of principles that anyone could understand. Thus he thought he could and did export this idea to France and England.

Paine saw himself as a professional writer who owned his work, said Dain. As a result, he fought with the publisher of Common Sense for pocketing all the profit. Most publishers then believed that what the writer said and what his ideas were what was important, but the writer as a person did not own that; Paine despised this notion.

Paine cannot be admired as a learned man, continued Dain, because he was contemptuous of formal education believing it could lead to pride. Paine cannot be admired as a disinterested man who had a public persona different from his private person. He cannot be admired as a Founding Father; he hated class differences, lineage claims, and in many ways, nationalism. Paine considered himself universal and not as a real American.

Given all of this, it is surprising he is remembered though he is basically ignored, said Dain, adding that he thought it was undeserved because what he did was a major intellectual accomplishment and impressive in many ways. Furthermore, Paine had a sense of public leadership that did not exist then. In fact, Paine invented his own audience and spoke to it almost simultaneously.

Paine also invented a different way of writing that appealed to ordinary people who had a little education but could read and write. So his writing was not targeted to an audience of artisans, craftsmen, or farmers. Paine believed that ordinary people mattered and could shape politics just as much as anyone else. Simply to write a best selling political pamphlet was to create a new audience; what Paine did had never happened before in the US. Paine invented a political language of self-evident truths that was available to anyone.

According to Paine, the world’s glory and its logic and the ability to apprehend both is universal. In other words, science is available to anyone, and science has to be the basis for everything in public life, including religion; every person is able to apply scientific reasoning and evidence to politics and even to religion.

As an aside, Dain commented that the word “American” did not exist in its current form until after Common Sense; it was a bad word then. Thus, the new meaning for “American” is to act rationally and to be against corruption.

Paine argued that anybody with common sense, meaning reason, and if they lived in America and acted rationally, then this person would be a true American, and a true American would be willing to fight a revolution to leave the British Empire.

Paine expounded on this very subtly in Common Sense, Dain said, not calling for a revolution in the beginning, not until the last paragraph. He argued that monarchy was irrational and that anyone with any sense who did not have an interest in it would not want to be in a monarchy. That is pretty much all Common Sense says, asserted Dain, adding that there are many biblical references so it is not even that secular.

Later Paine said he could convince the British themselves to overthrow monarchy and aristocracy and all people to abandon notions of miracle, heresy, and orthodoxy, wanting to make faith a matter of scientific investigation open even to ordinary people.

By inventing a language to do that, in essence Paine trusted his audience to be able to fulfill the entire promise of the Enlightenment. Dain said educated people then believed that was possible. It was unusual for men like Adams and Jefferson to see themselves as natural aristocrats. Such people were not born into privilege but received privilege because they were smarter; they would think like Newton and Shakespeare, the great examples of reason and imagination, who were exceptional, not a state most people had access to. This is why Adams said the following about Paine:

“I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.” –John Adams

Adams believed that society could even be destroyed if anyone could access the ideas of aristocracies. For society to hold together, it had to be based on an aristocracy of the gifted.

Dain said Paine believed that all truth is available to all people at all times for observation and reason, and everything true is the result of science. If people abandon their prejudices, all men could be scientists. Consequently, all of Paine’s works seek to demolish all prejudices and to persuade people to put the American Revolution, French Revolution, a possible revolution in England, governments everywhere, and ultimately even all religions, on a rational scientific basis available to everyone.

Author’s Note: To those who would like to hear Dain’s entire speech, a cassette tape is available.

For more information about Paine, see this website

–Sarah Smith



More Pictures from Thomas Paine Day


From the Podium




Richard Layton’s

Discussion Group Report

Should We Respect Religion?

May 2009

By Craig Wilkinson, M.D.

Barabara Smoker is the previous President of the National Secular Society of Great Britain. On May 25, 2006, she took part in the Oxford University Union Debate opposing the motion that “Free speech should be moderated by respect for religion.” The chief speaker on her side was Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who published the controversial Muhammad cartoons. There was a seven figure bounty on his head so security at the debate was heavy. Having lost many previous similar debates like this in the 60’s and 70’s she was pleased to win this one by a vote of 129-59. She notes that if any other noun rather than religion had been used the vote would have been 188-0. Suppose the word would have been science. The motion would read :”Free speech should be moderated by respect for science.” No reasonable person would vote for that-least of all a genuine scientist. Science is all about testing any idea or hypothesis.

As she pointed out in the debate, the precept to respect religion is similar to the Mosaic commandment, “Honor thy Father and thy Mother.” But what if your father and mother were murderers? They wouldn’t deserve your respect, and most religions don’t either. Should we then respect religious faith? Certainly not; but we should respect religious people? Yes, as long as they are not anti-social and don’t try to impose their religious views on others.

However, even if we respect them as good-living people, we cannot respect their beliefs. Faith, which means firm belief in the absence of evidence, betrays human intelligence, undermines science-based knowledge, and compromises ordinary morality. If there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith; it would be knowledge.

We have to excuse the medieval skeptics who pretended to respect Christianity rather than risk being burned at the stake, and likewise the apostate Muslims of today who pay lip-service to Islam in those Islamic countries where apostasy is still a capital offense. But, we who live in a comparatively liberal society have no such excuse. Skepticism is of paramount importance, because it is the gateway to knowledge; but unless the skeptical ideas are freely argued over, they cannot be assessed, nor can the ensuing knowledge spread through society.

Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere. Censorship, including insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the day, followed closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of speech, nor of religion, for that matter. Incidentally, the violence provoked by the Danish cartoons was deliberately stirred up by Islamic fundamentalists publishing exaggerated versions of them in Muslim countries, up to four months after the originals were published.

Pressured by religious leaders sinking their differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, the Council of Europe is currently considering the introduction of legislation in the European Parliament and even the United Nations to enforce “respect for religious feelings” internationally. Insertion of the word feelings lends this tendentious goal a semblance of humane empathy. But religion cannot, in all conscience, be intellectually respected, if honesty is to prevail over hypocrisy-and giving it false respect would not just be obsequious and dishonest, but it would actually allow superstitions of the Dark Ages to rise again in triumph, destroying the whole range of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few centuries.

So for the sake of liberty as well as truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical respect. Far from being willing to moderate free speech by respect for religion, we should moderate respect for religion in favor of free speech.


Religious Freedom — The Long View

May 2009

Articulate and knowledgeable, attorney Dani Eyer, the former director of the ACLU in Utah, presented the standard on the freedom of religion from a constitutional perspective. To introduce this subject, Eyer first gave some background on constitutional law.

Mainly a secular document, religion is mentioned only once in the actual text of the Constitution; there shall not be a religious test to hold public office.

But there are the amendments, the first for the protection of six basic rights: speech, press, assembly, petitioning the government for redress and grievances–and two about religion. One is the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” And the other about religion is: “Neither may Congress prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

These two religion clauses go hand-in-hand and are useless without each other, stated Eyer. Together they reflect the freedom of religious conscience and forbid the government from either barring religious observance or imposing religious belief. Despite the symbiosis, there is a perpetual tension between the two.

Onto a brief history of the two religion clauses, Eyer said that our nation has always struggled with this dichotomy. Our country is based on either a secular or a Christian foundation, or said another way–based either on religious freedom or a government directly involved with religion–or based either on the value of liberty or on the value of a divine order. “We’re still split right down the middle on this, and always have been,” said Eyer, asserting that these two themes shape our national character.

What is the origin of these two contentions? Going back pre-constitution, there was the ideal of sacred liberty from the French Enlightenment. Pitted against that was New England Puritanism, which was based on the notion of Christian governmental authority.

Many believed in the purist version of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Others believed that people erred when they followed Jefferson and the Enlightenment, which they thought stripped the nation of its moral authority and caused us to ignore our Puritan roots. As a result, they thought we should restore God and Christianity back to the country and constitution to win back God’s favor.

An example of this rift is in our current pledge of allegiance. The sacred liberty theme says, “liberty and justice for all” while the Christian commonwealth theme says, “one nation under God.”

According to Eyer, both have a noble theme associated with them so the controversy remains unsettled. One side says if you lose the tension of the libertarian Jeffersonian angle, you would end up with an authoritarian, Christian base as the primary governmental authority. The other side says if you remove the strong moral impulse associated with Christianity, we would move toward amoral relativism and pure licentiousness. “Make no mistake,” said Eyer, “the stakes in this controversy are cosmically and politically high.”

Going back to the presidential election in1800, when Adams and Jefferson ran, both were very educated, neither believed in the divinity of Christ. Both believed that God is revealed through the law of nature, and both had an ethical approach to religion. But their politics were polar opposites even as their theocracy was indistinguishable.

Jefferson was a strong advocate for church and state separation while Adams was the champion for church party, believing that if you take church out of the government, the nation’s morality would collapse. Interestingly, while Jefferson was raised an Episcopalian and historians refer to him as a deist, he wrote that he thought once everyone was educated, everyone would share the same faith and become Unitarians. Mostly he believed that the church represented the past of the royalists and theocrats, while in the future, freedom and reason would reign.

Eyer noted the irony regarding who played which parts in the church and state controversy. The left wing at that time were the Baptists, who were in favor of Jeffersonian Enlightenment. It was the Baptists who pushed for religious liberty because they were not in the majority–and religious insiders never have a problem with the combination of church and state–so for religious freedom, the Baptists pushed for Jefferson.

On the other hand, the religious right in that day were Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Unitarians. Why? Because they supported the abolition of slavery; they were appalled that the left’s notion of liberty included slavery.

Moving to 1808, the divide between Jefferson and his successor Madison represents the tension between the two religion clauses. Jefferson thought that the churches would unduly influence the government, while Madison thought the government should interfere with freedom of conscience.

During the war of 1812, the country was still evenly divided as to whether we were going to have an empire of liberty or a commonwealth of Christianity. Again the French were involved because they were fighting with the British. To the New England clergy, the federalists, the French were the new anti-Christ. Thus, at the end of the war, they tried to redeem the government with a Christian leader, but ironically, we ended up with Monroe, who was as secular as they come.

For the next 10 presidencies after Monroe, whether they were Democrats or Whigs, there existed a nearly absolute separation between church and state. Eyer said that Jackson, even during an outbreak of cholera, and everyone wanted a national fast and prayer day, refused, stating there was no place for a national prayer day.

Eyer continued that it was during the Civil War when Lincoln said we needed to bring God back into the government; this was when “In God We Trust” appeared on our coinage. As it usually happens during wartime, free speech and separation of church and state fell to the wayside during the Civil War.

Onto modern doctrine, Eyer said that no earlier Supreme Court cases existed that supported the religion clauses. Again, of the two contrasting groups, one group could be called strict separationists; these are the people who believe that government has no business in supporting religious beliefs or instructions, like tax breaks, prayers in public ceremonies, “In God We Trust” on coinage, etc. This group struggles with the existence of any longstanding religious practice intertwined with government.

On the opposite end are what could be considered religious accommodationists, who think that the establishment clause forbids government effort to enforce people to support any single religion but denies that it mandates hostility toward religion, even indifference to religion in general. Therefore, as long as the government doesn’t favor one sect over another, or shows equal respect for all religions, the religious accommodationists think that the constitution tolerates all religions in general.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has leaned away from strict separationists and toward religious accommodationists. A good example is how the courts developed the law is in the school settings. If the government is not supposed to coerce citizens to practice a religion they don’t believe, then should the government intentionally or not subject people to social pressure to adapt certain beliefs in a prescribed form? What about children who are particularly impressionable?

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Supreme Court showed sensitivity to the social effects of government policy, especially in promoting religion in public schools. Eventually the court ruled that officially organized prayers and bible readings in public schools violated the establishment clause.

Later in 1992, a very famous Supreme Court case known as Lee vs. Weisman, that by the way included Utah plaintiffs, ruled that prayer in school graduations was inappropriate but drew the line in e.g. state legislature saying that it was okay to have prayer in their meetings because impressionable children did not attend them.

During this period, the court developed the lemon test based on a case with statutes that funded parochial schools toward their secular teaching efforts. The lemon test was used to decide whether something was permitted: a government policy must have a secular purpose, it must not have a religious purpose, it must not endorse the practice of any particular religion, and it must not create excessive government entanglement with religion. This is how the court looks at church and state separation cases. Thus, basically a statute or a law was invalid if its purpose or primary effect was to promote or promote excessive entanglement.

Some cynics, added Eyers, say the lemon test just provided sufficiently flexible enough language to support whatever outcome a majority of the justices instinctively preferred because decisions were not consistent with that standard.

But in the 1990s, the Supreme Court was less inclined to find establishment clause violations even in the public schools, based on the notion that a ban on religious activity looked like prohibition of the people’s freedom to exercise it. Therefore, Eyer said, the government walks this tightrope where maybe we’re not establishing religion but if we separate them too far, we’re stepping on people’s right to exercise it.

For instance, around this time, the court held that when public schools open their classrooms and gyms to non-religious groups, like the chess club or the drama club, they not only may, but must allow religious organizations the same facilities on a non-discriminatory basis, notwithstanding the side effects of promoting religion. Thus if you allow some clubs, you must allow all clubs; this came about from a Supreme Court case called the Good News Club vs. Milford Central School. Of course, we are aware how this case has affected Utah. Gong to the state legislature every year for the ACLU, Eyer fought the ban against the gay straight alliance club, and finally the ban lifted.

A recent example is how the Texas board of education voted to allow all sides of the scientific theories to be taught instead of just the strengths and weakness of the Theory of Evolution. Some see this vote as the last stand of Protestant Evangelical, particularly in light of the defeat in 2005 in Dover Pennsylvania where the Intelligent Design plaintiffs were all but accused of being complete frauds by a Republican judge. With the Texas case, one of the many problems is that Texas by nature of its size orders the most school text books in the country–so as Texas goes, so as text books go.

Thus, over the years, the standard has evolved. Sandra Day O’Connor has articulated the standard we use today: a religion should not be condemned unless a reasonable observer views it as endorsing a religious view or practice. Thus, if the government does something that is a cross between church and state, what would a reasonable observer think? And who is the reasonable observer? At the ACLU office, we thought we were reasonable observers, said Eyers. But what would an LDS ward observe? This is a tough one, she added.

The point here is to pick your battles, and not fight over every little thing, Eyer said. In another local example where most Utahns disagree with them, ACLU believed that the restrictions on the Main Street plaza, while there was a public easement was clearly a religious endorsement. The tenth circuit agreed with ACLU; but of course, the city gave the easement back to the LDS church. Eyer said that she used this litmus test to screen calls at the ACLU.

Two more examples: Some people wanted to eliminate the Y from the mountain, saying that was an endorsement of religion. But Eyers thought the Y was more about football than religion, like the U here. The other example was the State Health Department saying that if we need emergency aid, like vaccines, the state would use LDS ward houses. Again, Eyer did not think this was endorsing a religion.

–Sarah Smith


President’s Message

September 2009

This month I am going to vent a little. In discussions I have had with members of our chapter, we have on several occasions touched on the need to remain civil and respectful of those we disagree with. It has been said that it is unnecessary and even counterproductive to bash or denigrate individuals, their religion, their politics or their ideas. For the most part I agree with this admonition. Shouting matches rarely accomplish much of anything except chaos and ill feelings.

I have been characterized by my friends as “laid back” or “easy going,” and I don’t mind those labels at all. Throughout my adult life I have also tried to refrain from hating individuals. Hate, like being disrespectful, is too much wasted emotion and therefore is usually counterproductive.

However, I recently became aware of something that has challenged my ability to stay respectful and to refrain from hating some of the willful idiots out there. It is hard enough to tolerate the garbage being spewed by so-called conservatives (I prefer to call them regressives) in regard to health care reform. But when they victimize my 87-year-old mother, I start to fume.

My mother is a devout Mormon who is one of the few who is also a democrat. On the way home after taking her to her eye doctor appointment recently, she started talking about health care issues and told me she was worried that the changes would effect her ability to receive treatments. She also said she was told that the government would decide if old people should receive life-saving care based on their usefulness; the “death panels” lie.

While observing the flow of misinformation about health care reform out there in the national arena, it is easy to ignore much of the noise and B.S. But when it hit close to home I became outraged. These people spreading lies to my mother are her neighbors and fellow Mormons who are causing her to worry and be fearful. It is difficult for me because I know these people and my respect for them is now at an all time low.

Perhaps part of the problem with those of us who are liberal or progressive is that we are a bit too “laid back” and “easy going.” Sometimes it appears we are just watching, while the opposition is out there creating fear and spreading lies. For me it is time to call these people what they are: liars. If some call me intolerant, so be it. I truly have little tolerance for these idiots. They are truly regressive and want to drag us back to the dark ages or perhaps to the Stone Age. Well, I am not going with them.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

October 2009

This Thursday, October 8, 2009, Humanists of Utah will present our second annual Thomas Paine Day. Professor Bruce Dain from the History Department of the University of Utah will be our speaker. He will no doubt add to our knowledge of Thomas Paine and the era of the Founding Fathers.

In discussing Thomas Paine with others, I often state that it is unfortunate that his essential role in the creation of this nation is at best glossed over. It is not only unfortunate but down right shameful that the man who first coined the name “The United States of America” has been “shelved”, whose pamphlets and other writings connected with the Colonists and gave inspiration to the Revolution. This marginalizing of Thomas Paine is largely the result of his work The Age of Reason in which he criticizes religion. This is apparent from this passage:

“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
“But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe and my reasons for not believing them.
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Understandably, he wrote these words late in life knowing the great disdain he would receive. It is my hope that our annual Thomas Paine Day will help to take him off the shelf and bring him back to his deserved place in history. We also hope to clarify as best we can the character and philosophy of the founding fathers and to challenge those who would rewrite history to their liking.

On Thomas Paine Day we will also have the winners of the Marian Craig Essay Contest read their essays and present them with their awards. Finally, along with our usual fare of refreshments we will have a cake with Thomas Paine’s likeness on it and ice cream to go with it.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

November 2009

Our second annual Thomas Paine Day was a great success, with a larger than usual crowd at Eliot Hall. Professor Bruce Dain gave a very interesting and informative presentation about Thomas Paine. I’m happy to have a better understanding of Paine and the times of our Founding Fathers. Afterwards we enjoyed refreshments including a cake with Paine’s likeness on it and conversation with each other.

Thomas Paine Day and our Darwin Day celebration are events that we hope will accomplish a number of objectives. They are, to honor the memory of these individuals, to explore their times and their accomplishments, and to get together and enjoy each other’s company. It is my hope that these events will continue for years to come and that they will expand and help enlighten and entertain those who attend. I find nothing more enjoyable than the gaining of new knowledge. Add to it a social event with friends and associates and it makes for a very satisfying evening.

I’m happy to report that two of our members have agreed to stand for election to our board of directors. Karen Keller and Lisa Miller will be on the ballot in December. I am sure that both of them will add some fresh thoughts and ideas to our chapter’s board of directors. Karen has been a member for some time now and I know her well enough to be certain she will be a great addition to the board. Lisa is a relative newcomer, but I have talked to her quite a bit and find her excited about learning and participating in humanism. I recommend them both and consider them favorably when you cast your ballot for the Board of Directors of the Humanists of Utah.

November’s speaker Alan Coombs will be speaking on the subject Whatever Happened to Civility in Politics; something has come up quite often in conversations I’ve had with fellow humanists. How much passion is too much? Are we sometimes too tolerant? How can we keep discourse instructive or useful? I look forward to hearing what Alan has to say about “civility” when he returns to our podium.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

May 2009

I’m quite happy to see the month of May come around. I spent a good part of April battling a cold that with my old carpenter’s lungs, degraded into bronchitis. I mention this only because all that time convalescing meant I spent considerable more time sitting at the computer, surfing the Internet, than I usually do. This surfing was at times pleasant and enlightening, and at times maddening. I viewed far too many items to detail here, but I want to mention a couple.

First is the “Remarks of President Barack Obama–As prepared for Delivery National Academy of Sciences.” Washington, DC It was very heartening to read this copy of his remarks. To have a president who understands the crucial role of science is indeed something to celebrate. Especially after the horrors of the previous administration. I urge you to read it, I am sure you will enjoy it.

Another article that was interesting was from AlterNet, titled “40 Million Nonbelievers in America? The secret is Almost out.”

I have been happy to learn that while some religions are losing members, the number of nonbelievers is on the rise. These numbers are quantified in the “American Religious Identification Survey,” which is easy to access by Googling that title. It too is quite interesting to peruse.

After our May events we will start what we call our summer recess. Although we have a “recess” in June and July from our regular schedule, many of us find it hard to do nothing as a chapter. With that in mind we are going to have a couple of movie nights in June and July. This year we have decided to have them at Eliot hall where we hold our general meetings. We hope that more of you will want to join us in this familiar surrounding. We will be showing the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan on June 11, at 7:30 PM.

We are looking for Board members early this year. Please give it some thought to joining the board of directors, we would love the have some new members with some fresh ideas. We will also be reorganizing some of the committees we have and could use the help of some members with our special events (Darwin Day and Thomas Paine Day) and we can always use some help with other chapter chores.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

March 2009

The last few days have been the warmest we’ve seen in months. With the snow gone, at least for the moment, I get the itch to start doing some gardening. It has been a few years since I had a big garden, but in these hard times it starts to make sense to make use of the space that is available. I’m a little too young to remember the victory garden days, but I think the idea of growing and buying local produce is a good idea. Plus, as we all know home grown is so much tastier than the stuff that is picked rock hard and shipped from far away.

Enough about me having spring fever, onto chapter business: Our Darwin Day event on February 12th was a great success; we had more than 165 attendees. I believe that making this an annual event will be helpful to us in a number of ways. As I said in my opening remarks, “Humanists of Utah organized this event with the hope of accomplishing several things, namely to pay tribute to Charles Darwin, to disseminate knowledge, and to simply rejoice in that which is science.” It is also a way for our chapter to get out of our “comfortable digs” at Eliot Hall and make humanism more visible to the general public.

Science will be given a rest for a while, as we get back to our regular meeting schedule in March, April, and May before we break for the summer in June and July. So please consult the calendar of events and plan to join us. Our next special event will be our Thomas Paine Day in October. Planning is still in its beginning stages, but I think we will have an evening with an excellent speaker and discussion of relevant topics. A few of the goals I envision are to give proper credit to the man who first coined the name “The United States of America,” and to explore the founding fathers and the American culture of their time. There are those who strive to “rewrite history” to coincide with their belief that this is a “Christian Nation.” I am no historian, but my understanding of the time in which Paine lived and worked is quite different than what these types put forth.

The Board of Directors is interested in any suggestions you may have about speakers for this event, or our regular meetings, so please feel free to let us know. I know many of you deep thinking humanists have some great ideas, so speak up! And I look forward to seeing you soon at one of our meetings.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

July 2009

Last month I missed the deadline for the newsletter; I try to have something ready each month but I was a little bit too busy. So I have a number of things to discuss in this issue.

Recently the American Humanist Association asked me if a few members of our chapter could staff a table at the Unitarian Universalists General Assembly from June 24-28 at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

I agreed, so on the 24th I set out for the Convention Center with some reading materials they sent and some of our chapter’s literature. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how extensive the displays were in the exhibit hall, but I was. There were a lot of things for sale, booths of candidates, kiosks with “assembly business,” caterers, etc. This gave me the idea to gather the various merchandises we had left over from Darwin Day in February. We sold many items, selling out on a number of things. This made us some money and made our presence more noticeable to the passers-by.

AHA Board Member Marilyn Westfall was attending the UU General Assembly and helped us with our table. She is a delightful person to meet and spend time with. Marilyn represents humanism and the AHA very well. It is always enjoyable talking to like-minded people.

I have to admit that going in I didn’t know that much about the UU, but I learned a fair amount in the hours I was there talking to the many attendees who came to our table. Of the hundreds of people I spoke to, nearly all were quite friendly, which speaks well of UU members. I was a bit amused by one woman who, in a scolding and motherly way said, “You people aren’t feeling enough. You pass all that up and go straight to activism.” I just smiled and said I was sorry she felt that way but that I didn’t agree.

Another item to report on is that there was a proposal to change a portion of the UU Bylaws (Article II, Section II). My understanding is that some members want to be more inclusive of traditional religion, to “get back to their roots,” as I heard it termed. There are some organizations within UU that promote this idea of more religion in UU, including the UU Christian Fellowship, the Jewish Light, and several others. The proposal was narrowly defeated.

The area where we were stationed was co-sponsored by the HUUmanists and the AHA. The HUUmanist had a bigger presence than we did and were making a big push to defeat, or at least delay, the proposal. They are good representatives of their UU religious humanism while staying anchored in humanism.

I certainly didn’t do all this alone. On Friday, Board Member Bob Mayhew took the humanist helm for the day and on Saturday, Bob and Julie Mayhew and their daughter Psarah came down and shared the duties. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the tireless and ever helpful Mayhew family. All in all it was tiring, but very enjoyable and enlightening.

On July 9 we will have another movie night. So far I know of two suggestions, The God’s Must be Crazy II, or The Full Monty. We will have a vote on which movie to view, so if you have a favorite, bring it along and enter it!

August 13 will be our annual Barbeque and will again be by hosted by John Young. Details and directions will be forth coming. Please try to come. We always have a good time and it is a good send off for the upcoming season of meetings and events.

With regard to this newsletter, I continually hope that you, as members, will help us liven up our publication with a letter to the editor, book review, a favorite quote or web site, a joke. Wayne is always seeking submissions.

The Board of Directors is also looking for volunteers for our special events and monthly meetings. You don’t have to be a board member to help. We are also looking for a few people to join the board. Please give it some thought.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

January 2009

2009 is upon us and as I keep saying, there may be hope with President-elect Obama to be sworn in soon. Almost daily I contemplate the horrors of the last eight years. That pondering brings forth a variety of thoughts: about the lies, the blunders, the lost opportunities. The list is mind-boggling. I find it amazing to realize that I, without having spent a single minute as a politician, could have done a better job than “W”, but that’s not saying much.

But enough of that, I plan to get the year going by working with the other board members in preparation for our second annual Darwin Day celebration. With this year being the 200th anniversary of his birth, there is a much broader base of interest in the community. This year our event is one of several that are scheduled to take place at the University of Utah. Throughout the month of February there is much planned: plays, movies and video series, receptions, displays, etc. As his birthday on February 12 gets closer, we will have a better round up of events. At our December social I announced that Professor Frank Brown will be the speaker atour event. I took a couple of classes from Professor Brown many years ago and he was one of the science professors who helped cultivate a love for science in me. He is currently the Dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and a distinguished Professor of Geology & Geophysics. At our next general meeting on January 8, I will have more to say about Professor Brown. All this expanded information will also be in the February newsletter and on our website. There is a lot to do, but I am excited about the prospects of a successful month of celebration of the birth of a man who brought us a discovery which rivals any in science.

As soon as we wrap up Darwin Day it will be time for us to start working on our other annual event, Thomas Paine Day. I think it will be a good idea to make the focus of Thomas Paine Day be the Constitution and the role of our founding fathers. After the way it has been abused lately, I feel it will be useful to examine its language, what the framers mindset was, the historical context, what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to avoid. Of course, my original motivation for Thomas Paine Day was to bring Paine “off the” shelf where religion has managed to put him throughout history and give tribute to the man who first coined the name “The United States of America.”

Finally, I wish to say a few words about the Mormons and other religious groups in regards to their support of California’s Proposition 8. There continues to be a number of letters to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune on both sides of this issue, and I have mentioned it a couple of times myself in previous newsletters and in conversations with members of our chapter. I want to address the complaints from these groups. Some of them think–that after involving themselves and their official church in an effort (as I see it) to enact laws to deprive certain citizens their civil rights–they should be left alone and not criticized.

But the way I see it, if the officials of the churches and the members use their organization and its resources in this effort, the organizations and its people become not only a religion, but also a political action group. Having done that, they are fair game for any and all derision and criticism, from those deprived of their rights and from those who stand with the deprived. And, in fairness, they are also welcome to receive praise from their like minded friends.

That’s all for now, hope to see you January 8 at our general meeting.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

February 2009

Our chapter’s “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah” is close at hand. It will be held in the Pano East room in the Student Union building on the campus of the University of Utah, the same place as last year. Several members of your Board of Directors are busy with the last minute details. This year, the event will start at 6:00 PM. on Thursday, February 12, 2009. There will be a reception with some “finger foods” to enjoy while you check out the literature, merchandise, and display tables. At 7:30 PM. Dr. Frank Brown will speak on the subject “Time and Life on Earth.” After the presentation we will serve up pieces of birthday cake bearing Charles Darwin’s likeness. Look for our ads in the February issue of the Catalyst and the February 9 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle.

After Frank agreed to speak to us, I decided to look at the area in Africa where much of his work and the efforts of other groups and individuals have been taking place. That set me on a frenzy of web surfing that took me to sites such as “The Leakey Foundation” and the “Turkana Basin Institute,” among others. Lake Turkana and the surrounding basin are part of a rift basin in Kenya where a great deal of the study of human origins and discoveries of fossils have been made. If human origins are of interest to you, as they are for me, these are good sites to start with.

I urge you to take the time to join us for an informative night, a time to meet and socialize with other individuals with similar interests, as we honor the memory of Charles Darwin, a man who made some of the most important discoveries to date in science. I hope to see you there.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

December 2009

December 10 is the day we have our annual membership meeting and social. We will do a little chapter business. Then we will have an open microphone along with lots of good food provided by the Board members and the chapter. So be sure to come and enjoy the food and company and conversation with friends.At our January meeting we are going to have a night where members tell us about their own personal “Journey to Humanism.” We haven’t done this for a few years so we felt it was about time to do it again. Follow this link to read stories from past presentations. If anyone would like to tell us about his or her journey, please contact any Board member. Presentations should be 10-15 minutes, it isn’t that difficult and everyone else will enjoy hearing how you found humanism.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

August 2009

Time flies. Not to long ago I noticed that we are chose to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Wow. It is also strange to me that on one hand things like the fear about the Y2K melt down seem not so long ago, but 9/11 seems like a lifetime in the past.

Many of the challenges of the future for humanity are, of course, the continuation of today’s challenges: the world financial crisis, poverty, environmental degradation, and the human proclivity for war, just to name a few of the biggies.

As individuals we should all support efforts to address the large problems, but as a local group, Humanists of Utah has to pick its battles. Over the last few years we have been instituting two special events. “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah,” which advocates for and defends science, while celebrating Darwin’s birthday and his contribution to science. Our newest event is “Thomas Paine Day,” which will endeavor to explore the history of the founding fathers and their thoughts. To show and state the truth about these men and their time, and to challenge those who would rewrite the past to their liking.

By the way, a related news item was sent to me by board member Julie Mayhew about an effort in Texas to change the social studies curriculum to “portray the founding of the Unites States as having Biblical motivations.” This is a perfect example of why we need to have a “Thomas Paine Day.”

Our annual Picnic will be coming up soon on August 13th and will again be held in the comfortable backyard of member John Young (2127 South 1900 East). We will start at 6:00 PM with drinks and conversation. We will fire up the grill at 6:30 PM. This year we have invited SHIFT (Secular Humanist, Inquiry and Freethought) group from the University of Utah to join us. Come join us and enjoy an evening with old friends, good food, and a chance to meet some new friends.

September’s general meeting will feature Flo Wineriter as our speaker. I asked Flo to be our speaker and inform us about humanism and especially about its beginnings in Utah. Flo is one of the individuals who started our Humanists of Utah chapter of the American Humanist Association and has been active both nationally and locally for many years. I can’t think of anybody more capable of informing us about humanism than Flo.

Our “Thomas Paine Day” will be in October and is still being planned.

I hope to see you at the picnic. It will be a great way to start our new season of meetings and events.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


President’s Message

April 2009

This month I am including a letter to the editor I sent to the Salt Lake Tribune, which they chose not to print. The question concerns the ongoing conversation of whether we should criticize someone’s religious beliefs, how much, or how harshly.

Most recently two things have brought this subject back into focus for me. First, a recent op-ed in the Tribune by Dennis Clayson, which is the subject of my letter below. Mormons, and religious people in general, are always playing the victim and whining about criticism.

The other motivator was the recent news that the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on “Defamation of Religion.” The language of this resolution equates criticism of religion with anti-religious defamation. Those pushing these resolutions (mostly Islamic nations) are trying to further this notion by asking the nations of the United Nations General Assembly to adopt laws in there countries to repress decent of religion or of so called “sacred individuals.” I find the whole notion rather absurd and an outright assault on the right of free speech.

Here is my letter:

After reading Dennis Clayson’s op-ed “Bigotry against Mormons apparently acceptable in Utah,” several things came to mind. First is that I would agree that simply bashing someone’s basic religious beliefs is not a useful thing to do and is, in fact, mostly counterproductive. Civility is always in order.

Second, I would ask Mr. Clayson, “Are you that naive? Do you think that all those who criticize Mormons do it out of sheer mindless malice or bigotry? Do you not understand that many of them feel the way they do about Mormons for a reason?”

But most irritating is his final sentence, “There is, however, an obligation to treat the religious beliefs of well meaning people with restraint and respect.” To which I respond that I have no obligation whatsoever to treat someone’s beliefs with “restraint and respect.”

Bigotry is simply utter intolerance. Of that I am sometimes guilty. I have very little tolerance or respect for a Pope who proclaims, falsely, that condoms are not the way to prevent AIDS and actually make the problem worse (thus becoming complicit in unnecessary deaths due to disease); or local religious individuals and organizations that work to prevent the use of a vaccine to prevent the Human papillomavirus (HPV) known to help prevent cervical cancer because it ‘promotes promiscuity’ (again becoming complicit in deaths due to unnecessary disease); or for those who work to prevent others from their right to the same protections under the law regarding personal relationships (civil unions, marriage); or those who wish to degrade science by introducing religious nonsense into the realm of science and science education.

When religious people turn their religion into a special interest group, they enter into the secular and political world and become fair game for criticism and derision. In my opinion, quite often they deserve all they get.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU


Modern Genetic Science Confirms Darwin’s Theories

February 2009

As the prelude speaker to our Darwin Day celebration in February, Dr. Wayne Davis, PhD, presented formidable and knowledgeable information about his work as a research in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.

This year is 200th birthday of Charles Darwin who, on a voyage of nearly five years on ship HMS Beagle, put together natural history collections and gathered data about previously unknown species of plants and animals. From this journey he kept careful notes of his observations and theoretical speculations.

Studying and analyzing the data from these field notes, Darwin was able to qualitatively support his theory of evolution. Ultimately his book The Origin of Species was the synthesis of this information in which he made his earth-changing arguments. Of import also is that subsequent research by generations of life scientists has quantified in striking detail the facts that Darwin qualitatively observed. Part of the later quantitative research that confirms Darwin’s qualitative observations lies in the study of the nature and history of plant and animal DNA.

DNA is unique information material, explained Davis, that is contained in every cell of every organism; DNA directs when, how much, and what proteins are produced to develop and maintain a particular life form.

As Davis articulated through colorful graphics geared for a lay audience, DNA is what is known as a “double helix” of extremely small building blocks which, if uncoiled and straightened, would be about 2 meters (about six and a half feet) in length: this double helix is contained in each and every cell!

A section of the DNA strand, which collectively produces a specific protein, is called a gene. Through more graphics, Davis showed how genes in some well-known species help to illustrate evolution at work.

Beginning with a yeast organism that has 12 million base pairs and 6,300 genes, Davis next displayed a C. elegans worm, the creature Davis observes for his research, which has 97 million base pairs (In molecular biology, a base pair is two nucleotides on opposite complementary DNA strands that are connected through hydrogen bonds. The size of an individual gene or an organism’s entire genome is often measured in base pairs because DNA is usually double-stranded. –Wikipedia) and 19,100 genes.

A fruit fly has 180 million base pairs and 13,600 genes, while a plant has 125 million base pairs and 25,500 genes. A white rat has 2,500 million base pairs and 30,000 genes, and we, Homo sapiens, have 3 billion base pairs and 30,000 genes.

Some sequences have lasted a long time, and chromosomes show a common origin. Over time, genes can be in any order on a chromosome with no functional consequences, while they also rearrange in predictable ways. Evolutionary history can be seen in the order of genes in chromosomes

Through more graphics, Davis explained how modern lab techniques have been developed in which the building blocks of genes can actually be colorized or “painted” to allow visual inspection of genes from the simplest to the most complex plants and animals. This discovery tremendously aided the progress of gene research.

For instance, made possible because of this colorization, a careful study of plant and animal genes indicates clearly that all life forms contain much of the same information.

Evolution is due to random mutations, and the distinct changes made in a species’ DNA as a result of these mutations, can be traced backwards in history. Davis illustrated this phenomenon by showing examples of changes within humans like skin pigmentation, eye color, lactose tolerance, and cholesterol levels. According to Davis, we are all mutants; each person has approximately 100 mutations.

To add a little levity to a complex and technical subject, Davis concluded with two quotes:

You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

The Thing: Didn’t they come up with a cure for your kind?
Wolverine: You got a problem with mutants?
The Thing: I meant Canadians.

–X-Men:Reloaded, Issue 7

In succinct summation, Davis ended by stating that genome technology shows us the deep similarities of life, while showing the unique nature of every being.

–Sarah Smith


Letter to the Editor

Humanism and Atheism

January 2009

As headlined in last month’s issue of the Utah Humanist the discussion of the relationship between humanists and atheists continues to be vigorous. When I make presentations to various groups on the history and philosophy of humanism the question invariably is asked “Are humanists atheists?” My answer is always “Some humanists are atheists some are religious.”

My explanation involves where the two philosophies put their major emphasis. Atheists’ major point is proclaiming there is no god, Humanists major point is human relationships. While atheists are intent on convincing their audience that there is no God, humanists are trying to convince their audience that everyone has the responsibility to make life as good as possible for all humans.

Religious humanists are usually active in Unitarianism, the American Ethical Union, or Humanistic Judaism. Recent polls indicate that more than 50% of Unitarians in the U.S. are humanists. The American Humanist Association was actually established by a group of Unitarian Ministers.

Humanism features an optimistic attitude concerning the moral and social capacity of people. Their ultimate goal is human flourishing, making life better for all. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now. They believe the rewards of living the good life will be enjoyed during this life, not in a life after death.

Ted Sorensen, a Unitarian and a top assistant to our only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, has written a book about JFK, Counselor, published this year by Harper. In it he quotes from the commencement speech the president delivered at the American University in 1963, “Our problems are man-made therefore they can be solved by man.” Sorensen goes on to say, “In many broader senses of the word, he (JFK) was a humanist because he looked to human beings to solve problems caused by human beings.”

Dave Burton, a Salt Lake artist and humanist, told me, “In order to become a true disbeliever you must learn a great deal about what it is you disbelieve.”

Are humanists atheists? I believe we are so busy seeking ways to act as a moral force in the world we simply don’t have time to debate the existence of gods.

–Flo Wineriter


Letter to the Editor

Atheist Point of View

January 2009

There are a few problems with Kay’s argument besides the ones Wilson cited. First, atheists generally aren’t claiming that there is no god, merely that they lack belief in them. Agnosticism is not a middle point between theism and atheism, by their terminology, but refers to a completely different matter, that is, the actual existence of deities. Therefore, you could be an agnostic theist or a gnostic atheist or vice versa, since whether you believe in something and whether or not something is technically provable are very different matters, e.g. I may not be able to prove that my brother is not Spiderman, but that doesn’t mean that it is an unreasonable belief.

Second, it’s not entirely clear just what kind of god or gods (or goddess or goddesses) are being referred to. For instance, we can be absolutely certain that “omni-gods”–that is, deities that are rational, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good–do not exist due to various arguments such as the problem of evil or inherent contradictions within the concept (such as the old “Can God make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?” paradox), and even most Christian theologians these days no longer support such a definition of God. So, depending on the deity being referred to, we most certainly can know that they do not exist.

The last issue I take with his argument is that requiring someone to prove a claim false before it can be rejected instead of requiring those making a claim to prove it sets the bar much too high–if we can’t disbelieve in an unproven deity, then we can’t disbelieve in literally any other crazy idea someone comes up with and maintain our intellectual integrity. Merely from a practical perspective, we have to be able to disregard some ideas as simply ridiculous.

Now, it’s true that atheism isn’t necessarily going to make the world a better place, and someone can be an atheist for absolutely silly reasons just as one could for any other worldview or belief. The most important thing is the promotion of skeptical inquiry into as many areas of life as possible–but unfortunately, books dealing with critical thinking alone don’t tend to sell as well as something controversial. Instead of attacking the “New Atheists” for being “negative” and “counter-productive” (unfortunately, he didn’t say in exactly what way atheists are guilty of either of these), we ought to be glad that someone’s bringing religious skepticism into the spotlight. It’s not as good as an entire skeptical worldview, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and as skeptics, we humanists should encourage public discussion of religious skepticism rather than attack it.

–Aaron Smith


Letter to the Editor

Much Ado

January 2009

I personally feel that humanists do a disservice to others and waste their own time attempting to deny someone else’s god concept. More importantly, it targets us negatively; something we really do not need. As Paul Tillich stated, “we make our own gods.” Some need them, why deny them that right?

If we really want to promote humanism, and challenge more traditional religious views, we should do so by requiring others (especially fundamentalists) to define their terms. What do they really mean when they use the term “god”? We can then bring science to bear on the issue. They will identify their “god” as the creator. We can then point out that science now demonstrates that the universe has always existed. Time is a relative and not an absolute concept. That is a better argument then attempting to retort by asking, what created god? You get to the same point philosophically, but the latter question muddies the issue. Let truth prevail. It is the humanist way of doing things. The militant atheists are just as bad. They have defined their parent’s god and do not like what they find. The real problem is that their god concept is still primitive. It is not the use of the word “god” (which has multiple meanings) that they rightfully should object to. It is their primitive definition of god.

God is an almost useless term for humanists. But it does mean something to others. We can talk to others using their language. We have no right to deny them the right to look at life from their own perspective. Each person has their own right to define what is important to them.

–Lyle Simpson
President, The Humanist Foundation
Former President AHA


Book Review


September 2009

Gore Vidal is now the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Over the years I have enjoyed his fictional account of the history of the United States that he calls Narratives of Empire which includes seven books: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC, and The Golden Age.My personal favorite is Lincoln. This book provides several characterizations of the universally recognized truly great people in American history. Lincoln is viewed by family, friends, political rivals, and enemies. The portrait one gets from reading this book is much more complete and intimate than the standard school presentations of the man.

The book begins as Lincoln arrives with no fanfare in Washington DC after winning the election. He was accompanied by a Mr. Pinkerton, “what they call a detective.” He came without his family to avoid the wild boys in Baltimore who openly had vowed to kill him.

The book notes how Lincoln was able to charm and disarm most of his critics with his storytelling. However, there aren’t many of his actual stories chronicled in the text. Lincoln was able to pull together both allies and opponents to serve in his cabinet; often refusing to accept resignations, saying he needed the diverse group to be able to solve the weighty problems that the country was experiencing.

Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator but I wonder if this would be the case if he had not been assassinated and served out his second term. He strongly believed that people from Africa would never be able to live with people who had held them as slaves. His “solution” was to pay the slave holders and ship all the black people either to an island or to Central/South America.

These Narrative books are a great read. Mr. Vidal has obviously thoroughly researched the content but has added some fictional characters who make our history lessons much more intriguing.

–Wayne Wilson



Lennon Forgiven

January 2009

The Vatican has finally forgiven John Lennon for declaring that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ, calling the remark a “boast” by a young man grappling with sudden fame. The comment by Lennon to a London newspaper in 1966 infuriated Christians, particularly in the United States, some of whom burned Beatles’ albums in huge pyres. But time apparently heals all wounds.

Source: Reuters


Jesus Kicked Out of School

January 2009

A middle school in New Jersey invited students to come to classes in their Halloween costumes, but apparently one costume was too scary for school officials. One 13-year-old came to school dressed as Jesus: in sandals, long robe, long hair and beard, and a crown of thorns. The principal promptly sent him home, but defended her decision by saying the costume was a disruption to the education process because it attracted too much attention. She denied that the costume’s religious nature had anything to do with her decision. The student, whose mother is Catholic while his father is Jewish, said he created the costume because his friends had told him that is long hair made him look like Jesus.

All was not lost however–the student used the same costume for trick-or-treating. There is no report on whether anyone offered him shelter.

–The CDS Humanist Monthly



December 2009

I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said “imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.”The man studied the Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him.

Then he reported to the priest, who said THAT was not the way to imitate his Father in Heaven! The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having up his way.

–Mark Twain
Letters From the Earth


History of Humanism in Utah

October 2009

Organized Humanism began in the United States as an effort to maintain the Unitarian Church as the leading “creedless liberal religion” in this nation. Over the years since the Unitarian Church was established as a creedless religion several efforts have been made by over zealous Unitarian leaders to create a “statement of belief.” During the late 1920’s the movement to establish a Unitarian Creed appeared close to gaining approval by the Unitarian hierarchy in Boston.

A group of Unitarian Ministers in Chicago, strongly opposed to the effort in Boston, organized to halt the creedal railroading by the easterners. They were ridiculed as “The Western Movement.” Reverend Ed Wilson was a proponent of the Humanist Philosophy and a Unitarian minister. He and four other Unitarian ministers formed a loose organization including Chicago University professors to publicize the Humanist Philosophy and urge the Unitarian Society to adopt it’s ideas rather than adopt an authoritarian religious creed. Dr. Wilson was a leading spokesman for the group and helped to write a defining statement eventually referred to as The Humanist Manifesto.

The Western Movement was a major factor in defeating the effort in Boston to write a Unitarian Creed of Belief. The task of composing a Humanist Manifesto took about three years. It went through serious discussions, several drafts, and revisions. Some prominent philosophers eventually refused to approve it, some because it was too bold, some because it was too soft.

The final compromised document was signed by thirty-three liberal religious and educational leaders and in 1933 was published for the first time in a Chicago newsletter, The New Humanist, edited and published by Ed Wilson. Here are some highlights from this document:

  • In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations, which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.
  • Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and his deeper appreciation of brotherhood have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.
  • We therefore affirm the following:
  • Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.
  • Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.
  • Humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.
  • Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science make unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.
  • Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.
  • The enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism.
  • We assert that humanism will: (a)affirm life rather than deny it; (b)seek to elicit the possibilities of life, (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all.
  • So stand the theses of religious humanism.

Ed Wilson continued his role as a spokesman for humanism, and his Unitarian ministerial career. In 1946 he was invited to be the minister of the Salt Lake City Unitarian Society. While here he continued his dual role as a Unitarian Minister and as editor of The Humanist magazine.

During his three years in the Salt Lake City pulpit his leadership in both capacities was instrumental in the acceptance of humanism within Unitarianism. This congregation was one of the first Unitarian Societies to adopt the Humanist Manifesto as an inspirational document. By the 1960’s, 80% of the US Unitarian membership identified themselves as humanists. Today that percentage is slightly less than 50%, but it continues to be the largest sub-group in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Dr. Wilson remained as chief editor The Humanist Magazine for 16-years, from 1941 to 1956.He was one of the founders of the American Humanist Association and served as its executive director for 21-years, from 1949 to 1970. In 1952 he participated in the formation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, uniting the humanist movement world wide.

The illness of his wife was a factor in Ed Wilson retiring from active leadership roles in both the Unitarian Ministry and the American Humanist Association. Upon the death of his wife, he decided to return to Salt Lake City where one of his sons was a physician at the Veterans Hospital. He was instrumental in forming this local chapter of the American Humanist Association.

I had the privilege of interviewing him after we had organized the chapter. That interview is available here.

He was a brilliant scholar, thoughtful, intelligent and an excellent communicator. He talked primarily about his early life

Ed Wilson’s goal was to live to welcome in the year 2000. He wanted to be one of the few people who could be recognized for living in three centuries, the 1800’s, the 1900’s and two-thousand. But his desires exceeded reality. He died shortly after our interview. Consequently his personal voice regarding the struggle to form the American Humanist Association was never electronically recorded. It is available in this book published a few years after his death but I would have been more than pleased to have had his personal observations of organizing the AHA recorded in the first person!

A few years earlier he did have an oral history interview at the University of Utah Marriott Library. In that interview he related some of the details about organizing humanism and he told Lorille Miller his ideas about how the words “religion” and “religious” have quite different implications. His comments reveal clearly, I think, how he felt comfortable being both a humanist leader and a Unitarian Minister. Here is an excerpt:

“The Humanist Association was intended to be an educational association, not a church or a denomination. We were not going to call it a religion, but did want religious values to be included in its general approach to life.
“Religions set up a creed which people are required to affirm. The emphasis in their faith is on ‘right belief’…it is often dogmatic and rigid whereas ‘religious’ is a quality of life and includes wonder, awe, and commitment to ideals.”

Ed was the energizer in organizing this chapter of his American Humanist Association. He and seven others met in the chapel next door on a November evening in 1990 and voted to organize the Humanist of Utah. Our charter was officially granted by the AHA May 9th 1991. Our Articles of Incorporation as a non-profit Corporation were granted by the state of Utah August 3, 1992. The chapter’s original statement of belief and purpose read:

Humanism is a natural way of life that promotes living joyfully and compassionately in the present, using innate intelligence, science, the humanities and experience as the methods for discovering truth.
Our purpose is to offer an affirmative educational program based on developing one’s natural inner strengths in order to practice the art of living; to promote meaningful activities and compassionate services which champion Humanism; and to be an association where all can have a sense of belonging to a larger community that supports a positive philosophy of reason, integrity, and dignity.

Membership growth was slow but by 1996 one-hundred-and-forty people had paid dues to be recognized as members supporting humanist principles. The main characteristic shared by all humanists is ‘an inquisitive mind seeking rational answers to life, nature and the universe.’

Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, their intellectual ability to determine moral values, their emotional strength to determine right and wrong based on human experience and evolution, rather than ancient Biblical dictates.

Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality thru reason rather than revelation, human means in support of human interests. In focusing on the capacity for self determination, Humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications such as faith and supernaturalism. They respect reason and reject revelation as a source of discovering truth.

Humanism features an optimistic attitude concerning the capacity of people. Their ultimate goal is human flourishing, making life better for all humans. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and by their efforts leaving this world a better place. They believe the rewards of living the good life will be enjoyed during this life, not in a life after death.

At the conclusion of a recent panel discussion of several Utah religious leaders the moderator invited each of us to respond to the question:

“How would Utah be different if 70% of its citizens were members of your religion or philosophy?”

My response was:

  1. Education would be tuition free thru college graduation.
  2. Students would be encouraged to develop their innate talents and self esteem.
  3. Sex education would be a subject of public education where students would learn the responsibilities of sexual expression.
  4. Public housing would be available for the homeless.
  5. Meals would available for the hungry.
  6. Medical services would be available for everyone.
  7. Appropriate jobs would be available for the unskilled.
  8. People would be required work no more than 8-hours a day, nor more than 5-days a week.
  9. Public transportation would be affordable for everyone.
  10. Electronic media would be required to present all sides of political and social questions.
  11. Prisons would be operated for rehabilitation rather than punishment.

I feel fortunate to have been a charter member of this organization; to have had an opportunity to serve on the board of our national organization for 8-years; To have served as a certified Humanist Counselor and officiate for fifteen years; and most of all I feel a deep gratitude for having had the personal guidance and wisdom of one of the outstanding world leaders of humanism.

The characteristic shared by all humanists is an inquisitive mind seeking reasonable answers to the questions of life, nature, and the universe.

–Flo Wineriter


History is Seductive

April 2009

Did you know that in Utah socialists have held public office? This is just one of the juicy tidbits that history professor and historian John McCormick Ph.D., shared in his fascinating presentation at the March meeting of Humanists of Utah.

History is not only a study of the past; McCormick began, but is a selective history since not everything can be included. War, diplomacy, politics, and stories of great people, that usually means men, usually white men, are the exclusive subjects.

A fun way to illustrate how narrow history is to ask students to list who they remember from their history classes. Typically the list is 90% male, mostly white, many of them presidents, generals, and inventors. Few women and non-whites are mentioned.

So McCormick has worked toward being more inclusive and expansive in his teaching and writing, particularly in showing how history is about many peoples, ideas, experiences, and cultural traditions.

Thus in looking at any event in history, he will explore a range of individuals and groups that might have been involved and affected an event. A group usually left out that McCormick has learned to appreciate centers on the ordinary person in everyday life–history isn’t limited only to influential, great, and important people. For instance, what was the experience of women in the Civil War? What was the experience of an ordinary soldier or person at the battlefront or home front?

McCormick recounted a lecture he gave earlier that day. Given the current economic downturn, the subject chosen for him was the Great Depression. How did the Depression affect ordinary people in their everyday lives?

Nationwide the unemployment rate was about 25%. Utah had an average 26%, but in 1933, it soared to 36%. In1940, ten years into the Depression, Utah still had 18%. There was widespread, growing unemployment and underemployment with lost homes and apartments.

Showing how the Depression affected ordinary people, McCormick shared the story of his family. In 1930, his grandfather at age 46 lost his job, never again to obtain a full-time, permanent job. He died thirteen years later.

Born and raised on a farm near Price, his mother, youngest of seven children and the first of her siblings to graduate from high school entered the University of Utah in 1929 intending to be a teacher. A month later, the stock market crashed, and she managed to stay at school for the rest of the year, but was financially unable to complete her degree. So she returned to Price where at least there was food and a place to live rent-free. That is, until her parents lost the farm because they couldn’t pay the mortgage.

What was the impact of these circumstances for McCormick’s parents? They delayed getting married until eight years after they’d met, which meant fewer children–only two–his sister and himself: money and age the determinants. Wanting security, his father stayed in a job he hated. Since it didn’t pay well, his mother who had wanted to stay home and raise her family had to work. These events exacerbated the challenges in their marriage.

Noteworthy from the Depression is that our government under Roosevelt changed in unprecedented ways that remains to this day.

In addition to exploring how ordinary people affect history, McCormick also explores the radical tradition, radical people, radical movements. After all, this country originated from an act of revolution.

McCormick defines radicalism as a fundamental restructuring or changes in the way society is arranged or organized–not mere adjustments. He is particularly interested in radical changes that involve inclusion rather than exclusion: inclusion expands rights and opportunities. E.g. Ku Klux Klan is a radical group, and is interested in fundamental changes, but they restrict opportunities and rights.

Here McCormick referred to a relevant book: The Radical Reader: A Documentary History Of The American Radical Tradition. It is a collection of 155 primary sources of those people who changed history through what then was considered radical. It includes notables like Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Friedan, Ginsberg, Carson, etc.

Referring back to Utah’s 36% unemployment, McCormick related an incident of radicalism–possibly Salt Lake City’s first protest–how ordinary people in everyday life reacted.

In February 1933, a number of houses and farms were o be auctioned off at Salt Lake City and County Building. A group of 200-300 Salt Lake City citizens disrupted the auction, saying that people shouldn’t lose their homes through no fault of their own (sound familiar?). They refused to allow this sale to go on. In desperation, the sheriff called the Fire Department, which turned hoses onto the group, flooding the basement of the County Building; police turned tear gas onto the crowd. Fifteen were actually convicted of unlawful behavior and served time in jail. After the crowd dispersed, most of them reassembled and marched up State Street to the Capitol where the State Legislature was in session. There they held a rally with signs e.g. organizers starve, we want milk for our children, moratorium on mortgages.

What was going on here? McCormick wondered. Why and how is it that in Salt Lake City where the majority is conservative that such an event took place?

Interestingly McCormick discovered that a communist candidate in Utah got 15% of votes who ran 4th out of 7–another radical act.

He also discovered that in 1911, Murray City voted in a Socialist mayor and city council, and re-elected them in 1913 so that for four years, Murray had a Socialist administration. What happened here, he wondered. How could that have happened?

Of course, he knew that during this period, the US had its only significant socialist movement, which was a viable part of American history. Between 1900 and 1912, two Socialists were elected to Congress, there were over 1500 Socialist mayors and city commissioners, they had a significant presence in the labor movement, and there were 300-400 socialist publications then, one with a circulation of 750,000.

With further study, McCormick discovered that between 1900 and 1923, Utah had over 100 Socialists in public office with Eureka electing the most: 35. For three years, the Utah State Federation of Labor officially endorsed the Socialist Party.

McCormick said he finds these historical events extremely interesting, partly because some of it is relatively unknown, but more importantly, history of this type is critical because of its potential to fundamentally change our way of thinking about the past, since the way we think about our past affects the way we think about the present and about the future. There is not just one way to think about our past.

Concluding with a quote from one of his books, The Gathering Place: an Illustrated History Of Salt Lake City, he asserted that we need to look at the study of history in a new way because the old way is inadequate. Rather than exclusionary and narrow as it has been, we need to move toward a history that is more inclusive, more expansive, more accurately taking into account the diverse society that Utah really is and has been. We need to resist rather than uphold monolithic, one-dimensional, stereotypical representation. A new way of looking at our past could help us overcome longstanding, narrow, restrictive, crippling definitions of ourselves and of our society.

–Sarah Smith


In Memoriam

Helen Sheffield

1912 ~ 2009

November 2009

Helen Sheffield, wife, mother, intellectual, published poet, teacher, singer, librarian, humanist, feminist died October 23, 2009.

She was born September 29, 1912 in Alberta, Canada. She was a graduate of Davis High School and BYU and attended many post-graduate classes at the University of Utah. Her employment ranged from elementary school teacher to school librarian to Director of School Libraries for Davis School District, a position from which she retired.

Helen was affiliated with Delta Kappa Gamma, the Association of University Women and the luncheon group that met at Martha Stewart’s home. She was also a long-time member of Humanists of Utah.

We wish to extend our sympathies to her family. She requested that any one wishing to remember her donate to medical research at the University of Utah Health Sciences Development Office, 540 Arapeen, Salt Lake City, UT 84108.


Book Review

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

December 2009

I recently purchased Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. While I have not finished the book yet, I have looked it over from cover to cover and am sufficiently far enough along in consuming it to say that it is a wonderful read and perhaps his best yet. Dawkins states in the beginning, that the book is not about religion. It is about presenting “the evidence for evolution.” This is made clear by the first two sentences of the preface: “The evidence for evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger. At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember. This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually a fact–as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.” He admits that while he has written other books about evolution like The Selfish Gene, these other books didn’t discuss much about the evidence.

This book is one that will be very useful for those of us who sometimes struggle while attempting arguing against the creationist notion that evolution is “only a theory.” Indeed, he deals with this notion right at the beginning, as chapter one is titled, “Only a Theory?” This section deals with the definitions of theory and hypothesis against the backdrop of what can be considered a fact.

Another pleasant aspect of this book is that there are four sections spaced throughout the book with several pages of glossy photos relating to what is being discussed. I was also happy to notice that at the beginning of the final chapter he includes one of my favorite passages from The Origin of Species.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being, evolved.”

–Robert Lane



Gore Vidal Named AHA Honorary President

May 2009

(Washington, D.C., April 20, 2009) Humanist leaders are pleased to announce that Gore Vidal–the preeminent novelist, essayist, and playwright who is frequently described as America’s best-known public intellectual–has accepted the honorary presidency of the American Humanist Association.

“We’re delighted and privileged to have Gore Vidal as our honorary president,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Vidal is a sharply intelligent advocate for individual liberty, separation of church and state, and reason and rationality. He has a reverence for earthly inquiry–as opposed to doctrine or dogma–that embodies the mission of the AHA. We’re very excited about working with him.”

Vidal has had a long literary and intellectual career that has inspired and never shied away from controversy. A lifelong advocate for progressive values, he has time and again challenged conventional wisdom. He is an outspoken critic of the radical religious right’s influence over public policy, and in recent years has spoken out against civil liberty abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration.

“With his great literary work and vocal positions on important issues, Vidal has in fact been advancing humanism for decades,” said AHA president David Niose. “Now, as the AHA’s honorary president, he will surely draw even more public attention to the humanist life stance.”

Vidal succeeds the late Kurt Vonnegut as AHA honorary president. Vonnegut held the post from 1992, when he took the reins from Isaac Asimov, until his death in 2007. Vonnegut wrote a chapter about humanism in his last book A Man Without a Country, where, in his characteristically sarcastic style, he showed how he didn’t take much stock in divinely revealed “truth.”

In a letter addressed to the AHA executive director, Vidal wrote:

Of course, I have been very much aware of the AHA for some years. I knew and admired Isaac Asimov and his work. As for Kurt, I would be most honored to succeed my old friend as honorary President of the Association: Although he himself is hardly easy to replace, I will do my best to fill the great gap. I think my “religion” is the same as his and yours and does not derive from cloudy divinity, but from a man in Athens called Socrates who once observed: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, I would like to help the AHA to encourage others to realize that life, no matter how shadowed by superstition, is worth living, and the AHA is always in a position to encourage much needed “examiners.”


Marion Craig Essay Contest Winners

November 2009

This year we had a number of excellent essays submitted to our annual Marion Craig Essay Contest. Ms. Craig left Humanists of Utah a very generous gift from her estate when she died. She wanted us to use it to promote humanism. Since she was a teacher we have sponsored several essay contests. The entries this year were the best we’ve ever had. All of them came from members of SHIFT, a group of secular students at the University of Utah. The first prize winner was Jason Cooperrider for his essay The Importance of Secularism in a Truly Democratic Society, second place went to Devin Richey for Why ‘Under God’ does not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Importance of Secularism in a Truly Democratic Society

Jason CooperriderOne of the most vital aspects of a true democracy is the goal of having all its citizens in possession of equal rights and allowing its citizens to live a life that makes them happy, so long as doing so does not harm the rights of all other citizens within the democracy. Part of this goal necessarily incorporates the understanding that no one has the right to force one’s opinions/beliefs on another person; however, one is entitled to have any opinions/beliefs that one wants. These values, under the wisdom of the founding fathers, are written directly into the Constitution of the United States of America, but even modern American society struggles to maintain the integrity of such values, as they are under constant attack from many of the citizens they are meant to protect.

One such area where the attack on the values of freedom occurs repeatedly is the separation of church and state, also known as secularism. Secularism is vital to a healthy democracy. The purpose of secularism is to ensure that religious freedom is maintained and is not controlled by the government that is formed by the citizens of a society. In addition to guaranteeing that citizens have the right to practice whatever religion they desire (so long as doing so does not violate the rights or cause harm to other citizens), secularism is also meant to ensure that citizens who choose to practice one or no religion do not have any form of religion forced upon them. This includes keeping religion separate from government, which is meant to be representative of and ensure the rights of all its citizens.

Whenever religion is forced upon any of its citizens, whether it be by including “under god” in our Pledge of Allegiance or “in god we trust” on our currency, secularism is violated and the democracy as a whole suffers and is diminished to some extent. It is essential that those who choose not to practice a religion, or not to embrace theism per se, have their rights maintained just as fervently as those who do choose to practice a religion or to embrace theism. Simply, religion does not belong in any aspect of the government in a democratic, and thereby secular, society, else someone’s rights are being violated.

Not only is secularism beneficial to citizens without religion or theism, who do not wish to have the opinions/beliefs of others forced upon them, but is can also be very beneficial to those who do practice a religion or embrace theism. Secularism guarantees that all religious beliefs that do not violate anyone else’s rights and that do not cause harm to anyone else are tolerated by society. In fact, one of the truly wonderful byproducts of a democracy is widespread diversity. The more citizens there are with their own opinions/beliefs, the better society is as a whole, as diversity promotes new ideas and the spread of knowledge and understanding. Secularism leads to tolerance and diversity, which lead to absolute equality, the goal of any true democracy.

Many of the founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, worked very hard to make certain that secularism would be a crucial aspect of our democracy. In the Bill of Rights, the very first part of the very first amendment clearly establishes a secular society. This first amendment, known as the Establishment Clause, defines the basic rights of all the citizens of the democratic United States of America. It reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This one line unambiguously states that the government will not endorse (i.e., respect) any religion for its citizens, nor will it prevent any citizen from practicing a religion. Despite the lack of equivocation in this passage, there are still some citizens who would insist that the United States is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles, as set forth by Christian authors of the Constitution. Those same citizens would have the government, which is representative of all its citizens, actively endorse Christianity, which is a clear violation of the secular society created by the founding fathers.

Thomas Paine, being the wise sage that he was, said several things that relate well to this argument. “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.” “It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on themselves.” By saying those things, he is means that it is in the best interest for all citizens to maintain the rights of other citizens, because not doing so threatens their own rights in the long-term. All citizens must endeavor to maintain and promote freedom: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must…undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” He also talks about how important secularism in particular is, when saying: “of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst” and “persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.” And, finally, a couple more bits of general wisdom from Mr. Paine that would solve the problems stated here and many others in society if all people would abide by them: “The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason” and “the World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” These are the basic tenants of humanism.

–Jason Cooperrider

Why ‘Under God’ does not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance

Devin Richey“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

These are the original words of the Pledge of Allegiance as written by Francis Bellamy in 1892. By reciting these lines, one swears their loyalty to a representation of the laws, rights, and freedoms of the United States of America. By adding the phrase “under God” into that pledge, the meaning of the words around it becomes sterile. That is because of the intrinsic conflict that comes when one violates liberty, law, and justice in the same breath used to claim support of these principles.

In America, each individual is born with the right to choose their own ideas and beliefs concerning life and existence. That is liberty from the arbitrary beliefs of others and is protected for us by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. When a public institution requires a declaration of belief in an almighty God, it attempts to overrule all other possibilities that a person has a natural right to believe. Religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe” and, because of the first amendment, no government entity is constitutionally allowed to require individuals to conform to a belief.

The U.S. Constitution is the highest law of the land. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, the first amendment to that constitution “build[s] a wall of separation between church and state”. Therefore, it is illegal for any entity to tear down that wall as President Eisenhower and his congress did by adding the phrase after being convinced to do so by a fallacious argument. It is equally appalling that no president since then has taken the initiative to right his wrong and correct this illegal injustice to our liberty.

It is unjust for any person, whether their views are theist or secular, to be persecuted by the government for their beliefs. Being a citizen of the United States comes with the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, yet there are groups that would destroy these values under the guise of patriotism by using the influence of a majority. The words of the founding fathers are clear and outspoken on the matter, but the ideas of those words are still being deformed and used maliciously in order to manipulate the population.

The phrase “under God” should never have been added into the pledge of allegiance, and the fact that it persists is an embarrassment to the very core of this country’s purpose. The United States is not a theocracy, but its status as a melting pot with people of all beliefs, statuses, and backgrounds is being threatened.

The inclusion of religious propaganda into our oft-repeated pledge tears us apart as a nation. By ignoring the law in order to indoctrinate people into their own beliefs, many theists rob secular citizens of their own American rights. As long as “under God” remains in the Pledge of Allegiance, we will not be “one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.

–Devin Richey



Essay Contest Winners

Edwin Wilson Interview

October 2009




Degrees of Doubt

April 2009

Questioning science is a good thing. It’s how science works; a hypothesis is put forth. Based on observation and experiment, it is then open to challenges from other scientists. Can they duplicate the results of the experiments? Do these results support the stated conclusions? Are there alternate explanations for the results?

That being said, it is obvious that there comes a time when enough study has been done about certain theories that any debate about them can be (at least provisionally) set aside. For instance: We needn’t question the theory that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, or the theory that the Earth is round, not flat. And of course, having to make clear that labeling something a “theory” does not, in scientific parlance, indicate doubt is one of the ongoing frustrations in debating creationists.

But I say “provisionally” because science is always open to new evidence, new observations if they call into question the current mode of thinking. If a paleontologist were to suddenly find human fossils in the same geological layers as dinosaur fossils, it would be a kick to the groin of evolutionary theory. But in 200 years of digging, that hasn’t happened, so scientists are pretty secure in continuing to accept evolution.

Yes, some scientists continue to question global warming theory. Its status is not as certain as round-earth theory or evolution theory.

There are degrees of doubt about anything. An important message of one of my favorite movies, Contact, Is that even science has to eventually make certain assumptions “on faith” (namely that what our senses are telling us is real). Because the Jodie Foster character is the lone observer of what she experiences, she can’t prove it really happened.

So when I approach questions of what to believe, I ask myself: “What does the preponderance of scientific study suggest?” When I learned to ask myself that question is when I began to doubt the existence of God, UFO’s, pyramid energy, psychic powers, etc. None of us has the ability to independently examine every item of discovery, conduct our own experiments, or even learn how to conduct all of the possible tests. So we rely on the experts, and their accumulated knowledge. But the time to doubt an “expert” is when he’s the only one, or one of the few, to draw a particular conclusion. Remember “cold fusion?”

So those who doubt what the preponderance of scientific study suggests need to honestly examine why they doubt it. If their motivations are political or religious, it obviously calls into question their objectivity. And in that case, their doubt is unwarranted.

–Jerry Petersen
Central Ohio Humanist
March/April 2009


Defining Humanism

September 2009

We humanists may know who we are and what we stand for but how do you answer someone who asks the question, “Humanism? What is that?” Even though recent surveys show that non-believers are a large and rapidly growing segment of our population it can be difficult to succinctly summarize just what humanism is and stands for. One of the better definitions is just to the left of this article.I am looking forward to our general meeting this month to hear what Flo Wineriter has to say on this subject. We also have had other chapter members and officers over the years weigh in on this topic. One of my favorites is from former chapter president Heather Dorrell:

Humanism is a rational philosophy based on belief in the dignity of human beings, informed by science and motivated by human hope and human compassion.
Humanists revere the natural world, knowing of no other place to set good examples, to work, and to show love. We accept responsibility for what we do and what we become, believing that our immortality is found in the examples we set and in the work we do. We rejoice in the diversity around us.
In the words of Thomas Paine, “such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.”
We seek insight from all cultures and from many sources–scientific, secular, and religious–recognizing that there are many truths and many ways to learn about how to live.

The unfortunate thing with this “definition” and the AHA one to the left is that they aren’t snappy, not the kind of thing you can fire off in an instant; assuming that you have them memorized.

The best one liner that I have heard is that humanists promote the Santa Claus philosophy: “Be good for goodness sake!”

–Wayne Wilson


Darwin Day 2009 Pictures

March 2009

Here are some pictures from the February 12th Celebration of Darwin Day.




–Pictures by Bob Mayhew


Darwin Day 2009 Lecture

Professor Frank Brown

March 2009

Dr. Frank Brown presented impressive information of his careful geologic dating of the East African strata that has produced the most complete sequence of fossil hominids o an overflow crowd of approximately 165 attendees at our Darwin Day Celebration. Dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Geology & Geophysics at the University of Utah, Brown, along with several U. scientists, have advanced our understanding of human evolution from tree-dwelling primates to omnivores.

While Utah is known as a great fossil resource, East Africa is the place for human fossils. Evidence for human evolution of 6-million years can be traced. For 42 summers, Brown has labored in a low arid basin around Kenya’s Turkana Lake where volcanic sediments have yielded a trove of fossilized human remains.

Brown has been able to accurately date these specimens by mapping the ages of geologic layers where the bones were found. Techniques he used included measuring ratios of potassium to calcium and identifying the volcanic source of benchmark layers of volcanic ash.

The archeological tool that Brown used, known as potassium-argon ratio dating, can very accurately determine the ages of layers of sedimentary soils. These soil layers may be volcanic ash deposits, ancient lake or sea sediment, or other source materials. Obviously, the uppermost sediment layers are quantifiably younger than the lower layers.

Other methods such as cyclical movements of earth’s magnetic poles also corroborate and complement the potassium-argon dating results; Brown studied the rich sediment deposits on the Mediterranean floor associated with wet cycles in the Nile-drained East Africa.

Brown continued on with some discussion of recent human development and the evidence of Homo erectus and associated stone tools in the Pleistocene epoch some 1.3 to 1.5 million years ago–which is quite “recent” considering that the age of earth is now thought to be 4.5 to 4.6 billion years.

Not surprising to humanists, this type of investigation dates the earth and seas several orders of magnitude greater than the age developed by early clerics who seem to have simply added up the ages of Old Testament genealogical families back to Adam.

When Charles Darwin was forming his ideas about evolution; the term “dinosaur” was new. Also there was no method for dating fossils, and connections between microbes and disease were poorly understood. Darwin who wrote On the Origin of Species, the 1859 book that changed the course of science, knew little about geology, fossils, time, and genetics, said Brown. The only bones of ancient man known to science then were pieces of a Neanderthal skull mistakenly attributed to a “microcephalic idiot.”

Darwin’s great insight was not about evolution, which had been advanced long before his voyage on the HMS Beagle, but identifying the mechanism that directed it. From his observations of Galapagos birds and other animals, Darwin extrapolated that the creation of new life forms resulted from “natural selection” or environmental and behavioral factors that gave a competitive advantage to individuals whose traits were best suited to exploit ecological niches.

Brown pointed out that two or more versions of man coexisted throughout the history of Homo genus.

“People like to think we’re different than the rest of creation, that we’re special,” Brown said. “We have tools being used 2.6 million years before the appearance of any Homo species, so maybe we’re not so special after all.”

Lee Siegel, in a glowing article about Brown in magazine Continuum, wrote that Brown usually spoke the appropriate native language–Swahili, Kikuyu, Amharic, or Turkana–when working in Africa. Once he sent a list of about 1,000 words in Dassanetch–a language spoken by a tribe in Ethiopia–to a linguist who had written that the language contained only 300 words.

“When Arthur Smith was president of the U, Brown objected to racial and gender categories in a diversity report he was asked to write. Instead, he listed every individual in his college by personal characteristics, including foreign languages spoken, religion, war experience, and left- or right-handedness. He had the report translated into 20 languages.”

–Sarah Smith


In Memoriam

David Blackbird

1/5/1930 ~ 7/3/09

August 2009

David Blackbird, one of the founding members of Humanists of Utah, died July 03, 2009 at the Utah State Veterans Nursing Home of causes incident to age. He had been in a nursing home since September 2007.He was born January 5, 1930, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Mark and Mary Lois Brown Blackbird. He spent his early years in various Texas and Oklahoma locations. His father died when he was 10 and the family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he attended Sunset High School. He got his BA from Texas Tech in Lubbock. He met his second wife Leona in Salt Lake City, where they were married in 1990.

David spent 30 years in the US Air Force, retiring in 1981 with the rank of Colonel. He served in Korea, and then spent eight years based in Arkansas flying refueling tankers. The Air Force then sent him to the University of Pittsburgh to get a Master’s degree in International Relations and Public Affairs and he became involved with Military Intelligence. He served two tours of duty in the Pentagon and also spent time in Vietnam and Germany. He finished his Air Force career at NORAD in Colorado Springs.

He spent his retirement happily volunteering. He was a political animal and worked tirelessly for various local Democratic candidates. He was a lifelong member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. He was also a member of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP. He loved his family, news, politics and history. He was a Life Master Bridge player. He was interested in all people. He is survived by his brother Richard (Shally) of Ft. Worth; his wife Leona Blackbird of Salt Lake City; four children – Franc (Ken Bowers) of Sacramento; Sam of Tyler, Texas; Joe of Lawrence, Kansas; and Martha of Dallas, Texas; – and two grandchildren. The family wishes to thank Bristol Hospice and the staff at the USVNH, especially Linda Killian.

There will be a memorial service for Dave on Sunday, August 16 at 2:00 PM at the First Unitarian Church.

–Leona Blackbird

David’s feature in our “Spotlight” series


Darwin’s Delay

October 2009

Puttering among his barnacles (so many to keep!)
He pondered more than the shells
Like them, once free swimming, but now firmly fixed.
Yes, in a fix,
not evolving, his own shell covering the dark comprehension.
“Stomach troubles.” More like stagnant wells
of apprehension.

Ah! What he had gradually realized as a rover…
He knew there would be hell to pay
when natural selection naturally had its say.
Thus ten years’ Darwin dammed. Delay, delay, delay.

Say, who could blame the former Unitarian?
“Blasphemy, anathema, vulgar contrarian!”
He could hear them in his troubled sleep.

Then the shocked shell shattered.
(After all, what really mattered?)
The thunderclap of Wallace woke the deep
somnolence, dragging truth into the light.
A long, long night
was over.
Author’s Note:

I got inspired to write this poem while reading that amazing book by Homer Smith, Man and His Gods; he wrote a brief biographic sketch of Darwin and I was once again made grateful that Darwin was both brilliant and heroic.

As you know, November brings the sesquicentennial of the publishing of his earthshaking On the Origin of Species.

–Adrienne Morris


Richard Layton’s

Discussion Group Report

Darwinism and the Meaning of Life

February 2009

By Craig Wilkinson, M.D.

Arthur Falk begins his article with his definition of the “meaning of life”. To quote Mr. Falk, the meaning of life is: meaningfulness expressible in the first person, one’s sense of one’s situatedness, from which one’s projects (i.e., large life-purposes) and one’s values spring. He then states that Darwinism is seriously misunderstood by the general public and is in fact noncommittal on the question of the meaning of life. The plausible reason he gives for this is that the meaning of life involves the first person point of view, and no scientific theory says anything about this orientation of life.

Falk states that Darwinism does not tell us that there is just one meaning of life, the same for all living things. There are some people who think the meaning of life is the competition that leads a few to great success, many to lesser success, and many more to utter failure. This view, he maintains, says that the meaning of life is natural selection itself. “Do unto others before they do it unto you.” This is used as an excuse for some people for oppression of others based on “social Darwinism.” This is not what Darwin perceived as natural selection. A science based Darwinism does not espouse the predatory route to fitness and reproductive success as the meaning of life, first of all because that claim ignores the various ways evolution has in fact occurred, some of which are quite pacific. Predation is only one of several mechanisms by which evolution by natural selection occurs. There are cases of evolution by mutual aid or symbiotic evolution.

Nor does biology endorse the old view that pleasure is the meaning of all sentient life. A sybaritic life of false pleasure is a meaningless life. Darwinism does not reduce all life to a single meaning, in that it is a theory of the evolution of each and every species, each one of which has its own way of living. There is a danger of reading the very un-Darwinian idea of essentialism into the question of the meaning of life, leading to the idea that one size fits all.

Mr. Falk then proceeds with positive claims about Darwinism and the meaning of human lives. He proposes that we own our humanity, and each of us own our variant form of it. There are three ubiquitous features of human life, which he calls the three C’s: Copulation, Culture, and Consciousness, particularly the consciousness of time passing.

Copulation: He states that monogamous sex or the centrality of matings within families is a strong central tendency within family groups. Family life is central for the meaningfulness of the lives lived in families and good social policy would protect and further the family, Families are self protecting and good for survival therefore natural selection should favor strong family groups.

In discussing variant sexual behavior he feels we should tolerate it, but Darwinism doesn’t provide any excuse for the way they are. In the case of gays behavior it certainly isn’t sexual selection because they won’t procreate. “Using biology to make excuses is a misuse of biology, even if genetic determinism was strictly true, and it is not.”

Culture is another biological fact about human beings. Again it is clear that one’s culture helps settle the meaning of one’s life. It does this by defining modes of excellence and providing projects. Youth are naturally idealistic and will emulate those who manifest meaningfulness and nobility of spirit in their own lives. Darwinism tells us that human beings are culture-driven animals, and so we should look to a culture for the specifics. These human values are the creations of a population that recognizes and rewards with status those who pursue their realization. Differing cultures are cornucopias of differing varieties of human excellence.

Finally there is consciousness, another result, along with culture, of the brain. Because of consciousness we reflect on the spread of our existence from the past into the future. “I want to say consciousness of time’s ephemerality enhances positively the meaningfulness of life.” Mr. Falk then scrutinizes the religious or theistic view. The religious story about life portrays our temporality as a negative thing. “Notice how it fights the temporality of existence.” The concept of immortality erases the consequences of being temporal beings and it gives us the false idea that only achievements that are eternal are lasting ones. Does it erase the value of achieving an Olympic record, just because some one will beat it next year? “How does it subtract from the value of a sublime piece of music that it has an ending?” Contrarily, Mr. Falk states, “One’s situatedness in time is exactly what makes values relevant.”

Darwinism puts a positive spin on our temporality. We human beings with our culture and consciousness recognize a condition we might call the acme of our lives and the golden age of our culture. As long as there is time, there is hope of achieving it. Even when we are past our prime, there are still ideals to strive for. “So I follow Spinoza who said that a virtuous person thinks of death least of all.” “Meaningfulness stems from one’s temporal situatedness, as noted earlier”. “So as I live my life, I should focus on the considerations that give it meaning then and there.”

Mr. Falk then speaks about the tension in the meaning-of-life-as-you-live-it. The “buzz” of life can’t go own forever. However, there is an abiding element of this type of life because, although nothing lasts, much persists. This leads to the meaning of life through commitments. People who “live for the day” can still have commitments. Commitments are the true glue of family and society, within which most people, religious or not, find meaningfulness. One does not need to be religious to have commitments.

Finally Mr. Falk concludes with comparing modest Darwinism with grandiose Darwinism. Modest Darwinism allows “God” to play a role in evolution, and is open to religion, while grandiose Darwinism is not; Theism versus atheism. Mr. Falk believes that the issue between the theist and the atheist is no longer over what it is to be rational. It is rather over what it is to be human: Does being human fit together with being god-dependent? Does the latter complete the former somehow? Mr. Falk rejects this view. In other words, one need not be religious to obtain the meaningfulness of life described in this article. Finally to quote Mr. Falk, “My sense of what it is to be human makes the existence of a god unimportant for the meaning of my life; so I no longer give a twig whether a god exists or not.”


Closet Humanist?

January 2009

I don’t have any respect for the Religious Right. There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson, and all the rest of these political preachers. There are a detriment to the country.

A lot of so-called conservatives don’t know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders of the Religious Right.

Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar…You don’t have to be straight to be in the military. You just have to be able to shoot straight.

I’m sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

–Senator Barry Goldwater


Civility in Politics

December 2009

Beginning his presentation with a quote from “that noted rabble-rouser Tom Paine,” retired history professor Alan Coombs immediately engaged the audience.”These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.”

Whatever his other virtues, Paine was not especially kind or charitable to his ideological enemies so it may seem strange to begin a talk about political civility with him, said Combs. But political rhetoric has always been harsh and appeals to emotions rather than logic.

For instance, the presidential campaign of 1800 was about as rough as any in our own time, like accusations of Thomas Jefferson being born an atheist, which he was not, and a revolutionary because he sympathized with the French Revolution. During the campaign of 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s opponents often portrayed him as the “Illinois Orang-utan,” and an uncultured, ignorant country bumpkin. Joseph McCarthy ruined scores of public servants and other prominent people, and even Harry Truman and General George Marshall were branded as traitors.

It seems that “brutish behavior” has always been a part of American politics. The basic assumption of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” is that we have the intelligence and critical acumen to govern ourselves based on reason and common sense. But what has been happening in American politics the past thirty years has made Coombs wonder if this is still valid. Thus, his theme tonight of the dramatic decline of Civil Discourse in the political arena, some of the causes, and what remedies if any are possible.

In years past, members of Congress when in session spent most of their time in Washington D.C. and at times, they and their spouses socialized at receptions and parties so that they became acquainted, even with those they debated against. These personal connections lent itself to more compromising and passing important legislation.

Today members of Congress are constantly running for re-election so that come Thursday afternoons, they’re flying home making the workweek 2 ½ – 3 days long.

Extravagant courtesy on the floor also used to be the norm, noted Coombs, such as using terms like “the distinguished Senator from Utah” or “Will the gentleman yield?”

In fact, the Standing Rules of the Senate states that: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” Moreover, it is prohibited for Senators in debate to “refer offensively to any State of the Union.”

Digressing a bit, Coombs recounted an incident to illustrate how civility was not always thus. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered over two days a vicious speech attacking not only slavery but also two fellow Senators, one about his slobbering (suffered from a stroke) and his taking a mistress “the harlot, Slavery.”

The next day, the stroke victim’s cousin, also a Congressman walked onto the Senate floor to Sumner’s desk and beat him bloody and senseless with a gutta percha cane. Though the cousin was not expulsed from the House, he later resigned. But in the meantime he was sent dozens of new gutta percha canes for beating other recalcitrant abolitionists.

Because political incivility has existed in American history and survived over 200 years, Coombs wondered if he had much more to say about civility. Before the Civil War, members of the House even carried loaded pistols to the floor. Recently Congressman Joe Wilson rescued him by his “You lie!” In addition to indignation afterwards, Wilson also received campaign money.

But Coombs questioned whether Congress at this point in time is the real problem, apart from the anger, especially among right-wing Republicans that has made moderate Republicans an endangered species. Distrust of Congress as an institution is manifest, painfully apparent this summer when members went home to town meetings and was confronted with rooms full of angry and distrustful people.

So why is the public mood so angry, vicious, and intolerant? Obviously some of it arises from the current economic hardships that many Americans are facing, said Coombs. Losing one’s job or watching retirement savings shrink causes stress and unhappiness, exacerbated by Wall Street executives rewarding themselves with millions of federal dollars. Or Americans are angry about Afghanistan.

With such a deluge of anger and unhappiness comes an inability or unwillingness to process complicated explanations for our economic distress or global strategy so people turn to easier answers. And they abound.

There’s talk radio programming, like Rush Limbaugh, now easily accessed via You Tube and Facebook. There’s Fox News with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and, most recently, Glenn Beck. One result of these programs is that the line between reporting and editorializing has become badly blurred, encouraging distrust on every side.

To counter far-right programming, came MSNBC’s Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow. Said Coombs, “My wife’s sister-in-law loves them and watches them, should I say to a bunch of humanists, ‘religiously?'” He admitting that he also watched though not as “religiously.” Did this make even more difficult the process of rational exchange of ideas? And unfortunately, busy people succumb to easy bullet points.

Less obvious causes of the present discontent could be from the shrinking globe and growth of information, specifically information overload. Coombs wondered if the average American possesses the critical faculties of insisting on verification and real evidence to process the huge amount of information so readily available. If not, we are in real trouble, he said.

Much of the animosity, even hatred, is directed at the Obama administration and the President personally. A couple of months ago, Jimmy Carter said that he thought a major cause of that hatred was racial bias directed at the first African American President.

And somehow Obama’s race and his name meant his election could not have been legitimate. Thus the “Birthers,” who believe Obama was not eligible to be President because he had not been born in this country. Investigation revealed that he was born in Hawaii in 1961, but many “Birthers” may not know Hawaii is in the U.S.

President Carter said he was confident that Obama would be able to survive those attacks because of his “personal qualities,” but Coombs finds it troubling that racist feelings still exist 55 years after Brown v. the Board of Education. In fact, Coombs believes that many people who harbor such feelings do not think of themselves as racist.

“It’s just a built-in reaction to having someone who looks different as Chief Executive. And what’s especially galling is, He’s so good! So smart, so eloquent. To use an NBA analogy, if you’re a Utah Jazz fan, you don’t waste your time hating Nick Collison. You reserve your hatred for Kobe Bryant. (Okay, through his eight years in the White House, Democrats had a lot of unflattering things to say about George W. Bush and some historians I know spent time debating the question “Worst Ever?” But that merely serves as another example of the decline of civility.)”

Coombs argued that hatred of any kind and personalizing issues is destructive of the rational discourse necessary for our system to function properly. Turning the clock back more than fifty years, when he was a debater in high school, they were taught that there are at least two sides to every issue–or it wouldn’t be an issue.

Lending rationality, intelligence, acceptance, and civility–and hope–are some of Coomb’s heroes: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and others who still try to do it the right way. Bill Moyers though coming at current issues from his own perspective still keeps it civil. And, for the most part, Brian Williams and Katie Couric try to remain bipartisan in delivering the news.

Coombs admires Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and gives high marks to David Brooks, New York Times columnist who regularly appears with Mark Shields on Jim Lehrer’s “News Hour.”

Also cause for optimism and hope is Laura Bush who in a CNN interview said President Obama was doing a good job amidst very difficult problems. And American school children should hear encouragement from their president.


–Sarah Smith


In Memoriam

Bruce Miller

May 2009

On April 7, 2009, chapter member Bruce Miller died. Bruce was the uncle of board member Cindy King, and resided in San Luis Obispo, California, where he was a Humanist Celebrant. He was the president of his local humanist chapter for many years, and performed several marriages. Bruce spent two years in federal prison as a conscientious objector during World War II. He chose to be a school psychologist for the San Luis Obispo School district for thirty years. Bruce enjoyed coming to our chapter board and general meetings whenever he was visiting Salt Lake City, and made some generous financial contributions to our chapter. He always enjoyed reading the Utah Humanist to keep up on local affairs. In recent years, he also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

–Cindy King


Board Elections

December 2009

We have two new people and three returning members running for the Board this year. Our bylaws provide for up to five members plus the chapter officers. This will be the first time in several years we have had the full compliment serving on the Board. Members are encouraged to return their ballots as soon as possible.

Karen Keller for Board Member
Karen has been a member of the Humanists of Utah for the past few years. She enjoys the community of thinkers and finds the organization refreshing and definitely “outside the Utah box.” She believes that we are all responsible for making informed choices and contributing to society and that a secular voice is an integral part of the community discussion.
Karen received her MSPH from the University of Utah and currently works as an environmental scientist. During her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, skiing, camping, exploring art galleries, films, and cooking.
Julie Mayhew for Board Member
Julie is running for her third term on the board. During her tenure she has worked diligently on Darwin Day and Thomas Paine Day celebrations. She also has made contact with SHIFT, the university group of free thinkers.
Lisa Miller for Board Member
Lisa has had a lifelong interest in and concern with human rights issues as well as a fascination with the world at large. Though it wasn’t until her recent departure from the Mormon church that she figured out she’s at core a (proud) Secular Humanist. She is very happy to have found the wonderful fellow Utah Humanists to associate, converse, and evolve with.
Lisa graduated from BYU in electrical engineering and works as a software engineer. Outside work she’s in a “why things are” phase, reading more hungrily than ever before (and adding 5 books to her list for every 1 book she reads).
Craig Wilkinson, MD for Board Member
Craig ran for the board two years ago as a write in candidate. He has contributed to Darwin Day and has been organizing and running the Discussion Group for the past two years.
Wayne Wilson for Board Member
Wayne has been on the board since 1992. He serves as editor and publisher of the Utah Humanist and as webmaster for our website.

In Memoriam

Anna Marie Burnham

5/11/1929 ~ 12/15/2008


Ann’s career as a medical secretary at the LDS Hospital and the University of Utah inspired donating her body to the University of Utah School of Medicine.

As a dedicated selfless single mother who actively pursued, and was an advocate for, politics and progressive causes–she lived her life with integrity and concern for others.

Friends described her as vibrant, charismatic, and energetic. She will be remembered for her love of words, sincere affection, compassion for people and animals and enthusiasm she shared in many subtle and elegant ways.

Ann’s passion for life was contagious! She inspired us to look deeper, to listen and to make the most of each and every day. It is no exaggeration to say that Ann loved her family more than life itself. She wanted no mourning, no grief, and no tears.

Please remember her by donating to a charity of your choosing in her honor.