Freedom of Thought
When I started reading Ronald A. Lindsay’s “Freedom of Thought” (FI, February/March 2009), I was prepared for another crash course in secular humanism. I settled down for a comfortable, academic (if not a bit redundant, maybe even a bit boring)read. By the time I finished, I was embarrassedby my ho-hum attitude. I felt entirely remiss in having never before examined the deeper implications of hate-crime legislation. I’m sorry I can’t be on the opposing side here—and I realize Lindsay was probably looking for an argument—but he made a case that struck such a deep chord that I was almost speechless.I’m writing in the hope that he will continue to spread this insightful perspective andawareness.
The arguments Ronald A. Lindsay presents against hate-crime laws don’t make sense to me. It is wrong of Lindsay to accuse those who disagree with him on hate crimes of being insufficiently vigilant in defending freedom of thought and belief. United States hate-crime laws cannot in any way be construed to lend legitimacy to efforts such as those underway in the United Nations to support laws against criticizing religion.
Our laws do not concern criminals merely holding or expressing particular beliefs at the time of their crimes; they concern only situations in which the beliefs motivate people to commit criminal acts. Pedestrians are just as dead if killed because they run in front of cars as they are when intentionally run over. But the latter is a more serious crime, and a judge and jury must try to distinguish between these two situations, as is the case with hate crimes, by evaluating evidence. Lindsay refers to this as punishing people for their thoughts!
Lindsay is quick to assure us that he condemns bigotry with high-minded statements about the obstacles that biases still present in our society. But if victims have been murdered, I don’t think they would be very impressed with his protestations about inequality, discrimination, and intolerance. It’s easy to intellectualize when you are not one of the hunted. Certainly we need to limit hate-crime laws, especially to be sure that protected classes really are groups that are being targeted. But to throw the laws out altogether would be to refuse to acknowledge that our neighbors are at risk.
Ronald A. Lindsay writes, “Contrary to the perception of some, secular humanists are not a subgroup of the left wing of the Democratic Party.” On the contrary, that has been precisely my perception, namely, that secular humanism in the United States is in thrall to (or is an integral part of) the radical left wing of the Democratic Party. Indeed, I once attended a chapter meeting of a local secular humanist organization in which the speaker was someone whose column regularly appears in Free Inquiry. I accused him of shilling for the left wing of the Democratic Party, and in response he mostly mumbled.
If secular humanism entails enthrallment to the political Left, as it seems to do in actual practice, even if not in abstract theory, then I want none of it. I for one do not want to come out from under the religious Right (in my case Islam), as I am struggling to do, only to be expected to be a shill for the political Left. I say, a pox on both your houses. I will think for myself, thank you.
Ronald A. Lindsay responds:
Ms. Bidwell presents some thoughtful objections to my column on hate crimes. First, however, a disclaimer: space considerations will necessarily result in some oversimplifications in my response, but I believe that my response is substantially accurate.
First, Ms. Bidwell is incorrect in saying that hate-crimes laws in the United States or elsewhere do not lend legitimacy to efforts at the U.N. to support laws against criticizing religion. Unfortunately, laws that prohibit incitement of hatred and hate-motivated acts of violence are being invoked to justify restrictions on criticism of religion. (The Center for Inquiry is preparing a report on this topic.)
As to Ms. Bidwell’s second point, one must distinguish between intention and motivation. It is true that the law typically treats intentional acts differently than unintentional acts, with one justification for this distinction being that we do not want to punish people who have not knowingly done something wrong. If I pick up your umbrella by mistake, that is not a crime. On the other hand, the law does not typically focus on motivation. That you knowingly took my television set or knowingly injured me is a basis for punishment, but why you stole my television or assaulted me is not usually the law’s concern. Among other reasons for the law’s focus on intention as opposed to motivation is that intention can usually be established by objective circumstances and does not typically require introspection of one’s thoughts. If you break into my house and walk away with my television, it will be very difficult for you to claim that you were simply mistaken. That is not the case with motivation, which would require the government to examine your thought processes in some detail. Hate-crimes legislation punishes people not just for engaging in an intentional act but because of the particular motive they have for engaging in an intentional act. This is a very significant distinction between hate-crimes legislation and most other criminal statutes.
With respect to Ms. Bidwell’s last point, the suffering endured by victims of hate crimes is horrible, as is true with the suffering endured by most victims of violent acts. There is no dispute about that. The question is whether hate crimes legislation is effective in preventing such violence. I believe education and anti-discrimination laws are of great benefit—integrating minorities and women into our workplaces and everyday lives helps to eliminate stereotypes and reduce prejudice—but I have serious doubts whether hate crimes legislation has prevented one act of violence.
Turning to Mr. Bartlett’s comments, as he does not specify the views he associates with the left wing of the Democratic Party, it is a little difficult to respond with precision. But let me make four quick points. First, to the extent secular humanists are perceived as being allied with left-wing Democrats, that may be because, regrettably, substantial segments of the Republican Party have thrown in their lot with the Religious Right. We do strongly favor separation of church and state and do not want religious dogma to influence public policy (e.g., in areas such a stem cell research, legalization of assistance in dying, sex education, reproductive rights, and so forth), but we would hold those positions regardless of whether the Democratic Party’s position on those questions coincided with our views. In fact, many of us have criticized the Obama administration to the extent it has not supported church-state separation, gay rights, etc. Our views are based largely on the empirical evidence that supports them and on our cornerstone moral principles, which include respect for individual autonomy—not political party platforms.
Second, because we emphasize individual autonomy, there are many libertarians who consider themselves secular humanists. Third, we do not (typically) take stands on economic issues or socio-economic questions. One can be a secular humanist and believe in lowering taxes; one can be a secular humanist and believe in raising taxes.
Finally, although personally I did not support McCain, I know some humanists who did, because although they regarded some of his views on social issues to be repugn
ant, they supported his positions on economic issues and foreign policy and believed him to be the better candidate overall. These individuals remain humanists; we have not “expelled” them for failing to adhere to some mythical party line.
I never thought that my reading an article in Free Inquiry (“Let My Person Go!” by Tom Flynn, FI, February/March 2009) would result in a huge belly laugh. Many years ago, I, too, attempted something similar to Flynn’s attempt to get excommunicated from the Catholic Church. I seethed in resentment that I was baptized as a helpless infant. I wrote a letter to the rector of the church in my hometown and respectfully asked that my name be removed from from the baptismal register, since I wished to revoke the baptism. I even enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope in order to emphasize my sincerity! No reply. They didn’t even have the decency to use the envelope to tell me to go to Hell.
I was totally charmed by Tom Flynn’s article. I’ve been there. I’m afraid that what he does not understand is that these days the Church is just not going to “out” you on paper. They are much more genteel than that.
Here’s what happened to me—it was not an official excommunication but the result was about the same. Back in the ’90s, I was a newcomer at a certain parish in California. I parked my car in the church lot. My license plate reads: ATBPHD. Apparently, the sister in charge of the parish (who holds a mere MA) took umbrage. She told me that she was trying to develop a “community” and that I did not fit the demographic. She said that I was no longer allowed to step onto the parish property and that I was not allowed to speak to any members of the congregation on the grounds that I was “probably too academic for [her] people” and that I “might confuse someone.”
This was a huge wakeup call for me. I was a person who had attended daily Mass for more than ten years, but I was dumped out into the cold. I took the situation as an opportunity to look at other options. I am now not a believer of any kind.
Forget trying to get yourself excommunicated on paper. Meaningless. For a really big challenge, just try to get yourself unbaptized. As far as I can tell, this is impossible—that indelible stain and all.
Ann Thurston Brown
I, too, spent several years contemplating my departure from a religion, namely the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Once decided, however, I found the process simple and civil. Perhaps Free Inquiry readers will be interested in the contrast with the Catholic Church.
The Mormons offer an alternative to excommunication when a member seeks separation as a matter of conscience. It is referred to as “removing a person’s name from the records of the Church.” I was able to accomplish this simply by writing a letter to the local bishop (equivalent to a parish priest), who held a copy of my membership record. I wrote that I no longer believed the Church’s doctrines, did not recognize its authority, and fully understood the implications of my request.
Within a few weeks, I received a letter from the bishop. He stated that he would complete the requisite form and send it to the Office of the First Presidency after thirty days with his approval. I considered this thirty-day waiting period a very thoughtful policy. The bishop expressed his sorrow but offered his respect and continued friendship.
I can say nothing critical about the members of the Mormon Church I have known, particularly those in the few far-flung parishes I have attended, where they remain a humble minority in the community and largely unaware of their church’s problematical history. They give of themselves in a faith that provides community and comfort to many who would have little of either otherwise. They are neighbors who neither pressured me as I gently withdrew nor turned their backs when I officially cut my ties. Perhaps the “top brass” of the Mormon Church legitimately deserves criticism for their societal impositions of late—but not the good people of these parishes.
The Rare Conundrum
With regard to Martin Luther’s position on Judaism, R.G. Rice in “Darwin’s Views on Race Matter” (FI, February/March 2009) was correct in pointing out his anti-Jewish ideas. However, unlike the Nazis, Luther asked Jews to convert to Christianity. Those who did not he condemned but did not consider a different race. The Nazis did not give the Jews that option because they believed that the Jews were a separate human race. Thus, even if a Jew wanted to convert in Nazi Germany, he/she could not.
By the way, Hitler prohibited the use of the words Semitic and Anti-Semitic. The Arabs considered it an insult to them because they are Semitic people. Suggestion: instead of race, one should substitute ethnic groups, cultural groups, national groups, ideological groups, religious groups, etc. One who does not like a particular skin color should be labeled a “colorist” not a racist, which is a very imprecise term. The words racism and racist have been misused and abused. It’s time for a change.
Karl H. Theile
A Caring Humanism
My central objection to the secular humanist view is an opinion I have seen published in Free Inquiry. This is the opinion that “the universe does not care” about human beings or anything else.
This opinion disregards the fact that the universe constitutes, at minimum, the sum of its parts. When the universe is considered as the sum of its parts, we find that caring exists as one of its traits. Indeed, as we move through life, we find more care and concern directed toward us as individuals than we had ever hoped to receive: caring is endemic to what Sartre called our “human university.”
Seeing a universe that “does not care” is like looking at an orange tree and ignoring its fruit. The fact that our pets care about us—even my parakeet, Carmen, greets me when I arrive home—shows that caring is not only a human attribute but an attribute of sentient life. As we study Earthlike planets found in other solar systems, we will one day infer or discover sentient life that cares just as we do. (It is hubris to believe that our Earth supports the only caring parts of the universe.)
Some scientists and secular humanists are fond of pointing to the noncaring elements of the universe: the blast of a super nova, for example. They do not allow that caring is another constituent of the whole. But others do . . . which creates an uneven playing field for atheism in America.
Lance H. Jencks
Costa Mesa, California