Letters

 

On Gore Vidal

When I read that the editors of FI, in their introduction to S. T. Joshi’s obituary of Gore Vidal (FI, October/November 2012), quoted International Academy of Humanism Secretary Stephen Law that Vidal was “principled, honest, and courageous” I was perplexed and frightened. I could not help but wonder what Joshi had written and whether they were referring to the same man I knew as one of the world’s great anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. After reading Joshi’s paean, I could understand their love of a fellow atheist. However, I could not help but notice that Joshi made no mention of Vidal’s vicious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements reflecting his great hate of Jews. Nor was there any mention of his support for his support of causes of the political Far Right and seeming contempt of the United States. Much of Vidal’s hate was detailed by Norman Podhoretz in his well-known November 1986 article in Commentary magazine, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Even the great Christopher Hitchens made note of this Vidal attribute, although he may have tended to minimize it (Vanity Fair, February 2010).

I was surprised that there was no mention of Vidal embracing and defending the Far Right’s conspiracy views of the events surrounding Ruby Ridge and Waco along with Timothy McVeigh as well as defending the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration was guilty of somehow working with al-Qaida in its September 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

I have no idea what great principle of Vidal’s the editors admired, or what great honesty this proven liar and conspiracy theorist demonstrated, or what great act of courage he displayed as he manifested and justified hate and paranoia. I cannot help but wonder, whether these well-known characteristics of Vidal were deliberately omitted by Joshi so as not to trample on the reputation of a dead man or if the editors demanded that no mention of these aspects of his life be made.

Sheldon F. Gottlieb
Boynton Beach, Florida

S. T. Joshi replies:

The right-wing polemicist Norman Podhoretz tried for years to persuade his fellow intellectuals that Gore Vidal was an anti-Semite but with little apparent success. The sources of Podhoretz’s umbrage were two articles by Vidal, “Some Jews and the Gays” (Nation, November 14, 1981), and “Requiem for the American Empire” (Nation, January 11, 1986), in which Vidal maintained: (a) that some Jewish leaders had made a dangerous pact with evangelical Christians, leading some of them to become gay-baiters (he quotes Joseph Epstein as follows: “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth”); and (b) that the Jewish lobby, in order to secure military and economic support for Israel, had “made common cause with every sort of reactionary and anti-Semitic group in the United States, from the corridors of the Pentagon to the TV studios of the evangelical Jesus Christers.” It would seem that both these assertions are largely true. Podhoretz seems to have taken offense at Vidal’s pungent exposition of the plain homophobia evident in articles written by Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter. But, as Podhoretz himself was forced to admit in his article (“The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name”), when he attempted to round up intellectuals to condemn Vidal’s perceived anti-Semitism, he found to his dismay that not many would join his bandwagon.

As for Vidal’s “contempt for the United States,” this country’s actions over the past decade—and, indeed, over much of its history—would seem to lend much justification for contempt, dismay, and general revulsion. Vidal is not to be blamed for pointing out the occasionally cavernous gulf between this country’s ideals and its actions.

 


 

Infighting vs. Debate

Greta Christina in her op-ed “Infighting or Healthy Debate?” (FI, October/November 2012) made some good solid points. What I strongly object to is a type of McCarthyism based on specific ethical, economical, or political issues, when the real enemy is religion. Until we are a majority in the world we need the efforts of every nonbelieving voice. Otherwise, a minority such as ours will become even less effective in the world.

As someone who was falsely accused of rape, I can testify that it is not always reasonable to accept what an accuser says without some evidence, and I don’t see any evidence that a leading atheist, author, or blogger is sexist or misogynistic. If there is such an atheist, then produce the evidence. Sure, there seems to be evidence of this among the rank and file, and it should definitely be addressed. Sometimes all that’s needed is to point it out and show why it is wrong. But this obnoxious behavior mostly comes from anonymous online trolls. How seriously should we take them? How old are they? Why are they lashing out? Is it because they hate all women or because they hate those women who accuse them of hating all women? Of course this is still despicable, but it is a difference. Do they actually attend atheist conventions? Do we know they’re all atheists? I have Christian trolls following my online footsteps posing as atheists who falsely characterize me as a liar. So I have reason to think at least a few Christians are involved, stirring up the pot here as well. Divide and conquer, you know.

In any case, let’s not become like a church that divides over power, greed, influence, and personality under the guise of important “principles” without a reasonable debate based on solid relevant evidence. Atheists should unite together against a common enemy, the religious faith embraced by an overwhelming majority of outspoken people who are causing the world harm. That recognition alone should be good enough for us to do whatever we can to keep our debates healthy.

John W. Loftus
Fort Wayne, Indiana

Greta Christina raises an excellent point that unfortunately is sometimes violated among conscientious humanists. That is to say, there is absolutely no place for ad hominem arguments in enlightened debate. The whole purpose of an ethical society seeking scientific advancement is to find out what is “false,” not pontificate on what is dogmatically presumed to be true (cf. Karl Popper). This is only possible when there is a free commerce of ideas and respect for dissenting opinions and disagreement. We can’t be “trashing each other out” simply because we disagree at times. Otherwise, we are no better off than our “theologically inebriated” opponents who claim to have found “eternal truth” on their smart phones.

When someone asks me what I mean by my humanism, I simply reply: “I trust in goodwill, human intelligence, and the free commerce of ideas. I do not trust in pretensions of divine revelation.” As history is witness, if we live by these principles we will be fine. But it does presuppose a willingness to tolerate divergent opinions and untrammeled debate. Given our patience, the free commerce of ideas will always separate good ideas from the bad. Again, I emphasize that this is history, not simply academic spiel.

Case in point: too many people in the Near East are beating each other in the streets over a trivial film depicting the so-called Prophet Muhammad in an undesirable light. If the Muslim fanatics don’t like the film, why don’t they circulate their own film bringing the issues to debate? But no. As always, fanatics prefer violence, name-calling, and public hysteria over rational and public debate. I think they might fear what open debate will reve
al.

Tolerance is a very demanding ethical discipline. But if we don’t abide by it, our humanism is gone.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

Does Secular Humanism Have a Political Agenda?

Re the special section “Does Secular Humanism Have a Political Agenda?” (FI, October/November 2012): last week I received my renewal request from Free Inquiry and threw it out because of its political agenda. The agenda is promoting more and bigger government. Then I read Ronald Bailey’s article, “Secular Humanism Has a Political Agenda, and It’s not in Favor of Liberty.” Indeed, he is correct: people such as Patricia Schroeder (“Saddle Up, Progressives!”) and other authors in FI do not want freedom across the board; they want their ideas forced upon others. They want their own form of government smothering anyone who thinks differently.

Virtually all the Libertarians I know are atheists, yet they will not join atheist groups because the atheist groups do not keep their focus on atheism or the other issues we have in common, but have a statist political agenda to crush dissenting thoughts.

Richard W. Morris, JD, PhD

Regarding Ronald Bailey’s article on the relationship between secular humanists and libertarians: to many of its proponents, libertarianism approaches a religion in its own right, with the market’s “invisible hand” approximating the role of a deity. Like other religious postulates, the blessings prophesied for a “pure” libertarian system (substantially zero government accompanied by an unregulated free market) are not falsifiable. However, logic suggests that these blessings can only be realized under conditions that include the following:

  1. Economic competition must be honest and fair;
  2. Consumers must be fully informed about available choices and apply that information to make rational decisions;
  3. Advertising and marketing programs must present useful and reasonably accurate information about products and services;
  4. Economic entities must provide employees with fair compensation and safe and comfortable work environments;
  5. Economic entities must take responsibility for protecting our environment from any adverse effects that might result from their activities.

Historical experience does not foster optimism about the fulfillment of these conditions. Most business executives consider profit their fundamental objective and tend to perceive the above stipulations as detrimental to their bottom lines. Rather than embracing competition, many (probably most) do their best to marginalize or eliminate their competitors. Without an enforceable set of rules (i.e., government regulation), society is likely to devolve into corporate/oligarchical feudalism.

I am a secularist, an atheist, and a libertarian with respect to social issues. However, I believe a civilized society should provide basic protections for its citizens, including (but not limited to) freedom from the threat of corporate indentured servitude. The idea of economic libertarianism does have a certain utopian appeal, but until the human race evolves beyond the equivalent of hubristic chimps with technology, I cannot accept the invisible hand as my personal savior.

Dan Davis
Elk Grove, California

When it comes to promoting a truly democratic society, Patricia Schroeder’s idea of a multiparty system is exactly what we need. As it stands now with our two-party system, a candidate could have the best ideas in the world, but by the time he or she reaches the top of the political ladder, he or she has had to compromise his or her central beliefs almost to the point of ineffectiveness.

I wish we could have a feminist or a humanist party in this country with real power to garner some significant votes. Then we might be able to break the gridlock in Congress and articulate some meaningful changes–or better, protect ourselves from some really bad changes. As it stands now, with our philosophically impotent two-party system, we are stuck with a current general election which consists of name-calling and effete cliches. Rep. Schroeder is right on the mark. We do need a more European-style parliamentary system with several “able” political parties.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

Your October/November 2012 issue addressing the question of whether or not secular humanists should become more politically active, even forming a party, was long overdue. Of course we should be more politically active, and of course we have to avoid trying to do it within either of the two major, completely corrupt, political parties. A party based on reason–on secular humanism–will be small but should grow as religious skepticism increases in the United States. And we already have a platform—it is published on the inside of the back page of every issue of Free Inquiry! I volunteer to organize the first meeting of the Orange County Humanist Party (let’s keep the name to one word)!

But, alas, there was one serious omission by all the contributors–the need to stop the constantly growing militarism of the United States. As a result of a half-century of growth, we have built the greatest military empire in the history of the world at the cost of our domestic well-being–with blessing of both political parties. I ask you: who better to counter the irrational fear based paranoia of the right wing that drives this militarism than a growing, reason based, Humanist Party?

Ronald C. Gibson
Irvine, California

Re “Conservatism for Seculars” by Razib Khan and “The Manic Triumphalism of Richard Rorty”

by Stephen Gallagher (FI, October/November 2012): whether conventional or reformist, reactionary or radical, political ideology is always conservative with respect to itself. Thinking people always tend to form some kind of conscientious overview of society and become defensive whenever this overview is challenged. This is true of professional academics just as it is true of working-class people. Testable, empirical truth is not always the first order of business when it comes to the human condition. On the contrary, our first order of business is “making sense of reality” and preserving our sense of efficacy in the world for better or for worse. This does not say, of course, that we do not change. We do change. Sometimes we change drastically. How we change contemplates the problem of how fast and efficiently we can incorporate and adapt our inherently self-preserving mind-sets to the implications of a new state of affairs. Society is a set of human interactions with the facts.

In a sense, this is what I think Richard Rorty was hinting at when he insisted that social reformers be moved by “guiding myths” regardless of their truth value. As we seek to reform society, we must have some conscientious inklings of what we would like to accomplish so that we may implement our goals by successive approximations. Otherwise, we are simply being iconoclastic and destructive. We wind up with no coherent goals. We lose our social orientation. Existential panic sets in. We embrace fanaticism and endless self-indulgence as a last desperate measure to restore “sense” to a world of increasingly “perceived nonsense.” At this point the postmodernists step in with their idiotic spiel: “Who cares? Nothing really matters? Just do it!” Well, as we all know, we can’t live that way. All the postmodernists want is mayhem, and mayhem produces more mayhem. This is what I think happened to the reformist political activism of the 1960s.

All facts considered, we do need “goal directedness” in the pursuit of social reform, but this must not embrace
driving ideas “regardless of their truth value.” Instead, we need to form communities valuing good will, tolerance, and a free commerce of ideas. We need to cultivate heuristic values as opposed to dogmatic values, which foster intellectual and cultural growth. This, of course, will take a lot of effort and responsibility on our part and on the part of the laity; it is revolutionary to be sure. But that’s what we want, isn’t it? Screaming political slogans and rallying in the street has never been effective.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

Humanism and Hip Hop

Re “What Humanism Might Learn from Hip Hop,”by Anthony B. Pinn (FI, October/November 20120: in a pedestrian sort of way, hip-hop culture teaches us a very basic and irremediable fact of life that we often miss in our higher echelons of academia. It is simply this: despite the advancing and sometimes pretentious achievements of modern science and technology, we are still faced with death, suffering, injustice, tragedy, and, of course, war. The postmodernist tells us that we should not take these things too seriously, because how we evaluate them is purely culturally relative and subject only to human whimsy. This solution is unworkable, however (as are all postmodernist solutions), because it leaves us in a state of nihilism and despair. Human beings are self-aware, ontological creatures who must have ethical incentives to improve our lot in life. This is our legacy of survival since the Ice Age. It is also why we invented science and technology in the first place.

One might say that hip-hop culture reminds us of what we must “strive against” in life if we are to find personal fulfillment.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

 


 

Atheists and Overgeneralization

In his response to the Richard Dawkins’ statement, “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism,” R. George Delamontange (“Overgeneralization: The Achilles Heel of Apocalyptic Atheism?” FI, October/November 2012) says “Really?” Yes, they really are! That is a major part of how ordinary German citizens were persuaded to push Jews into gas chambers. Eichmann didn’t do it all by himself. The us-versus-them mentality of religions and the idea of exclusive, God-given authority in scripture makes ordinary people prone to do things they would never otherwise do.

There is no question that religious beliefs that are indoctrinated into people from birth are extremely hard to abandon. So-called “moderate” beliefs are just as hard if not harder to abandon than the more obviously absurd beliefs of radicals. For many it is easier to go along with what “has to be done” than to abandon ingrained beliefs. Many moderate sectarian schools still commonly use corporal punishment to supposedly teach right and wrong. What they really teach is blind obedience to authority. The reason the child abuse by priests in the Catholic Church went on for so many years was because of the success of the church in teaching obedience to authority–not because of a failure of the church. To accept one belief for which there is no evidence opens the door to any belief for which there is no evidence. The so-called evidence that Feng Shui works is exactly the same kind of evidence that is used to justify killing witches in Africa. Between the two is a whole spectrum of superstitions, all without valid evidence.

Vic Arnold
Westerly, Rhode Island

R. Georges Delamontagne should be complimented for using archival data to test hypotheses about the relationship between religiosity and standard of living in America. Unfortunately, the research is compromised by problems with construction of variables, analysis of data, and formulation of conclusions.

Dividing religiosity into high, moderate, and low categories presents two major difficulties: restriction of range within categories and forced relationships among categories, i.e., higher scores in one category mandate lower scores in the other categories, which places limits on the pattern of correlations with external variables like HDI. Similar issues occur with denominational affiliation.

Regardless of these problems, the four confirmed hypotheses are the ones most readers would have predicted and not the other three. Why weren’t some details provided about the four confirmed hypotheses, such as magnitude of the relationships? Why wasn’t a total religiosity score correlated with HDI? Why weren’t evangelicals and unaffiliateds compared on HDI?

The most “egregious methodological error of overgeneralization” (the author’s expression) occurred in the final three paragraphs of the article. First, the variables of income and educational attainment explained 93 percent of the variation in HDI scores, obviously because HDI includes income and schooling in the composite. Second, this meaningless tautological relationship provided the basis for the author’s entirely unwarranted conclusion that “reducing intolerable levels of income, wealth, and educational inequality” will “bring about a life for humankind guided by the humanist ideals of reason, science, and compassion.”

This is truly egregious overgeneralization!

Brian Bolton
Georgetown, Texas

The hypotheses that R. Georges Delamontagne quoted from the Big Three are not backed up with statistics and scattergrams from the Big Three. I think that that makes them assertions. However, Delamontagne’s statistical approach is not exactly convincing to me either. He has made an assumption that there exists a relationship between the “hypotheses” of the Big Three and the correlations or lack of correlations in the scattergrams that he presents. I think that there may be some correlation with his findings and the hypotheses, but I don’t see a very direct connection. This is the Achilles heel of his argument, overgeneralization.

I think that I recognize a truly red herring in the argument about Stalin, too (yes, a pun). The problem is a faith belief in an “ism” without science, and it is not about atheism.

What I would really like to see is some type of survey or study that narrows or focuses on the subject a bit more closely than the HDI (American Human Development Index) and religiosity or faith preference (mainline Protestant or Catholic).

Wilfred Lyon
St. Augustine, Florida

I recommend that Free Inquiry readers be very skeptical about R. Georges Delamontagne’s analysis. A primary problem is his use of the Human Development Index as the main means of comparing the socioeconomic status of different parts of the United States. Delamontagne’s claim that the HDI is a widely accepted measure of a society’s health is far from the case. The HDI is only a gross means of comparing nations from the first, second, and third worlds; it is too crude for finer comparisons within a given developmental level. The HDI is based on too few socioeconomic indicators. No measure of criminal activity is included or of adverse consequences of sexual activity and drug consumption, mental illness, ecological exploitation, and so forth. Education indicators are too focused on formal achievement levels rather than knowledge. The defects are so well known that constructors of the HDI are working to replace it with the superior Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. The issue is discussed at the Wikipedia site on these indices.

So the HDI places the United States as number four in the world, much too high. The IHDI more correctly places the United States at twenty-three, behind all other first-world countries. The HDI should never be used for fine comparisons between first-wor
ld societies. The IHDI is better, but we can do even better than that.. As many know, I published the Successful Societies Scale that uses about two dozen indicators in 2009 (www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf). It clearly places the United States behind all other advanced democracies. Using that data, I was also able to show that moderate religion correlates as strongly with poor conditions as does fundamentalist faith (www.infidels.org/kiosk/article847.html). Only nontheism correlates with better conditions, and strongly so. I am currently expanding the SSS with collaborators to four dozen indicators, far and away the most comprehensive examination of socioeconomic conditions in the Western nations ever attempted. The improved version verifies that the unusually religious United States is in last place. The data also shows that successful societies cannot be highly religious because successful conditions invariably suppress the religiosity of the populations.

Gregory S. Paul

I have to wonder whether the influence of religion, for better or for worse, that appears to correlate with the Human Development Index scores of various parts of our country could be considered a cause of the HDI or whether the kind of religious viewpoint in the area is actually a result of the HDI of the various areas. For example, Delamontange’s analysis finds that high religiosity in the form of evangelical Protestantism correlates with a low HDI. A low HDI means a lower life-expectancy, less years of schooling, and a lower standard of living. Is evangelical Protestantism causing this unhappy situation, or is it rather caused by this low HDI? Less schooling and poverty often correlate with greater ignorance in general and a greater tendency toward fundamentalist forms of religion.

Kerwin L. Schaefer
New Bern North Carolina

R. Georges Delamontagne replies:

My article was intended to be provocative, and, judging from letters from readers, I’m pleased to have my expectations realized. There may, and likely are, better alternative methodological approaches than those that I utilized in addressing the questions I raised about the tendency of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and other renowned atheists to make assertions, unsupported by empirical evidence, about the pernicious effects of all types of religion and all degrees of religiosity on the human condition. The important point is that some form of falsifiable empirical evidence must be presented in support of the claims made; otherwise we are merely sharing opinions, well reasoned and persuasively articulated, perhaps, but still opinions, not facts. I encourage Gregory S. Paul, in particular, to apply his formidable talents and experience in developing sophisticated data bases to refine and improve upon my contribution.

 


 

Earth Issues

In your October/November 2012 issue Edd Doerr wrote, “The leaders and enablers of the anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-climate change movements are criminally irresponsible. Or perhaps they’re clinically nuts” (“Overpopulation, Climate Change, and November 6”). What if they are both? The definition of psychosis is to be out of touch with reality. As Doerr points out, our failure to deal with overpopulation and climate change, and to do so now, will inevitably mean catastrophe. Those he refers to are Christians, and as Christians they are believers in death, worshipers of death, idolizers of death, hopeful for death (see Rapture). Given that we are all still alive, that belief system is out of touch with reality. Our survival instinct is much stronger than our fear of death, given that the human species is still here–here, but not healthy. We are witnessing a psychotic break in America, in which the idea that our survival instinct is stronger is being put to the test.

The mass silence regarding overpopulation; the failure to shout down the religionists who populate at will; the denial of climate change as a “hoax”–these are real issues, and those of us on the Left, we Progressives, need to take off the gloves, make our position known loud and clear, and call it what it is: insanity with a capital I. We may be past the tipping point, but we existentially we still have to tell it like it is.

Lee Simon
Mt. Solon, Virginia

 


 

More on ‘Spirit’ Talk

In “Rebuking the Foul Spirit,” FI, October/November 2012, Tom Flynn betrays a curiously impoverished conception of language and its functioning. One of the key insights of twentieth-century philosophy of language is that words function in more than just a referential, or entity-indicating, capacity. When we talk about “team spirit,” for example, we are not positing a ghostly thing that hovers over the members of a committed team (not even supernaturalists believe that!). Instead, we speak this way to call attention to a subtle interpersonal phenomenon that is not easily reducible to the energetic movements of individual members. As thoroughgoing naturalists, of course, we can stipulate that, in principle, team spirit is metaphysically reducible to component parts–correctly describable, that is, as (in some sense) “nothing more” than matter in motion. (Of course, in another sense, team spirit is precisely about the team becoming more than the sum of its parts!)

To experience team spirit from the inside is to feel and understand something that dispassionate third-person analysis invariably misses. (Compare “Each member of the team was energized to help the team win”– it completely misses the way team members can transcend self when immersed in collective effort.) To anyone who has experienced this phenomenon, “team spirit” will evoke something of this (perfectly natural kind of) transcendence. In fact, the phrase can confer a kind of understanding precisely because it is evocative in this way.

Note also that the detachment necessary to render an objective accounting of a phenomenon can interfere with the kind of engagement that makes the phenomenon possible. Thus, a neurochemical analysis of a brain experiencing love does not convey what it’s like to be in love. Perhaps Flynn can construct an elaborate (and purely referential) surrogate for the phrase “team spirit,” but it is unlikely to convey a direct sense of what being in the grip of team spirit is like. The same goes for his attempt to supplant other uses of “spirit” talk. His efforts to eliminate all “spirit”-talk will fail for the same reason that physicalist efforts do away with belief and desire-talk have failed–the terms are useful for calling attention to significant emergent patterns.

Flynn encourages me to “step away from (my) metaphors”–presumably because he prefers literal talk. But as Nietzsche taught us, language is a “mobile army of metaphors,” and literal talk is little more than entrenched metaphor. In any case, playing with metaphors is a critical part of exploring language’s disclosive possibilities, and no self-respecting naturalist should foreswear such experimentation.

Flynn describes his rejection of spirit-talk as motivated by a “determination to engage with reality as it is, not as we might wish it to be.” Fine. But it is wrong to suggest that spirit-talk is invariably motivated by wishful thinking. It is also a mistake to assume that “engaging with reality” is just a matter of representing it accurately. Settle completely the question of what reality is like, and there will still be open questions about how we ought to best cope with it. We are not just detached spectators, we are also engaged participants, and it matters that we engage reality–and one another–constructively. Metaphors have important roles to play in
working out more constructive modes of engagement, and spirit-talk can disclose important dimensions of human potential.

Andy Norman
Carnegie Melon University

Tom Flynn replies:

Metaphors can be useful, of course, and in most situations our language would be the poorer for avoiding them. But in the specific instance of nontheistic naturalists using spiritual or dualistic language, the resort to metaphors poses unique dangers and is best avoided. Though our numbers are increasing, we naturalists remain a minority in a culture whose default assumptions very much include the supernatural. Two of the more popular and effective arguments that religious believers marshal to fortify themselves against atheism/naturalism are (1) that reality includes a nonphysical or “spiritual” component whose importance is so great that any reductionistic account fails to capture reality; and (2) that human beings require spiritual or supernatural connections in order to attain happiness – or even simply to endure the life’s pains and disappointments. Each argument is especially devious, in that it encourages believers to insist that there’s actually no such thing as atheism. If monistic explanations are inadequate by definition, or if people can’t get by without supernatural support, then it follows that people who claim to be atheists are just kidding themselves. When such believers engage with an atheist or naturalist, their minds will be racing to sniff out any shred of evidence that the interlocutor secretly harbors dualist or spiritual ideas. That leads to a “Gotcha!” moment, after which the believer will feel licensed to stop taking the atheist seriously.

Unfortunately, the uses of language that Norman recommends – while wholly legitimate in most other contexts – are potentially ruinous for us in this particular context. By speaking of emergent phenomena in a poetic but, let’s face it, sloppy way, he encourages believing interlocutors to dismiss us as dualists. By using “spirit” language that admits of any supernatural implication, however far-fetched, he encourages those same interlocutors to dismiss us as atheist poseurs who still, deep down, embrace the spirit world. This is the “wishful thinking” I warned against – not our own but rather the wishful thinking of frightened believers who will resort to almost any stratagem in order to avoid confronting the fact that some people really do lead full lives without religion. Our only hope of convincing most believers that this is true is precisely to “impoverish” our use of language, when discussing matters that admit of supernatural or dualistic interpretations, so that what we mean cannot be mistaken even by the most willful opponent.

I usually join the amen chorus (so to speak) when Tom Flynn opinionates, but I disagree with his argument for banishing the word spirit from the secular vocabulary. Granted, the word has long had a supernatural definition that secular skeptics would want to avoid; but, contrary to Flynn’s argument, we have no alternative for other important uses of the word. Thus, under Flynn’s prohibition, millions of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” would be banned from the ranks of the growing secular population.

In an opposing article, this point was stressed by Andy Norman. “These people are natural allies,” he writes. “And they’re struggling to express something important to them. To make our shores really welcoming, we have to listen to them. Really listen.” He points to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which, Norman says, “likens a world without spiritual depth to a ‘flatland’ and argues that there is a ‘dimension’ of experience that we seculars are prone to miss.”

I agree. In a secular discussion group I attended not long ago, I spoke of feeling, years earlier, an overwhelming sense of oneness with the universe. I called it a “spiritual” experience, only to be criticized by the discussion leader for resorting to a supernatural explanation. He also expressed disdain for people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

The problem, I think, is one of definition. Many secularists consider “spirituality” to be mainly belief in spooky things, but in modern usage a more accurate definition would be “openness to experiences that transcend everyday consciousness.”

Flynn offers “95 Ways Not to Say Spirit.” But the only word he supplies that comes close to describing my experience is inspiring, which appears twice on the list. But inspiring derives from the same Latin root as spirit, and its first definition in the American Heritage Dictionary is “to affect, guide or arouse by divine influence,” so even it fails to solve the problem. Furthermore, inspiring does not describe the transforming power of my experience and the meaningful insight it provided.

These experiences, though fleeting and rare, can be achieved through meditation and other means. (I once asked a Zen master if my insight partook of the enlightenment experience, and he answered “yes.”) Such an experience is an entirely natural product of the brain that offers us a glimpse at an ultimate truth­­—that we are indeed at one with the universe. After all, we and all the other matter in the cosmos were created by the Big Bang. We are — all of us and everything — the dust of exploded stars.

Walter Balcerak
Brooklyn, New York

The Point-Counterpoint exchange between Andy Norman (“A Heretical Manifesto”) and Tom Flynn (“Rebuking the Foul Spirit”) caught my attention (FI, October/November 2012). In the last paragraph of Andy Norman’s essay, the word toleration occurred. From my perspective based on reading Free Inquiry, there are two possible ways to win the war on religion that atheists are waging: show public fury if religion is taught, practiced, discussed, or displayed in any public venue. Use the constitutional separation of church and state as a weapon or tolerance.

I have come to realize that belief is a very powerful emotion that cannot be broken with harsh or insulting words. I am a conservative and believe in freedom. I think it is the only rational way for civilization to progress. Religion and big government both steal freedom from us—one through indoctrination, the other through excessive regulation and taxation. To me the Progressive movement may have had an altruistic beginning, but it has become corrupt with the bureaucracy that wastes the massive amount of money we already send it and dares to cut our defenses, government’s only legitimate purpose. This is my belief. You cannot change my belief through prohibition. There is another belief in this country. The Progressive movement says that the government is there to take care of poor people. They think the rich don’t deserve what they make and should give more of it to the government who then wastes it by growing more government. It has been demonstrated again and again that Liberal principals are unsustainable. Liberal philosophy is a pathway to misery and despair for millions of people while the bureaucracy thrives. If you are Liberal I cannot change your point of view by prohibiting it.

I give these examples because in each case tolerance and discussion will win more converts than prohibiting the expression of belief. The war that is waging right now in civilization is between tolerance and intolerance. Both emotions are in us.

I know a lot of Christians, and they are nice people. They have values that I respect.
I am not a Christian. I don’t believe that God has a personality or that we go to heaven when we die. But I am free to express my belief. Tolerance demands we respect the right to express belief so long as it does one no harm. Being offended is an illegitimate excuse to not tolerate someone’s belief. We have seen the effect that being offended can cause from the recent Islamic reaction to the Muhammad video.

I don’t know any Muslims. But I know enough to say that you have no respect from Islam. Their methods are fascist, justifying murder for disbelief and treating women as subjects, controlling their behavior, movement, and dress. I have no tolerance for intolerance.

Let us take one example, the teaching of Creationism. If we ban it from being brought up in school it will never die. If we tolerate it, as long as there is tolerance for teaching scientific facts, then discussion will follow and belief in evolution will occur. Ultimately truth will convince more people than tearing down crosses on public land because atheists are offended.

Tolerate and educate instead of prohibit and dictate is my belief.

Kenneth E. Rix
Tiverton, Rhode Island

 


 

Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Thank you for James Zimmerman’s touching article “Why I Am Not a Jehovah’s Witness” (FI, October/November 2012). His story needs exposure because, while the details are unique, its core plot is written over and over again.

I too was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and eventually questioned their core beliefs. I realized I couldn’t just “choose to believe” in things like biblical miracles, evil spirits, Witnesses’ doctrinal superiority, and even God’s existence. Constantly hearing myths presented as truths and watching the leadership exert control through fear and guilt, it was impossible to be happy pretending to believe.

I left the organization three years ago. Manipulated by the JW leadership’s propaganda, my former friends and family reject me as a wicked “apostate.” They even chose not to attend my wedding in August. The pain of their shunning never truly disappears.

Nevertheless, it’s been unending joy exploring formerly forbidden subjects such as biological evolution, philosophy, and the JW’s true history. I eagerly await every issue of Free Inquiry; it’s a core part of my new intellectual freedom and moral growth. I’m married to a fine non-Witness woman and beginning military medical training, which was never possible as a Jehovah’s Witness.

At this moment, tens of thousands of JWs worldwide are secretly agonizing over what the organization does to themselves and their families. They wrestle with fear, doubt, anxiety, and depression hidden behind a mask of “spiritual joy.” Jehovah’s Witnesses and other high-control groups are emotional vampires exerting subtle psychic violence to keep members in line while sucking them dry. The resulting family anguish, damage to individual lives, and wasted human potential cannot be overstated. Therapy and support groups aid recovery, but as long as dangerous cults exist we need to increase awareness through stories like James Zimmerman’s.

Private Daniel Dionne
U.S. Army
Fort Jackson, South Carolina


  On Gore Vidal When I read that the editors of FI, in their introduction to S. T. Joshi’s obituary of Gore Vidal (FI, October/November 2012), quoted International Academy of Humanism Secretary Stephen Law that Vidal was “principled, honest, and courageous” I was perplexed and frightened. I could not help but wonder what Joshi had …

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