Letters

 

Religion’s Attractions

Ronald A. Lindsay (”Religion’s Attractions, Humanism’s Challenge,” FI, December 2011/January 2012) seems to think that humanists have a responsibility to subvert religion: to combat beliefs on both an intellectual and emotional level. But in what arena is this battle for hearts and minds to take place? Why this competition? Do I detect, if not missionary zeal, then a bit of “spread-the-word” evangelizing?

A London bus advertising campaign featuring the slogan “There probably is no god; stop worrying and enjoy your life” probably did more to disconcert much motivated reason (fantasies, etc.) than all of the recent books that have promoted atheism as rational and scientific. The buses going about their business provided a nonconfrontational “arena,” and the use of the word probably implied that the thesis was not an edict but was nonthreatening and also scientific in that it wasn’t proclaiming “case closed.”

Jerome Bronk
San Francisco, California

Ronald Lindsay’s editorial was splendid, but he overlooked most of contemporary religion’s main attractions.

  • Many large churches provide vital services to their communities in the form of hospitals, child care, homes for the elderly, meals for the poor, and more.
  • In many small towns, or cities in the Bible Belt, the local church is often where you will find the most influential people. If your livelihood requires making lots of contacts, finding the biggest and wealthiest church is a good place to start.
  • In these places, the church may be the only place to go for some form of entertainment and general sociability.
  • Adopting some belief structure in an organized church is a lot easier than acquiring a rational worldview. The latter requires some study, and most people don’t have the training or the patience.

One can hardly appreciate any opera, old master painting, Shakespeare, or Bach’s music unless you have a reasonable knowledge of biblical stories. There’s no adequate nonsectarian substitute for this, other than some college courses on relative religions.

William Barrett
San Jose, California

Ronald Lindsay did a wonderful job of elucidating most of the concerns and questions I have been struggling with regarding religion. However, he included two statements that raised a big question for me. He wrote, “The evidence against the existence of a personal deity is overwhelming. Anyone who thinks to the contrary just hasn’t received the news.” I am an intensely curious agnostic. I want to receive the “news” and see the evidence. But I hope the evidence isn’t just the lack of evidence for the existence of a deity. Perhaps my problem is just with the word evidence. If Lindsay had said “arguments” rather than “evidence,” I would agree completely and without question.

George G. Ardell
South Charleston, West Virginia

Ronald A. Lindsay replies:

To Jerome Bronk: Actually, my position regarding the religious is that we should not make converting them a priority. I have stated this in previous editorials. My editorial was more a consideration of the problems facing humanism as it tries to establish itself as an alternative to religion than a clarion call to join battle with religion. That said, it would be helpful to have an increase in the number of nonbelievers, especially in the United States, as this would likely reduce the influence of religion on public policy and help eliminate the stigma that is still attached to being a nonbeliever.

To William Barrett: I have no substantive disagreement with his points. The institutional strength and pervasiveness of religion do provide it with significant advantages.

To George G. Ardell: Indeed, we may have different understandings of the word evidence, as he points out. To me, evidence tending to refute the claim that x exists includes: (1) facts that establish that x is not needed to explain any phenomena; (2) facts indicating that x is an anomaly and does not fit in with the rest of our understanding of the universe; and (3) the absence of facts suggesting the existence of x. A personal god is not needed to explain anything; such an entity is an immaterial being who appears to stand outside the laws of physics while simultaneously interacting with the natural world; and there are no facts suggesting the existence of a personal god. By “personal god” I mean what has traditionally been understood by that term: that is, a being who thinks and wills and has an ongoing relationship with humans and responds to them as a person would. The evidence against the existence of a personal god is, in my estimation, similar in strength to the evidence against the existence of ghosts. Of course, there are people who believe in ghosts: but they just haven’t received the news.

 


 

Solving Overpopulation

Re Tom Flynn’s “A Discussion Long Overdue” (FI, December 2011/January 2012): overpopulation cannot be dealt with by any country alone, even the United States. It is and must be dealt with as a global issue. Overpopulation is the common denominator of all other problems the human family is facing now: climate change, militarization and war, global poverty, ecological deterioration, extinction of many species, etc. Earth has been overpopulated since at least the 1970s. There is a need for a true global government as the only way to deal with global problems.

David E. Christensen
Carbondale, Illinois

Tom Flynn commits the error of looking at overpopulation issues as national problems rather than as global ones. The environment does not stop at the border, and slamming the doors to immigration will only shift the population problem elsewhere. In fact, among countries that should be able to absorb more people, the United States would be near the top of the list. According to United Nations data, U.S. population density ranks only 179th among the world’s 241 countries and dependencies. Mexico, the biggest source of immigrants, has a population density nearly twice that of the United States (148 persons per square mile vs. 83 for the United States). Should we try to make the United States a low-population ecological paradise at the cost of overpopulation and squalor in other countries?

I would emphasize the word human that is contained in the term secular humanist. Our concern should be with all humanity, not a small part of it. “Secular nationalism” is not the solution.

Bill Mosley
Washington, D.C.

Kudos to Tom Flynn and Edd Doerr (in Church-State Update, same issue) for tackling the overpopulation issue. As a Sierra Club member for more than forty years and a founding member of the Center for Biological Diversity, I stand with the latter on overpopulation. Sierra Club leaders dropped the overpopulation issue as did most of the mainstream environmental organizations so they wouldn’t lose donations. The Center for Inquiry always supports the scientifically correct position, and overpopulation is as significant a threat to this planet as climate change is. Secular humanists should make addressing overpopulation a high priority.

Jim Notestine
Tucson, Arizona

Tom Flynn should be ashamed of himself. If not, Free Inquiry should be ashamed of him. In his op-ed, Flynn takes a jingoistic, nationalistic position that clearly violates one of the principles stated in the “Affirmations of Humanism” that is printed on the inside front cover of many issues. That statement reads in part, “We attempt to transcend parochial loyalties based on . . . nationality . . . and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.”

Flynn favors reductions in immigration into the United States because we may lack sufficient room and/or resources to support our population. This is an extremely narrow and selfish point of view. How does it benefit the “common good of humanity”?

What about the rest of the world? I have no doubt that population is a problem. But, the solution is not to seal the United States off. The humanistic approach to the overall issue of population would be for the United States to welcome some of the world’s tired, hungry and poor to our shores—something like the message we’re so proud of on the Statue of Liberty.

Dan Brown
DeWitt, Michigan

Tom Flynn responds:

David E. Christensen, Bill Mosley, and Dan Brown are correct that overpopulation is a global problem. But we “strive to work together for the common good of humanity” in a world where—let’s face it—there is no reasonable prospect of a functioning world government on any timescale sufficient to address the current crisis. If this global problem is going to be addressed at all, whether we like it or not it will be addressed piecemeal, with country after country tackling its own domestic population issues. Transnational actors can supply moral suasion and in some cases funding for specific projects, but given the scale of this problem, any solution is going to require that national governments whose sovereignties end at their borders do much of the heavy lifting. (If my critics are right that global government is the only answer, then all may already be lost.) For that reason, I argue that no country should quail from addressing its own population issues just because the measures it contemplates are not worldwide in scope.

If some brilliant American (or European, or Indonesian, or Ghanaian) science team could manage to solve the whole world’s problems at a stroke, great—but I’m not holding my breath for that either. For that reason I argue that the most important contribution America can make to the global crisis is to get a handle on its domestic population issues. Why? First, if America fails to control its own population, that alone will guarantee that no global solution can be reached. (That’s not jingoism, just realism about the giant shadow America casts in this world: if every country but the United States solves a problem, the worldwide problem is not solved.) In addition, were America to achieve zero population growth, whether by closing its borders or through other means, its example might inspire other countries with objectively more severe population problems to attack their own domestic situations with heightened vigor.

Additionally, consider that transnational migration complicates population woes not only in zero- or low-growth countries, whose otherwise-sufficient resources may be overwhelmed by immigrants, but also in countries suffering runaway growth. In those countries, high out-migration can furnish a pernicious safety valve, masking the urgency to address domestic causes of high birthrates. If the population crisis continues to deepen, the need may well become apparent for numerous countries to tighten or close their borders so that domestic responses (as noted above, the only ones likely to be richly resourced) will have maximum opportunity to succeed.

Now let’s ponder the nightmare scenario. Suppose that efforts to control population growth fail in every other country. Suppose that only an America with closed borders manages to maintain remotely liveable conditions and a functioning scientific culture. (I understand that the environment is truly global, and that in such a scenario the “remotely liveable” conditions obtaining within the United States would be pretty horrible.) Nonetheless, it might remain possible that surviving American institutions find a way to reclaim the planet following the tragic but, on this scenario, inevitable die-offs elsewhere. This is, of course, a deplorable future that no one should wish for; the best that can be said for it is that it’s preferable to the future where all countries including the United States are so ravaged by overpopulation that they can no longer respond to the crisis. (One could substitute any other technologically advanced nation for the United States in this paragraph; a Soylent Green hell-world where only England, or Russia, or Korea manages to keep the lights on is preferable to a future in which no nation does.)

Finally, I note that very intelligent people have been sounding the alarm about overpopulation as a global issue since the 1950s. If some robust entity capable of mounting a truly global response were going to arise, it’s had ample time to do so. None has. So even if country-by-country responses are much inferior, they seem to be the only tools we possess. Let’s quit waiting for perfection and put them to work!

 


 

Comment on Commentary

Columnist Tibor Machan is, sadly, consistently disappointing in his level of commentary. In the December 2011/January 2012 issue, his contribution “What Is a Sound Atheism?” is a farrago of underdone philosophizing. Does the mind exist? What a foolish question. And Ayn Rand is hardly the only, let alone best, authority to verify that minds do, indeed, exist. The question is whether minds arise out of material causes entirely or whether souls or other theological apparatuses need to be wheeled in to explain them.

Is ethics part of human life? Another question unworthy of your fine publication. Machan seems to understands little of materialism if he believes that, by denying ultimate free will, it also denies that we have effective moral choice, which is to say, the ability to learn from our own experiences and from the social cues, rules, and strictures provided by others.

Burkhard R. Braun
San Rafael, California

Tibor Machan replies:

Disappointing one reader surely doesn’t make one disappointing! I never asked whether the mind exists. I mentioned Ayn Rand only to give an example of a naturalist and atheist who held we have minds and free will. And contrary to Braun’s claim, the question is not “whether minds arise out of material causes entirely or whether souls or other theological apparatuses need to be wheeled in to explain them.” Here we have a perfect example of false or bogus alternatives. At least one of the age-old philosophical questions is whether reductive materialism can account for moral choices, as well as whether the human mind is an emergent natural faculty It is noteworthy, also, that I invoked no theological apparatuses in my column, not indeed anywhere else where I discuss these issues (in my book Initiative-Human Agency and Society, 2000).

Congratulations on securing P Z Myers as a contributor (“The Evolution Elevator Pitch,” FI, December/2011/January 2012). He is definitely a great addition to the already great lineup.

Dan McPeek
Sun City, Arizona

 


 

Religion and Rights

Wendy Kaminer’s “New Theocrats vs. ‘New Atheists’” (FI, December 2011/January 2012) was outstanding. However, I disagree with her statement: “. . . a cultural preference for religious belief . . . doesn’t necessarily entail substantive deprivation of rights.” In actual practice, our cultural preference for religious belief has contributed greatly to a deprivation of these rights, including (1) the right to choose euthanasia for oneself; (2) the right for scientists to fully experiment with stem cells; (3) the right to have as little pollution and global warming as possible (this right was largely taken away by religious opposition to birth control); and (4) the right for homosexuals and rationalists to live in an environment of nondiscrimination.

Ben Coke
Salt Lake City, Utah

Wendy Kaminer replies:

Not all religious people oppose stem-cell research, gay rights, or assisted suicide, among other contested practices (and not all opposition to these practices is religious). In other words, religious belief doesn’t necessarily entail substantive deprivation of rights.

 


 

The Problem of Evil

Shadia Drury’s evaluation of the evils of historic Christianity are right on the mark (“The Problem of Evil, Part 2,” FI, December 2011/January 2012). With the exception of the Galileo incident, the papacy has yet to apologize. Moreover, the apologetics of C.S. Lewis are simple-minded and show a greater callousness to human suffering that even the most tyrannical of popes and bishops. No atrocities have ever been so brutal as those said to have had the sanction of God. When the alleged ultimate moral consciousness is a sadistic maniac, not much can be said for the morals of us finite earthlings.

Much to the chagrin of a lot of preachers, the moral teachings of Christianity stem far more from the teaching of ancient Plato than from actual New Testament scripts. Plato’s moral precepts were nothing more than bloodless abstractions. His notion of the ideal society was nothing more than a human termite hill where everyone knew their places, followed the leader, and asked no questions. In a situation like this, goodwill and empathy for others would probably be in short supply. The church fathers of the middle ages were quick to follow suit.

Moral ideas that are so abstract soon loose sight of actual human suffering. It is not surprising, therefore, that they quickly become instruments of oppression.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

Enhancements: Transforming Humankind

The December 2011/January 2012 issue of Free Inquiry raised intriguing issues about the possibilities, promises, and perils of cognitive and moral enhancements (“Transforming Humanisty: Fantasy? Dream? Nightmare?”). It is clear that the cognitive sciences are weaving a sufficiently coherent web of understanding of an embodied human cognition that processes related mental representations of facts, feelings, emotions, evaluations, goals, and behavior (including moral behavior) in ways that are becoming quite predictable. This ability to explain and predict creates technological opportunities to remedy cognitive dysfunctions, enhance normal cognitive operations, and to exploit or manipulate cognitive tendencies for economic and political gain.

This situation warrants an increased appreciation for the moral aspects of individual responsibility for the formation and maintenance of one’s own beliefs. This belief ethic can be viewed as a complement to the classic work ethic, updated to help us meet current and future challenges in owning, protecting, and honing our own beliefs. A properly conceived belief ethic can well serve both the individual and a successful, modern, open society. A belief ethic places a burden on individuals to be skeptical of the truth-claims of others and to place trust in the testimony of others only when they have earned a reputation for thinking quality and intellectual honesty. A sound belief ethic requires maintaining a high standard in one’s own thinking behavior and applying that standard when evaluating the moral character of others. Developing and nurturing a belief ethic depends on minimum levels of understanding of how our own brains work and how to use them to achieve the best results. One consequence of the kind of belief ethic I envision is that it must successfully defeat, or isolate, current cultural “faith in faith” as a reliable means of belief formation.

What kinds of cognitive enhancements might lead to more moral brains or increase the value one places on believing true things rather than false things? Who knows? Mothers bond with their newborn babies via a good dose of the neurotransmitter oxytocin. A technologically artful application of oxytocin may bond dogs to squirrels, Sunnis to Shiites, Christians to atheists, libertarians to socialists, and, perhaps, brain owners to truth and reason.

Karl Kiefer
Centennial, Colorado

While I found myself generally agreeing with the major thrust of Ronald Lindsay’s Introduction and his counterarguments to three “representative” arguments against enhancements, a caveat arose when I read his response to the second objection: “that . . . namely our sense of achievement will be undermined or destroyed” through the use of enhancements. He calls those arguments that assert that “the shortcuts provided by enhancements will not only cheapen and trivialize our accomplishments but will also sever the connection between ourselves and our accomplishments” unconvincing. He argues from “historical evidence” and specifically mentions several examples (airplanes, microwaves, and computers) that while enhancing our lives have not led to any “discernable loss of our sense of achievement or any perceptible dulling of our drive or ambition.” He goes on to mention the chef who uses a blender still taking pride in preparing a delicious meal or a surgeon, utilizing an array of instruments and machines, taking pride in a successful operation. He writes that “changing the means by which we accomplish a goal does not eliminate the goal.”

But, keeping with the “external enhancements” Lindsay speaks about in the above examples, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the situation of someone like musician Colin Stetson. The man is a virtuoso of “extended technique” in playing the saxophone, most notably the rare and unwieldy bass saxophone. It is particularly the means of production of the sounds Stetson makes with his unenhanced saxophone that makes all the difference in its reception and appreciation, and it does seem to have something to do with the sense of “authenticity” that Lindsay dismisses. I have played his music for other musicians, and their eyes brightened in awe. There does indeed seem to be something said for someone who disciplines himself to be able to become such a master when the sounds themselves can all be fairly easily made and edited together with the “technological enhancement” of the modern recording studio.

Frank Jude Boccio
Tucson, Arizona

Human history is already replete with enhancements, mainly extracorporeal (computers, eyeglasses, tools) but also encoporeal. A major advancement of homo sapiens is the ability to use and create tools in a much more sophisticated way than other species. New technology always causes societal concerns. Technology is like a genie (or pandora). Once out, it will run its course and either be adopted as a norm or eventually rejected or supplanted. The fact that technology is unlikely to solve our social problems is no reason to restrict it. Society evolves just like humans.

David Olifant
Houston, Texas

Russell Blackford skillfully describes the debilitation, pain, and depression the aging process inflicts on our species (“Enhancement Anxiety,” FI, December 2011/January 2012). He writes “it seems perverse to complain . . . [about] removing the process, or drastically slowing it down.” Obviously. Yet what are the demographic consequences that would follow from “drastically” extending youthful lifespans?

The United Nations projects a medium scenario for world population increasing to 9.2 bil
lion people by 2050, upticking to a stable population of 10 billion by 2100. If by then we could double average life expectancy from the current 80 years to 160 years, we would necessarily cut mortality rates in half. Even if we simultaneously achieved replacement fertility of 2.1 children per woman, we would still have to confront monstrous population growth not because of birthrates but because of prolonged survival. In one exercise, the 2.1 replacement (zero) growth rate adjusted with reduced mortality and calculated against the stable base of 10 billion for 180 years with thirty-year intervals between generations would yield a “new” stable population of about 48 billion by 2280. The possibility that global fertility might fall below replacement level—say to about 1.85 children per woman—would only slow the inevitable process. Because the enhancement model assumes ever rising longevity, mortality rates would shrink over time to near zero while population would expand infinitely. Immortality could be the death of us yet.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Russell Blackford replies:

I’m not sure that we’re in much disagreement. I agree that there are scenarios where life extension would produce ever-increasing populations. If it led to increases in fertility rates, as is possible if women had many more youthful years in which to reproduce, it would put an end to current hopes that global population will stabilize and even begin to decline. Even if population stabilized, it might do so at a very high figure, well above the planet’s carrying capacity. However, all this depends on such variables as the degree of life extension that might prove practical, the speed at which fertility rates continue to decline in the near future, and the rate and pattern of technological diffusion.

All that said, my aim was not to show that radical enhancement would produce no problems. Very likely it would produce genuine problems that people of reason could recognize. Whether those sorts of problems would be solvable remains to be seen. But we should be careful to identify conservative biases in our thinking, such as I discussed in my article. Even if, contrary to the final sentences of the article, we can’t solve certain crucial problems and must renounce certain technologies, that might be a tragic outcome. It’s better to be open about this than to fool ourselves with talk of, for example, being somehow, paradoxically, diminished if we manage to hang on longer to our physical and cognitive capacities.

To many, the prospect of human genetic enhancement either by direct manipulation of the genome or through the use of drugs smacks of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Some will even associate it with the Nazi eugenics program of World War II. It is understandable that conscientious people would express due apprehension over the issue. Unless we become hermits, we will still have to deal with the flux and vicissitudes of human interactions. This necessarily implies community, politics, and the pursuit of personal values. That we should dare see the matter otherwise reduces us to a morass of chaotic and meaningless data.

I have absolutely nothing against the genetic enhancement of human beings providing that we get our heads on straight. If we are going to enhance our genes and our brain processes, we must be able to answer the question: enhance for what and why? We must be able to face our conclusions with confidence and purpose—hopefully, humanist purpose. Otherwise, our attempts at human genetic enhancement may well become a tool in the hands of a totalitarian state.

Once genetic enhancement is implemented, it will most likely completely “humbug” the Creationists once and for all. It will mean in effect that everything does not bring forth after its own kind and that we can be as much our own creator as a product of cosmic magic. This will assuredly shake up a lot of people existentially and no doubt provoke intense political and philosophical reaction. Hence, it would behoove us to cultivate values and a self-image appropriate to a new age of human genetic enhancement.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

Evolutionary Biology

John A. Frantz’s article “Evolutionary Biology for Everyone” (FI, December 2011/January 2012) contains some interesting observations, most of which make compelling sense. But I would suggest that lactose intolerance, rather than sweetness, is the most important factor in weaning. A curious addendum, also in the vein of evolutionary biology, is that in regions where animals suitable for milk production were domesticated, humans have adapted to tolerate lactose into adulthood, because that became more important for survival.

Alan Harris
La Cañada, California

I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Frantz’s essay on evolutionary biology. I would like to respectfully correct my medical colleague in his definition of tachyphylaxis, which he defined as “the ability of former addicts to become readdicted extraordinarily promptly.” The actual meaning is the (sometimes) rapid desensitization to the effect of a substance on a person taking it. Thus, its effectiveness wears off more quickly than desired or expected. This is kin to his definition but not quite an identical twin.

Sixty years in practice is monumental. My hat is off to you, sir.

Stephen Goldberger, MD
Farmville, Virginia

John Frantz replies:

To Alan Harris: Lactose intolerance does not occur until long after weaning; the benefit of not having a sweet tooth occurs immediately.

To Stephan Goldberger: I concede the point about the definition of tachyphylaxis. However, the context was prompt toleration of otherwise toxic doses. Goldberger and I have no significant disagreement. I accept his congratulation about my longevity as at least partly due to my making many good decisions.


  Religion’s Attractions Ronald A. Lindsay (”Religion’s Attractions, Humanism’s Challenge,” FI, December 2011/January 2012) seems to think that humanists have a responsibility to subvert religion: to combat beliefs on both an intellectual and emotional level. But in what arena is this battle for hearts and minds to take place? Why this competition? Do I detect, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.