Letters

Analyzing the Affirmations

With a skosh of trepidation I take exception to Paul Kurtz’s exceptional, comprehensive “Affirmations of Humanism.” I dissent not just from several specifics butalso itsgeneral tone and purpose: so many “We believe . . .” (eg., “We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence”). These theses—although mailed and not nailed—seem, both in manner and language, rather religious.

I didn’t join a party, enlist in acause, or subscribe to an agenda. I don’t want to be prescribed an interest in the arts and sciences, one no less than the other. Although I agree wholeheartedly with most of the Affirmations, I—and I imagine I have some company—resent a codification or catechism that we are seemingly advised to refer to so as to achieve secular salvation. Incidentally, I don’t deplore the efforts of most of mankind because they seek supernatural salvation.

Jerry Bronk
San Francisco, California

Many thanks for your terrific magazine. Inside your front cover is “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” one of which is: “We want to protect and enhance Earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.” The implication of this statement is that it must be okay to inflict necessary suffering on other species. While it may be impossible to avoid suffering, I wish we would realize that all suffering inflicted on others is unnecessary and to be avoided, no matter the species. The inclusion of the word needless seems to provide a convenient cover for those inflicting the suffering.

Tom Fitch
Fort Collins, Colorado

 


 

Secularists and Charitable Giving

In his op-ed piece, Tom Flynn asked: “Are Secularists Less Generous?” (FI, August/September 2010). In his analysis, Flynn overlooked the fact that much of what passes for charitable donations by religious people does not actually constitute “charity” under either the dictionary definition of charity or in any true moral sense of the word (as opposed to the legal or tax sense).

For a donation to be considered “charity” it has to satisfy at minimum the following two criteria: (1) the funds donated must be used to benefit someone other than the donor, and (2) the ultimate recipients of the donation are needy. So when someone donates money to Doctors Without Borders, obviously the donation would be considered to be charity because the funds help bring medical services to needy people throughout the world. Similarly, when a parishioner makes a contribution to his or her church’s soup kitchen, obviously the donation would be considered to be charity because the funds ultimately go to feed poor people.

On the other hand, when a parishioner donates money to his or her church’s building fund (or even the church’s general fund to the extent that the fund is used for things like maintenance and supplies, as opposed to taking care of the poor), why would that donation be considered as charity inasmuch as it satisfies neither of the above criteria? For one, the parishioner donor reaps the benefits of his or her own donation in the form of such things as nicer pews, new prayer books, improved restroom facilities, and possibly tastier wine and wafers. Second, assuming that the other church parishioners who likewise will benefit directly from the donation are roughly in the same economic stratum as the donor, the donation is not actually going to help the needy. To state it another way, how different really is it when a parishioner donates to his or her church’s building fund, versus when a college student chips in with his fraternity buddies to buy a new couch for the frat house to replace the old one that was thrown from the second-story window at the last pledge party?

Leonard Steiner
Beverly Hills, California

While I enjoyed Tom Flynn’s insights regarding the generosity of secularists as compared to the religious, I would like to make some additional points regarding this matter:

  1. The only way to accurately compare the relative charitable giving of secularists and religionists is to evaluate the tax returns, preferably audited, of these two groups to determine what they actually contributed to charity and not what they claim to have contributed. Since the Internal Revenue Service does not ask taxpayers to indicate their religious preference on their returns, this would be very difficult to do.
  2. Arthur C. Brooks, the author of Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide, is a Christian fundamentalist with an axe to grind against secularism. His reliance on anecdotal evidence rather than audited tax returns renders his claims worthless. An example of his research is telling. He found more people dropped money in Salvation Army pails in Fargo, North Dakota, than in San Francisco! What if it had been AIDS Victim or Greenpeace pails instead?
  3. Brooks did not include donations to cultural institutions (museums, symphony orchestras, universities, public broadcasters, etc.) in his survey, as this form of charitable giving is far more popular among secularists than fundamentalists.
  4. Assuming that Brooks’s claim is true (and it might not be, as Flynn points out), the fact that secularists tend to reside in high-tax states like New York and California where there are many government programs in place to assist those in need would appear to make the charitable contributions that Brooks focuses on less compelling.
  5. Brooks based his claims on percentage of income, and not actual dollars, contributed by the two groups. Yet I suspect that secularists as a group are better educated and have higher incomes, on average, than the religious. A person who makes $200,000 and contributes 5 percent of his or her income will contribute more ($10,000) than someone who earns $50,000 and tithes 10 percent ($5,000). Which of the two does more for charity? It is not just percentage of income but actual dollars contributed that is relevant to any comparisons between the devout and the heathens. Brooks ignores this completely.
  6. Let us not forget that some of the greatest philanthropists of all time have been atheists or agnostics. Andrew Carnegie was an atheist, as are Ted Turner and George Soros. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who are considered agnostic, have set up a foundation that will contribute over $30 billion to charity. Not surprisingly, Brooks makes no mention of this.
  7. Finally, let us not forget that the religionists who assert moral superiority over secularists with respect to charitable giving are the same folks who claimed to be happier in their marriages and more faithful to their spouses than nonbelievers. Then, a survey conducted by a Baptist organization discovered that fundamentalists have the highest divorce rate in the U.S.A.! Guess who had the lowest? Yes, the atheists, who it turned out answered the survey far more truthfully than the churchgoers. I suspect the same principle applies to the issue of charitable giving. The godly among us can talk the talk, but they clearly do not always walk the walk.

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

Regarding Tom Flynn’s piece, I have some evidence, albeit one particular angle, that shows atheists, secularists, and the nonreligious do give more: the micro-loan site Kiva (www.kiva.org). By connecting those who wish to loan (and usually give for good) with those who are in need all around the world, Kiva finances loans for agricultural, educational, and other important needs through its partners—verified for legitimacy—and will pay back the lenders often within a year or less. Worthy, no doubt, but what group of lenders tops the site’s ranking? This one: Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious. Quite the catchall! The nonreligious group has lent a combined $2.4 million, the second group (Kiva Christians—surprise!) about $1.5 million. Other groups include Team Obama, Team Europe, etc. who all struggle to hit the $1 million mark. The nonreligious group has just over ten thousand members, compared to about five thousand for the Christian group and a few thousand for the other top contenders. In my mind, this shows clear evidence that the nonreligious are just (dare I say more?) as charitable as our believing counterparts, both in membership and dollar amounts. I am glad that Kiva allows such a strong nonreligious presence and hope it will continue to grow.

Samuel Hartman
Indianapolis, Indiana

Tom Flynn replies:

My op-ed generated a great deal of reader mail, all of it friendly to the idea that seculars are more generous than they get credit for. But I’d caution Leonard Steiner and several writers whose letters we could not print due to space constraints about defining charity too restrictively. I think a moral case can be made that giving to one’s church is less worthy than giving to help the needy. Good luck convincing a believer who thinks his or her church saves souls, a form of help relative to which (under Christianity, at least) everyone is needy. However, good luck, too, finding research studies that categorize their data that way. Under IRS rules, tax-deductible gifts contributed to religious, educational, scientific, and fraternal nonprofits all count equally as charitable giving. Finally, restricting one’s definition of charity to, effectively, poor relief shortchanges worthy nonprofits that may not serve the destitute—or not them alone. Steiner’s college student who chips in to refurnish the frat house surely isn’t being very charitable, though he might claim the tax deduction if he’s sober enough to keep the receipt (and if he can itemize). But what about alumnae who contribute to their alma mater’s endowment fund? What about giving to symphony orchestras, art museums, environmental organizations, human rights groups, historical societies, and public broadcasters? What about (ahem) Free Inquiry, whose perpetual deficit is closed by the contributions of generous readers? There’s plenty of genuinely charitable giving that doesn’t go solely to the needy. I agree with these readers that it would be a better world if less of it went to run churches.

 


 

Expressing Views on Religion

Ronald A. Lindsay’s editorial “Expressing One’s Views On Religion” (FI, August/September 2010) is outstanding and should be required reading. Yes, we should criticize some religious beliefs, but we should also assign blame in certain instances (Crusades, Inquisitions, witch burnings).

Ben Coke
Salt Lake City, Utah

I am encouraged by Ronald A. Lindsay’s editorial that your organization will become more relevant and active in the future, and involved in real-world legal issues.

Some issues of concern to me are the employment of religious “professionals” by governments, from Congress, prisons, and the military, on down to local police departments and government services provided by religious organizations.

I could go on but will close with a quote from an article in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American by Lawrence M. Krauss: “Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous.”

Victor LeFaber
Spokane, Washington

The August/September 2010 Free Inquiry was one of your better issues. You do have a few classical liberals among your readers. There is awhole body of books in the disciplines between economics and psychology that points to the irrationality of man. It is probable that man is only an optimistic 80 percent rational, as this issue shows. Keep up the fight for rationality.

David R. Blankenship
Visalia, California

 


 

Freethought and Free Speech on Campus

Lauren Becker’s “Freethought and Free Speech on Campus” (FI, August/September 2010) was an excellent introduction to the reports from different universities that followed. I thank Becker and her staff for gathering such thought-provoking materials. As a seventy-year-old curmudgeon who has recently entered the folds of atheism, separation of church and state, and free inquiry, I was pleasantly surprised at the strength of the different campus groups as they struggled with free speech and right-to-assemble issues. I was particularly taken with these groups’ responses to the litanies of hate, threats of violence, and—probably most hurtfully—the apathy of a majority of their peers. These young adults are showing that they understand and will utilize all the freedoms granted them under the Constitution, but in a fashion that is educational and understanding of other persons’ rights. I was also impressed that the officials of the different universities, save one, did not move in any way to block rallies; even the police seem to have treated the participants with respect and not looked for ways to make arrests.

All in all, I’d say Blasphemy Day was a success and should be amplified on campuses and around America next year. I look forward to participating in a rally in my neck of the woods.

Bill Calhoun
Lady Lake, Florida

 


 

Campaign for Free Expression

Congratulations on the August/September 2010 Free Inquiry issue and its examination of campus freethought. Regarding the Campaign for Free Expression essay contest, I thought T.M. Murray was a worthy competition winner for his essay “The Importance of Free Expression and Its Limits (If Any),” but I must take issue with the point about incitement to hatred. It would obviously be unnecessary to ban incitement to hatred if human beings always acted as free, responsible, rational moral agents. But they don’t. We are all a lot less rational than we fondly like to think, and mobs can be swayed by demagogues. Hitler and his minions managed to stir up murderous hatred against Jews. There were many Jew haters already in Germany, but the propaganda turned hatred for Jews into a prime issue and made it semi-respectable.

Much more recently, the Rwandan radio station RTLM relentlessly incited hatred of Tutsis, referring to them as “cockroaches” and subsequently inciting killing of the cockroaches. We are all well aware of the terrible genocidal result. As with Germany, racial tensions already existed in Rwanda, but the sustained propaganda fanned the flames.

It shouldn’t matter if I say, “All Muslims are idiot supporters of an indefensible creed.” That would be crude criticism. But once I suggest that Muslims should be attacked or killed, then that is going too far. I think that states need to protect against mob violence and those who incite it.

Diana Brown
Lausanne, Switzerland

 


 

Reviews

I am writing to express my concerns with the review of my book, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence (Wiley-Blackwell), written by Hector Avalos that appears in Free Inquiry’s August/September issue. One concern is that the review does not present an accurate description of what the book is about, even though Avalos spends one-third of the review describing the book, chapter by chapter. This book is a work in the cognitive science of religion, a relatively new but quickly developing field that seeks to provide empirically based, nat
uralistic explanations of how the mind’s structure gives rise to religious concepts, emotions, and rituals. The thesis of my book is that religious moral traditions are cultural expressions of our evolved cognitive tools and that evidence of the influence of these tools can be discerned in religious texts such as the Bible. One would never know this from reading Avalos’s review.

Avalos also raises several questionable critiques of the book. He takes me to task for an incomplete review of the literature on religious violence, providing as evidence a work that I in fact do cite (Ellens, 2004—see p. 246). Even worse than this factual error is that he charges me with having “no awareness of the philosophical implications . . . of my own definition of ‘faith’”—quite a serious accusation to make against a philosopher. What support does he offer for this accusation? That the definition I use has been used by someone else to come to an erroneous conclusion about religion. The fact that someone misuses a definition does not say anything about the validity of that definition—a logical point that seems to have eluded Avalos.

The most serious flaw, according to Avalos, is that I seem not to appreciate the lord/vassal relationship so central to biblical society. Of course, the lord/vassal or master/servant relationship (the way to label the relationship varies) serves as a basic religious model throughout the Ancient Near East. This is not in question; the question is why this is such a basic model and how that model finds particular expression in different cultural and historical environments—these are questions that the cognitive science of religion proposes to answer and what my book tries to explain. Whether it does so successfully is, of course, open to debate, but to suggest it does not address this relationship is inaccurate; to claim that the analysis offered is inadequate requires an evaluation of the evidence presented—and Avalos has not done this.

Of course, no author has a right to expect a positive review of his work, but authors—and readers—do have a right to expect a careful and accurate review. I do not believe my book received such a review.

John Teehan
Associate Professor of Religion
Hofstra University
Hempstead, New York

Hector Avalos replies:

I stand by my criticisms, but I would like to address the factual one. There is no mention of J. Harold Ellens on p. 246 of my copy. That page is part of a bibliography. The first entry is ”Bulbulia” and the last entry is “Corballis.” Any names beginning with “E” start on p. 248, and there is no “Ellens” between the names “Ehrman” and “Ellingsen” on that page.

The copy I have is designated as an “Uncorrected Proof,” and so it is possible that Dr. Teehan subsequently added Ellens in the final published version. However, I was asked to review the copy sent to me by Free Inquiry, and I naturally assumed that it was completely suitable for review. I took “uncorrected” to refer to spelling or simple grammatical errors that I did not mention. Thus, I do regret any factual error. The rest of Dr. Teehan’s objections do not refute my observations.

 


 

More on ‘Kind and Gentle Humanism’

I joyously applauded the resounding debate (Letters, FI, August/September 2010) that included the usual hand-wringing over marring the sensitivities of the superstitious. They historically have never refrained from blasting unbelief—even resorting to the ultimate vengeance, which soft-pedaling and mere hand-wringing will never absolve.

William R. Lamppa
Embarrass, Minnesota

Paul Kurtz is right. Not only does courteous rational discourse with theists prove that secular humanists are not merely negativists, but it shows that they practice a deep and active philosophy based on truth and devoted to the welfare of humanity—which the discourse will clarify and advance.

Such discourse will also totally thwart a key tactic of radical theists, namely high indignation and denunciation, which end any effort to reason and seek the truth.

John Tomasin, Esq.
West New York, New Jersey


Analyzing the Affirmations With a skosh of trepidation I take exception to Paul Kurtz’s exceptional, comprehensive “Affirmations of Humanism.” I dissent not just from several specifics butalso itsgeneral tone and purpose: so many “We believe . . .” (eg., “We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence”). These theses—although mailed and not nailed—seem, both in …

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