Free Expression in Crisis

In support of Tom Flynn’s call that “It’s Time to Stand Up for Free Expression” (FI, December 2012/January 2013), I propose the creation of a Free Expression Merit Badge to be awarded by the Council for Secu lar Humanism or by Free Inquiry. As you know, the Boy Scouts of America do not accept members who speak freely about their nonbelief in God. You may not know that there already exist many merit badges awarded by outside religious entities and allowed to be worn by Scouts (see the Scouts’ website.)

Writing an essay about the right of all Americans to freely hold their own opinions could be a requirement. Finding some former or current Scouts, Eagle or otherwise, to judge the essays might even be fun. The badge itself could be either a sew-on or a pin. I’d be delighted to help fund the cost of these badges if that helps.

The Free Expression Merit Badge might be given to non-Scouts as well. Young people who have the courage to speak freely should be supported, and encouraging freethought at an early age is seems worthwhile.

Richard Kirschman
Point Reyes Station, California

Edward Tabash replies:

Sam Fields misses the point of my article. if someone chooses to “self-censor” by virtue of their own abhorrence of a word, that is not a problem. If someone chooses to self-censor because of fear of violence or government-imposed censorship, that would be a problem. The thrust of my article was to argue that offensive commentary and choice of vocabulary should not be punished by any branch of government. It was also to argue that such choice of words or topics, regardless of how offensive to others, should never expose the speaker or writer to any actual or threat of violence. Nothing that I wrote is inconsistent with allowing an individual to freely refrain from using one or more words in making a point, so long as the decision is not based on any form of external coercion. The point is that we should be free to choose our words, whether by addition or deletion, without having to worry about the police power of the state or violent retaliation.

While all the quoted, horrified defenders of the faith are aggressively banning speech, burning books, pillaring infidels, and issuing fatwas, none of the authors raises the obvious critique: why do all this when Allah, God, Jesus, Mohammed, etc. aren’t outraged enough by any of the criticisms leveled against them to personally wreak vengeance on the blasphemers? If Allah doesn’t give Salman Rushdie a heart attack for writing The Satanic Verses, why do imams and others feel the need to act as surrogates for their all-powerful god? Do they sense that their deity has become impotent, uncaring, or just uninterested in the trivial squabbles of the petty species it has created?

Tom Flynn suggests that blasphemy has been redefined to now be an insult or offense against a group of religious believers. I tend to agree, and I believe that this transition has occurred because the true believers, having deeply committed themselves to an ideology, no longer have hope or expectations in this twenty-first century for a direct, judicial response from an almighty. To save face with the larger community of worshipers and to buttress their personal faith in the absence of divine intervention, true believers must, as Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor did, protect and promote their religion, no matter how aggressive or suppressive their methods.

David Werdegar
Naperville, Illinois



On Altruism

Altruism is a dirty word to Tibor Machan (“Altruism Isn’t Generosity,” Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013). He calls it a “suicidal” practice of “devoting oneself to benefiting others above all.” But this is a false dichotomy that betrays both an alarmingly narrow view of self-interest and a dangerous philosophy.

Paul Kurtz said it best in “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” often printed on the inside cover of Free Inquiry. “We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.. . . We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the disabled.. . . We want to protect and enhance Earth, to preserve it for future generations. . . .” In other words, we care about the greater good. We have compassion and empathy for all humans and indeed for all life. To work for justice, to struggle for the betterment of humanity, is the highest ethical calling. And yes, often we sacrifice to do this. We give of our time and our money, and sometimes we do all of this at great risk to life and health.

We are generous when we do this, but it is not just generosity that impels us to work for justice, to sacrifice for the good of all humanity. It’s a moral obligation. It’s the essence of living an ethical life, of being a humanist.

Machan and his ilk would have us live in a world where people are concerned only, or primarily, for themselves–in a society where government is not organized to help the less fortunate or to provide a safety net. If you’re desperate, look to private charity, and if you can’t find it, well, sorry, you’re free to starve–but good luck to you. That’s not a positive ethic in a world where circumstances far beyond their control determine the lives of the poorest among us. Selfish disregard of the misfortunes of others is the very definition of evil and the root of all of our problems.

Ross Adams
Glenview, Illinois



Remembering Paul Kurtz

I have great admiration for the life wisdom of the late Paul Kurtz (“In Memoriam: Paul Kurtz, FI, Dec. 2012/Jan.2013). “Eupraxosophy,” as he called it, is perhaps the ultimate expression of the pragmatism sought by philosophers like John Dewy and Sydney Hook. With eloquent verbal skill, Dr. Kurtz integrated the advance of scientific knowledge with our developing need for ethics and compelling interests in life. The two go hand in hand, which is a point frequently missed by pundits of modernity. Ethics direct our pathways of life, while science enlightens us as to the consequences of our thoughts and actions. Ethics without the enlightenment of science quickly becomes overly idealistic fanaticism (cf. Plato’s Republic). Science without ethics is pointless nihilism that quickly becomes nonproductive decadence. Both must operate in total integration if we are to produce a society honoring humanist values. Paraphrasing the late philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, we need a society moved by love and enlightened by science. Paul Kurtz was a great exponent of these virtues.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

I am sixty-two years old now, but it was back in my late thirties that I happened upon the book that told me I was not alone and the author who would influence and guide me as no one else ever would. The book was The Transcendental Temptation and the author was Paul Kurtz. A dedicated atheist when I read his book but philosophically uncertain otherwise, he gave me guidance and courage to be who I am. I have never admired or respected any human being more than Paul Kurtz. Although I never met him, it feels like a part of me is gone. This man made the world a better place for all people.

Allan Chase
Derry, New Hampshire



Women in Secularism

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The freethought feminists who authored the “Women in Secularism” articles in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Free Inquiry prove no exception. From their perspectiv
e, atheism or at least nontheism offers the right tool for dismantling the religious authority of patriarchal gods and opening a fast track to freedom for women. Obviously, protests against misogynist religious practices, especially those endemic to Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, have played a prominent role in the women’s movement worldwide. Nonetheless women and their male allies seeking an end to male domination and realizing female empowerment through the achievement of equal rights, education, and opportunity have shaped the movement with only nominal support from secular humanist organizations. The recent “nuns on a bus” tour protesting Paul Ryan’s budget in 2012; and the consecration of the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church in 2010 serve as reminders that feminist activism and atheism are less commensurate than we would like to admit. Most women prefer to pursue female liberation by reforming institutions, including religious institutions, from inside their diverse cultures rather than by renouncing their faith or “spirituality.”

Secularizing forces have certainly influenced the women’s movement in progressive ways and hold great promise for the future. But our signature core belief that God does not exist based on science and reason, at least for the time being, is largely a turnoff for the public. Speaking anecdotally, I find it more difficult to broach the topic with women than with men not because of any deficit in the female intellect but rather because of an inexplicable factor I can only label “Not Interested.”

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

My heart goes out to Wafa Sultan (“Islam Is Woman’s Enemy”) though I am not a female, nor have I ever experienced the egregious discrimination and abuse that she and other women have been subjected to under sharia law. Democratic nations such as the United States should be sternly denouncing such brutal discrimination more vociferously than they currently are. Moreover, these nations should refuse to do business with theocratic countries that enforce strict sharia law.

Adam S. Thomas
Salem, Oregon



Considering Christmas

Re “Spending Christmas with Linus” by Jim Metzger (FI, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013): why do people continue to believe in the absurd? Why do so many people put “their faith” in the New Testament Christmas stories although they contradict each other and are full of historic inaccuracies? It is easy enough to claim that it is simply a matter cultural conditioning, but I think there is more to it than this. The late anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out that a culture is far more than a mere set of facts. Far from it, a culture is a set of human interactions with the facts; this implies in addition to mere learning, one’s perceptions, values, aspirations, hopes, fears, and creative imagination. Working in concert, all of these attributes constitute a kind of “ontological exuberance” that adds meaning and compelling interest to the culture.

Hopefully, we will one day learn to achieve this without being asked to believe in religious mythology.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas



Circumcision Revisited

So Edan Tasca admits circumcision has benefits (“Cut It Out,” FI, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013). Perhaps he has done some homework but not enough or he would not have been so hasty to claim that HIV rates in the U.S.A. are greater than those in Europe, despite the scarcity of foreskins in the former. Reality is not so simple. Many European countries do have lower rates but seem to be catching up. With an HIV rate of 0.6 %, the U.S.A. is comparable to Spain (0.5 %), Portugal (0.5 %), and Switzerland (0.6 %), exceeded by Latvia (0.8 %), and dwarfed by Estonia (1.3 %) and Ukraine (1.6 %). Yet the epidemic had a head start in the U.S.A.

As millions can testify, local anesthesia is very effective, but there will always be minor discomfort as the needle goes in. To demand complete elimination of pain is unreasonable. Shall we ban vaccinations because the injection might hurt a little?

Consent is not the trump card Tasca imagines. There are many medical reasons why infant is greatly preferable to adult circumcision. The responsibility for consent is therefore the parents’ who have to act in the child’s best interests. If we applied Tasca’s stance to vaccination, we would still have smallpox.

Anti-circumcisers are not just making circumcised males needlessly miserable about their bodies. They are endangering lives by discouraging use of an effective prophylactic. When Thabo Mbeki fell for AIDS-denier garbage he withheld anti-HIV drugs, with 365,000 deaths as a result. I wonder how many deaths the anti-circumcisers will cause?

Stephen Moreton
Cheshire, England

These are the same stale arguments that ignore mounds of new scientific research. The AAP multidisciplinary workgroup conducted a critical review of peer-reviewed scientific literature from 1995-2010. Health benefits, ethics, and sexual satisfaction were among issues addressed. Included were 231 articles showing reduced risk of HIV/STI.

Three articles criticized by Tasca are African studies showing a 50 to 60 percent reduced risk of HIV. Not only have there been rigorous meta-analyses validating the studies (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23156651), but results of mass circumcision show about 70 percent reduced risk of HIV. Researchers in fact have a plausible theory. Foreskin traps bacteria and viruses and has cells with receptors allowing easy entry to the blood stream. Opposing claims have no supporting evidence.

The CDC is still evaluating evidence. Expect their statement to be even stronger than the AAP’s. Circumcision’s reduced risk of prostate cancer is a recent discovery; the American Cancer Society may eventually update its stance.

The same old argument that the United States has a high circumcision rate and high HIV rate still doesn’t hold water. HIV is transmitted in the United States mainly through IV drug use and anal receptive sex. Neither benefit from circumcision.In the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, new heterosexual cases are rising just as the circumcision rate is declining. Claims of screaming babies going into shock are outdated as well. Pain management is essential as the AAP points out and many infants sleep through the procedure.

Delaying circumcision to adulthood is risky, painful, costly, and requires sutures and sexual abstinence. Over their lifetimes, half of uncircumcised males will have an adverse medical condition caused by their foreskin.

I agree that nobody should advocate circumcision based solely on religious scripture or tradition. The high-quality scientific evidence showing circumcision’s lifelong health benefits is overwhelming; it’s long overdue that should be acknowledged.

Joe Provino
Arlington, Massachusetts

Edan Tasca replies:

This debate has absolutely convinced me that the biggest problem here is simply that we’re used to certain things. If you had never heard of circumcision and a parent you that he or she was planning to cut off part of his or her son’s penis, you would, for exceedingly obvious reasons, be horrified. The scientific research stands on its own. I haven’t mischaracterized it. Percentages (even large ones) in the context of HIV epidemics haven’t convinced anyone, even circumcision proponents and medical experts, that a male’s health requires the removal of a body part. Research done with nicotine suggesting a preventative effect for many ailments hasn’t convinced anyone that it is wise to smoke. This is research that we should instead use intelligently. Circumcision will one day—whether it be a decade or a century from now—be univ
ersally seen as the embarrassing habit that it is. Until then it seems we will continue to point at an HIV epidemic on the other side of the Atlantic as justification for cutting off a part of our baby boys, a sad display of cultural cognitive dissonance.

  Free Expression in Crisis In support of Tom Flynn’s call that “It’s Time to Stand Up for Free Expression” (FI, December 2012/January 2013), I propose the creation of a Free Expression Merit Badge to be awarded by the Council for Secu lar Humanism or by Free Inquiry. As you know, the Boy Scouts of …

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