Letters

A New Agenda

The editorial by Paul Kurtz in the February/March 2008 issue of Free Inquiry, “Multi-secularism: The New Agenda,” is outstanding in its message. His arguments for multi-secularism are reasoned and powerful. As he points out, the world is indeed a secular environment and is increasingly seen as such by almost every culture on its surface. One hopes that his comments are widely read and appreciated by persons of all faiths, beliefs, and skepticism.

John Stouffer
East Greenwich, Rhode Island

 


 

Can We Survive?

Stephen Paley, George K. Oister, and Richard T. Hull (“Can We Survive? The Changes Required to Deal Effectively with Global Warming, Part 2,” FI, April/May 2008) are right about the shortcomings of ethanol. It is not practical enough to save our environment.

Like all other environmentalists I know, they failed to emphasize the main cause of pollution, global warming, famine, loss of farmland, the fuel crisis, and almost all our problems. The main cause is human overpopulation. When will people realize that the worst thing they can do for Planet Earth is to have another baby? That is because the human is the only creature that causes toxic pollution. More people require more cars and factories that will pollute our world.

Don’t blame it all on babies. Blame medical science for making it possible for people to live longer. By 2025, the world will be cursed with some 7,958,550,889 humans. That is more than our polluted planet can feed.

Can we survive? The human race will survive at the cost of millions dying from famine, loss of farmland, poverty, global warming, and pollution. Terrible things will happen because people think with their sex hormones instead of their brains.

Alfred L. Wallace
Tallahassee, Florida

In Part 2 of their article, authors Paley, Oister, and Hull claim that ethanol can be produced much more cheaply by their new cellulosic biomass process than by fermentation of corn. They predict that ethanol produced this way eventually can eliminate much of the world’s need for oil. They overlook two big energy needs for transportation that limit our independence from oil.

The first of these is liquid hydrocarbon fuel for jet air transportation. There is no available substitute for jet fuel. The second big need is the huge amount of diesel fuel required to power ships, trains, and big trucks. Ethanol and other biofuels are not satisfactory or adequate substitutes for diesel fuel. Both jet fuel and diesel fuel, being hydrocarbons, produce globe-warming carbon dioxide.

There has been much talk about hydrogen becoming the nonpolluting fuel of the future for cars. This prospect is unrealistic. Where will we get the electrical energy needed to produce the enormous amount of hydrogen necessary, and how will we store and distribute the hydrogen economically? Hydrogen is a very light gas and has a very low boiling point.

Arthur Engvall
Cupertino, California

Paley, Oister, and Hull present a very incomplete picture of electric vehicle use and impact on global warming in their article. In their footnote on page 37, they state that 2.6 units of electric energy must be produced to deliver one unit of electric energy to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle’s battery. Without knowing the source, it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of this statement; nor do they discuss the relative energy costs of refining and delivering gasoline. What they also neglect to mention is what the electric motor inside the PHEV does with that energy. It converts 90 percent of the energy to useful motion, unlike the inefficient internal combustion engine, which wastes over 60 percent of its energy in heat.

They also argue that we will have to add more dirty coal-burning plants if PHEVs are adopted on a large scale. Currently, the United States has a surplus of electrical generating capacity at night, and financial incentives can be used to persuade vehicle owners to charge at that time. While more fuel would be used to generate the power, we need not add more generating capacity. Financial incentives can be used by government to persuade utilities to invest in renewable energy sources, including wind and solar technologies whose costs have fallen dramatically in the last decade.

Clearly, these three have a business relationship and a reason to promote their ethanol-producing technology. They are not an unbiased source of information on PHEVs or electric vehicles, and their footnote statement is a gross distortion of the potential for EVs of all varieties to reduce global warming through more efficient use of energy created by a variety of technologies.

Dan Wardlow
Beaver Island, Michigan

Richard Hull and Stephen Paley reply:

First, to respond to Alfred L. Wallace: we are well aware of the role of population as a driver of other problems. At the beginning of Part 1 of our article (FI, February/March 2008), when listing the four problems mankind faces, we refer to “a world population that has grown beyond Earth’s carrying capacity.” We are also aware that ethanol cannot replace all fossil fuels and referred to low-cost, environmentally benign, carbon-negative ethanol that can replace “most,” not all, “energy applications of oil.” Ethanol may not be able to do everything, and we are the first to admit that many other changes must accompany it, but it is a partial solution. A reasonable extension may enable us to grow sufficient biomass in a sustainable fashion to get the entire world off “most” energy applications of petroleum without using a single acre of cropland, forest, or grasslands to grow biocrops. Mr. Wallace is preaching to the choir when he points out the unintended consequences of scientific advances, which is exactly the reason we argue for a systems approach rather than piecemeal solutions.

Re Arthur Engvall’s comments: the three technologies that we discussed in Part 2 were there only to illustrate that technologies vital to our survival have been perfected by some small, high-tech companies but are sitting on the shelf while their potential goes unrecognized. We are the first to admit that they are not enough. They must be accompanied by other “survival” technologies as described in Part 1 and other changes that fall into categories of reducing population, conserving resources, and restoring what we can of the environment.

Finally, we turn to Dan Wardlow’s letter. We reiterate that we have no financial interest in the microorganism-mediated process of cellulosic ethanol. We have also freely published our concepts on how to render some biofuels carbon negative and have not attempted to benefit financially from them. In reviewing any technology, our own included, we look for pros and cons with respect to satisfying human needs in a cost-effective, sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Plug-in hybrids will have a steep environmental price if electricity to charge their batteries is supplied by coal-fired plants that have no carbon-dioxide capture and long-term sequestration.

We can now provide you with more accurate numbers: two-thirds of the energy of burning coal is lost by coal-fired plants; one-third appears at the plug-in socket. If the process of charging batteries is 85 percent efficient (somewhat high for most batteries), then for every unit of electrical energy put into the battery, 3.6 units of energy (along with its accompanying carbon dioxide, mercury, and sulfur dioxide) must be produced by burning coal. If charging the batteries is 75 percent efficient—probably a more realistic number—then for every unit of energy put into the battery 4.0 units of energy must b
e produced by burning coal. This is simply the physics of it. Coal, as it is burned today, produces the most pollution per unit of heat energy created compared to all other commercial fuels.

If the system can be changed in a practical, cost-effective, environmentally friendly manner to capture or eliminate these pollutants, then we are all for it. But you have to look at how proposed changes affect the whole system, not just part of it. We do as much with our own technologies.

 


 

More on the ‘A’ Word

Tom Flynn, along with many others, seems to be holding the wrong end of the stick (“Why the ‘A’ Word Won’t Go Away,” FI, February/March 2008). Secular humanism is not a variety of atheism. Atheism is a natural concomitant of secular humanism and not a particularly important one at that.

Most secular humanists do not believe there is a God simply because they do not feel the need to believe in one and, therefore, do not wish him into existence. Furthermore, in the spirit of scientific objectivity that pervades secular humanism, we tend to use the null hypothesis, which states that it is prudent not to categorically believe anything unless there is real evidence for its existence.

While these two ordinarily go together, I feel that atheism is not absolutely essential to secular humanism. Secular humanism does not demand that God be vigorously denied: it is just that God is not part of the picture.

Believing in God or not believing in God is almost an obsession in the Abrahamic religions. But whether or not one believes in God is hardly an important issue. It’s a personal matter. Believing in God makes absolutely no difference in how one treats others, and it should be no one’s business but your own.

Besides, I suspect that most people who claim to believe in God do not really believe, or perhaps would like to believe, or figure that it sounds better to say that they do. But actions always speak louder than words, and, if you want to know what a person really believes, don’t ask him—just watch how he lives. (Judging from some people’s behavior, either people just say they believe in God or their God is infinitely lenient.)

Of course, atheists will always be stigmatized as “godless” and as either libertines or “Communists.” Thus by proclaiming oneself an atheist, one is virtually begging to be misinterpreted. But if other people make a big deal about atheism and make it the centerpiece of secular humanism, that’s our folly too.

There are several other reasons why secular humanists should soft-pedal our atheism: we must remain mindful that there are millions of people who are dependent on the concept of god for virtually all the hope, comfort, and joy they have in their lives. Trying to deprive these people of their faith is unnecessary cruelty.

This is not to deny that here in America religious literalism is militantly attacking modernity. But this is an act of desperation—one that is ultimately doomed to failure, because the truth is implacable and science is here to stay. Let us remember that there was at one time great reluctance to give up the belief in witches (those who doubted were called “atheists”), but eventually people came around. One can hold out against the truth for only so long. Religious literalism is not only an anachronism, but it represents a distortion—a mutilation, if you will—of religion. True religion, I would insist, can sit down comfortably with science.

Lastly, it is impossible to combat faith with logic or evidence; debates are futile. In this regard, evolutionism and Creationism are like two trains coming from opposite directions. When they are far apart, they appear to be on the same track and a collision seems unavoidable. But as they speed toward one another, one realizes that they are not on the same track after all, and they roar past one another harmlessly.

Thus, for us, atheism should remain a minor issue, a natural result of our refusal to accept someone else’s “revelation” as something that we must dutifully believe, and a preference to derive our values simply from a sense of solidarity with other human beings.

Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Tom Flynn responds:

Stephen E. Silver presumes the straw-man definition of atheism that has served the churches so well in their efforts to marginalize the position. Properly understood, atheism does not “demand that God be vigorously denied,” just the simple absence of theistic beliefs. Surely, secular humanists are atheists in that sense, which encompasses the shades of more or less literal belief and disbelief that Mr. Silver mentions.

But Mr. Silver is correct when he calls it a folly on the part of mainstream believers that, in their encounters with secular humanists, they focus so narrowly on our atheism as to be distracted from other, more important matters like humanist ethics; I said as much in my op-ed. Still, in a nation where nearly 90 percent of the population professes belief in a god or universal spirit—and where even indifferent or nonliteral believers often respond viscerally to the thought of living without supernatural beliefs altogether—it is understandable that however casual we may be in our atheism, it’s going to be Issue Number One for many of them. That may be their folly, but, if we want to be effective communicators, we must allow for it. When engaging mainstream audiences, much as we might prefer to talk about autonomous morality or planetary siblinghood, we will usually find that we must deal with that vexing atheism question first.

Finally, I disagree with Mr. Silver’s argument for soft-pedaling. Many believers do draw “hope, comfort, and joy” from the concept of God. I did so myself, years ago. But to what degree past the demands of civility does a comforting belief that is demonstrably false merit our respect? In my own case, losing my belief was just as cruel and painful as Mr. Silver suggests; it was also the most worthwhile thing I ever did, and I remain grateful to the handful of atheists I sparred with in my believing days who planted the seeds of doubt. I can only speak for myself, but my life would have been far poorer had they soft-pedaled their disbelief in imagined service to my comfort.

 


 

On Fairness

I fail to see why Paul Kurtz is perplexed by Tibor Machan’s views on what constitutes “fairness” (“In Defense of Fairness,” FI, February/March 2008). For some time now, Free Inquiry has given Machan free rein in airing his libertarian/objectivist rants against taxation and the very notion that in a democracy, government may have some role to play in fostering social justice and safeguarding the interests of the entire society.

Machan repeatedly refers to any form of taxation as theft and has claimed that the private sector should be in charge of educating the millions of children in the public-school system, which he wants abolished. As a product of public schools, I am certainly glad that my education was not beholden to the bottom-line interests of corporate America and that I had the support of the taxpayers from kindergarten to my senior year in college. In return, I fully support the use of my tax dollars to educate the next generation, as well as to pay for such essential services as police protection, sanitation workers, the fire department, Medicare and Medicaid, and national defense. This is known as responsible citizenship in a democracy.

Machan wants to be left alone, although he has thrived in a nation that could not have been created without government interference and taxation. Where would America be wit
hout the “Big Government” notions that gave rise to the Louisiana Purchase, The Homestead Act, Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War, the New Deal, the struggle against fascism and communism, and public education?

My personal experience with people who share Machan’s views is that they tend to be affluent and self-centered and, while rejecting the notion that they have any responsibilities as citizens to support the society that helped make them well off in the first place, loudly ballyhoo their selfishness as manifestations of moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of humanity.

If Free inquiry is truly dedicated to “The Affirmations of Humanism,” which appears in each issue, then it is clear that Machan is writing for the wrong magazine.

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

Tibor Machan replies:

First, I do not rant.I have been most civil in all of my columns and letters. Second, taxation is extortion, not theft. I have explained why. Finally, Free Inquiry’s title explains why I am in there!

 


 

Just Say ‘Yes’ to Drugs

Re “The Varieties of Unreligious Experience,” by Jean Kazez, FI, February/March 2008 (review of Philosophers Without Gods): like the atheists described in the review and the book that is its subject, I am also awed by cathedrals and swept away by classical and baroque religious music. I consider yielding to these emotions “recreational religion,” by analogy to “recreational drug use.” They can give us a “high” in a way unintended by those who created them. They are slightly morally questionable, but, if we know what we are doing, if they hurt no one else, and if we can quit whenever we want, why shouldn’t we be able to yield to the pleasure without feeling hypocritical?

But, I suggest listening to religious music only in a language you don’t understand to avoid contact with the “hard stuff.”

Harvey S. Frey, MD, PhD, Esq.
Santa Monica, California

 


 

A Word of Appreciation

Every issue of Free Inquiry is a delight, and I cannot tell you how enriched one feels after reading each one! The February/March 2008 issue is truly superior, and I cannot refrain from complimenting you on it!

I especially enjoyed Gary Sloan’s excellent article about A.E. Housman—a beautifully written tribute to one of the finest English poets. After I read it, I thought of one of my favorite atheist poets who has written a great deal about life and death. I am referring to Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909). In the long list of his writings, one poem (for me) stands out: “The Garden of Proserpine”—especially the haunting lines near the end:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

No doubt Swinburne knew about Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), expelled from Oxford (along with with a friend) for writing the essay, “The Necessity of Atheism.” One critic says this “is probably the first published statement of atheism in Britain.”

There are many other poets, of course, who have spoken out against the prevailing beliefs of their time. The splendid account of Housman and his work in Free Inquiry shows that you recognize the contribution that art can make.

Abigail Ann Martin
Brandon, Florida


A New Agenda The editorial by Paul Kurtz in the February/March 2008 issue of Free Inquiry, “Multi-secularism: The New Agenda,” is outstanding in its message. His arguments for multi-secularism are reasoned and powerful. As he points out, the world is indeed a secular environment and is increasingly seen as such by almost every culture on …

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