Letters

Moral Integrity for Humanists

In my editorial “Personal Morality” in the April/May 2009 issue of Free Inquiry, I deplored the lack of moral integrity of many unbelievers. I asked for input from anyone who woul d like to be involved in a research project on developing secular ethical wisdom. Below is a small sample of the great number of responses that I have received. Please contact me at paulkurtz@aol.com if you wish to participate in this project.—Paul Kurtz

I am very saddened to hear that the results of the Center for Inquiry’s efforts to develop persons of high moral worth are “checkered at best.” If that is the outcome after twenty years of effort, then we must reassess goals and procedures.

I enjoy Free Inquiry for its great articles and philosophical writing. But perhaps we need to reemphasize the basics: how to become better people. As humanists, we stress rationality. Maybe we need to inject more caring.

William H. Pelton, PhD
Thorton, Colorado

I enjoyed Paul Kurtz’s articles on personal morality and secular ethics. I struggle with the same dilemma and see too many examples of people who have used reason to reject superstition but at the same time seem to have lost their moral compass.

Jason Gordon
Seattle, Washington

Thanks to Paul Kurtz for addressing what I have come to call “the dirty little secret” of the atheist/humanist movement: that we can be just as unethical as the worst religious people, and, in fact, some of us are. I used to think that we were slightly better than religious people in the ethics department, if only because society was scrutinizing us so closely. However, some atheists/humanists I know have lowered the bar so much for the rest of us that, on balance, I can no longer honestly say that I think that the average atheist is better than the average religious person.

Why does our movement put up with this? I think that it’s because some atheists/humanists view religion as so threatening that they are willing to overlook/excuse any behavior so long as that person is criticizing religion. However, unethical behavior is destructive to our movement and makes a hypocrite out of anyone who claims to want an ethical world or who criticizes unethical behavior in religious people and yet puts up with it in the atheist/humanist movement. Fortunately, I see this changing to some degree.

August Berkshire
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In his concluding paragraph on page 5, Kurtz asks whether humanist ethical principles are mistaken if the secular community fails to develop persons of high moral worth. He says the results so far are checkered at best and closes by saying this poses a great challenge to the future of the entire CFI movement. I concur. Perhaps Free Inquiry can explore those areas where results are uneven and highlight ways to improve our collective humanist morality. I would suggest that we should first focus on improving our own personal morality, for children will learn best if we ourselves practice what we promote.

Kent Munzer
Topeka, Kansas

Paul Kurtz listed fourteen attributes of goodwill (kindness, honesty, etc.). Perhaps the Council for Secular Humanism and other humanist groups could highlight each one of these in turn as the moral attribute of the year—just as the Chinese have the Year of the Dog, so secular humanists could have the Year of Caring.

Alan Davis
Hampstead, North Carolina

I loved the articles “Personal Morality” and “A Short Primer on Secular Ethics.” Because I have not seen any kind of personal code of ethics for secular humanists, I have been working on my own personal version, which I believe could be applied globally. It includes the following points: Treat people of any race, gender, culture, or sexual orientation as equals, with dignity and respect; respect the right of an individual to do whatever he or she chooses provided it is not harmful to others; be truthful; honor your agreements; help others; encourage open discourse; welcome criticism of your ideas and beliefs; be open to any idea and skeptical of all ideas; accept an idea as true if supported by enough evidence; and apply reason and science to gather evidence to solve human issues and better understand our world.

Terrence A. Gregg
Queen Creek, Arizona

 


 

Overpopulation? No Way!

At first glance, Jan Narveson’s “Overpopulation? No Way!” (FI, April/May 2009) could almost be perceived as a satirical spoof on those irritating Cassandras who predict the drastic consequences of the impending collision between too many people and too few resources. Except he’s not actually satirizing highly informed scientists around the world who claim that soil, water, plant, and animal life now suffering from increasing pollution, overheating, erosion, or disease cannot sustain the current human population growth rate. Rather, he urges us to ignore their warnings and reproduce like rabbits. Does this guy wear a tinfoil hat?

He picks and chooses some dubious solutions to the population issue as panaceas against disaster. Not enough food? Try hydroponics. Still hungry in third-world countries? Try fertilizer. Or stop fighting your silly wars. And always honor free trade. Worried about a limited lifestyle? Don’t be. “The spigots of human prosperity are plentiful, but they do have to be allowed to run freely.” And this specifically means what? And where do we buy those rose-colored glasses?

Narveson constantly trumpets the idea that more is better. “. . . there simply is no ‘limit to growth,’ no ‘carrying capacity of the globe.’” He is a true Western capitalist visionary tapping out his ideas with a white cane. “There is no ‘resource’ problem about supporting them in the style to which we in the wealthy countries have become accustomed . . .” he opines about poor people in general throughout the world. After all, “. . . more and more people take vacations, go to the opera or at least the movies (or both at once, now), wear nicer clothing, drive more and better cars, and the rest of it.” Wow! This guy is all about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Sri Lankans and Ethiopians will be thrilled.

I’m glad you included Narveson’s ludicrous viewpoints on the topic of overpopulation as a counterpoint to the other writers you featured, whose theses are not as first-world elitist as his. His boosterism for unfettered consumption and disregard for the widening divisions between the haves and have-nots was almost laughable but finally just plain sad. He had the penetrating insights into social dilemmas equivalent to Marie Antoinette’s. The poor have no bread? Let them eat cake. Or drive more and better cars.

Gordon Johnston
Portland, Oregon

Jan Narveson, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, welcome to planet Earth! You obviously have so much to teach us about how you do things where you come from.

You don’t have to depend on your planet’s natural resources for the goods you have. “Instead, we make them.” What do you make them out of that is not one of the natural resources of your planet? Dark matter, thin air (whoops, that’s a natural resource, at least on Earth). How can you possibly do that? You say that water, fertilizers, etc., are not exhaustible. You might be right about the “etc.,” but on Earth water and fertilizers are indeed exhaustible and currently in shorter supply because there are so many of us demanding our fair share.

How does immigration in Western Europe and Canada “keep us afloat?” Without it, what would we be sinking into? Sustainability? “All those people have ways of adding to the richness of life for us all—technologically, culturally, artistically.” Ask the Danes about the technological, cultural, and artistic contributions of their most recent immigrants. And talks about a fence on the southern border of the United States don’t stem from the technological, cultural, or artistic contributions of the immigrants crossing there.

“Trade relations should be advanced with ‘developing’ countries so that they will get on the road toward having still fewer children than they are already having. . . .” Why? Do you think maybe there is a relationship between the numbers of people and the development of a country? You might be on to something there.

On Earth we have a problem that we might be able to solve with education, birth control, and/or self restraint, or we can ignore the obvious and allow wars, diseases, or an inhospitable environment to limit our growth and possibly extinguish our species. Either way works. If we pick the wrong one, it will be humanity’s Waterloo. Which would you like your children to be a part of?

Dave Cary
Gresham, Oregon

With regard to Jan Narveson’s views, I figuratively saw red. He needs to address the disposal of waste, both liquid and solid, from all those additional billions of people that “we don’t have to worry about.”

The rate of increase of the energy required to support our burgeoning population is winning the race with “harnessing the output of the sun.” To believe that there will be an eleventh-hour breakthrough with a new “transmodular receptichron” to provide the required energy is the stuff of science fiction. Narveson sees increasing life-expectancy as a good thing. That may be true from the perspective of you and me but not with regard to the carrying capacity of Earth.

One odd statement: “We do not depend on the earth or natural resources for the goods we have. Instead we make them.” I ask: from what shall we make these goods? Shall we invent interstellar trade? There is a law about conservation of energy that addresses this.

There are two probable ends, both of which are frightening: (1) There will be wars, famine, and disease until equilibrium is reached and (2) We will evolve into smaller and smaller organisms requiring less and less energy per each, as per the apocryphal experiment of the cockroaches bottled in the closed container.

Last, I take exception to the quality of life that Narveson envisions for the world population. He states, in part, that more and more people take vacations, go to the opera or the movies, and their diets are improving. If he speaks of sheer numbers alone, I cannot refute that, but I have seen data that on a per-capita basis, attendance at entertainment venues is down. And as for better diets, look around.

Oliver R. Bishop
Westmont, Illinois

Jan Narveson responds:

Several readers have responded in expected ways to my piece denying that there is any general problem of overpopulation. Gordon Johnston refers to “highly informed scientists around the world who claim that soil, water, plant, and animal life now suffering from increasing pollution, overheating, erosion, or disease cannot sustain the current human population growth rate.” This involves two claims: (1) There are problems of pollution, overheating, erosion, and disease—all of which are no doubt in one place or another for some time or other true; and (2) In consequence, we “cannot sustain human population growth rate.” The second claim does not follow from the first. Further, humankind has had problems of the first type since time immemorial and yet has indeed “sustained current growth rates” all that time, to the point that we now have more people than ever, living on average much longer than in any previous century. How could this have happened if the second followed from the first?

Dave Cary worries interestingly about water. In a separate note to me, he makes the point that we cannot all have large, private swimming pools. That is certainly true right now but does nothing to suggest that there is a global water shortage. The fact that half the population of the world at present lives in high-density, crowded cities that they seem to like suggests that most people think that life without a swimming pool in the backyard is quite endurable. But none of them is dying of thirst, either. As cities grow, they look to their water supplies. It is of course a problem but, like most of our problems, soluble.

Oliver R. Bishop thinks that “The rate of increase of the energy required to support our burgeoning population is winning the race with ‘harnessing the output of the sun.’” Since mankind currently uses something like 1/10,000 of all the energy supplied to the globe by the sun, it would be interesting to know his mathematical basis for this alarming prediction. A more careful view, however, suggests quite the reverse. I assert in my article that “We do not depend on the earth or natural resources for the goods we have. Instead we make them,” to which Bishop responded, “I ask, from what shall we make these goods?” His answer to his question in part dodges the fundamental point, which is that in the end when we use stuff, it is not the case that stuff simply disappears. It turns into something else, and clever people find ways to use that.

Look around you, and you’ll see that by and large, politics and wars apart, more people than ever are living on the whole better than ever with no end in sight and no real reason to think the picnic has to end anytime soon. Yet the people advocating population limitation are advocating it now, and that’s completely uncalled for by any remotely reasonable standard. Indeed, I am sure that the political menace from this kind of sci-fi is much more dangerous than any of the various technical problems Free Inquiry readers are so concerned about. I am tempted to say that humanists as a group, having abandoned official religion, tend toward grasping at the straw of resource limitations in order to justify their resumption of the wearing of hair shirts (or better yet, everyone else’s doing so). Sorry: I suggest we reject both forms of religion, not just the one.

 


 

Hentoff Way Off

Nat Hentoff’s contentions expressed in “Conscientious Objectors to Killing Pre-Birthers” (FI, April/May 2009) contradict the basic secular humanistic principles—in particular, critical, rational, ethical guidance testable by its consequences.

The consequences in granting full human rights to a fetus before its viability are readily predictable. For example, do we need to treat an ectopic pregnancy as an “individual human patient?” Are we to prosecute gravid mothers for the use of alcohol or tobacco or excessive caffeine (or bad dietary habits) as endangerment to the fetus? Should we incarcerate pregnant mothers with recalcitrant tanning habits?

The slippery slope of the “conscientious objectors” exemption should be equally self-evident. Trumping of subjective moral judgment over the objective medical standard of care would mean that a Christian pharmacist refuses to fill the morning-after pill prescriptions, a Catholic physician refuses to offer contraception, and a Jehovah’s Witness emergency medical technician personnel refuses to comply with blood transfusion orders—all in the name of their moral convictions.

There is no obligation to accommodate a soldier who conscientiously objects to the war—you would simply relieve him of his duties. Likewise, there is no rational justification for the conscientious objectors’ expectations to keep their jobs when their duties cannot be fulfilled due to their religious (or any other) convictions.

As a practicing ob-gyn, I have always cringed at the term pro-life. I have found the pro-life stance to be implicitly misogynous and ethically pusillanimous in its distant pontification. All rational humans find the practice of abortion appalling. However, it is not something that we perform or condone because we are “anti-life.” What we need to mitigate and eradicate is the incidences of unintended pregnancy, not the liberty of a pregnant woman. To do so in the name of human rights of a human-becoming would be truly unconscionable.

Timothy Kim, MD, FACOG
Rochester Hills, Michigan

Nat Hentoff is often right on target, but his opposition to reproductive choice makes little sense. To say that embryos and fetuses are persons and have the same rights as persons is equivalent to saying that acorns are the same as oak trees. In an amicus curiae brief that I organized in the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case before the U.S. Supreme Court, twelve Nobel Laureate biologists and 155 other distinguished scientists made these points: The notion that “the term ‘person’ shall include ‘all human life’ has no basis within our [the National Academy of Sciences] scientific understanding. Defining the time at which the developing embryo becomes a person must remain a matter of moral or religious value.” And, “The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after twenty-eight weeks of gestation.”

As scientist and humanist Isaac Asimov put it, “Without the brain we are merely a lump of thoughtless meat that might respond automatically in some simple ways as an amoeba might.” In other words, being a human person requires a functioning brain.

Hentoff may believe as he pleases, but his well-publicized slant on abortion rights gives aid and comfort to the religious fundamentalists of all stripes who would deny women freedom of conscience and choice for ideological reasons that mask their bottom-line political interest in maintaining male dominance.

Edd Doerr, President
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Maryland

 


 

Is AA Really Okay?

Never in my twenty-five years in the human services have I read a more unfounded and irresponsible attack against an effective treatment approach than Steven Mohr’s “Exposing the Myth of Alcoholics Anonymous” (FI, April/May 2009).

What is especially unbelievable about this rant is that anyone who has “attended hundreds of AA meetings” could get virtually everything about the program wrong—unless, of course, the article was not meant as a reasoned and evidence-based critique but as mean-spirited and spurious propaganda on the part of someone with an ax to grind.

The picture Mohr paints of the AA program is extraordinarily distorted and false. AA, for instance, does not even remotely resemble a cult. In fact, you will not find a group of people anywhere that allows the individual more latitude to do, be, and believe whatever he/she sees fit. AA’s central teaching is simple and highly pragmatic, and everything, including the Twelve Steps and the concept of God, remains open to personal interpretation and implementation. How can a “take what you can use and leave the rest” approach include “mind control?” Mohr’s argument is incoherent and ludicrous in the extreme, and his statement that “AA members are surely getting a share” of the profits of the alcoholism treatment industry is libelous.

Mohr also misunderstands or deliberately misrepresents the work of George Vaillant. While Vaillant’s followup of one hundred detoxification patients undoubtedly showed that only five did not relapse, Mohr states that these one hundred patients were all “actively participating in AA.” But Vaillant does not say this, nor does he say that “AA is no better than the natural history of the disease.” In fact, Vaillant’s work is actually an endorsement of AA in that it shows that without AA the natural course of the disease will almost certainly return after detox unless a sufferer avails him/herself of AA. No wonder Dr. Vaillant “remains an ardent supporter of AA,” which Mohr finds “confounding.”

AA has often been attacked by Christians who cannot tolerate an inclusive understanding of God. But Mohr has shown that ignorance, paranoia, and prejudice is not limited to those enthralled by religion and conventional views of God, but also can be found among those who purport to be guided by rationality. He has committed an egregious wrong against a well-trusted organization.

For an accurate view of AA, read Dr. Schenker’s description in the March/April edition of Psychotherapy Networker, in which the author states “. . . in recovery from alcoholism, it’s critical to see AA’s program as the primary agent of change.”

Thomas K. Galten, MSW PhD
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

If the editors of Free Inquiry had checked into statistics about Alcoholics Anonymous as provided at an international convention in Toronto in 2005, they would have rejected Steven Mohr’s article, rather than giving it a cover headline and seven pages of error and misinformation.

AA has more than two million members in 180 countries. It is estimated that there are more than 109,000 groups around the world. While AA literature is full of God (as we understand him), it is not a religion with creeds and commandments but a program of suggestions on how to live soberly, one day at time. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking; sometimes as loosely interpreted as “the desire to get the desire.” And, yes, it is free! It is not, as Mohr asserts, a cult bent on mind control and evangelizing but a program of attraction rather than promotion.

Alcoholism is a disease of denial and relapse. Thus, the statistics on great numbers of fabulous recovery (Mohr erroneously calls it a cure) are truly dismal. It is also a death-dealing affliction so if it is kept at bay by a god, or gods, or human help, or voodoo beads, it really doesn’t matter. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve the same.

Mohr seems to regard the disease of alcoholism as similar to polio or small pox that science will ultimately conquer with a vaccine or pill. And perhaps, one day that will be a reality. But until we reach that golden sequel, AA will be in the forefront, offering not a cure but community and a daily reprieve.

AA will not be harmed by even a hundred articles such as this in a hundred national and international magazines. The real harm is to the still suffering alcoholic who may be turned away from recovery forever.

Sally F. (last name withheld by request)
West Chester, Pennsylvania

Steven Mohr replies:

In between the ad hominem attacks on my intentions, Thomas Galten portrays AA as a program that allows for personal interpretation of its basic tenets, thus making it a kind of one-size-fits-all treatment.

Over time, the concepts of “a God of one’s own choosing” and “Take what you can use and leave the rest” have become old saws in AA. Such aphorisms tend to be taken at face value through constant repetition. But let’s consider them more rigorously. Five of the twelve steps refer to a God (the Higher Powe
r is God as stated in the Big Book). AA presents that we can conceive of any kind of god at all, but the steps partially define god for us from the start. It is a god that hears our prayers (steps 3, 5, 7, 11) and forgives our wrongdoings (steps 5, 6, 7). The Big Book goes further and assigns God the qualities of “. . . an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence” even the creator of existence
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th edition, p. 49).

What then can I do if my God doesn’t answer prayers or intervene in the day-to-day affairs of human life? This is the deist idea of God as professed by the philosopher Spinoza and by none less than Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, et al. If I am a deist and an alcoholic I cannot follow the twelve-step program. It is that simple. There are more than a few of us out there.

And how shall I take what I can use and leave the rest if the steps and the teachings of AA tell me explicitly what it takes to recover? What if I choose not to follow the steps? What if I don’t believe in prayer or meditation? Could I still call myself a member of AA? Just try standing up in an AA meeting and saying that you want to get sober without following the steps or believing in any kind of God. You will be quickly apprised of your inevitable failure by the faithful in the room.

That everything in AA is open to personal interpretation is a deliberate manipulation to keep you coming back until you come around to AA’s true and unquestionable belief structure. This fairly stinks of cultism.

The sheer venom of Galten’s letter indicates that he has let emotion defeat the skepticism that I am certain a man with a PhD practices in other aspects of his life. Once again I smell cultism at work. I return finally to AA’s own statistics. A 5 to 7 percent recovery rate simply cannot be called effective in any clinical sense. Imagine that Prozac had such a low statistical efficacy. It would never have made it past the clinical trials. That AA has survived for more than seventy years is not proof that it effectively treats alcoholism but that it is a brilliant model for a cult.

Sally F. writes: “It is also a death-dealing affliction, so if it is kept at bay by a god, or gods, or human help, or voodoo beads, it really doesn’t matter” [emphasis added]. She speaks directly to the fundamental fallacy of AA, which like other religious cults appeals to man’s superstitious tendencies. Alcoholism (and addiction of any kind) is called a disease within and without AA, even by the American Medical Association. I don’t happen to agree with the disease model, but for the sake of argument I’ll go along. Can Sally F., or anybody else for that matter, point to another disease, either mental or physical, in which the treatment of choice is prayer and a belief in a god?

If a patient seeks medical treatment for clinical depression or bipolar disorder, for instance, does the doctor give him or her a set of steps to follow that include accepting a god and praying to that god? Certainly not. Such a doctor would be called out as a quack in short order by the medical community. How then is it that doctors routinely send alcoholics straight to AA and get away with it? It is ludicrous. AA is really only one step away from voodoo. Perhaps an exorcism is called for as well. If the readers of Free Inquiry call themselves secular humanists yet believe AA is an effective treatment for alcoholism, then they need to reexamine their core beliefs.

 


 

A Spirited Debate

Tom Flynn’s op-ed piece in the April/May issue, “Taken in the Wrong Spirit,” made me laugh. He said that I am “as woolly-minded as the next person” because I call myself spiritual but not religious—at least, in the usual sense. I am a Unitarian Universalist atheist/humanist who feels very spiritual in spite of not believing in supernatural “spirits.” Has Flynn not heard of “the human spirit”? Does he not know that this is a metaphor for many of the higher aspects of human nature, such as virtue, courage, idealism, integrity, responsibility, etc.? Has he not heard of the word metaphor? It is not necessary to believe in literal angels, demons, and leprechauns to have a place for these symbols in one’s lexicon. I believe that my spirituality lies in my reverence for the eternal ideals of the human race and my enjoyment of the best that life offers, including contemplation of nature, literature, and the arts. I am awed by the human drive to rebuild the structures of community each time they are decimated by nature or human aggression. We are a remarkable species, indeed, and one with a fine “spirit” of giving and caring.

Helen Bennett
Rockledge, Florida

I’d like to raise an objection to Tom Flynn’s campaign to eradicate the use of the word spiritual, as evidenced in the latest issue of Free Inquiry. Sorry, Flynn, but in my opinion your efforts are not only wrongheaded but self-defeating in terms of the skeptical community’s goal of expanding a secular society.

For starters, people who self-identify as nonreligious but spiritual are already half way to being secular humanists—whether they realize it or not. They have rejected the trappings and dogma of organized religion for a more personal relationship with life and the universe. I would suggest that their beliefs, allowing for a bit of diffuse belief in a vague sort of “God” or other forces—are much closer to the feelings that Phil Zuckerman expresses in his wonderful article, “Aweism,” in the same issue: While I find Zuckerman’s term to be “awkward” at best, he describes perfectly the feeling of wonder and awe with which many if not most people experience the joys, excitements, and mysteries of life and the universe. Even with a rational, scientific viewpoint, there is lots of room for awe.

I think many people fleeing the shackles of organized authoritarian religion use the term spirituality in part to denote this feeling of personal connectedness with the web of life. Our insistence that they give up this term in order to join our little club of the “truly rational” keeps us atheists being identified, as Flynn found out for himself in his encounter with the nurses, as a bunch of emotionally stunted people cut off from life and human relationships by our rigid code of “rationalism.” His comment on “An enthusiasm for sunsets, the ecstasy of music, the consoling warmth of holding a sick person’s hand . . . are ultimately rooted in brain or endocrine function . . .” perfectly illustrates this emotionless, rationalistic, materialistic attitude that repulses people with whom we should be allies in our struggle for a more secular world.

Rather than insisting on rejecting the use of the word spiritual, and instead of adopting the new, obscure term aweism, I suggest that we instead insist that spiritual can be used in ways that have nothing to do with transcendental causes or relationships. Yes, I am aware of the linguistic roots and the historic usage. But the current usage—as even Flynn recognizes—has shifted, as words do over time, to a much more secular-friendly meaning. We should seize on this as an opportunity to expand the definition of a word that is already in general usage—and that is already being used to describe what Zuckerman does: the human connection we seek to promote among all people, the emotional attachment we feel with the natural world, the arts, with life itself. Flynn—dare to be spiritual!

Eric A. Gallion
Blasdell, New York

Tom Flynn replies:

First, I
cannot take credit for the phrase “woolly-minded as the next person.” That was identified as a quote from philosopher Ophelia Benson, commenting on my earlier entry on this topic on the Center for Inquiry blog. As to the general merit of spirit as a metaphor, readers Helen Bennett and Eric Gallion might have a stronger argument if we secular naturalists did not live in a culture that is generally hostile toward our worldview. Most Americans, indeed most in the West, still believe in a vague realm that somehow “transcends” the natural. Some imagine that realm populated by specific entities: one or more gods, angels, souls, demons, ghosts, and so on. Others believe in the supernatural but don’t stoop to specify what it consists of. Very roughly, we call the members of these two camps religious and spiritual, respectively; what they share is the conviction that there’s something more over and above the mundane world of ordinary experience, physics, and biology. We secular humanists belong to a minority that embraces the mundane world and nothing else. For us, there is no such thing as the “super-natural.” Those who earnestly believe they can’t make it through the night without invisible means of support find our ability to do just that rather threatening—after all, if we can find fulfillment in a world that’s only natural, why can’t they? As a recovered believer myself, I speak from experience: believers of this stripe take great comfort in “evidence” that we seculars are deluded at best, hypocrites at worst, when we claim to live without the supernatural. Unfortunately, seculars who try to retain the frisson of spiritual language while meaning it only as metaphor play right into these believers’ hands.

Yes, it would be pleasant and convenient if secular folk could harmlessly utilize spiritual language while knowing among ourselves that we mean it only in a naturalistic way. But doing so carries a high price: it makes us appear to believers as though we’re not serious about our naturalism. The secular humanist who claims to be “spiritual” will be heard by most believers as having confessed to the belief in spirits. Faced with a linguistic skew of that magnitude, I think it’s worth the price of our giving up spiritual language in order not to muddy the challenge we present to our fellow citizens. Yes, Virginia, there really are Americans who live compassionate and fulfilling lives without any supernatural beliefs whatever. To borrow from the pop-psych lexicon, by loosely using spiritual language we enable our believing fellow citizens to go on consoling themselves with the false belief that to live without the supernatural lies outside the human repertoire.


Moral Integrity for Humanists In my editorial “Personal Morality” in the April/May 2009 issue of Free Inquiry, I deplored the lack of moral integrity of many unbelievers. I asked for input from anyone who woul d like to be involved in a research project on developing secular ethical wisdom. Below is a small sample of …

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