Letters

Freedom and Funding

While Tom Flynn and I do not share the same view on the purpose of the “wall” of separation between church and state, I do find myself agreeing with him in principle and specifics in “One (National) Step Back, One ( Local) Step Forward” (FI, February/March 2011). As a strongly conservative Christian, I am in full agreement with the statement “. . . No free man or woman should be forced to surrender his or her wealth to support the forcible imposition of religious creeds.” I do not want it imposed upon me, and I do not want it imposed upon others (and as a side note, it goes against the teachings of Christianity). It is a slippery slope, and the ramifications should scare anyone. But all that being said, I do not believe that no free man or woman should be forced to surrender his or her wealth to support those things that they have moral opposition to. When Flynn finds a solution to our mutual problem, let me know. I would love to hear it!

A. Nelson Moffett
Sevierville, Tennessee

Tom Flynn replies:

A tip of the hat to one of our conservative Christian readers, with whom (if I’m reading him correctly) I agree on this issue. While no one should be taxed to pay for religious proselytizing, there is no comparably broad protection against being taxed to support activities one finds merely morally objectionable—and that’s as things should be. There’s aclear justification for this seeming inconsistency, and itlies in the religion clauses of the First Amendment, which restrict government more harshly when it deals with religion than when it deals with any other activity or institution. Because the establishment clause, properly understood,forbids government to levy taxes to fund religious persuasion, Americans enjoy a right not to be taxed for that purpose. I wonder if reader Moffett would agree with me that public funding for abortion should be acceptable, since such funding would be appropriated for a secular purpose (say, health care). Christian taxpayers who consider abortion a sin may have strong moral objection to being taxed for this purpose, but that constitutes no establishment clause case against the government’s levying such a tax.

 


 

The Pope on Condoms

Christopher Hitchens’ column, “Lost in Translation,” in the February/March 2011 issue of Free Inquiry is, as usual, informative and insightful. I submit, however, it is just as good or even better to regard the pope’s recent comments on condoms as a fit subject for irreverent humor, riposting them ironically rather than analyzing them seriously. For example, in light of the pope’s recent remarks on condoms, a lot of married Catholic women are now finding out to their surprise that their husbands are male prostitutes protecting them from the spread of disease. However, it’s still a big Vatican no-no to use condoms to prevent the spread of a common nine-month disease! (Which is, of course, unintended pregnancy.)

George Fish
Indianapolis, Indiana

 


 

The Real Challenge for the Catholic Church

Wendy Kaminer needs to push the envelop a little further when she properly sticks that secular label on the Catholic Church (“Angry Atheists vs. The Catholic Church,” FI, February/March 2011). This institution, whose raison d’etre is to defend the faith of its adherents, to promulgate the mystery of the Trinity, and to declare the oneness of God has made absolutely no effort to mention or explain the absence of the Almighty in the global child-abuse scandal. Every apology from the Vatican is a secular apology. Either the offending priests are atypical of the clergy, or they need counseling, or their bishops were concerned about their civil rights, or there is some other secular explanation. But where does basic Catholic theology fit into the picture? Where was the intervention from a merciful God or Jesus that would have protected the children from bodily harm?

Is it possible that the Vatican is more worried about the theological implications of this astonishing failure of their God to intercede than they are about settling the dozens of impending global lawsuits? After all, if a loving and caring God won’t protect his children from the perversions of his own priests, then how can the Church ask their ebbing congregations to believe in the existence of God or in the Church’s teachings? That’s why the Church fathers seem to prefer focusing on the secular issues of this monstrous scandal. No clergy in St. Peter’s Basilica wants to deal with the very embarrassing $64,000 question: Where was God in all this mess? I would hope that the world press, including Free Inquiry, would have the courage to ask this question and push the Church for a straightforward response.

David Werdegar
Naperville, Illinois

 


 

Surplus Wealth a Myth?

Tibor Machan (“The Myth of Surplus Wealth,” FI, February/March 2011) argues that in a democratic society no one has the authority to take any money from its citizens and give it to someone in need. He seems to oppose any form of taxation, or at least progressive taxation. What he is overlooking is that that those who have prospered from a political and economic system have an obligation to give some of the gains back to the system that facilitated those gains.

In ancient Athens, anyone who had made considerable money from the Athenian system was obligated to return some of it, perhaps by financing a public well. One who had made a great deal of money might be expected to finance a public building, and one who had prospered enormously could be expected to finance a warship. Is it not fair to hold that those who have prospered with the American system owe to that system some reasonable portion of that prosperity to be used in such manner as the elected representatives determine is beneficial to the citizenry and who will, in turn, return some of their prosperity?

Noel W. Smith
Sarasota, Florida

Progressive taxation is based on the concept of fairness—considering that when it comes to taxes, few people would agree as to what is fair. Let us use as an example the situation in which every citizen must pay a flat tax of $1,000 so as to assure the functioning of government. A person making an annual salary of $10,000 would be paying 10 percent of his or her income for tax, whereas a person making $100,000 would be paying only 1 percent.

The situation worsens as income increases. Assuming the same-sized family and same degree of health, where is the fairness? Which group is in a better position to pay their tax? Is it fair to ask the less fortunate to pay a greater percentage of their income for taxation? Would not the less fortunate then be bearing the greater tax burden? Is it fair to create a situation in which such people have less discretionary funds available as compared to the wealthy? Thus, is it fair to decrease the opportunity for such people to accumulate wealth? Further, one could rightly argue that it is not the less fortunate who are taking surplus wealth from the wealthy but the wealthy who are taking surplus wealth from the less fortunate. Also, by extension, according to Machan, the less fortunate would be “effectively denied their right to liberty” by the wealthy. In such an obviously unfair situation—at least according to my value system—the government would be providing the wealthy with a greater opportunity to accumulate wealth than it does for the not so fortunate.

Two logical end results of Machan’s argument coupled to past and current economic and political realities are (1) an intolerable society as lived by millions throughout the ages and to some extent depicted by Charles Dickens and (2) violent revolution, for example, the French Revolution.

Sheldon F. Gottlieb, PhD
Boynton Beach, Florida

Tibor Machan makes a spirited but unconvincing defense of unfettered individual acquisition and disposal of money and resource, without guarantee of subsistence.

Like others defending absolute property rights as necessary for liberty, Machan ignores realities that make plutophilia an impediment to a just society. Machan depicts taxation as “taking” from the wealthy, ignoring taxes on middle and low incomes, and conflates progressive taxes with funding welfare. Ignored is rich people’s disproportionate use of infrastructures. A private jet requires the same attention from control towers as an airbus. The rich make proportionately more use of civil courts and stock exchanges. Zoning and building departments limit what’s built on private land, and taxes pay for that. Even the most successful aren’t sole generators of their productivity. Someone taught Bill Gates to read and calculate.

Unexplained by Machan is why job failure, downsizing, or overestimating the value of houses, gold, or tulips should withdraw needed resources. Unlike Monopoly players, the dead can’t join another game. Yet Machan approves diverting resources to future relatives or favorite causes regardless of current unmet needs. Unearned wealth undermines moral justification for an individual’s absolute right to dispose of enormous resources.

If community doesn’t provide necessary resources, how it is better than solitary struggle? Wealth can be lost, not just acquired. The individual begrudging tax-supported food, medical, and housing assistance today could need relief tomorrow.

Machan’s crescendo is the proposition that strangers can’t define “surplus” for another, even if the owner’s only use of money is for a psychological boost. I’d suggest “more money than one can imagine ways to spend” as a working definition of surplus.

Trish Randall
Vancouver, Washington

Tibor Machan replies:

To Noel W. Smith: No one can have unassumed obligations. That places one into involuntary servitude—serfdom in fact. You may implore folks to be generous, kind, helpful, and such, but when you coerce them to part with their resources, you are promoting tyranny. Each of us is a sovereign citizen, and for a government to gain our support we need to be asked and our consent needs to be given.

To Sheldon F. Gottlieb: In most places throughout human history, some people owned others as slaves or serfs. This was morally wrong and needed to be abolished. Whatever support you need from others, you need to ask for it. You have no authority to extract it, no matter what your excuse. Even if morally someone ought to be helpful and supportive, this is something the person must choose to do, otherwise it has no moral significance.

To Trish Randall: All these are rationalizations for some to oppress others, always, of course, for some noble purpose. It’s a ruse. If the purpose is noble enough, it will be convincing, and the support will be forthcoming voluntarily. If not, that’s the nature of liberty—as with freedom of speech, no one is authorized to command desirable speech, beautiful speech or worthy speech or ban their opposites. All these shopworn excuses for subjugating other people to what one believes are worthy goals fail to establish any enforceable obligations. Yes, this is a radical notion but it is right, nonetheless.

 


 

Savior Children

Although I haven’t read My Sister’s Keeper, I suspect Katrina Voss is guilty of an all-too-common shortcoming among Free Inquiry contributors: literal-mindedness (“Et Tu, Hollywood? FI, February/March 2011).

I assure her, there is such a thing as a “savior child”; the phenomenon isn’t limited to literal organ plundering. As the younger sibling of an autistic, I can testify to the psychological toll it takes on one to know your purpose in life is to compensate for your sibling’s shortcomings or to serve as a consolation, a sort of therapy pet, or, ultimately, the caretaker of last resort when no institution can be found to take your sibling. You were conceived and your life was framed for you from conception in terms of the services you would render to your sibling. (You had better love that sibling, because no reasonable person will take up that burden knowingly and willingly, and having lived through it, you would not ask any potential partner—someone you love—to inflict it on him- or herself.)

I plan to read the book to see whether author Jodi Picoult is indeed, as Voss thinks, portraying a literal situation, or whether she is using this metaphor to explore the conflicts of someone who is used as a means to an end. And notwithstanding Voss’s lack of reservations regarding cord blood, the ethical and practical issues remain. (In far more mundane nonmedical terms, the ethical lapse is quite common; the child may be conceived to please a grandparent, to gain an inheritance, to meet cultural or religious expectations, etc.) The dystopia of custom-bred donor siblings could come to pass, and it might be better if it did. Given today’s hit-or-miss technology, a “savior” child may turn out to be genetically unsuitable, in which case—assuming the parents don’t abort and try again—the child grows up aware that he or she was inadequate from the first moment of existence.

A.C. Willment
Ridgewood, New Jersey

Katrina Voss replies:

While I cannot begin to understand the psychological distress endured by the younger sibling of a person affected with autism, I can say that the suggestion that there are correct and incorrect, acceptable and unacceptable, reasons to reproduce is both arrogant and presumptuous. As Willment points out, people reproduce for all sorts of reasons (to produce an heir, to provide labor for a farm, to save a failing marriage, “because I’m not getting any younger and it’s now or never,” “because God wants me to,” etc.). Although we may agree or disagree about the legitimacy of the many possible reasons, ultimately, the decision to have a child, even to have a specific child with specific genetic characteristics, is no one’s business but the parents’. Indeed, she may be correct that there are better and worse reasons to have a child, even “correct” and “incorrect” ones. But so what? Even if we could all agree on how to categorize (as correct or incorrect) all the possible reasons, what would be the next step? Enforcement? Denying people the right to reproduce if their stated “reason” fails to pass muster? Of course, once a conscious creature exists, we, as a society, have a duty to protect its interests, not the least of which is the right not to be made to suffer. But until then, we must assume that how and why people unite their genitalia (or use science to manipulate the gametic products of their reproductive organs) is a private matter. Further, in a free society, we also should assume a priori that most people don’t create children for the sheer joy of making them miserable. We must assume that most people, most of the time, do, in fact, have their children’s best interests in mind, at least until they prove otherwise.

 


 

The Labyrinth

“The Labyrinth” by Philip Appleman (FI, February/March 2011) is majestic and profound. The essay is clearly the culmination of years of contemplation and deep feeling. Thanks to Appleman for taking the time to write it. I know that many are reading and appreciating his effort. With its lyrical prose and deep insight, it is an essay that I expect to reread and enjoy many times.

Lawrence Rifkin, MD
Glastonbury, Connecticut

“The Labyrinth” is so well written, reasonable, and sensible, we wonder why more people don’t see the logic of it. Why are so many still so superstitious and benighted, not to mention downright bigoted and cruel in the name of religion? Thank you for this fine article.

Barbara GoldowskyEast Hampton, New York

Appleman’s article is a remarkable, comprehensive piece of thinking and an eloquent piece of writing. It also seems like the chapter Darwin never got to write. Perhaps he never dared to, given the times in which he lived. If there is anything to be encouraged about, I feel that we are winning the war, even if the occasional battle seems to slip through our fingers. We can thank people like Philip Appleman, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins for demanding this conversation and then conducting it in ways that are intelligent, thoughtful and elegant. I do not hesitate to express my opinions as I once did, and I find that, in many places and with many people, we are not only not alone, our numbers are increasing. Neither Appelman nor I will be around to see our point win the day for good, but it will happen. It must.

Dan Thomas Moran
Boston Massachusetts

Mr. Appleman writes that the Roman Catholic Church made the gravest error of all by opposing “the clear and urgent need for sensible population limitation.” This statement is true when viewed from the broad perspective of ecology. But if we restrict our focus to only humans, then another sin of the Church may be even worse than opposing birth control. The Church’s opposition to choosing euthanasia for oneself has caused millions or billions of people to suffer needlessly. In addition to unnecessary physical pain, lack of choice for euthanasia also causes tremendous emotional stress for both the ill person and his/her family.

Ben Coke
Salt Lake City, Utah

 


 

Christian Tactics

It truly surprised me when I read what Jim Bado’s friend told him about Jesus and Christianity. (“When Atheists Meet Jesus,” FI, February/March 2011). Bado writes that his friend Dennis, who serves as an assistant pastor, told him that Jesus “would have never tried to bring someone to church through fear.” And then his friend added, “That’s not the Christian way.”

I have to disagree. In reality, fear is a Christian formula to prevent the faithful from straying. Consider the following Gospel passages, in which Jesus himself used the fear of eternal damnation to convince his followers that he was the son of God:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned —Mark 16:16

Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. —John 3:18

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather [i.e., me, Jesus] who can destroy both body and soul in hell. —Matthew 10:28–29

If you don’t believe that I [Jesus] am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins. —John 8:24

It’s obvious that Christians use fear as an essential tool in their quest to maintain a loyal following of indoctrinated devotees.

David Quintero
Temple City, California

 


 

Wisdom

Re “The Unmaking of Wisdom, Part 2” by Andy Norman: reason is a means of inferring propositions that are consistent with or at least not contradictory to a given premise. As a means of seeking valid ideas, it is only as good as the validity of the given premise.

The error of ancient Plato was in his given (or assumed) premise. He posited that virtue, justice, and truth existed as an ideal somewhere in the cosmos extrinsic from human beings. Our attempts at such virtues represented only an approximation or a “shadow” of this extrinsic ideal. This, of course, was an absurdity. The existence of such an ideal realm could neither be verified nor refuted by practical experience. It was simply a wild leap of faith and imagination.

Nonetheless, several centuries later, Plato’s “wild leap of faith and imagination” fit in perfectly with the Christian view of absolute truth by divine revelation. Again, since such an intractable view could neither be verified nor refuted by practical experience, its institutionalization by the Christian fathers aided the critical attitude of the Hellenistic science, suppressed freedom of inquiry, and created a dogmatic obscurantism that put Europe’s intelligence to sleep for a thousand years. Indeed, it was “The Unmaking of Wisdom.”

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

‘Secular Humanism Is . . .’

As I understand it, David A. Noebel’s point (“Secular Humanism Is Evangelistic,” FI, February/March 2011) is this: If the “religion” of secular humanism is taught in our schools, then creationism should be taught as well. First of all, our public schools don’t care about secular humanism, but they do care about teaching whatever is generally accepted as current knowledge in a given field. They teach evolution, for instance, because you can’t understand modern biology without it. Secular humanism embraces evolution, too, but that fact is no more than incidental to the intents and purposes of our schools.

But never mind all that. To accept Noebel’s argument, one has to agree that “secular” means “religious” and that rejecting theism is the equivalent of espousing a theology. One might as well believe that black is white, or, for that matter, that creationism is science.

Wayne L. Trotta
Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

 


 

Sam Harris

In his article “The Paragraph I Wish Sam Harris Would Write” (FI, February/March 2011), Lawrence Rifkin avers “Humanist ethics . . . is inspired by compassion, caring, and love” and these “fundamental values . . . actually motivate and inspire.” That these values (emotions, really) are intrinsic to human nature I believe is probably a makeable case—that they inevitably motivate right behavior is not. These emotions can just as easily be narcissistically directed towards the self. At bottom, we must deal with that most pervasive human question, “What’s in it for me? What’s the payback for my acting this way instead of focusing exclusively on my self-interest? This is where I think humanist ethics trumps religious ethics. Absent the entrance-to-heaven motivation, we learn through research and reason that quality of life improves when we can trust that our fellow citizens have our back, when our default assumption is not that everyone is out there to take from us. We must earn that trust, and the easiest way to do that is to have others’ backs—by behaving toward others with caring, compassion and love. But the values alone aren’t enough—we must be taught why. That’s our motivation.

William M. Diekmann
Phoenix, Arizona

 


 

Misotheism

Unlike Joyce E. Salisbury, the reviewer of Bernard Schweizer’s Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism (FI, February/March 2011), I find it easy to understand why Paine, Wiesel, West, et al. believed in God rather than becoming atheists. The situation is comparable to the feeling a wife has when she learns her husband is an adulterer. She no longer believes in her husband, nor has faith in their relationship, but that does not make her husband nonexistent. One can believe God exists without loving or trusting him or her.

Nietzsche said the gods were conceived as friends of spectacles of cruelty, and he questioned that this was only true of primitive gods. Misotheism would be more natural to someone like Wiesel than atheism, albeit less comforting your reviewer confused belief with faith—two different concepts.

Marian Henning
Spokane, Washington


Freedom and Funding While Tom Flynn and I do not share the same view on the purpose of the “wall” of separation between church and state, I do find myself agreeing with him in principle and specifics in “One (National) Step Back, One ( Local) Step Forward” (FI, February/March 2011). As a strongly conservative Christian, …

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