Letters

Are Unbelievers More Resilient?

Re “Are Unbelievers More Resilient?” by Tom Flynn (FI, August/September 2011). “Go ahead, make my day” is a line from a Clint Eastwood movie that I have used as the basis for my personal motto: “Make my day. Prove me wrong.” This challenge is a win/win for me. If proven wrong I learn something; if not I get to feel good about myself. People of “faith” often make much of the fact that they, at times, have doubts. I suggest that they don’t have doubts—they want reassurance.

A rational conclusion about the world is based on evidence. If the evidence changes, the conclusion changes. That is the way science has always worked. If you don’t like what the evidence says either get other evidence and join the discussion or sit down and shut up. Nonbelievers don’t need the “one-on-one, face-to-face affirmation, mentoring, and counseling by a priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or other leader of a local religious community”that Flynn speaks of. At the risk of being redundant, nonbelievers are more resilient because they are more flexible.

Vic Arnold
Westerly, Rhode Island

About two years ago I discovered Free Inquiry and was much surprised (pleasantly so) to discover how many freethinkers there are out there. The road to enlightenment is long and bumpy when you travel it alone.

Your magazine has given me many answers, led me to new (to me) authors, and furnished many hours of thought-provoking reading. Many thanks to all.

Tom Flynn made reference in the August/September issue to “humanist chaplaincy.” It has to be distinguished from “secular humanist chaplaincy” which would surely be oxymoronic if not just plain moronic. I cannot imagine trying to minister to a bunch of hard-nosed freethinkers.

James H. Hazlett
Louisa, Kentucky

 


 

Sluttishness and Feminism

Ophelia Benson’s statement in “The Presence of Justice” (FI, August/September 2011) that atheists are the only group currently marginalized by liberals isn’t accurate. In the same issue, Wendy Kaminer marginalizes certain women. The title of her article “Is Sluttishness a Feminist Position?” doesn’t so much pose the question as shout it down. Kaminer dismisses the Slutwalk movement as a “protest gimmick,” females who enjoy sexuality, Disney princesses and royal weddings as bastions of virgin/whore repression, and Cosmogirls as damaging to feminism. Like Toronto policemen, the Taliban, and your mom, Kaminer is determined to protect you—and feminist purity—by insisting you cover up.

It might be true that provocative dress and identifiers are risky, but revolutionaries often accept peril.

Kaminer is oblivious to the immense historic shift of organized women intentionally rejecting the use of slut to degrade and ostracize other women and the reality that the virgin/whore divide isn’t a Sharks/Jets group conflict but usually “us respectable women” isolating “that slut.” Early frontier prostitutes functioned socially as ladies—sources of the little comfort, entertainment, and aesthetics available. When respectable women’s numbers increased, they insisted on restricting prostitutes’ noncommercial activities. Nineteenth-century vice laws outlawed adultery, fornication, birth control, sodomy, and prostitution. The twentieth-century sexual revolution included decriminalization of sex that “nice” girls and gay men enjoyed. Prostitution remained illegal. Sadly, sexually active twenty-first-century teen girls still use slut to demonize another girl.

Maybe the best thing feminists could do is to revive an older, more inclusive-sounding identity: “women’s liberation.”

Trish Randall
Vancouver, Washington

Wendy Kaminer replies:

The Taliban? Really? I’m just like the Taliban? If only the Taliban would be just like me, and many more women would be free.

 


 

What the Gospels Say about Jesus

George A. Wells’s article about Bart D. Ehrman’s work, “Is There Independent Confirmation of What the Gospels Say of Jesus?” (FI, August/September 2011), gives

many reasons to doubt the biblical narratives of Jesus’s life, death, and, especially, resurrection.

Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason, 1795) points out that the authors of the four Gospels don’t agree with one another. Paine notes that only Matthew (27:51–53) relates in dramatic detail the events supposedly following Jesus’s death: “And the earth did quake and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of their graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many.” As Paine says, “Had it been true, it would have filled up whole chapters of those books and been the chosen theme and general chorus of all the writers.” He adds that there were such reports of Julius Caesar’s reappearance after his assassination not many years previously.

According to Ehrman, historians Tacitus and Josephus do little more than briefly repeat what they learned from the oral tradition about Jesus. Why would historians of that time have ignored stories of such spectacular—if supernatural—events as saints popping out of graves and roaming the city when such stories presumably were having a profound effect on early Christians?

Marjorie Bixler
Fort Worth, Texas

 


 

Philosophy and Psychopaths

In “The Philosophical Significance of Psychopaths” (FI, August/September 2011), David N. Stamos draws a very interesting parallel between postmodernist nonsense and psychopathy. The postmodernist argues that all morals are culturally relative. This is true, but so what? Cultural relativism doesn’t recommend any moral precepts necessarily. Nor does it refute any moral precepts necessarily. It simply says that different things are learned in different cultural settings. If a postmodernist wants to criticize or reject conventional ethical judgments, he or she has no necessary grounds for doing so based solely on cultural relativism. If conventional morality and liability before the law is rejected, he or she must do so deliberately. This leads to amoral conduct, which is a form of psychopathy.

Moreover, in matters of art and literature, the postmodernist argues that while tastes are entirely subjective, all must be allowed to voice personal opinions in such matters. I agree. But if toleration of divergent tastes and opinions is to abide, we must all consent to and establish laws that protect such tolerances. This contradicts the postmodernist notion that all institutional norms are purely subjective and should not be taken seriously. I shudder considering what might have happened to a postmodernist writer in Stalinist Russia.

Furthermore, if the postmodernist wants to claim that all opinions, ideas, judgments, and perceptions are culturally relative, then he or she has established science, not refuted it. In making such an assertion, it appears that human conditions have been observed and conclusions drawn based on observations. Perhaps such conclusions have been tested by repeated observations. Evidently, even a postmodernist trusts human cognitive processes to bring truth. This contradicts the notion that scientific truth is just a fleeting whimsy.

Postmodernism is a pile of esoteric, self-contradictory nonsense. It is no wonder that it could be equated with psychopathy.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

David N. Stamos’s excellent, easily read article deserves high plaudits. Among the provocative thoughts, it is as reasonable to believe God is a psychopath as it is to be a

deist. In fact, his psychopathy may be a corollary to deism.

I would, however, offer an alternative to the question of why one should be moral. Stamos suggests the answer is “’Because I am a human being’ or rather, ‘Because I am a normal human being.’” But since the normal human is moral, “Why should I be moral?” is not a meaningful question (setting aside prudential reasons for doing the moral thing). The more meaningful question is “Why is the normal human being moral?” Similarly, we do not ask whether a normal bird should fly; we want to know how it became normal for the bird to fly.

Charles D. Hoornstra
Madison, Wisconsin

David N. Stamos had some interesting insights, but I cannot give him a pass on his remarks about postmodernism. I found them inaccurate and biased in the extreme. Some people sneer at what they consider the lack of intellectual rigor in the humanities and especially postmodernism. But this may be because of inaccurate information and faulty assumptions. I hope I can clarify things.

It used to be that humanists said that the arts held a mirror up to nature. Then scholars began to realize that we didn’t hold a mirror up to nature but to our notions of nature. Those notions have varied from culture to culture, from age to age. Even language itself—the medium that permits thinking and communication—is shaped by our cultural biases. Thus all knowledge is filtered through our experience and culture. The conclusion to all this is not, as Stamos asserts, that there is no knowledge or that we humanists don’t value knowledge but that we should be less arrogant about being sure that we have the ultimate answers. What we know is probably subject to change. Postmodernism is not a rejection of knowledge, but a call to be a bit more humble about what we think we know.

The straw man that Stamos has created doesn’t resemble any postmodernism I know about. If it were as he describes it, I wouldn’t like it either. But it isn’t. Anyone knowledgeable about the history of ideas would know that postmodernism is not an aberration that destroys intellectual labor but a logical intellectual outgrowth of earlier ideas.

I don’t like to see substantive discussions framed as “arguments” where one person has to “win” and another has to “lose.” It might satisfy the ego of the most aggressive arguer, but no one learns anything. You will never learn anything if you think you know it already. Which is, of course, the point of postmodernism: not to be too sure of what you know but to be open to the new or different. If you really want to learn about postmodernism/humanism, ask a humanist. And then listen to the answers.

Myra Jones
Bradenton, Florida

David N. Stamos replies:

To John L. Indo: I don’t “equate” postmodernism with psychopathy but draw a comparison. Both are lacking a set of beliefs and values (epistemic in the first case and moral in the second). That is the “so what?” of the comparison. It makes us look at matters in a new light. If you believe in the existence of facts, objectivity, evidence, knowledge, and truth, then try arguing with someone who doesn’t. You’ll quickly see that there is no point trying. Recognize what you are dealing with, how widespread it is in our society (especially in academia, which is its primary source), its ramifications, and then think about what can and should be done about it. It’s the same when dealing with a psychopath. There’s no point trying to argue with one about why he or she should be moral.

As for postmodernism “establishing” science, it does no such thing. I think Indo means that the claim that everything is relative is itself an objective claim, and so the postmodernist is guilty of a self-referential paradox. In an interview, Foucault replied to this charge by saying that in saying what is called “knowledge” is a matter of power; he is not making an objective knowledge claim but is expressing his opinion or perspective. I suspect that postmodernists in general would say the same.

To Charles D. Hoornstra: I couldn’t agree more that “psychopathy may be a corollary to deism.” One of the attractions of deism in the eighteenth century, was that science did not yet have an explanation for biological design. With advances in explanation in the natural sciences, deism has logically become less attractive, the current fine-tuning argument for God’s existence being its dying breath. Better to believe in no God at all than one that would build the horrific system of nature that we have, which makes medieval torture chambers look like child’s play.

As for “Why is the normal human being moral?” being a “more meaningful” question than “Why be moral?,” I don’t agree. They are equally important questions and are two sides of the same coin. And of course much has increasingly been written in the past half-century on evolutionary ethics, on why human beings have morality not as a veneer but as part of human nature. Important names here are Hamilton, Trivers, Ruse, de Waal, and so many more.

To Myra Jones: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in Fashionable Nonsense (pp. 13–14), point out that many postmodernists would not call themselves postmodernists. I suspect that here is yet another parallel with psychopaths, since many would be expected to reject the claim that they are psychopaths. Surely one can expect postmodernists to haggle over what postmodernism is and means. Like Thomas Kuhn, all too often they’ll deny that epistemic relativism is what is meant in their writings, but then they’ll go on to argue for epistemic relativism in all but name. (This has resulted in philosophers of science claiming that there are really two Kuhns, and I suspect the same for many postmodernists.) H. Gene Blocker’s “The Challenges of Postmodernism,” reprinted in his textbook Fundamentals of Philosophy, is an illuminating discussion; or see Richard Rorty’s essay and Daniel Dennett’s reply to Rorty in Louis Pojman’s Introduction to Philosophy; or read Paul Boghossian’s characterization of postmodernism in A House Built on Sand (p. 26); or concult Sokal and Bricmont’s account in Fashionable Nonsense (eg., pp. 182–83). In all of these one will find what I mean by “postmodernism.” There is nothing idiosyncratic about it.

But I’m not going to belabor the point. There are many, all too many, in academia who display the key features of postmodernism (in short, a purposive lack of epistemic virtues and values) whether they admit to the label or not. And this is important. Think of the ramifications for society if colleges and universities churn out graduates collectively in the tens or hundreds of thousands who condescendingly believe that everything is a matter of opinion, that knowledge is merely a “social construction,” that truth, objectivity, facts, and evidence are merely matters of personal or social perspective. I submit that colleges and universities are doing just that. Simply talk to students in the social sciences and humanities. By the second or third year many of them are hardcore postmodernists in all but name.

Now shift focus for a moment and imagine what that means if you are on trial for a murder that you know you had absolutely nothing to do with. What kind of people would you want in the jury box? What kind of judge? Certainl
y not anyone who believes in “true for me.” Humility about knowledge claims is one thing, of course. What has been claimed to be knowledge has turned out many times to not be so, and so on for claims about facts and truth. (To which we need to ask, how did we find out?) Humility is an epistemic virtue, let us agree, but as Aristotle so wisely pointed out about
moral virtues over 2,300 years ago, virtues are capable of too much and too little, and when they do they become vices.

The point is that epistemic humility can be taken to an extreme, in which case one no longer has an epistemic virtue but a total absence of that virtue, and that is what postmodernism is.

I suspect that Jones takes offense because she seems to think that I equate postmodernism (as not just I but many others use the term) with humanism and the humanities and that I characterize postmodernists as lacking in “intellectual labor.” I never claimed or meant any such thing. Certainly many in the humanities are not postmodernists, and many humanists (perhaps most who use the term) are not postmodernists. In the very least, I have yet to see a humanist manifesto that expresses postmodernism (read especially Humanist Manifesto III), and many well-known humanists, such as Paul Kurtz and E.O. Wilson, are scientific realists.

But I suppose a humanist could also be a postmodernist (it largely depends on how one defines the terms). At any rate, when one claims that “What we know is probably subject to change” and that “I don’t like to see substantive discussions framed as ‘arguments’ where one person has to ‘win’ and another has to ‘lose,” I suspect I’ve found a postmodernist in the epistemic sense of the term. It is the subspecies that takes political correctness to the extreme, such that nobody is right or wrong (at least on “substantive” issues), everybody gets a star, a passing grade, and the same trophy, and every culture is equal and worthy of the group hug known as multiculturalism.

 


 

Billy Graham

Richard Hall’s review of the book The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire by Cecil Bothwell (FI, August/September 2011) makes no mention of the National Day of Prayer as a brainchild of Reverend Billy Graham, who proposed it in 1952. His proposal was immediately championed and enacted into law. Since then, every president has issued proclamations urging all Americans to turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals. Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it. Perpetuation of such entanglement between religion and government is a choice between unreason and America.

Frank Dowding
St. Paul, Minnesota


Are Unbelievers More Resilient? Re “Are Unbelievers More Resilient?” by Tom Flynn (FI, August/September 2011). “Go ahead, make my day” is a line from a Clint Eastwood movie that I have used as the basis for my personal motto: “Make my day. Prove me wrong.” This challenge is a win/win for me. If proven wrong …

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