On Excrement and ‘Spirit’ Talk
Three cheers for Tom Flynn’s espousal of straightforward atheistic language, as opposed to the euphemistic (not to say pusillanimous) use of words like spiritual and sacred, carried over from discarded beliefs (“Excrement Eventuates!” FI, February/March 2012). As Flynn indicates, this mealy-mouthed humanism gives the impression that we are clinging to the wreckage of religion. But it is, I think, characteristic of ex-Protestant rather than ex-Catholic atheists. When mainstream Protestants turn to reason, they are able to do it in stages. First, perhaps, the immorality of eternal punishment causes them to discard the doctrine of Hell, then other doctrines gradually follow, one by one. But those of us brought up in the tradition of papal infallibility could not do that: for us it had to be all or nothing, after years of mental turmoil. And though I think I am some three decades older than Tom Flynn, there would have been, for him as for me, no halfway house between faith and atheism. We therefore have no vestage of faith to cling to.
In recent decades, as the Catholic Church has become more Protestant, this distinction has almost disappeared. But it is to be hoped that Christian apostates, from whichever sect, will now have the courage to adopt Flynn’s honest, unequivocal atheism without blurring it with weasel words, derived from superstition, so as to invite misunderstanding.
Former President, National Secular Society
Kent, England, United Kingdom
I’ve long avoided terms likely to give believers a false impression of what I believe. Those who know me wouldn’t get it wrong, but those who don’t very well might. Spiritual is perhaps the term most likely to convey the wrong idea. When confronted with it, I try to shift toward talking about the wonders of science and how much more wonderful reality is than the myths of those Middle Eastern goat herders. You know, the ones who, as Bill Maher says, “didn’t know where the sun went at night.”
Whether it is a sunset, warm sunshine enjoyed while hiking the hills, the flight of a hawk, or whatever it might be that elevates you to a higher level of understanding and appreciation—that is spirituality. I think Flynn is whistling in the dark when he proclaims, “when we employ ‘spirit’ talk, we encourage our hearers to suspect that we are insecure in our naturalism.” He appears fearful of things and experiences that evoke emotion reminiscent of his own religious past.
One can be spiritual while not subscribing to a rigid, organized religious creed. Spirituality, to me, bridges the majesty of science with the deep appreciation of the natural world.
I was fascinated by Tom Flynn’s editorial because he seemed so right in his consternation regarding secular humanists who “shoot themselves in the foot” when they slip into “spirit talk” and yet so wrong in his choice of slogan to explain a naturalistic view of the universe. I certainly agree with the first part, as I have listened to many friends who consider themselves nonreligious as they speak patronizingly about not believing in a god with a white beard sitting up in the clouds but assure listeners that they realize there is some intelligence greater than ours that has set some design into motion. And as they speak, I see them drifting into “woo-woo” land.
It’s the two-word slogan, “shit happens,” that I can’t agree with, and it’s certainly not because I find the crudeness of it offensive; in fact, when I first saw a version of the phrase, I thought it was quite humorous. But the expression does not really describe a naturalistic view of the universe. It more accurately answers the question, “Why do bad things happen to good or innocent people?” And while rabbis and priests and preachers have fumbled with this one ad nauseam, they can never answer the question because they view it in a framework that includes an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, loving god. The only reasonable answer to the question is “shit happens,” which would have to come from a naturalistic view.
The problem comes when we try to explain every natural happening in the universe with the negative word shit. When Flynn asks us to do a thought exercise by contemplating the night sky, he uses the terms glories, magnificent, and awe. Is that shit happening? These macrocosmic and microcosmic things we see don’t have to be spiritual or loaded with transcendent meaning or “woo-woo,” but neither is it helpful to describe them as shit. I can’t think of a catchy bumper-sticker aphorism that cleverly describes a naturalistic view of events, but I do know that “shit happens” doesn’t do it for me.
Tom Flynn makes a mistake repeated by too many atheists these days: he fears talking about spirit. To me there are two sides of life, the material and the spiritual. However, when discussing the latter, I am not talking about the supernatural spirit we attribute to deities or ghosts that comes from faith or fear. I mean the very natural spirit of life as explained to us by science.
To find the essence of life, we need to consider the difference between living things and inert matter. Whether living or dead, everything is made of matter, which means it is made of tiny particles that have mass and volume. But yet we recognize there is something different about a living thing that gives it organization and the ability to locally reverse entropy, which means it can somehow suck energy from its environment and use it to its own purposes. Modern science has shown that the special ability of life to organize itself and run biological reactions comes from the codes used by life-forms. First was the genetic codes of RNA and DNA and then the nervous system codes used to transfer information around the body. More recently, we humans have been inventing codes to transfer knowledge though gesture, music, art, language, and even computer bits.
However, the codes of life have no mass or volume; they only have meaning. So knowledge is not matter. It is more like what we think of when we use the term spirit. As thoroughgoing naturalists, we need to be free to discuss both sides of life without the fear of being insecure in our atheism. Yes, shit happens, but there is more to life than just the material.
The words spirit and spiritual are useful in rational discourse. It seems from my observations that spirit is as undeniable as God or colors or motion sickness in the sense that humans create spirit, God, colors, motion sickness, etc. These are a kind of function of perception—maybe what some modern scientists of a certain bent call “emergent phenomena.” There are no spirits absent a human to perceive them, just as there are no colors absent a human to perceive them.
It once occurred to me that spirituality can denote two closely related things: one’s emotional relationship to the world along with one’s cultivation of that relationship. I maintain that many people attribute supernatural characteristics to spirits or spirituality because their awareness and understanding are limited, and they will readily believe ideas that are not included in their awareness and understanding, a tendency shared with the majority of humanity on this planet. I don’t think I am free of limitations on my awareness and understanding, but it does seem that I am not led to believe anything not supported by them no matter what I imagine. This is not intentional; it just is so, and it leads me to suspect that the tendency to believe ideas not supported by awareness and understanding is an unalterable spiritual trait. (Should I have used the word personality instead of spiritual?)
Cundiyo, New Mexico
Tom Flynn replies:
I sympathize with Rick Ronvik’s misgivings—at least partway. When drafting the essay I considered going with “Stuff happens,” because it was less derogatory toward the, um, stuff. But I finally decided “Stuff happens” just didn’t push back hard enough. I can’t think of a stronger way to stress the idea that, despite all its glorious and magnificent awesomeness, the night sky is still merely a natural phenomenon than to wink wickedly and announce “it’s all just shit, you know.”
Readers Gary Wood and Richard Kandarian are to be lauded for telling us what spiritual language means when they use it, for which I thank them. They associate it with the emergent properties that distinguish living from nonliving things. Well and good, but I can’t help thinking we are asking for trouble when we choose to describe the qualia of living things in the very language that religious believers use to ascribe the same phenomena to actual spirits. I think we’re better off avoiding the appearance of dualism.
To borrow Wood’s example, I think there’s just one side to life. While the material realm presents us with emergent phenomena at many levels, from molecules to life and thought, it’s still just matter in action.
Obama and Torture
I marvel at Nat Hentoff’s formidable intelligence and his ability to explain difficult legal issues in layman’s language in “Obama’s Growing Torture Record” (FI, February/March
2012). He is absolutely right! Nowhere in the mainstream media have we commoners read or heard about President Barack Obama’s ongoing support of Bush’s unapologetic legacy of torture, which runs afoul of International Law and the Geneva Convention.
We who espouse secular humanism are committed to: “Our belief . . . that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from the authoritarian elites.” We must pressure our representatives to sever their silent loyalty to this administration’s betrayal of our democratic principles and common decency. The threat of terrorists is a legitimate fear, I know—but a far worse fear is the specter of no longer having the protection of law.
Evangelism and the Civil War
I came away with the distinct impression that David Goldfield in “The Evangelical Origins of the Civil War” (FI, February/March 2012) was apportioning blame for the war primarily to the evangelical movement in the North, as evidenced by his remarks alleging that the second Great Awakening “indulged in bigotry and self-righteousness in the North,”while noting that Southern evangelicalism “was more concerned with individual conversion, and its adherents looked with alarm on the mixture of religion and politics brewing toxic potions in the North.” No mention of the nearly four million men, women, and children enslaved in the South or how the evangelical movement in Dixie was front and center in fervently defending the “peculiar institution,” along with secession, on biblical grounds.
Goldfield further attempts to discredit the abolitionist movement by linking it to nativist sentiments, declaring “the anti-Catholic and antislavery movements shared some of the same rhetoric” in contrast to those benign Southerners, who failed to “join with Northern evangelicals in the excoriation of their Catholic and immigrant populations.”Never mind the fact that the Catholic and immigrant populations in the South were minuscule compared to those in the North or that there was indeed anti-Catholic bigotry directed against the Cajuns in Louisiana and Mexican-Americans in Texas.
When discussing the motives for fighting the war, Goldfield tells us the North sought “to preserve God’s plan to extend democracy and Christianity across an unbroken continent and around the world” (!) whereas the South merely “welcomed a war to create a nation more perfect in its fealty to God than the one they left.” The North fought the war to preserve the Union and the South fought to war to preserve the institution of slavery and, indeed, to extend it into the western territories and even northern Mexico, which it planned to annex.
The issue of Southern slavery is glossed over as the major cause of the war, and Goldfield has no interest in discussing the abominable treatment of slaves in the antebellum South and how this was a major factor in the growth of antislavery sentiment in the North. There is also no mention of the huge role freethinkers played in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, the man whose election as president in 1860 precipitated the war, Abraham Lincoln, was no evangelical, and the antislavery, free labor, pro-infrastructure development Republican Party that he represented was hardly dominated by evangelicals. Indeed, most Americans, North and South, were not evangelical Christians in 1860. The issue of slavery had been festering for decades, and to state that responsibility for the Civil War can be laid at the doorstep of evangelical extremism (mainly north of the Mason-Dixon Line) is a gross oversimplification.
Brooklyn, New York
David Goldfield replies:
No slavery, no Civil War. No disagreement there. The more interesting issue is why war erupted over slavery in 1861, as opposed to, say, 1850 or 1845 or 1820. We were, after all, a slave-holding nation for as long as our existence. My answer in both the essay and in my book, America Aflame, is that the infusion of evangelical Protestantism into the political process rendered compromise—the essence of democratic government—much less likely.
I focus on Northern evangelicals for two reasons. First, the prevailing interpretation of the war’s origins casts the North as the Republic of Virtue and the South as the Evil Empire. My work, however, demonstrates that both sides were to blame for this bloody conflict. Second, Northern evangelicals provided the base for a new political party, the Republican Party, that merged the two major evangelical crusades of the era: against Roman Catholicism and slavery. Evangelicals were never a majority, but they were well organized, well financed, and utilized technological innovations in printing and communications to influence and invade the political process.
Southern evangelicals were hardly blameless in this conflict, but, unlike their Northern counterparts, they had not yet captured a major political party. When the war came, both the Union and the Confederacy proclaimed that God was on its side and proceeded to slaughter each other in his name. That is really the center of my argument.
I hope readers of the essay and my book will come away asking whether the liberation of four million slaves and the salvation of the Union could have been accomplished without killing 620,000 men. We can never know the answer to this question, of course. But what we do know is that 620,000 men gave their lives in a purported Holy War, and that African Americans had precious little to show for this sacrifice for nearly a century after the war. When Frederick Douglass called the Emancipation Proclamation a “fraud” in a speech commemorating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1888, he was not far from the truth.
Re “Easter Explained” by Peter W. Sperlich (FI, February/March 2012): Isn’t the resurrection tantamount to God having his proverbial cake and eating it too? He experiences real human suffering both as tortured martyr and grieving parent but then ends up with his only son alive and well and seated at his right hand. Given these circumstances, Sperlich’s comment that just invoking “I forgive your sins” would suffice sounds only a little less disagreeable than the messy alternative. To really know human suffering the son of God would conceivably need to stay dead, leaving God the father alone with his thoughts.
That’s not much of a symbol to inspire faith within an increasingly sophisticated human population though. Without a resurrection, whether or not eternal life is then guaranteed for the masses, there is not much left to be awed by. Regrettably, the Passion comes off as somewhat shallow; God has given himself a “get out of jail free” card.
William H. Patterson
Rohnert Park, California
I enjoyed Adam Nehr’s excellent argument against Pascal’s Wager (FI, February/March 2012). However, I take exception to Pascal’s premise that if you lose, you lose nothing. Not so. If believers turn out to be wrong, then they have invested both time and money in a false myth. Tithing over the course of a lifetime can easily amount to $250,000 for an average earner (10 percent of $50,000 annual salary over fifty years in today’s dollars). That money could have been invested many ways to earn perhaps millions in real (i.e., not imaginary) wealth, which could be used in this life for charity, retirement, to help grandkids, etc.
But the loss in time is even greater. When I was a believer involved in an active church life, I spent twelve hours per week worshipping, which included Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, choir practice, prayer meetings, giving testimonials, reading doctrinal publications, etc. Given that I only had about twenty hours per week of leisure time (i.e., nonworking time above and beyond chores, errands, child-rearing, sleep, health maintenance, and other things that have to be done), losing 60 percent of my down-time to chasing a false god for no reward in the afterlife is a horrendous price to pay for the faithful if they lose Pascal’s Wager. And how much better would the world be if we all spent our leisure time making this life better instead of banking on a payoff in an imaginary realm?
Milford, New Hampshire
The Importance of Defining Terms
Daniel Maguire in “Atheists for Jesus”(FI, February/March 2012) mentioned that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were religions (as defined in the dictionary). They are not. None of them traditionally have “gods.” All three represent morality and other teachings in order to build a well-balanced society. Also, Buddhism is not a Chinese creation. It originated in the India region and came to China some seven hundred years later. It then “evolved” into its own form.
Richard Kimball, Professor Emeritus
University of the West, University of Zimbabwe,
and California State University, Hayward
Daniel Maguire states that “words … can get kidnapped.” I would suspect that sociolinguistics would also argue that sometimes societies are willing to accept new definitions to words to correspond to new understandings of cultural norms and expectations. Even though I agree that the words sacred, faith, and religion are not dirty words, since no words are “dirty” when used in the context of effective communication, I wholeheartedly disagree that humanists suffer “losses” or “marry into a false ethical methodology” by not using these particular words when other words carry more accurate meanings of understanding in today’s culture.
No matter how much Maguire (or members of other liberal leaning Christian denominations in our society such as Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ, etc.) tries to define the words sacred, faith, or religion to be more encompassing of current secular thought, humanists are to be commended when we use more culturally accurate words like trust or beliefs instead of faith, or cherished instead of sacred. The word faith is used today as the total acceptance of supernatural knowledge based on creeds and the interpretation of old religious texts, not the definition “positive beliefs.”
My hope, my trust, as a humanist, comes from my knowledge of kinship and the evidence of conduct and values exhibited in the principles of moral intelligence found in that kinship. This is what I cherish in my relationship with others. Please don’t call this “response” a religion.
Daniel Maguire’s piece is maddening, as when he declares, “In fact, there is no one who considers nothing sacred.” This quite simply is the very sort of claim without evidence that one would expect from a religious nut. He admits that the “tincture of the sacred” is used “for good or for ill” but then nonetheless insists only upon sacred’s majestic, uplifting, awe-inspiring meaning. He argues that “faithless” has “negative codings,” but this is true only if you accept that “faith” is “positive”—which I don’t.
And while it’s true that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism (at least in their pure forms) don’t advocate belief in God, followers of these traditions will often speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” which harkens back to the problems of usage that Flynn highlighted in his editorial. And in their impure forms, Buddhism, for instance, becomes very woo-woo like, such as when members won’t buy a building to use for a sanctuary until it’s blessed by one of their “holy persons” first.
William H. Clarke
Those suffering the psychological conflict or cognitive dissonance of holding conflicting beliefs have two choices. They can either be intellectually honest and give up what their own reason has shown to be the offending untrue belief or rationalize what they hope will somehow be seen as a more sensible and accepted version of it. Maguire appears to have chosen the latter, forgetting that the essence of any ethics is admitting the truth, not attempting a pedantic justification of the lie.
The more I read his essay, the more it sounded like he was saying, “I know the secularists are right, but it is not nice to rub it in. I need this job.”
South Bend, Indiana
Daniel Maguire replies:
The dogmatism of the letter writers surprised me, reminding me of two Vatican dicta: Si quis aliter dixerit, anathema sit (If you dare to use different words not approved by our orthodoxy, you are cursed). Also, Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus (Outside of our group-speak, there is no legitimacy).
Seeing theism as poetry, often of a rich sort, is on the Index of Forbidden Thoughts. Defining sacred as the very serviceable superlative of precious is banned. Faith, religion, sacred, and other excommunicated words that must be shunned.
Therefore, let fly the inquisitorial epithets: maddening, pedantic, rationalizer, religious nut, job-preserving coward! Down boys! I have never fled from kitchen heat, nor do I work in a self-preservative closet. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who, in March 2007, formally condemned my work wish that I did.
A reading assignment for my respondents: In Ethics for a Small Planet (SUNY Press, 1998), I go beyond David Hume, who said the question of the existence of a deus faber as the manufacturer of our world is not unreasonable. I argue that “the very question is misconceived.” Give it a read. I think you’ll find it truly free inquiry with no linguistic taboos.
Re “Personhood and Human Rights” by Edd Doerr (FI, February/March 2012): It often amazes me how the anti-abortion advocates make lofty speeches about the so-called value of human life. Yet ironically, it is they who would apparently reduce the value of human life to thoughtless matter in the very early stages of pregnancy. It is obvious that it is not so much a future human life that they are seeking to preserve and control but rather the function of pregnancy attendant to the woman in point. One thing is for certain: if a woman cannot personally control her reproductive function—the prime biological capacity wherein she is the cosmic female—then someone or some institution “owns her,” which is not exactly democratic justice.
My wife is a registered nurse. Some years ago she was caring for a baby girl who was born without frontal lobes. Most babies in this condition die within a month following birth. This one died within seven weeks.
Everything that we call “characteristically human” is emergent of the frontal lobes. Did this baby have a soul? If so, what is that soul doing now—lying around the heavenly hosts making obstreperous noises perhaps? Maybe the pope should issue an encyclical on the issue and call it Homo stultus (Man the Fool).
John L. Indo
Pros and Cons of Circumcision
Edan Tasca (“Snip the Snip,” FI, February/March 2012) uncritically parrots common misleading claims and provides few sources. Regarding the “millions of extra nerve endings” the foreskin allegedly contains. Says who, what kind, and how does it compare to the rest of the body? Circumcision opponents complain about the loss of nerve endings, especially fine-touch receptors, or Meissner’s corpuscles, but a study of eight different body parts found that the foreskin has the fewest and smallest of these supposedly sexually important nerves and fingertips the most and largest. Who gets an orgasm by rubbing fingertips?
Thankfully, Tasca’s half-true claims about HIV do not fool the WHO, UNAIDS, or the CDC. The anti-circumcision movement belongs to the same genre as HIV denial, vaccine opposition, and other anti-medicine junk science. Fortunately, circinfo.net provides an antidote to their emotional rhetoric.
Finally, Tasca considers it unthinkable that “a young man would see a good reason to have part of his penis cut off.” Like many young men I saw plenty of good reasons nineteen years ago, and I have never regretted it.
Stephen Moreton, PhD
Cheshire, United Kingdom
Edan Tasca’s article on circumcision ignores the high quality large-scale studies done recently. These studies consistently show that there are significant life-long health benefits to being circumcised at birth. Here is a commentary from Drs. Tobian and Gray at John’s Hopkins: “Three randomized trials in Africa demonstrated that adult male circumcision decreases human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) acquisition in men by 51% to 60%, and the long-term follow-up of these study participants has shown that the protective efficacy of male circumcision increases with time from surgery. These findings are consistent with a large number of observational studies in Africa and in the United States that found male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection in men.” (Emphasis added.)
Also: “The evidence for the long-term public health benefits of male circumcision has increased substantially during the past 5 years. If a vaccine were available that reduced HIV risk by 60%, genital herpes risk by 30%, and HR-HPV risk by 35%, the medical community would rally behind the immunization and it would be promoted as a game-changing public health intervention.”
As for the ethics of circumcising infants, see the Benatar and Benatar links below.
- Tobian, Aaron A.R., MD, PhD; Ronald H. Gray, MD, MSc. “The Medical Benefits of Male Circumcision,” Available at http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/306/13/1479.full#ref-1.
- Tobian, A.A., R.H. Gray, and T.C. Quinn. “Male Circumcision for the Prevention of Acquisition and Transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections: The Case for Neonatal Circumcision.” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 164, no.1 (2010):78–84. Available at http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/164/1/78?ijkey=2bb86e106c9052df7aaf7e73ecebd4d526075f38&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha.
A letter to the editor does not allow enough words to cover all the untruths, ludicrous comparisons, and downright illogic in Edan Tasca’s piece, which attempts to convince the reader of the sacrosanct magnificence of the male foreskin. I am one of a reasonably rare population of men who have lived into adulthood with and without a foreskin. Take my word for it: if you were circumcised as an infant, feel fortunate and thank your parents. You are cleaner, your partner(s) is/are far happier, you eliminate rashes and itches, you reduce the probabilities of more serious illness, and sex is, by and large, better. The foreskin is not a sexual organ. It is a piece of skin evolved for some pre-human reason on some pre-human animal that came along for the ride with humans. The fact that we still retain one does not indicate that we ever needed it to survive or that we need it now. Vestigial organs and parts are all over us.
Furthermore, removing the foreskin is not cruelty to infants. Local anesthesia, so I read, is commonly used. In any case, find me a man, circumcised as an infant, who has any recollection of the deed or can point to lifelong trauma attributed to it. The cruelty is committed by the anti-circs who breed fear in parents and false longings and regrets in circumcised men. Comparisons to loosing a little finger or a complete clitoris are disingenuous and absurd.
Edan Tasca’s criticism of circumcision is not well researched. What about women as partners of men? Sir Ernest Kennaway proved to the satisfaction of his peers that Jewish women had far less cancer of the reproductive system than women generally and the only possible reason was that all their partners had been circumcised. Surely his work should be examined and updated, and we must have more research about whether circumcision does prevent AIDS. If indeed it is found that a small operation does save many lives, of women also, surely it is right to promote it rather than seek to abolish it on somewhat unsubstantiated grounds.
Elspeth Grant Bobbs
Santa Fe, New Mexico
An article purporting to discuss circumcision that does not even mention HPV (human papillomavirus), much less address the issue, cannot be taken seriously. Edan Tasca must have left it out on purpose so he did not have to bother with countering any evidence showing the incidence of HPV infections to be lower among circumcised men and their sexual partners. The most deadly of these infections is of course cervical cancer.
Edan Tasca replies:
To Stephen Moreton, Joe Provino, and Paul Shelton: Far from trying to “fool” anyone, I clearly address the circumcision/HIV correlations. Even a causal link would be relevant only to the crisis in Africa. African men volunteering to be circumcised is rather different from routinely circumcising newborns in the West.
I state that there’s a debate, not a consensus, about whether sex is more enjoyable for intact men. Further, the “pre-human” nature of the foreskin is true of every body part, none of which should be routinely removed for nonmedical reasons.
It’s of course good that Moreton and Shelton are happy with their decisions to be circumcised. Every male should be similarly free to decide, which requires an intact penis. Shelton’s suggestion that forgotten trauma isn’t a concern speaks for itself.
To Elspeth Grant Bobbs and Sally King: The many alternative explanations for Bobbs’s correlation are why the American Cancer Society does not recommend circumcision. Further, breast cancer is the most common cancer for women. We wouldn’t routinely remove body parts to prevent it (or HIV, etc.), unless the practice were already with us as, say, a descendant of blood sacrifice.
Mark Twain Revisited
Joel Welty’s piece “Mark Twain Tries—Again—to Become a Christian” (FI, February/March 2012) does not contain a single word or observation that we have not read many times before, but it is written with such grace and style—indeed, an eerie echo of Mark Twain’s own style— that I can only say bravo!
Peter Rogatz, MD, MPH
Port Washington, New York