In “The ‘True Believer’” Paul Kurtz (FI, December 2009/January 2010) points to the fact that many atheists can be as fanatical as their religious counterparts. Labeling myself an atheist, I have during conversations with other nonbelievers been accused of not being respectful of the religious beliefs of others. I have to admit that this is true. I am not a fanatic, but I abhor ignorance in people who are supposedly intelligent but refuse to question their beliefs when the conversation turns to religion. When people tell me that the Bible is the greatest book that was ever written, that it contains the true words of God, and that He is a Deity of peace and justice, I point out some statements in this book that seem to come from the mouth of a cruel, self-centered despot. When someone tells me that the world was formed six thousand years ago and all forms of life were created the way they are now, I have to contain myself to keep from calling that person a moron. Am I disrespectful? Yes.
John L. Coppejans
Santa Barbara, California
So Paul Kurtz prefers a “kinder and gentler” approach to dealing with ignorance and superstition than that which Richard Dawkins takes. Well, I’ve been in the trenches teaching evolution as part of my geology courses for forty-five years, and I’ll take Dawkins’s approach every time. Science is simply applied reason while religion is simply institutionalized superstition and ignorance.
Why in the world should a reasonable person treat a superstitious and ignorant person with the approach Kurtz is advocating? It simply has no effect. The George Carlins (God bless his soul), Bill Mahers, and Richard Dawkinses of this world have the right approach. Hit them over the head with their dumbness, make them squirm—expose their ignorance and cowardice for what it is! Dawkins is right on this issue—Kurtz is wrong.
Paul Kurtz implies that Eric Hoffer used the term true believer to refer to religious fanatics. This is only partially true. Hoffer applied the term to individuals subject to joining mass movements, saying that they exhibit fanaticism and self-righteousness and are motivated by self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity, which in turn impel them to join something they perceive to be larger and finer than themselves. Moreover, they can and do shift their allegiance from one movement to another. Hoffer deemed these individuals to be extremely dangerous in that they may commit terrible acts in support of their cause.
I am particularly concerned that Kurtz appears to be characterizing Richard Dawkins as someone with the above attributes. I’m sure that was not his intent. Dawkins is clearly not a joiner or follower and is a uniquely gifted professional to whom we should listen attentively. His are the remarks of a science professional who has reacted to interference in his sphere of expertise by people trying to interject superstition.
We live in a time when our fecundity and technological excesses threaten to soon bring about the extinction or mass suffering of our species and that of a number of our companions on this planet through pandemics and/or global warming. From my own limited education, I get the feeling we are hurtling down a steep, slippery, hazard-strewn slope on a vehicle for which we have neglected to provide brakes or a steering device. From the view of an ethologist, the activities of religious zealots with regard to natural selection with its implications for energy consumption, universal health care, birth control, war, etc. must seem like sheer madness.
As for the comments of science writer Nicholas Wade, I think Wade confuses professional with polite. There are times in the affairs of men when polite speech simply doesn’t get the point across. I’m sure that when a master of communication of the caliber of Dawkins says “deluded to the point of perversity,” there is no adequate substitute for that expression.
Daly City, California
Paul Kurtz responds:
I agree that religion should be critically examined like all other areas of human belief and conduct. However, I think that it is a mistake to lump all religions together. We need to distinguish between dogmatic fundamentalist religions as the enemies of free inquiry and other expressions of religion that are often defended by thoughtful and intelligent people. It hardly advances the cause of unbelief to ridicule one’s opponents or to blaspheme to shock. John L. Coppejans properly criticizes primitive forms of religious belief, such as the claims that the world was formed six thousand years ago, yet almost none of my colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo, adjacent to the Center for Inquiry, would hold such a ludicrous belief. To lump them together overlooks the nuances of religious belief.
Like Ron Gibson, I have been in the trenches teaching thousands of students. I would hardly open their minds by castigating all religious believers with the fringe groups of fundamentalists or by expressing biases and lampooning all religionists, instead of using reasoned arguments.
I can understand William Lindstrom’s frustration, which I often share; but I believe that polite, civilized discourse will do more to persuade believers than in-your-face atheism. Yes, of course Eric Hoffer was disturbed about all sorts of true believers, in politics as well as religion, and I think that this concept sometimes applies to unbelievers (I have in mind the Stalinist atheists of the past).
I will gladly compare my record of achievements in criticizing religion with others. I founded Prometheus Books forty years ago, and it is today the largest dissenting press in North America and possibly the world, publishing books on freethought, atheism, the scientific case for evolution, a naturalistic basis for secular ethics, etc. It has had a powerful influence. Prometheus Books titles have been translated into fifty languages worldwide; and it is a provocative beacon in often dark religious cultures.
Similarly I have initiated the development of Qur’anic criticism (see the books by Ibn Warraq), virtually the first of its kind. Do you think that a brusque assault will advance the cause of thoughtful dissent for the educated public?
I surely have no objection to humor, such as that the late George Carlin and Bill Maher engage in. Richard Dawkins does exemplary work in advancing the public understanding of evolution and this is of a different genre, which we appreciate.
But I was talking about the Center for Inquiry/Transnational, which has emerged as the leading critic of religious claims, and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, which has engaged in dialogue with the top biblical scholars in the world. To get a hearing, we need to demonstrate that religious unbelievers can be thoughtful, reflective individuals who provide responsible alternatives to religion and are always willing to participate in debate and dialogue—not confrontation for its own sake. What would we say to devout believers who parody or lampoon secular humanism or atheists without responding to our arguments directly? We would be offended.
Serious religious thinkers would reject our views if we did not take others seriously and engage in serious debate. I have no objection to atheists using their arsenals as they choose. However, the Council for Secular Humanism, which I founded, was meant to present the case for naturalistic humanism. The case for atheism is not central to its agenda, but the positive contributions of secular humanism as an alternative to religion are. Of the many books that I have publi
shed, such as The Transcendental Temptation and Forbidden Fruit, virtually all are critical of theism and defend secular humanism and naturalism.
In his sarcasm-laden op-ed piece “Paradoxes about Intruding on Nature” (FI, December 2009/January 2010), Tibor Machan reveals a political position totally uninformed as to the reality of an anthropogenic assault on ecosystems, species of organisms from snails to whales, and indeed even climate systems of the entire globe, Michael Crichton’s views notwithstanding. That he holds a chair in business ethics and is a well-published author or editor of numerous pieces extolling the virtues of libertarianism á la Ayn Rand hardly qualifies him as a commentator on scientific issues. For Free Inquiry to so identify him can be read as deceptive. Clearly, he brings no informed arguments in his references to global warming, species extinctions, Mali (not Naleo) fowl, or parasites in the Great Lakes. As an example, I suppose the parasite he refers to is the lamprey, a species of fish parasitic on other fish. Its very presence in the upper Great lakes and the devastation it has had on lake trout fisheries (costing many fishermen their livelihoods) is a consequence of human engineering of waterways giving lampreys access to lakes they never had before.
Machan’s piece is so riddled with uninformed opinion that an item-by-item refutation would take more space than the original itself. To conflate species extinctions, for example, with anesthesia or prosthetics is risible. Criticism of those who “control major cultural influences” as purveyors of some fanciful idea that human nature is evil while “nature” is benign is political fantasy. The suggestion that scientists concerned about the impact of seven billion humans on natural systems seem not to “believe” in free will is without any basis of evidence-based objective analysis. While the question of free will has occupied philosophers since antiquity, it no longer is certain that only humans have capacity for behavioral choice.
In short, Machan bloviates about issues and profound questions regarding the nature of human beings from a position of deep ignorance and obvious bias. The fact is that ever-growing human numbers and our concomitant demands on resources are doing great damage to the structure of the biosphere, driving extinctions in magnitudes not seen on Earth since the demise of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Whether Steven Spielberg makes moralistic message movies is irrelevant.
Richard Haas, PhD
Professor Emeritus in Biology and Human Ecology
California State University, Fresno
Dawkins on Evolution
In his article “The Fact of Evolution” (FI, December 2009/January 2010), Richard Dawkins emphasizes that evolution should be considered a fact and not a theory. But the definition stated by Dawkins from the Oxford English Dictionary refers to fact as “a particular truth.” Since the evidence for evolution is extensive and not particular, by employing this terminology Dawkins shortchanges the evidence for evolution. This fluid terminology has contributed to the lack of acceptance of evolution. The physical sciences present a familiar example, which when applied to biology clarifies evolution’s status.
In the physical sciences, there are many observations or facts that have given rise to generalizations: two of these are the law of conservation of matter and the law of definite proportions (which states that when two or more elements combine to form a compound, they do so in definite proportions by weight). The statements of facts and their convenient generalization to laws are expressed in terms of macroscopically observable and weighable quantities. The overarching explanation for these laws is achieved in atomic theory, which is expressed in terms of invisible atoms and molecules. No one thinks that atomic theory is “just a theory,” for it possesses extraordinary explanatory power and provides the context in which many of the conveniences of our civilization depend. Thus we proceed from many observations or facts to their generalization in terms of laws, both levels macroscopic, to a theory expressed in terms of invisibles entities.
If we now apply this scheme to biology, we see that the concept of evolution is at the law level as it summarizes the results of a large number of observations or facts about organisms. The analogous theory is natural selection or other means by which evolution is achieved. Unknown to Darwin nearly 150 years ago, explanations of macroscopic evolution terms of microscopic genes and molecular sequences of nucleic bases in DNA are known to us. Placing the concept of evolution at law level clarifies its status; it is neither a single fact nor a theory.
Palo Alto, California
To millions of Catholics, the notion that any of their priests are uneducated is inconceivable. So I find it ironic that Richard Dawkins, in his article “The Fact of Evolution,” includes “educated priests” among individuals who accept the theory of evolution. In fact, priests are considered by many Catholics to be more learned than medical doctors because, they argue, physicians work to save only mortal bodies while priests work to save immortal souls. Yet, how much education is required to learn rudimentary Latin, to recite the Mass by rote, and to transfer wafers and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ?
Temple City, California
Corporate Secular Citizens
Frank L. Pasquale (“The Quintessential Secular Institution,” FI, December 2009/January 2010) was correct in saying that corporations are secular, religion-free zones. However, he is not correct in asserting that they are the institutional embodiment of individualism. There is hardly an institution that demands conformity more than large corporations. They demand it in dress, language, political viewpoint, and even in choice of spouse at the upper levels.
Pasquale goes on to assert that corporations represent “the aggregate power of individuals acting as creative and autonomous bargainers in the marketplace.” That may be true at the upper levels of corporate management, but it is false to assert that workers aggregate their individual power. Corporations spend millions and lots of energy to prevent the organization of workers via unions. Also, any manager that sides with workers to organize is instantly replaced.
Pasquale then objects to the corporations being called greedy and materialistic. However, are not the recent Wall Street fiascos, the CEO bonuses, and the big bank bailouts classic contradictions to the idea that corporations are not greedy? He then writes that “corporations substantially operate in a legal and ethical . . . manner.” First of all, they are continually being fined millions of dollars for violating the law, and there is no set of ethics on Earth that would excuse the rapacious lack of concern for the disadvantaged and the environment promulgated by large corporations.
Corporations should not be blamed for the obscenely high levels of consumption that have destroyed our environment (rivers, oceans, and forests are not resources; they are what sustain our lives). Nor should they be blamed for the obscene debt to China occasioned by those high levels of consumption. However, large corporations are not the end-all and be-all of God’s gift to mankind that he suggests.
Frank L. Pasquale seems puzzled by secular humanists who do not appreciate that corporations share their secularism. What he misses is that many humanists are at lea
st as concerned with their humanism as with their secularism. Corporations, on the other hand, exist for the express purpose of making money for their shareholders. Humanists are concerned with human rights, the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, etc. Corporations are concerned with minimizing costs (sending jobs to overseas sweatshops, for example) and maximizing revenue. Beyond the least common denominator of secularism, humanist and corporate philosophies have little in common. The article’s focus on “secularists,” “secular liberals,” “secular intellectuals,” etc. rather than on “humanists” makes it sounds as if we secular humanists are defined more by what we are against than by what we are for. Kind of misses the point for many of us.
Frank L. Pasquale responds:
My intent was surely not to suggest, as Lee Simon asserts, that corporations are “the end-all and be-all of God’s gift to mankind” (or beyond all ethical reproach or legal sanction) but rather to point out that for-profit businesses, companies, and corporations represent the most pervasive and substantially secular institutions in human history. As such, the way they operate—for better and for worse—may be an object lesson on the substantial challenges all of us (including self-described humanists) face in making secular society broadly, as well as narrowly, ethical (to borrow Peter Singer’s terms).
My aim was also to point up a noticeable tendency for many secularists (including humanists) to overgeneralize from particular cases or issues to entire classes of phenomena (a tendency, I might add, that is often noticeable with respect to something called religion). There are (based on census and Internal Revenue Service data) some twenty-five million companies in the United States alone, of which some seven million are chartered corporations or LLCs, six million or so with employee payrolls. There are many more worldwide. Their modus operandi and outcomes are surely not all the same. They are not equally regimented or rapacious or destructive—or ethical or socially responsible. As Jared Diamond recently observed (in The New York Times of December 6, 2009) even all “big businesses” are not “environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits” (as he admits he once assumed until closer inspection led him to a more “nuanced” view).Again, my intent was not to defend, glorify, or whitewash corporations in general but rather to point up a curious paradox and irony in many secular individuals’ reflexively critical views of these substantially secular institutions.
As to Paul Sellnow’s point, there are valuable principles to which I do my best to aspire and adhere (whether or not the word humanism is attached to them), including human rights, fairness and justice, reason, reasonableness, and ethics. We must each endeavor to guide and evaluate our own actions—and those of our institutions—by such principles to the best of our ability. We would also do well to be judicious (or nuanced) in our generalizations and judgments.