Progressive Humanism

Re “Two and a Half Cheers for Progressive Humanism” by Paul Kurtz (FI, October/November 2009): Humanists ought to have plenty to say about the economic order, as it affects everyone’shealth, wealth,and happiness. I dare say that most readers of this magazine are capitalists, exploiting what we are given and able to create in order to enjoy our lifestyles.We also have plenty of beefs about the tax system, big government, and the ability of slackers to live offthe fruits of the industrious. That said, simplistic solutions to economic ills cannot work.

Those who lobbyfor unfettered capitalism echo a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy. Yet they forget that when environments change too fast, species vanish. In humanity’s case, a lucky few are either born with wealth or with wealth-generating talent and opportunity. The rest, due to no fault of theirs, are born with neither. With wealth comes power, and with power comes the ability to distort the economic environment, “the playing field,” in favor of the powerful.

Such distortions left unchecked can be rapid enough to cause extinctions, both economic and literal. As the rules become skewed, wealth concentrates into ever fewer hands. When the exploited and powerless feel they have nothing left to lose, they revolt and the system collapses, usually violently. Humanity’s failure to learn this lesson has caused history to repeat itself over and over.

Another way to look at it is that no matter what rules society sets, the law of unintended effects creates inequities that, uncorrected, undermine the system. The trick is to be adaptive, to continually seek to keep the playing field reasonably level such that the disadvantaged continue to have opportunities and hope. Of course, how to do this is controversial, to say the least. I hope Free Inquiry becomes a forum for this vital debate.

Paul Bassett
Barrie, Ontario, Canada



Health Care As a Right

Re Paul Kurtz’s editorial, “Health Care Is a Human Right (FI, October/November 2009): I quote Ramsey Clark, a Democrat, civil rights activist, and attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, who said: “A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.” This may seem like a quibble, but I think clear thinking is important in trying to find solutions to problems. Medical care is not a right.

The best medical care for everyone is certainly a goal of society, but anything that requires someone to do something for you cannot be a right. That makes the provider essentially a slave. I am a retired cardiologist. No one had a right to my services.

Rodney Crislip
Portland, Oregon



Reconsidering Tolerance

The conclusions that Stephen Gallagher reached in his thought-provoking piece, “Against Tolerance” (FI, October/November 2009) change when a more realistic model is taken. Consider how the meaning of tolerance and hospitality (t&h) change if we differentiate between individual humans and groups to which humans belong. This requires considerations beyond those that Gallagher mentioned and leads to quite different conclusions than he found when t&h are treated in simpler context. (The nature of the groups is critical, too, but space does not permit following this here.)

Having a tolerant attitude or offering hospitality to an individual who is known to be appreciative and who reciprocates is one thing. When we deal with other kinds of individuals, we need to deal accordingly. But large groups of humans will invariably contain some individuals who are generally unappreciative and who do not reciprocate our good acts. Thus, there is greater uncertainty of outcome when dealing with a group than with known individuals; the effect of following a t&h path is more complicated than Gallagher makes clear. We realize that a human’s interaction with others (individuals or groups) and how each side proceeds may depend upon their awareness, sensitivity, feedback, and history. If we want to attribute accountability to individuals (including ourselves), then we must avoid collective treatment for groups.

For example, the way many of us live in the United States, with glass windows on our homes and no moat around properties, became possible with a large middle class and public education. While the future behavior of humans is always uncertain and contains risk, it is part of a sane life to take risks in order to gain commensurate benefits. Living in a tolerant, hospitable society is such a benefit. While fear of strangers may be warranted, it should be noted that rulers use that fear to exploit their subjects and regularly send them off to kill and be killed. It is also true that most of the serious violence perpetrated upon U.S. citizens takes place among those closest to them—by distance and blood. We don’t need strangers to produce the highest homicide and incarceration rates in the world.

Openness and diligent inquiry, to rationally define the risks of specific situations, should be a part of any interaction with others. Ignorance alone may lead to the paranoid, knee-jerk reactions that fill the pages of history (not just since 9/11). A more humane world starts with the realization that we are the other to others.

Robert M. Goldberg
Jericho, New York

Stephen Gallagher’s claim that “tolerance is, by definition, one-sided . . . always a supplementary mark of sovereignty” is simply wrong. Of course tolerance may involve condescension, particularly in situations of radical power difference, but tolerance is finally a social contract, partly written and partly unwritten. It relies on the understanding and acceptance of the contract by both parties. Parents will tolerate some behaviors and not others; the principles within families are usually in continual renegotiation as children age and situations change, but mutual acceptance of the principles is the basis of functional families. Communities tolerate some behaviors and not others; rejection by individuals of communal principles results in submission or exclusion of the individuals, change of the communal principles, or disintegration of the social contract. Contrary to Gallagher’s claim, real tolerance is always mutual. Its foundation is humility and respect. I think my atheist beliefs superior to those of my Christian, Jewish, and Muslim neighbors, but I could be wrong. Perhaps we pity each other, but if we respect each other’s right to make those decisions, we can live peaceably with each other.

Of course tolerance is fragile and will be breached, but Gallagher’s rantings are paranoid: “Make no mistake: the pogrom, the lynch mob, even genocide continue to wait in the shadows of tolerance. . . . The tolerant neighbor who smiles and nods at you one day could be coming at you and your children with a machete the next.” With the world busily negotiating principles of tolerance on ever broader scales, Gallagher’s insistence that “the question facing the West in the years to come will be how to deal with the foreigner now that tolerance has collapsed” is unconstructive, his Derridean flutter digressive.

Alexander Dunlop
New York, New York

Stephen Gallagher replies:

I enjoyed reading Robert Goldberg’s challenging response to “Against Tolerance.” There’s so much to wrestle with that I suspect I’ll have something to chew on for a good long while yet.

A few comments: Goldberg’s focus on how tolerance and hospitality plays out with individuals versus groups is an excellent perspective, and it is indeed unfortunate that “space doe
s not permit following this here.” One wishes it did, because there are undoubtedly many intriguing insights that could be derived. His observation of how we live in the United States with glass windows and no moats around our properties is spot-on, and I wish he’d elaborated on the implicit idea that perhaps a certain level of material comfort and security is a prerequisite for “tolerance” in the classic sense to take hold. Perhaps the restraints that tolerance imposes on group (and ultimately individual) behavior are worn thin and finally break due to extraneous social and economic factors? It’s certainly an intriguing idea, and one that might be worth drilling down in depth to explore.

He ends with a sentiment I would echo: “A more humane world starts with the realization that we are the other to others.” Given that bare and unambiguous fact, tolerance or hospitality or something must be embraced and implemented as a basic principle of interaction with “the other” going forward, because “the other” isn’t going away. To the contrary.

Alexander Dunlop’s letter is a bit more problematic. He charges right in with a series of naked assertions: “tolerance is finally a social contract” and “real tolerance is always mutual,” but he never defends these assertions, and he never really engages with the meat of the arguments I advance in support of my position. Several sentences about family dynamics that seem to have randomly sprouted in the middle of the first paragraph did nothing to bolster his naked assertions and were ultimately distracting.

By the second paragraph of his letter, Dunlop has—as one could have almost predicted—segued into the tried and true ad hominem attack. “Gallagher’s rantings are paranoid”; “his Derridean flutter [is] digressive.” It is really not the sort of thing that encourages one to give much weight to the rest of his letter. To be honest, there’s just no real fun in responding in kind. Oh, the temptation is there, but if life has taught me anything, it’s that refraining from such low temptations helps to build character.



No Holiday for Religion

I agree with Christopher Hitchens (“An Eid Too Far,” FI, October/November 2009) when he states that the calendar of religious holidays observed by schools should be pruned, not extended. “Those who care enough about their own sect to take a day off of school or work should be entitled to do so,” he offers, “but should not require others, especially those of school age, to skip a day of education.”

By forcing nonbelievers—be they non-Muslim theists or atheists—to stay home from school or work on an Islamic holiday is, in effect, forcing them to pay reverence to a contrary belief and celebration. The Christian student should not have to sacrifice a day of indispensable education for the benefit of his Muslim classmate who wants to solemnize Eid al-Fitr any more than the atheist student should have to give up a day in March or April for the celebration of Easter. Neither should the office manager be forced to lose a day of pay so that his co-worker can observe the Festival of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). To each his own—just leave the rest of us out of it.

Moreover, I have to agree, to a reserved extent, with Mayor Bloomberg when he argued that, “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.” How many religious holidays do we have to saturate our school calendars with? It is bad enough that education in this country is falling behind the track record of other countries, but now we want to subtract even more days from the total in order for a few students to celebrate privately some event of their own respective religions. What’s next, taking an entire school day off so that Scientologist students can celebrate L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday? What happens if Mormons want equal respect paid to the birthday of Joseph Smith? It’s not a matter of quantity, or of how many students actually practice the observance. It is about how much pressure is put on the elected officials by the leaders and devout followers of these religions. From what I can tell, that is exactly the case with the resolution to include two Islamic holidays to the school calendar in New York. When Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid exclaims bluntly that it is an election year and “a failure on Bloomberg’s part to support the resolution could be catastrophic,” he seems to be warning the mayor that if he values his job and seeks a successful re-election, he would do well to support the Muslim community’s quest for holiday recognition.

If elected officials continue to kowtow to pressure from religious representatives, every major religious holiday from Yom Kippur to Good Friday will have to be honored, depriving our children of the scant education they’re getting now.

Adam S. Thomas
Salem, Oregon



It’s About Time!

Usually, Free Inquiry is filled with articles by bona fide intellectuals, speaking with authority on the subject at hand. That is all well and good, but it was refreshing to read the nonacademic personal stories and reflections in your October/November 2009 issue by Lisa Bauer (“Subjection and Escape”), Will Cooper (“This Is It”), and N. Bonaparte (“Painful Junction”). These authors wrote about human problems and emotions that many of us, no matter what rational faces we show to each other, have encountered “up close and personal.” More stories and articles like these would be welcomed.

One of the concerns that I have had with our secular humanist movement is that we do not provide any type of support for individuals going through personal travails in their journey from theism to humanism or simply while living their lives. As human beings, we all need personal support and connection, even in good times. There are untold numbers of people experiencing personal difficulties who find humanism off-putting because each of us is expected to be extremely rational and somewhat automatic.

Committed to a naturalistic world stance, we need to be actively seeking out those enduring physical disabilities and emotional and psychological pain, if for no other reason than to offer a sympathetic ear, encouragement, and assistance whenever we can. While many problems that we encounter should be handled only by licensed counselors, there is a need for a deeper community, in my opinion, among us so that humanists can have a stronger attachment to our movement.

Mark W. Brandt
Dunedin, Florida



Children, Religion, and Secular Humanism

Re “Children Should Be Free From Religion” (FI, October/November 2009): I am sixty-seven years old and have been an atheist for fifty years. Normally, I enjoy most of the articles in Free Inquiry. However, I was rather disgusted by the review of Forced into Faith (by Innaiah Narisetti) by Floris van den Berg, co-executive director of Center for Inquiry/Low Countries. To make possible what is recommended by both the author of the book and the reviewer would require a totalitarian state. If that is the stand of secular humanists, then I am happy not to be one.

Louis Andrews
Augusta, Georgia

Floris van den Berg replies:

It is an inconvenient liberal paradox: how to handle intolerance without resorting to intolerant means? Secular humanists take individual liberty as a core value. Religious parenting and education limit children’s freedom and expose them to falsehoods. Of course, religious upbringing ranges from fairly liberal an
d open-minded to closed-minded fundamentalism. The point of Narisetti’s book is that he raises awareness about the neglected fact of group or family intolerance.

Liberalism and secular humanism seem to have ignored the subjection of children to closed-minded, illiberal parents. When one would argue that parents have a right to impose whatever nonsense they believe on their children and instill them with irrational taboos, then tolerance means tolerating intolerance. When there is awareness about the vulnerability of children, the question is: what to do about it? For secular humanists, totalitarian means are off limits, but nevertheless we should try to secure the freedom of individuals, including children. There should be compulsory secular, science-based state-run education, so that all children are equally free to learn about the world and objective knowledge disseminated about religions. Homeschooling, which often is an excuse for religious indoctrination, should be forbidden.

It is hard to monitor family life, and the state should not try to do that (except in brutal cases of, for example (female) circumcision), but there should be a cultural Gestalt switch that is thrown when when people say they raise their children religiously. It is not religion that should be respected but the freedom (and well-being) of individuals, including children.



Seeking Truth

In his review of Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King’s Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? (FI, October/November 2009) Norm R. Allen Jr. writes, “C. Stephen Layman makes the excellent point that mathematical truths still hold even if God does not exist.” I beg to differ, not about the existence or nonexistence of God, but about the existence of mathematical truths (or any other kind of truth). Mathematical truths, as well as moral values, are human constructs, not discoveries of things extant in an objective world. Both are based on ultimately arbitrary assumptions (e.g., the postulates of Euclid in mathematics, or, in ethics, that the survival of humankind is good). It is possible to take every mathematical concept, just as we can take any moral or ethical concept, back to some arbitrary assumption that, no matter how pleasant or realistic the idea may seem to us, remains at its root arbitrary.

It is manifestly obvious (at least to me) that nature, if I may anthropomorphize for a minute, gives not a fig for the continued existence of humankind, and if we were to become extinct, whether or not we were succeeded by another intelligent species, it would make no difference whatever to the universe. Thus, I assert that rather than, in Allen’s words, “’objective moral truth’ exists even if God does not,” objective moral truth does not exist, irrespective of God’s existence.

Since no god in recorded history has made its presence unambiguously known, it is safe to assume that such moral principles as we have developed have arisen from natural observations based on the reasonable (at least to humans) but unprovable postulate that continued human existence is a good thing, or on some principle that some ancient leader under who-knows-what influence thought would be good for his (or occasionally her) tribe, or at least for him.

Hugh B. Haskell, PhD
Bethesda, Maryland

Norm R. Allen Jr. replies:

I respectfully disagree with Dr. Haskell. I do not see any good reason to believe that all values are based on arbitrary assumptions (even if some of those values turn out to be wrong). For example, did we conclude that murder and rape are wrong based on arbitrary assumptions? On the contrary, it seems to me that we have deemed such actions wrong because they have empirically verifiable harmful effects to individuals and societies. Did we arbitrarily conclude that the safer we are from gratuitous violence, the happier we are? No. This fact can be supported by what Robert G. Ingersoll referred to as the trinity of science: reason, experience, and observation, not to mention common sense. Did we arbitrarily decide that overall happiness is preferable to lifelong misery and suffering? No. This seems to be a matter of common sense for anyone with a few years of life experience.

It is not even clear that we arbitrarily decided that “continued human existence is a good thing.” Some of us believe that continued human existence has empirically verifiable benefits to the world. For example, human beings can make life better for other species through, for example, providing veterinary medicine for pets, farm animals, zoo animals, etc. Even if it turns out that the world would have been better off without human beings, it would not necessarily follow that those who believed otherwise did so based on arbitrary assumptions. Moreover, like every other species, most of us want to live even if our continued existence is not a good thing. Our desire to do so need not be based on arbitrary assumptions. (Still, this raises the question: Would it be arbitrary to suggest that continued human existence is a bad thing?)

Finally, I am not entirely convinced that objective moral truth exists, depending on how it is defined. My contention is that if it does exist, God has nothing to do with it.



Organ Transplants

Arthur Caplan (“The Trouble with Organ Trafficking,” FI, October/November 2009) is mistaken about what our response to the dangers of underground human organ trafficking should be. Legalization is not the answer to shortage of supply, but it is one of the answers, and it should be explored fully. I find Caplan’s arguments against it to be unpersuasive. His argument about exploitation is flawed. It is not clear why “only the poor and desperate” would sell their organs. If I decide my kidney is worthless to me than the market price, I will sell it no matter my socio-economic status. If I am competent to make this choice, what right does the state or anyone else have to stop me?

There seems to be a false equivocation of agency to wholeness of the body. I am no less an agent for having parted with my kidney for a price that satisfies me, or indeed any other nonessential part of my physical body. The invocation of slavery in these debates is entirely unwarranted, for under the right conditions the sale of my body is not the sale of my person.

The truth of the matter is that legalization is a tool that can be used to establish and enforce fair compensation, proper counseling, informed consent procedures, and adequate follow-up care. With all due respect, Caplan has failed to show how selling a part of one’s body is intrinsically an immoral act.

The facts are that trade is happening, and whatever safeguards exist are all there in good faith, if (rarely) they exist at all. A legalized and regulated market in human organs would serve to enhance and protect the interests and rights of the people entering into it from either side.

Dmitri Pisartchik
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

Progressive Humanism Re “Two and a Half Cheers for Progressive Humanism” by Paul Kurtz (FI, October/November 2009): Humanists ought to have plenty to say about the economic order, as it affects everyone’shealth, wealth,and happiness. I dare say that most readers of this magazine are capitalists, exploiting what we are given and able to create in …

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