An Example to Follow
I have been listening to the Point of Inquiry podcast and reading Free Inquiry for several years. Although I am “late” to the secular humanist/rationalist world, I am so wonderfully “fed” by both endeavors. Thank you.
I am writing in particular about an interview Paul Kurtz did with D.J. Grothe about a kinder, gentler secular humanism. During the interview he referenced Blasphemy Day and other such events. He stressed the need for secular humanists and nontheists to maintain basic respect, and he said that he did not found the Center for Inquiry to “get down in the gutter” with disrespectful, unnecessary, vitriolic rudeness.
I have come to see the dangers of religion and, most certainly, the dangers of extremist religion. I am very grateful for Kurtz’s guidance about maintaining basic dignity while confronting these dangers. Please know that his work has influenced me a great deal.
St. Cloud, Minnesota
The Court, Corporations, and Democracy
As a longtime political activist and veteran of numerous campaigns on all levels from local to federal, I wholeheartedly disagree with Paul Kurtz and his statements concerning Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (“Activist Court Undermines American Democracy,” FI, April/May 2010). The majority of justices who ruled in favor of expanded campaign donations and other activities were not being activists. Quite the contrary, it was the members of previous courts, going back nearly a century, who were the activists, imposing their progressive anti-capitalism, anti-constitution agenda on the nation.
If unlimited money is such a factor in elections then surely we would have had presidents named Perot and Kerry, both billionaires. Instead we had the likes of Bill Clinton, who came from a lower middle-class background to win two terms in the Oval Office. The same is true of Barack Obama, who is likely to be a one-term president, though not for lack of funds.
Corporations are not human, but they represent humans via the stockholders and employees. Unions have a similar role, although unlike corporations they pay no taxes and thus should have limited political influence, the same as religious organizations. As for corporations having much more power than unions, SEIU, AFSCME, and others, most of which represent public employees, were key players in the Obama campaign, offering not only tens of millions of dollars but tens of millions more in the form of manpower.
Finally, that the Supreme Court stopped the vote count in 2000 and “threw” the election to George W. Bush is a myth that has long since been debunked. Independent counts of the votes by major media outlets after the election was declared show that Bush won despite the Court’s actions.
The bottom line is that voters, not the amount of money spent, make the final decision.
Newton Township, Pennsylvania
Paul Kurtz responds:
I am surprised that David Kveragas minimizes the role of big money in federal elections. He must be living in a dream world. Striking down restrictions on corporate spending, as the Supreme Court did in its Citizens United ruling, paves the way for virtually unlimited spending; this, I submit, undermines the democratic process. Mr. Kveragas refers to presidential elections, but this is hardly sufficient evidence for his claim that money does not decide elections. Congressional elections often rise or fall on the amount of money spent on advertising, and incumbents who spend vast sums are more likely to win than those that do not. There are of course exceptions. Nonetheless, this ruling perverts the electoral process, for unlimited corporate spending may unduly undermine free and fair elections. And even the threat of corporate spending may influence the judgment of senators or representatives who are fearful of losing their next election.
I reiterate: this was a bad decision for our democracy!
Only by ignoring certain key facts can one support Paul Kurtz’s claim that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision “equates a corporation’s rights with those of real persons.” First, unlike individuals, corporations are still barred from making direct contributions to candidates. Second, unlike individuals, corporations are still prohibited from spending money on advertisements in cooperation or consultation with candidates. Finally, corporations must still disclose and report how much they spend and for whom.
The effects of this Supreme Court ruling will fall mostly on advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, and labor unions. Profit-making corporations will always be constrained by public opinion when deciding to whom they publicly contribute: support the wrong cause and you lose customers. Transparency and a totally free press are all that are needed to protect democracy; restrictive laws are counterproductive!
Old and New Atheism
Lurking just beneath the surface of Tom Flynn’s op-ed essay “Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism” (FI, June/July 2010) is an unmistakable strain of professional jealousy. While damning with faint praise the success of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, he submits an argument that is specious at best, resentful at worst. It’s as if he’s saying, “We were here first! We were here first!” To point out that atheism has been the subject of previous books and therefore that these recent ones bring nothing new to the scene is to disregard their wide and overdue impact on popular culture.
Yes, there is something new about the New Atheism, and it includes, among other things, the fire of unrepentant anger and a courageous affront to organized religion, an in-your-face challenge to false piety, and the renunciation of the sordid role that religion has and continues to have on world history. That is hardly the makings of a book like Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which Flynn pronounces “the breakthrough title.” Are you kidding? The English poet Shelley was kicked out of Oxford in 1811 for publishing an anonymous tract entitled “The Necessity of Atheism,” but these Four Horsemen of the New Atheism figuratively ride their steeds up and down the ivy halls to wide acclaim and support and do so with both heat and light.
It seems appropriate at this point to quote that old renegade Ambrose Bierce in his reference to Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”
Tom Flynn responds:
Granted, Susan Jacoby’s magnificent Freethinkers was not the rhetorical juggernaut that Harris’s End of Faith was. Nonetheless, it was the first “movement” book to come from a mainstream publisher and win reviews in many mainstream publications in 2004, and it appeared months before Harris’s book.
Aside from that, I agree with reader Parks—not about the professional jealousy part, but about the observation that “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know.” That’s exactly what has happened with the New Atheism: millions of people discovered lots of old things they hadn’t known. But there is an important difference between misapprehending those old things as new and coming to understand them as the fruit of a long, proud, and (until too recently, ghettoized) t
radition. At the risk of miscegenating metaphors, it’s the difference between thinking that you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and knowing that you stand on the shoulders of giants.
Tom Flynn wrote just what I have been thinking for some time now. The only thing new about the New Atheism is that it is being published by regular publishers and reviewed in the mainstream media. Another difference is that many of the authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Victor J. Stenger, are distinguished scientists. Those of us older than dirt can remember how some of the early freethought propagandists criticized certain scientists for pandering to religious thinking.
The famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington responded to criticism and debated the editor of the British journal The Freethinker in its pages. Eddington was a genius, but Chapman Cohen, the editor, had an exceptional mentality himself, and the debate makes interesting reading today, nearly a hundred years later.
The times were different, though, throughout a good part of the last century, and scientists didn’t want to automatically impeach their work in the public mentality by revealing themselves as atheists. Even Einstein used religious metaphor and kept hidden his private thoughts in such matters. However, toward the end of his life, he grew a little bolder and even wrote an approving foreword to Homer Smith’s seminal book Man and his Gods.
That is not to say that I don’t enjoy the books that have gained such attention today. It is good to have eminent scientists writing—and making the best-seller lists, to boot!
Richard F. Stratton
San Diego, California
Put Ten Commandments in Their Proper Place
Your “Federal Appeals Court Upholds ‘Secular’ Ten Commandments Display” news item (“News Beat,” FI, April/May 2010) noted that the “Ten Commandments have historical legal importance. Alongside the Ten Commandments, the display included the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ along with other documents.” However, there is one important category in which the Ten Commandments is conspicuously different than the other documents in this display. The Ten Commandments has no basis in primary-source-dependent history and as such should properly be classified as Jewish creation mythology—in much the same manner as references are made to the Greek myths. Permitting the Ten Commandments to be included with generally agreed-upon historical documents provides a legitimacy it in no way deserves. If a display involving the contributions of religious mythology to contemporary law is ever made available for public viewing, that’s where the Ten Commandments should rightfully be memorialized.
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
Richard Carrier writes in “On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview” (FI, April/May 2010) that his essay is intended to attract constructive debate. As one who considers himself a naturalist, I’m responding in that spirit.
Carrier builds his conclusion that naturalism means that everything that exists, including thoughts, perceptions, and emotions, is causally reducible to different arrangements of matter-energy in space-time. He concludes that naturalism is true if everything that exists is causally reducible to the nonmental. I suggest that naturalism is true even though not everything is reducible to the nonmental.
In The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan says, “The modern sciences of information theory, computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive sciences have made clear that certain causal processes are best described in terms of information flow, not in terms of collisions” (p. 137). “In any case, it is the standard assumption in both contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience that reasons can be causes” (p. 139). Reasons are certainly mental. If I understand Flanagan correctly, thoughts, perceptions, and emotions need not have had nonmental matter-energy causes.
Carrier writes, “If there were any true supernatural facts, we could very well have discovered them by now. Science could indeed have proved young Earth creationism true….” Rather than accept the truth of a supernatural fact, I think we would instead have concluded that we simply didn’t know the natural explanation.
With regard to the second point, I think the most that science could have done would be to have failed to prove young Earth creationism false.
Richard Carrier responds:
You can’t have information flow without objects to carry it. That’s why we need a physical brain to process information. If indeed we could process information without a brain, we would then by definition have a disembodied soul, which is by everyone’s account a supernatural claim. As to professions of ignorance as an excuse to remain a naturalist (such as in the face of overwhelming evidence of disembodied information processing), at some point the evidence would be such that this would just become a God of Gaps argument in reverse, which is irrational. I discuss this in detail at the end of the blog my article recommends and summarizes (“Defining the Supernatural,” available at www.richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html).
When I first read Edd Doerr’s review of The Death of Conservatism (FI, April/May 2010), I wondered, in what country is author Sam Tanenhaus living? I concede that, in a sense, the title is accurate. Goldwater, Buckley, or even Nixon would feel quite out of place at, say, an address by Sarah Palin or a Tea Party rally.
Contemporary politics—which might date from the John Kerry Swift Boat attacks—is not “liberal versus conservative” but rather “traditional centrists versus radicals”—radicals who, in their “populist” self-identification, exploit and foment fear and ignorance. The media may or may not catch up to this reality. Conservatism, which might be called “get-Obamaism,” is not only healthy, it is dominant. Talk of the death of conservatism is not just premature, it is misapplied; it is representative democracy that is looking anemic and wounded.
San Francisco, California