More on Morality for the Nonreligious

Below is just a smattering of the huge avalanche of mail that I have received regarding the need to develop personal morality for unbelievers, the most I have ever received or a particular subject (see “Personal Morality” by Paul Kurtz, FI, April/May 2009). I am organizing a research project on “Science and Human Values,” which will focus at first on personal morality. If you are interested in participating, please e-mail me at PaulKurtz@aol.com or write to me at: Prof. Paul Kurtz, Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228.

—Paul Kurtz

I wish to congratulate you on the fine editorial “Personal Morality.” It extended a line of thought that I have had for many years on the separation of personal morality from religious belief and the connection to people of atheist inclinations. Having been inculcated at an early age into Christian beliefs, I observed firsthand the distinction between those beliefs and the way many ardent Christians behaved toward each other. I realized over time that there were “good” people regardless of their religious beliefs and that personal morality should be considered as a separate issue.

Doug Dewar
Kingsport, Tennessee

I was quite moved by the recent editorial titled “Personal Morality.” Your cause is just and much needed. I would like to add, however, that the call for personal morality has to be based on more than dry reason. It needs to connect to the individual’s conscience, what Enlightenment thinkers referred to as Nature’s law. People need more instruction teaching them what is right and what is wrong. They need to feel it as well. They need to be drawn into it.

D. Joseph Jacques
Chester, Connecticut

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

I don’t think I have encountered individual nonbelievers who lack moral integrity (your examples of Pol Pot and Joe Stalin in the wider world are valid). However, it is clear that believers have a very poor opinion of us because our image is overshadowed by our rejection of their beloved creator and our failure to do much about the poor and oppressed.

Alan Davis
Hampstead, North Carolina

I am a psychiatrist with an interest in the philosophy of the mind. The following should be considered in researching this subject:

  1. the evolutionary dimension of ethical/moral reasoning in humans, the precursors in animal and primate behaviors and social structure, and the positive evolutionary influence of altruism as well as selfishness;
  2. the link between emotional and cognitive reasoning in forming value judgments; and
  3. learning morality from an early age: the alternative education of world citizenship, multiculturalism, global concerns—including concern for the planet and nature, curricula for a twenty-first century.

Numan Gharaibeh, MD
Brookfield, Connecticut

The theme of uncoupling morality from religion has long been an interest of mine, and I have never been able to understand the assertion that atheists must be immoral since they have no belief in god to keep them behaving ethically. Morality that is contingent upon authority or a desire to assure one’s passage to heaven seems to me to be of a lower order than what you have identified as “autonomous” morality.

Hugh Rosen
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



Get Real!

Re Derek C. Araujo’s “2009 Templeton Award Goes for Proving . . . Um, What?” FI, June/July 2009): looking for God inthe higgledy-piggledy and inexplicable actions of subatomic particles would seem to be a project more to be pitied than praised. Todo a “transconceptualization”of uncertainty at the miniscale to a theological maxim of the grand scale is, I suspect, an accomplishmentthat outdoes the cold-fusion-in-a-tub feat. I suggest that the Templeton people, for evidence to hang their God hat on, study the folklore of ghosts. It’s a far leap from a scary apparition to an omnipotent and omniscient creator, but hey, it’s an entry into the spirit world, a very entertaining one. There are, I’m sure, more phenomena that there can be theistic explanations for, say, independent sightings of ghosts at many locations such as the London Underground than can ever be reasoned from weirdly behavingpoints that are too tiny for even the angels to dance upon.

Jerry Bronk
San Francisco, California



What’s Wrong with Faith-Based Funding?

While I most certainly agree with the articles in the June/July 2009 issue (“What’s Wrong with Faith-Based Funding?”) regarding government funding for the so-called Faith-Based Initiative, I was extremely disappointed that every single writer felt the necessity to include the oldest and worst point that could possibly be made against it in their list of reasons. This reason is not only foolish but also, once admitted as legitimate, can even be dangerous. Like the proverbial double-edge sword, it cuts both ways.

And what is this reason? Simply the idea that a taxpayer has the right to expect that the government will use, or refrain from using, his or her money in accordance with the taxpayer’s personal preferences. Such a thing is manifestly impossible, simply on a practical level. The government cannot, and should not have to, consult each taxpaying citizen in order to be sure that every person’s money will go only toward things that the individual person supports. Any government that seriously attempted such a thing would be hopelessly hamstrung.

As for the danger of using this double-edged sword to argue against a secularist having to watch his tax money go to further a religious institution’s interests, consider what happens when everyone else chooses to use the same argument. An anti-abortionist would be correct to say that he doesn’t want his tax money to help pay for abortions. A peace activist would rightfully say that he doesn’t want his taxes to fund a war. A Catholic might properly object that his taxes helped pay for a sinful method of contraception. If it’s valid for one, then it’s valid for the other, even though their interests might be directly opposed. Therefore, if it’s valid for everyone, then it’s valid for no one. We secular humanists shouldn’t use such specious reasoning to support our positions.

Kevin L. Schaefer
New Bern, North Carolina

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson did not formally purpose “faith-based initiatives,” as President Barack Obama now does. However, he did make a thoroughly demagogical appeal to liberal Protestant denominations to support his social programs. Needless to say, he was in many ways successful. No one objected.

Twenty years later, former President Ronald Reagan did the same thing, except this time he appealed to ultra-conservative denominations to weaken or possibly eliminate many social programs. Many people objected but to no avail. LBJ had set the precedent of informally involving religion in politics. Hence, the Religious Right was born.

People have a right to vote their conscience, be it theological or secular. However, failing to clearly separate affairs of state from affairs of religion is a gross error for which we will pay dearly. I have a feeling that President Obama is setting a precedent that will eventually lead to another right-wing upheaval.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas



Hopes for Secularization

I very much enjoyed Tom Flynn’s op-ed piece “Secularization Renewed” in the June/July 2009 issue. I sincerely hope he’s right in the part beginning “Now here’s the reason for my guarded optimism.” I live in (two to one Republican) south-central Pennsylvania, the area that Candidate Obama referred to as “clinging to their guns and religion” (and you should have heard the uproar over that), so it’s very hard for me to share his optimism. After all, I keep remembering that Thomas Jefferson expected Unitarianism to sweep the country by 1850.

Burr Loomis
Chambersburgh, Pennsylvania



Taking Issue with Drury

Shadia B. Drury has written some enlightening and provocative essays in the past, but her piece “Against Grand Narratives, Part 1” in Free Inquiry’s June/July issue was another matter entirely, insulting the intelligence of her readers by conflating and oversimplifying three pivotally important ways of understanding the world.

It is indeed interesting that Mill’s On Liberty, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and Marx’s Critique were all published in 1859. However, that coincidence hardly means that they all suffer from identical flaws.

Anyone skeptical of religion and its institutions should certainly understand why “grand narratives” can guide people away by supplanting reality with myth. On that point, her essay stands on solid ground. However, it takes a great leap to construe from that that all human existence is merely “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing” and thus summarily dismiss any and all attempts to find some meaningful patterns in it.

Mill was in many ways a product of his time, no doubt. But Drury does him a grave injustice by characterizing his masterwork On Liberty as merely a pretext for an autocratic “white man’s burden.” Does she deny that human liberty is a worthwhile guiding principle for society or that the overall trend of history (however halting) has been toward its increase? To acknowledge these things is hardly to assert that history is moving toward some grand climax, much less to endorse coercive social engineering.

And while I would be the last person to defend imperialism, Western or otherwise, to say that World War II has been mustered as a justifying pretext for same is not to say that it was not a fight against totalitarianism. Does she imagine that secular humanist principles would prosper in a world limited to the kind of nihilism she describes, one in which “pagan sobriety” is dominant and totalitarian forms of imperialism are left unopposed?

Drury obviously has future installments coming on her second and third chosen whipping-boys, but if she intends to claim evolutionary theory asserts some sort of grand goal, then she misunderstands Darwin even more profoundly than she does Mill. As for communism, it is perhaps more guilty of the ideological sins she has in mind, but that’s not to say Marx didn’t offer a penetrating critique of the economic injustices of his day or that he’s responsible for what later demagogues did in his name.

People need a sense of purpose in life, as any psychologist can confirm. But purpose does not necessarily mean superstition or delusion. And the fact that some people feel this need more urgently than others, and thus will inevitably be predisposed to cling fervently to a single belief system as the answer to all questions, does not in itself discredit those who offer sincere intellectual attempts to interpret the phenomena they observe in the world around them. Humanism is itself just such an attempt . . . and those who use it as a framework through which to approach the thinkers she decries, finding what is of value in their work without deifying it, do a far greater service than those like Drury who merely seek to tear them down.

Chris Miller
Chicago, Illinois

Shadia B. Drury responds:

I am indeed a nihilist in the sense that I don’t believe that human history has any goal or overarching purpose. It is the story of the triumphs and failures of individuals and groups. There is certainly more to John Stuart Mill than his imperialistic proclivities. I share his love for freedom as much as does Mr. Miller. But unlike Mill or Miller, I don’t believe that history is a march of freedom (however halting). Freedom will always have triumphs and setbacks, but there is no reason for considering the triumphs a significant aspect of the trajectory of history and the setbacks as merely temporary. It is just as logical to see the triumphs as only temporary.

All this is not to say that there are no patterns or trends in human history. Civilizations will always rise and fall; people will always want to avenge injustices; priests will always prey on people’s fears and gullibility; and freedom will flourish at certain times and places and then will be extinguished for an unpredictable length of time. So, there are indeed recurring patterns in history, but they do not give history meaning, purpose, or goals beyond the plurality of purposes and goals of particular individuals or groups.

I am not just a nihilist about human history; I am also a nihilist about human life. Unfortunately, nihilism has been misunderstood in the age of biblical religions. It has been associated with despair and even terrorism—because nihilism has been confused with indifference to life itself. That dark or negative nihilism was defined by the likes of Dostoevsky; it was a product of the despair felt by people who had lost their religious bearings and thought that since God is dead, all is permitted. These dark nihilists believed that without God there is no foundation for morality, life is worthless, and that one may as well indulge in terrorism and the arbitrary killing of the innocent.

There is, however, another kind of nihilism that is not born out of despair but out of a love of truth and the willingness to accept the fact that the world was not designed to suit human beings. On the contrary, the world is indifferent to all the things that human beings hold dear—justice, kindness, honesty, and love. Storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, plagues, and epidemics kill the young with the old, the good with the wicked, and the kind with the cruel. The history of the monotheistic religions has been a monumental effort to reconcile humanity with the cold indifference of nature by supposing that there is a God who cares about the fate of human beings, takes an interest in human affairs, and is determined to right the injustices of the world by punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. In rejecting this comforting myth, we nihilists need not be driven to despair, terrorism, or indifference. Albert Camus set the example when he said that “the absurd,” by which he meant the cold indifference of nature to what matters most to human beings, should bring us closer together in a feeling of universal human solidarity. Camus rightly rejected the despair of Dostoevsky. He also rejected Nietzsche’s effort to turn the absurd into a god and a model for human conduct.

In short, I stand guilty of nihilism, but not of indifference to life or its joys. It is important not to confuse the absence of meaning in life with its presumed worthlessness. Just because life has no overarching meaning or purpose, it is not worthless. The joyful nihilist is not indifferent to the things that give life worth—truth, justice, freedom, love, music, art, dancing, and more.



Porn in the U.S.A.

For the most part, I agree with Katrina Voss’s characterization of the people who disapprove
of recreational genomics (“On the Policing of Genetic Porn,” FI, June/July 2009). However, her decision to use pornography to make her case is not going to slide with me.

The arguments against pornography are not “passé.” I’d like to beg Voss to read Andrea Dworkin’s Letters from a War Zone essay “Pornography and Male Supremacy.” Dworkin writes: “Pornography translates as ‘the graphic depiction of whores’ [i.e., sexual slaves] developed in a society that is viciously male supremacist. . . . Feminists are often asked whether pornography causes rape. The fact is that rape and prostitution caused and continue to cause pornography.”

Women and men do not have equal rights, not in our country, not in any other country I can think of (see “My Struggle for Equality” by Taslima Nasrin in the same issue). I have never heard of a person of any walk of life, philosophy, or political affiliation argue that women and men have achieved social, sexual, or economic equality.

Pornography as a cultural system of male supremacy is not proved untrue because some adult female porn stars claim they love their jobs. “[T]he main premise of pornography is that women want to be forced, hurt, and cruelly used” (A. Dworkin). So much impassioned and heart-wrenching writing has been published on the damage pornography does to women, no one with a conscience can remain unmoved. I am overwhelmed by the challenge to introduce Voss to the immense field of writing on why pornography is linked to the subjugation of women.

Renee Cooperman
Prescott, Arizona

Katrina Voss responds:

In her letter, Ms. Cooperman asks me to read Dworkin. As a graduate of a feminist all-women’s college (Agnes Scott), I am quite familiar with Dworkin’s arguments against pornography; in fact, I had them rather shoved down my throat in the famously humorless manner of elitist, suburban, white feminism. Perhaps it was for this reason that I rebelled and posed for Playboy in April 1991 in the “Women of the Women’s Colleges” issue. (For those who want to look it up, my name then was Kathleen Voss, not Katrina Voss, the latter being a more pronounceable version I adopted when I began to broadcast in Spanish.)

If I wasn’t already suspecting that modern feminism was in trouble, the fallout from my humble, half-page photo clarified just how low the movement had sunk. I lost friends and was written up in the school paper as a propagator of rape and male violence. I was a traitor to the cause of women’s rights. And yet, weren’t we taught that we could do anything? We could be CEOs, astronauts or Supreme Court Justices, right? Oh, and nude models? I guess not. Clearly, the message was that we could be anything— anything, that is, that modern feminists approve of. Was this the plan? To throw off the shackles men put on us, only to allow fellow women to re-shackle us in a whole new way?

True feminism, Ms. Cooperman, is about sexual freedom, and yes, sexual freedom comes at a price. But so do all forms of freedom, as an exchange of safety for liberty. True feminism is also about coming to terms with nature, in all its harshness and vulgarity. In fact, Cooperman really ought to set aside Dworkin and read a bit of Darwin. Or even more to the point, she might trade Dworkin for Camille Paglia, who, despite her shock-value prose and over-the-toppery, paints a more honest, unwhiney picture of the weaker sex (i.e., men). Modern feminists, Paglia writes, attempt to ignore biology— the stark reality of masculine energy.

[Catherine] MacKinnon and [Andrea] Dworkin detest pornography because it symbolizes everything they don’t understand and can’t control about their own bodies. Current feminism, with its antiscience and social constructionist bias, never thinks about nature. Hence it cannot deal with sex, which begins in the body and is energized by instinctual drives…. Pornography, which erupts into the open in periods of personal freedom, shows the dark truth about nature, concealed by the artifices of civilization. Pornography is about lust, our animal reality that will never be fully tamed by love. …[Vamps and Tramps]

So, I’ll make Cooperman a deal. I’ll cozy up with a Luna bar and (re-read Dworkin. But, in return, and in all fairness, Cooperman should actually watch a bit of pornography before she condemns it (I recommend the Seymore Butts series). I think she would see that there is nothing like woman-worshiping (yes, worshiping) porn to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “woman is the dominant sex,” as Paglia points out with face-slapping clarity. Ms. Cooperman, don’t you get it? We rule! Enjoy that power!

So, no, pornography does not propagate rape. The existence of penises propagates rape. Or more accurately, biological inequity and sexual dimorphism propagate rape. If we can’t accept that, arm ourselves, and venture out into the world, we might as well just stay home and braid each other’s hair.

More on Morality for the Nonreligious Below is just a smattering of the huge avalanche of mail that I have received regarding the need to develop personal morality for unbelievers, the most I have ever received or a particular subject (see “Personal Morality” by Paul Kurtz, FI, April/May 2009). I am organizing a research project …

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