Is Religion Dying?
Tom Flynn’s admonition in “Is Religion Dying?” (Free Inquiry, June/July 2013) about the well-meaning but nonetheless complacent naiveté of many humanist young people should be taken very seriously. The Christian evangelicals have long since realized that they can no longer appeal to educated youth by portraying themselves as a culturally insular reactionary sect. So, their new strategy is to integrate themselves into the youth milieu by co-opting the latter’s symbols and language. The evangelicals now speak of a “woman’s right” to see the nonviable fetus she may be thinking about aborting or to receive counseling as to the possible ill effects of abortion. Some evangelicals claim that they are being discriminated against because they are not allowed to teach creationism at public expense. Ideas and concepts such as civil rights, nondiscrimination, and cultural inclusiveness have become philosophic mainstays among the millennial generation. Just to insinuate that there has been a violation thereof elicits almost a knee-jerk response. This is not necessarily a bad thing in certain civil contexts. We want cultural inclusiveness, and we don’t want to discriminate against anyone on inequitable grounds. The religious Right knows this and will take full advantage of this kind of civil posture in seeking intellectual respectability. Hence, we should stress among humanist youth that they must always examine and carefully analyze the practical implications of a civil rights claim, not just the glib expression of an ideal.
John L. Indo
The Triumph of Christianity
In her article, “Exposing Christian Propaganda” (FI, June/July 2013), Shadia Drury lends the impression that early Christianity became a majority religion because, enabled by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, “bellicose Christians violently crushed every remnant of polytheistic worship,” so that the growth of Christianity was forced by the state. This is only partially true. In fact, Constantine converted only after Christianity grew at an exponential rate and the Christian religion continued to gain membership independently of state persecution of pagans. An important sociological study on this is Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996). Stark argues that Constantine converted because Christianity was growing rapidly because it successfully competed with paganism in treating women better in handling the awful consequences of epidemics, resulting in greater survival rates and commanding great respect from the non-Christian population. The Church grew at a greater demographic rate than the pagan religions. This was due only in part to Christians, after Constantine, using the state to oppress pagan practices.
Government in America
In the op-ed titled “Government in America—What’s It For?,” Tibor Machan uses several facts and draws a conclusion: John Locke wrote a book that was published in 1689, and North Korea seems to be an unpleasant place to live. The conclusion seems to be that government regulation is bad. I don’t get it. What do the facts presented have to do with my wish that my government help assure food and workplace safety, clean air and water, enforceable business contracts, and other such regulations? Locke may have had some interesting things to say about what to do with a surplus of grapes, and North Korea is not a good societal model, but I for one wish we had more food and work place safety inspectors, not fewer.
North Stonington, Connecticut
In the first place, the American Revolution most likely did not “demote the role of government to a cop on the beat” (what it largely did was insure the property of North American stakeholders in the English colonies against the greed of the English government); nor are there any “natural rights” that somehow came to us from a pre-social human Neverland. What we had then and have now is rights conventionally granted, and these, however fundamental, are never absolute. Life may be taken, liberty curtailed, and property confiscated.
In asserting that Americans are a “great variety of unique citizens,” Tibor Machan is false to science. What we are is a national instance of Homo sapiens, and of all the animals, including our closest evolutionary relatives, Homo sapiens is by far the most social species. This fact–and it is a fact—requires government capable of managing the socioeconomic existence of its polis. In the case of the United States that’s three hundred million-plus people. Imagine the chaos if so many “unique citizens” acted as such, outside social norms and limits and laws.
Tibor Machan is correct that America’s founders sought to protect “the basic rights of every individual” (as long as they were white male property owners). However, they sought to do so within a collectivist framework. We know this because of the collectivist language of the preamble of the Constitution. It begins, “We the People.” The document also refers to a “Union,” again, a collectivist noun.
Machan fails to realize that collectivism and individuality can be balanced. Indeed, that is the fundamental task of any truly civilized society. (Society is also a collectivist noun.)
I’ll end by answering the question of its title. The purpose of government in America can be found in the preamble of the Constitution—“to promote the general Welfare.”
Scott J. Raskiewicz
St. Paul, Minnesota
Reviewing Religious Research
I enjoyed the excellent article by Luke Galen and Jeremy Beahan, “A Skeptical Review of Religious Prosociality Research,” in the June/July 2013 issue. I would like to comment on Figure 3, which reflects the poll findings that religious people are less depressed and less unhealthy than people unsure of their religion, and the later polls suggesting that atheists secure in their nonbelief are similarly better off. The implication by many has been that being firm and comfortable in one’s belief or nonbelief causes one to be healthier and better adjusted than those who are insecure in their belief/unbelief. Of course, as always, correlation does not imply cause and effect. The data could be interpreted the opposite way: people who are depressed, unhealthy, and miserable are likely to wonder why their beliefs/nonbeliefs have not supported them and to have doubts. In other words, being comfortable in your religion or irreligion does not cause you to be happy; rather, being unhappy causes you to be uncomfortable in your religion/ unreligion. Or, there is some other, unknown explanation for the correlation, or there is no explanation at all.
Imre G. Toth, MD
Beware of Mental Traps
In the June/July 2013 issue of FI in “Beware of Mental Traps: Why We Need to Overcome Them to Survive the TwentyFirst Century,” Hector Sierra gives an excellent discussion of mental traps one can fall into that lead to dysfunction. One aspect of his argument needs clarification. Sierra maintains that polarization of opposing enclaves leads both to become more extreme. That may often happen but has not been the actual response in our political system. The right wing has, indeed, become more so. Here, I do not consider isolated cranks. I refer only to elected officials who have recently served. On the Right, it is easy to find influential persons who espouse preposterous ideas. John Boehner (R-OH) says that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists to get more grants; Todd Aiken (R-MO) maintains that a raped woman can’t conceive; Paul Broun (R-GA) says the theory of evolution is an idea “from the pit of Hell”; Ron Paul (R-TX) maintains that we should repeal Obamacare because the uninsured can always find a compassionate physician who will treat them for free.
On the other side, the leftists have emphatically not become more so, In fact, they have moved right. Polarization in the United States has simply moved both parties to the right, leaving the gap unchanged.
St. Louis, Missouri
I greatly appreciated Andrew S. Ryan Jr. tackling the illogic of zygotal personhood and the label of “unborn children” in his article “Of Persons, Human Beings, Things Human, Roses, and Toxic Waste Dumps” (FI, June/July 2013). However, in our efforts to combat the slew of legislation attempting to enshrine a definition of personhood as beginning at conception, I think it imperative that we go further and tackle some of the legal and philosophical absurdities inherent in the project of legislating a definition of life. To this end, I have developed an analogy that I think highly usable. Like all analogies, it is no doubt imperfect, but it does compare life processes to home brewing, so it has that in its favor.
After all, beer, like life, is hard to define. The old German Purity Law held that beer was composed of only barley, water, hops, and yeast. However, there are long-standing traditions of wheat beers, and other cultures have introduced rice and maize into the mix. Therefore, my operative definition of beer for this particular thought exercise is: “Beer is the result of combining grain, water, hops, and yeast in such a way as to produce a beverage with a modicum of alcohol.” Now, the way that this is done is that your grain product and your hops are boiled in water for a set amount of time and allowed to cool before yeast is added in. Before the yeast is added, what you have is called “wort.” The added yeast consumes the sugars that were in the grain product and metabolizes them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, resulting, over a period of time, in what can be called beer.
At what point does wort become beer? After all, our operative definition of beer is not based upon a certain alcohol content. Therefore, one could conceivably (no pun intended) make the argument that beer begins at fermentation, when the first yeast cell produces the first molecule of alcohol—at that point, the substance does literally have an alcohol content, thus meeting our definition of beer. Never mind that you would need a mass spectrometer and a lot of time to detect such an infinitesimal amount of alcohol—it is undeniably there.
And here is where we hit our legal absurdities, for if this substance with its 0.000000000000000001 percent alcohol is defined as beer, then it must be a controlled substance. That means that, if my underage nephew sticks a straw in the fermenter and sips away, then I’ve contributed to the delinquency of a minor and can be jailed. Or, likewise, I can sell it in liquor stores; never mind that the overconsumption of my product will not result in the slightest drunkenness whatsoever.
Does beer begin at fermentation? (In other words, are we defining beer, something which has been on this planet for thousands of years, according to scientific equipment which has been in existence for less than one hundred years?) Or is there instead some magic point we cannot necessarily point to at which beer begins, before which it is but potential beer? Is beer instead in the eye of the beholder or recognized by the consensus of the community? The implications for the idea that life begins at conception are obvious.
Similar absurdities abound when we attempt to define sex primarily as the means by which human beings reproduce, or make (intentionally or not) all those bundles of cells that may eventually qualify as alive. A random glance at online sources informs me that the likelihood of a woman becoming pregnant from any single act of heterosexual intercourse (even if she is not using birth control) is probably in the 15 to 25 percent range. Even if fertilized, the likelihood that said egg will successfully implant into the wall of the uterus and start developing is probably around 50 percent. I don’t think you get to say that the primary purpose of sex is reproduction if sex only ends in some attempt at reproduction 25 percent of the time. After all, the primary purpose of one’s lungs is the intake of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide. The fact that I have yet to pass out as I write this tells me that my lungs are working at a fairly high rate of efficiency. Likewise with stomachs, the primary purpose of which is the breakdown of food into chemical components for use of the body. Granted, there have been occasions when my stomach has failed to do this, but this seems to be more the case of my having overlooked an expiration date than it does a systematic breakdown of the digestive process.
More and more research leans in the direction of perceiving sex as, first and foremost, a means of social cohesion in human beings and related animals. Sex as pleasure and social bond is arguably just as vital to the survival of our particular species as is sex as reproduction.
The zygotal personhood movement, in its operative definitions of life and sex, does not simply embrace variant definitions of common but vague concepts—it embraces, wholeheartedly, an array of philosophical absurdities belied by reality. Reality is on our side.
Little Rock, Arkansas
At conception as a single cell, a blastocyst, a human zygote is likely to be “aborted” if conception occurs too late in the woman’s menstrual cycle. This fertilized ova is then flushed out, naturally, and unlikely to be detected. So, why is this natural event not even considered by those defining a human being as existing at conception? Should we then collect every woman’s tampon or pad during menstruation, after sex, for funerals. Absurdity!
Andrew Ryan’s attempt to show how confusing it can be to interpret language was certainly successful. He exhibits a certain amount of confusion on the subject of his discourse; but then, don’t most persons?
Zygotes within humans are certainly human and certainly beings, which in my book makes them human beings. Human organisms constantly change; from zygote to the eldest senior we are never the same, moment to moment or day to day. Our greatest short-term change, of course, occurs during and immediately after our birth, when we metamorphose from a parasitic placenta/umbilical/fetus into a baby.
A human zygote, after a short period of cell division, becomes the being referred to by medical personnel and others as a blastocyst, and the being that arises from this organism is a placenta/ umbilical/embryo. Never heard of an unborn human referred to as such? Neither have I. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what it is. All of those parts share the same DNA, and they all continue to grow throughout gestation.
Ryan’s interesting dance with words regarding the unborn is characteristic of the human desire to maintain respect for all human life. It must be noted, however that, as persons, we understand that in the real world the value of each life, human or otherwise, is determined by its existential circumstances and those of its evaluator. A human organism still in the womb is insentient, unable to contemplate much of anything, and generally incapable of demonstrating or eliciting empathy. Reasonable people don’t identify it as being a fellow person.
Robert E. Plonsky
Colorado Springs, Colorado
God and Hell
I believe that Richard Schoenig missed an important arguing point in his June/July 2013 article in Free Inquiry, “Does God Send People to Hell?” The Christian says that God doesn’t send you to hell; you do so yourself, by refusing to accept his offer to rescue you from the punishment for original sin. At that point, one should ask the question: Who imposed eternal torture as punishment for a person’s far distant ancestor eating an apple? Well, God, of course! So, even if you’re going to hell for your original sin, you are still being sent there by God’s command. The fairness of that command is also an issue. God set up a sting, and Eve and Adam were entrapped. He created them without a knowledge of good and evil, put them near an enticing tree, and told them not to touch it. But they couldn’t know that was evil till after they ate the apple. This eternal punishment for a misstep by persons lacking the mental capacity to form an intent to commit a crime was entirely out of proportion to their culpability.
Harvey S. Frey
Santa Monica, California
In his review of Jonathan V. Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (FI, June/July 2013), Tom Flynn emphasizes the fallacy of Last’s conclusion that the world’s population must ever increase to avoid economic and social disaster but agrees with Last that the passage through a period of declining population will pose problems. However, there are a number of reasons to assume that getting to a smaller population will not be a problematic process.
During population contraction, the quality of infrastructure already in place can be increased with no cost. For example, if agricultural needs are reduced by some percentage, the least productive land will be taken out of service first; thus land, labor, fertilizer, and irrigation usage can be decreased by more than that percentage. Similarly, fewer pupils mean the worst schools can be retired, resulting in a free upgrade, on average, of the schools pupils attend. Many similar examples can be given.
Economists bemoan the effect of a population decrease, worrying that a smaller cohort of younger workers will not be able to support the retirees. However, the same economists worry even more about the persistently high unemployment rates in the young group, which would obviously be worse if that group were not contracting.
Many historians credit the dramatic population decline caused by the great plague for sparking the Renaissance, a period of unprecedented social advances. The ample infrastructure and the use of the most productive lands and facilities meant less time needed to obtain the basic necessities of life, time which was instead spent on the arts, political innovations, and science. Labor was in demand, food was cheap, and the average person’s lot improved. Of course, today’s economy is vastly different from that of the Middle Ages, but the basics remain—efficiencies increase as resources become less strained, and labor is valuable when in short supply— so perhaps we need not be so concerned about declining populations.