Letters

Kind and Gentle Humanism

Why a more kind and gentle Humanism?

Paul Kurtz’s “Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism” (FI, June/July 2010) has little to do with the reality of the twenty-first century. New religions and a ll kinds of Christianity are surfacing. Why continue a dream of “noble tradition” especially when confronted by fake religiosity and naive beliefs? How does the good professor envision a kind and gentle approach to the great number of those loudly proclaiming the role of God (the great man-made authority) in human history, including contemporary society?

The type and amount of work for a man in Kurtz’s position probably does not allow for time to be “wasted” on discovering and diagnosing the craziness of modern faith-based actions (demonstrated by the GOP’s new leader Lou Engle and other prayer warriors, who actually proclaim a “Jesus-as-Warrior” philosophy) or developments in denominations like the New Apostolic Reformation and its International Coalition of Apostles. The behavior (written propaganda and evangelizing techniques included) of these action-oriented, result-seeking faith “enforcers” who know how to politicize religion does not warrant (or justify) a more balanced approach to theism.

My encounters with many Christian faith-obsessed people (not just older folks) have given me the impression that a restrained approach is not the right choice when dealing with institutionalized, organized religion full of zealots and radical believers, their unreasonable expectations, and their demand for respect.

Reinhold Hinz
Weatherford, Texas

I cannot completely agree with Paul Kurtz. The only way to fight fanaticism is to engage it forcefully at every turn. Look at what happened when Chamberlain tried to be nice to Hitler.

Throughout history, religion has been the prime cause of humankind’s ills. The fight against science, including stem-cell research, is religion based. Stem cells, even if they do not lead to major cures, will give biologists insight into human and animal biology. If something is against biblical fiction, religion does not want to know about it. The few who question the “reality of religion” may be influenced by gentleness; the others will not be.

Rayner Colton
Brooklyn, New York

I greatly appreciate Paul Kurtz’s sustained appeal for a kind and gentle humanism. But although it is not my nature or style either, I do not fear the “ridicule of religion” that has enjoyed some popular attention recently. Indeed, I have to admit that I am quietly amused and entertained by it. Great changes in society come about due to many forces and influences. The civil rights laws in our country could not have been implemented just by the efforts of quiet white liberals and disenfranchised African Americans, nor with Martin Luther King’s great preaching for social justice. It was only with the addition of some people brave enough to sit down where they were not supposed to and some not-so-polite college kids who got the Chicago police to riot that public consensus came together to allow Lyndon Johnson to lead us to a legislative settlement of how we should treat people.

Do not despair, Paul. Your message will prevail. Social consensus and humanistic values cannot be established or maintained by poking people in the eye; but in the end, it will get them to blink and perhaps look more carefully at the underlying things you are gently saying.

Robert R. Blake
Indianapolis, Indiana

I am basically in agreement with Paul Kurtz. I want to say that I also found the Free Expression Cartoon Contest winners on page 57 of the June/July issue of Free Inquiry offensive. I consider myself an agnostic secular humanist, and I don’t like religion because it teaches things that are not true. But I also think it is in poor taste to poke fun at the beliefs of others. While I don’t believe in any religion or any god, other people find much comfort in their religion, and I think we could help those people find the truth by being kinder and gentler in the way we explain our disagreements with religion.

If we expect other people to listen to our anti-religious message, we should do it in such a way that shows that we understand why they believe what they do. Getting people to change their beliefs can’t be done by ridiculing them. At one time I was snared by religion, and I would have been very upset if someone told me that all the things I believed were nothing but garbage. I gradually fell away from religion, not because of offensive cartoons but because of people who said and wrote things that made sense. I’ve always been interested in seeking truth, and it was natural for me to accept secular humanism. I’m now eighty-six years old, and it has been a journey for me from belief in the Bible to agnosticism. We don’t all progress at the same rate.

As the old saying goes, we can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We should tell the truth about religion and the evils it has caused, but I agree with Kurtz; we should do it with gentleness and kindness. It is wrong and against the principles of “Do to others what you would want others to do to you” to try to force someone else to accept what we believe.

Eddie Filer
Naples, Florida

Paul Kurtz is right. Not only does courteous rational discourse with theists prove that secular humanists are not merely negativists, but it also proves that they practice a deep and active philosophy based on truth and are devoted to the welfare of humanity, which the discourse will clarify and advance. It will also totally block a key tactic of radical theists, namely high indignation and denunciation, which ends any effort to reason and seek the truth.

John Tomasin
West New York, New Jersey

 


 

Child Sex-Abuse and the Catholic Clergy

With regard to the question of priestly pedophilia as a recent phenomenon as discussed by Tom Flynn in “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before . . .” (FI, June/July 2010): if one reads Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio by Karen Liebreich, one will learn that sexual abuse of children, practiced by the Piarist Order of priests, occurred in the early seventeenth century in Italy, Spain, and central Europe. She relates how the order’s founder, Father José de Calasanz (the patron saint of Catholic schools) tried to keep the abuse a secret, with the active participation of upper levels of the Vatican hierarchy. In fact, Pope Innocent X appointed him, a known prolific abuser, to lead an order dedicated to the education of children.

Jules Freedman
Cincinnati, Ohio

I applaud Tom Flynn’s willingness to write about the sexual crimes of some of the Catholic clergy; these crimes, I believe, have been going on for centuries—cover-ups, too. In my own case, it has been sixty years since I was first beaten and buggered, then buggered and beaten, and on and on, by a member of the Irish Christian Brothers at a Catholic grammar school in the industrial north of England. For many years (forty plus, in fact), I believed that I was solely responsible for what had happened and that the guilt of those sexual sins was all mine.

I went off the rails in my thinking and feelings. The weight of those sexual sins was almost overpowering: there was never a day that I didn’t think about them. I bounced between religions looking for solace, understanding, and forgiveness. I became alexithymic and slipped into a years-long depression. I was unable to hold a marriage together; I lost a family.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I was able to sort myself out by returning to England and asking my sisters and mother to take me to the place where those life-destroying events had taken place. My younger and still-Catholic sister asked why I wanted to go to the school because it had been closed in the late 1960s (I was in graduate school in America at the time) due to “some horrible goings-on there.” It was then I told my family what had happened to me and then that they realized just why my life had been a mess.

John T. Walsh
Burley, Idaho

 


 

Rights for Robots

The argument developed by Peter Singer and Agata Sagan in “No Rights for Robots? Never?” (FI, June/July 2010) that the creation of ever-more complex robots necessitates concern for their rights as potentially conscious beings depends on an implicit model of mind that is unsupported by cognitive or physiological research.

Unlike computer processing, human thought does not proceed sequentially from the awareness of a problem to its evaluation to a decision and then a response. Instead, sensory information automatically activates subcortical emotional and motor associations along with conceptual elaboration that may or may not reach the level of awareness. That is, rather than being the instigator of thought, consciousness is one of its outcomes.

As a result of this partial access to the results of preconscious activation that has already simulated detectable verbal and muscular impulses, we can explain our ongoing overt responses plausibly to ourselves, thus supporting our impression of free will. Presumably, some of the output of complex parallel processing in computers could be recycled to simulate consciousness, but this redundancy would have no more moral relevance for robots than for humans.

The capacity to feel is a different matter. A being capable of grief or affection clearly has claims on compassion and respect. But in positing computational complexity as the cause of emotion, Singer and Sagan ignore not only evolution but the undeniable sentience of our newborns and our pets. The human brain is layered, with our reasoning ability superimposed on emotional responses that we share with other mammals. Care-giving behaviors and empathy evolved long before the specifically human neocortex because they served the survival of our prehuman ancestors. Lacking such biological imperatives, the most computationally advanced, self-replicating robot would not develop feelings.

While consciousness probably emerged from complexity alone, emotion did not. So in equating consciousness and emotion, the authors compound the confusion of their argument. A human brain is an intrinsically emotional product of both evolution and experience, not a reasoning machine. It serves a living body that interacts with a world of objects and beings in pursuit of both species-defined and individual needs and hopes. No matter how convincingly future robots might mimic caring behavior, no degree of processing complexity would endow them with the biological motives that could give their actions a moral dimension.

Laureen Martin, PhD, Cognitive Science
Port Townsend, Washington

 


 

American Values

Shadia B. Drury’s column on American values (“Are American Values Universal?” FI, June/July 2010) focused narrowly on liberty, our version of freedom. Freedom, however, is tactical in nature, each person’s provincial version playing off the others. It is cosmopolitan equality (Ronald Dworkin’s “sovereign virtue”) that strategically equilibrates all versions of freedom.

Equality is the social value that is anchored anthropologically. By any measure—race, religion, ethnicity, class, intelligence, morality, etc.—no two given humans are likely to be equal. But all claims of superiority based on such criteria have so far been positively disproved. Religious, ethnic, nationalist, ideological, and eugenic crusades have little to show beyond death, destruction, and disillusionment. Non-egalitarian systems, which claim to discern mental qualities based on external features, have failed to persuade; no one can fully know another person’s character or capabilities.

We are left with the abstract principle of the equality of all adult humans as moral agents. From this egalitarian principle we derive freedom, justice, and principled governance. Pragmatically, no person should be able to speak or act for any other without his or her informed consent or legitimate guardianship. Formally, every adult person should have equal fundamental standing in legal, political, and civil processes.

Though we can reasonably claim the egalitarian principle to be a universal value, like scientific methodology, it has to be learned. The historical learning process has involved enormous struggle and violence to overcome anti-egalitarian claims and the provincialism they were based on. Further, the negative cultural, political, and economic phenomena Drury notes are consequences not just of liberty but of egalitarianism. As we struggle with issues of freedom and equality at home and abroad, we should avoid thinking only tactically. We should embrace a strategic, cosmopolitan vision that incorporates the entire universal heritage of constantly evolving knowledge, skills, and resources as every human being’s equal birthright.

Howard Grimwood
Richmond, Virginia

 


 

Darwin and Porn

What planet is Katrina Voss (“Less Dworkin, More Darwin,” FI, June/July 2010) living on? Her apparently insular, middle-class existence is so removed from the realities of most women’s lives that she blithely makes absurd assertions such as women “are the dominant sex.” Her proof? They are paid well in the mainstream porn industry. She insists that birth control has done more for women than feminism, that Debbie Does Dallas (with empowered females) trumps Darwin, and that sexual dimorphism is responsible for a long evolutionary history of inequality—so sit back and enjoy it. One of only a few women writing for Free Inquiry, she uses FI as a platform to whine about how feminists revile her for posing for Playboy (her major claim to fame, one she never tires of bringing up) and denigrating women and men who suggest that inequalities exist and need to be corrected. Voss, who slept through her women’s studies class, finds distasteful facts such as women still make a little over three-quarters of what men earn, continue to be discriminated against in the job market and health-care systems, are subject to sexual harassment and rape in the military and on our city streets, and are left with the care of children and elderly parents. For her, the centuries-old women’s movement was launched merely so that she can bleat about her right to make “choices”; it is all about her, her rights, her needs. Tell that to the woman on welfare, stuck in a dead-end job, dealing with violence, and fending off the advances of her boss. Voss has not grasped that feminism was and is a movement centering on collective efforts to achieve equality in the form of institutional and broad-ranging changes to make life better for others not as fortunate as she is.

Alden Waitt
Athens, Ohio

Katrina Voss replies:

So let me get this straight: I write an essay whose very title includes the words “more Darwin.” Then, through some twist of logic, Ms. Waitt accuses me of letting Darwin be “trumped” by what I describe as evidence of his very arguments. Sadly, she misses, probably willfully, the central point of the essay—that biology should be included in discussions of politics and sociology. She further accuses me of being “middle class” and “sleeping” through college. She also charges me with not caring about poor women or women who are raped in the military—an accusation that is almost too stupid to address. It is at best a perverse non sequitur; at worst, a tragic and careless misreading of anything I have ever written. As a woman who has volunteered to help young, low-income women and girls walk through crowds of protesters to obtain safe abortions, I find such attacks particularly insulting and thoughtless.

But to give this reader the benefit of the doubt, I will peel away all the irrelevant name-calling and inaccurate personal accusations. I also will put aside for a moment her bizarre unwillingness to address the science in a scientific essay and agree with her that there is definitely a conversation to be had about what it means to be a feminist today and how wealth, power, and privilege are crucial elements that determine each woman’s experience and worldview. Still, modern feminism is open to argument, new evidence, and reason, just as any other field of study and inquiry should be. It is in that manner—the manner of Free Inquiry—that I will continue to address issues of sexual and political inequality. Fundamentalism in any form—whether religious, feminist, or even inspired by evolutionary theory—is dangerous. And as Ms. Waitt has proven so exquisitely, it is also incompatible with science.

 


 

We Are All African

Why on earth was the article by Christopher diCarlo (“We Are All African,” FI, June/July 2010) included in a magazine for skeptics? The article has the subtitle “Can scientific proof of our commonality save us?” and contains an excellent exposition of the evidence for the descent of all living people from African ancestors, but I doubt that many of your readers are skeptical of the evidence for this descent. However, I am sure that readers who reflect for a moment on the relations between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, between Cain and Abel, or between Hutu and Tutsi will have an immediate answer to the subtitle’s question.

An answer also becomes obvious if we either restrict or expand our search for commonality. If we restrict the search for commonality to first-degree relatives (i.e., I would ask “Are we all members of this Deutsch family?”), maybe that would save the Deutsch family from conflict, but surely Cain realized his commonality with Abel!

How about expanding the search for commonality to its ultimate? The evidence is pretty good that life on Earth originated only once and that all living things are related, including me and the delicious eggplant I had for dinner. I guess we can’t get nonhumans to reflect on this commonality, but it is reasonable to be skeptical that doing so would diminish strife on Earth.

Marshall E. Deutsch
Sudbury, Massachusetts

 


 

Human Rights

I think the simple answer to Tibor Machan’s question (“Sen v. Bauer: On What Do Rights Stand?” FI, June/July 2010) is that human rights do not stand on anything. These rights, when first promulgated several hundred years ago, were called “natural rights” or the “Rights of Man.” They were believed to be God-given; if there was no God, then there was no basis for these rights.

As deism gradually gave way to outright secularism, so “natural rights” (based on “natural religion”) gave way to “human rights.” But if they did not emanate from God, what was their origin?

Machan would like us to believe that such rights are based on an objective knowledge of human nature. There is, of course no such knowledge. Different cultures have different concepts of human nature, and thus the idea of rights, so derived, is culturally determined. Machan goes so far as to state that that right to private property is “indispensable for human living.” There are many societies that, as Captain Cook learned, have little or no concept of private property or in which the personal ownership of land is inconceivable. Even within the same culture, there are many different concepts of human nature—should we accept that of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Nietzsche?

Additionally, he posits that such rights rest in the human capacity to reason about reality. In fact, as anyone watching Fox News will confirm, the human capacity to reason about reality is extremely limited and cannot be used to establish that we have or deserve to have human rights. This is a complete non sequitor.

In either case, Machan believes that certain rights actually exist. He calls them “pre-legal principles,” but this is simply a euphemism for “natural rights,” i.e., natural rights without God but which are nevertheless inviolable and not open to discussion.

There is absolutely no evidence that such abstract rights or pre-legal principles exist. And certainly, in practice, these so-called inalienable rights may be abrogated or withdrawn. If we have a natural right to life, then why is there a death penalty? If there is a right to liberty, why is there incarceration? Our “freedom of speech” is limited by laws against libel, slander, and “hate speech.” Obviously these “inalienable” rights are, in fact, provisional.

Perhaps we should treat others as if they had human rights, and we should ourselves be treated as if we had human rights, but these rights do not really exist. We have made them up for ourselves. We have put them to good use, but we should admit that they are simply a figment of society’s imagination. Indeed, they may represent our best aspirations.

Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico

 


 

Education, Religion, and the State

Re “Taxes for Faith-based Schools?” by Edd Doerr (Church-State Update, FI, June/July): I’ve been an atheist for seventy-four of my eighty-six years. It happened as a result of being forced to attend a Catholic school. Consequently, the thought of my taxes going to any religious school is extremely distasteful. However, I must differ with Doerr on his statement that public school flaws are due to inadequate funding. The average cost of private and religious schools is less than half the cost of government schools. As is usually the case, anything the government does is done poorly and at twice the cost.

In my opinion, there should have been a provision in the Constitution requiring the separation of schools and state. Since that didn’t happen, I propose that taxpayers be given the choice of paying their school taxes to the government or to any legitimate school or scholarship fund they choose. If half the money went to private education, the private schools would have enough money to educate all children, and government schools could be totally privatized.

It would gall me to see religious schools flourish, but private nonreligious schools would also flourish, and the taxpayers would save billions of dollars. Is there anything morally wrong with letting the taxpayers decide where their education dollars are spent?

James W. Phelps
Byers, Colorado

Edd Doerr replies:

Tax support for faith-based private schools, through vouchers, tax credits (tax-code vouchers), or “K-12 Pell Grants” (Newt Gingrich’s euphemism for vouchers), would fragment school populations along religious, class, ethnic, ideological, and other lines. It would violate at least thirty-eight state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution, and the clearly expressed wishes of tens of millions of voters who have rejected vouchers or their analogs in over twenty-five statewide referenda by an average of 2 to 1.

Faith-based schools are cheaper to operate because their programs are narrower than those of public schools, their teachers are paid much less, and they tend to screen out poor and problem students. Good secular private schools cost twice as much as the public school average.

Experience has shown that public schools perform much better if K-3 classes are held to fifteen or fewer students, but doing so costs money. Also, school funding tends to be inequitably distributed, disfavoring the neediest kids.

Tax aid for religious schools is a prescription for disaster.

 


 

Bundle Thinking

As a self-described libertarian humanist, I find it delightful to see more and more like-minded humanists publishing articles in Free Inquiry. In particular, I enjoyed Donald Burleson’s “Bundle Thinking: Atheism and the Political Spectrum” (FI, June/July 2010), wherein he bemoans the common practice, especially among progressive thinkers, of equating belief in free markets with Christian fundamentalism. Though Burleson eloquently makes the point that one can be a nonbeliever and still be an economic conservative, I fear that he does not get to the essential issue: if you are a humanist and you truly believe that people have the right to live life as they see fit as long as they do not deny others the same right (one widely accepted definition of liberty), the rights to the fruits of one’s labor clearly follow. That is all that eco-conservatism is. Combine that with societal free choice, which virtually all humanists expound, and you have libertarianism. Therefore, it logically follows that all freedom-loving humanists should be libertarians. Thank Zeus for Tibor Machan!

Nathan Curland
St. Louis Park, Minnesota

Donald Burleson writes, “There are fewer even numbers that are divisible both by 7 and 11 than there are even numbers divisible by 7 than there are even numbers.” While this may appear to be intuitively obvious, it is, nevertheless, mathematically incorrect. While the first set of numbers is a proper subset of the second, and the second is a proper subset of the third, the sets contain exactly the same number of elements. This seeming contradiction, that the number of points in a proper subset can be equal to the number of elements in the set, is a basic property of infinite sets. I shall not burden you with a mathematical proof, which is available in many elementary texts.

Harold D. Shane
Professor of Mathematics Emeritus
Baruch College of CUNY
New York, New York

 


 

A Correction

The explanatory note at the end of Wesley Cecil’s article “Humanism and the Humane Arts” is incorrect: Peninsula College is in Port Angeles, Washington, not Port Townsend. —Eds.


Kind and Gentle Humanism Why a more kind and gentle Humanism? Paul Kurtz’s “Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism” (FI, June/July 2010) has little to do with the reality of the twenty-first century. New religions and a ll kinds of Christianity are surfacing. Why continue a dream of “noble tradition” especially when confronted by fake …

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