The Limits of Politics
Tom Flynn’s editorial “The Left Is Not Always Right” (FI, October/November 2013) was a breath of fresh air. I’m tired of reading in Free Inquiry about the need for freethinkers to pursue a progressive agenda (mostly promoted by the late Paul Kurtz). Kurtz was able to see through the different religious systems and realize that they were not realistic. Why couldn’t he see that world government, big government, and guided rule by “our betters” would suffer from fatal flaws as well? Politics involves people—fallible people. Politicians get where they are because they are ambitious, aggressive, and often ruthless. An individual’s rights are not going to be protected from them without strong safeguards.
Tom Flynn suggests that the principles of social justice and diversity are separate from the goals of the members of the Council for Secular Humanism. But in the very same issue in which he writes this, I see articles by people with Arabic and continental Indian names. There is even a review of a book whose main protagonist is America’s bastion for pushing civil rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and an excellent article about the ethics of organ transplantation that speaks for the society rather than the individual. I seem to have missed any articles in praise of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Since I joined the Council for Secular Humanism and started reading Free Inquiry almost ten years ago, I have celebrated that the leaning of the readership and authorship is toward Left values such as social justice for the least among us. I think our editor has to recognize this and not fight it.
Port Jefferson, New York
I agree with Tom Flynn that the Left is not always right. What I would challenge Flynn to answer is, give me one example of when the Right was right?
San Antonio, Texas
Coming to Terms with Human Irrationality
I was amused by the first example Greta Christina gave of her “rational irrationality”—about going to the gym rather than working out at home (“Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?,” FI, October/November 2013). I suggest that she apply her rational thought a bit upstream and consider whether to exercise at all, never mind whether at the gym or at home. I would like to introduce her to what I shamelessly call “Harris’s axiom”: there are few things you can do that are statistically likely to lengthen or shorten your life by the time it takes to do them. On the shortening side, smoking is a possible or even probable exception, depending on how you do the accounting. Driving fifty-five miles per hour instead of seventy-five is a solid example: it takes more than a lifetime of extra time driving per life saved. On the lengthening side, exercise is an example. Keeping fit is likely to lengthen life expectancy but statistically by less than the time it takes to do it, especially if you drive to the gym and include the risk of an auto crash or other accident. So the really rational choice is to decide based on the here and now: if you enjoy it or it makes you feel better now, do it; if not, don’t.
La Cañada, California
C. S. Lewis on Witches
Shadia B. Drury is spot-on with her critique (“Of Lewis, Mice, and Witches,” FI, October/November 2013) of C. S. Lewis’s asinine claim that the burning of witches was not a moral failure on the part of Christians because they sincerely believed that certain women were in league with the devil and deserved to be burned.
Consider the following If this argument is carried to its logical extreme: because many Germans sincerely believed the claim that Jews were a dangerous, parasitic race that needed to be eliminated, the Holocaust was not a moral failure on the part of the Christians who carried it out, and there was no moral advance on the part of Germans who rejected this belief and resisted the Nazis. Similarly, because many whites in the antebellum South sincerely believed that blacks were an inferior race and the cursed descendants of Ham whose enslavement was a mandate from God, the institution of slavery was not a moral failure on the part of Christian slaveholders, auctioneers, overseers, and bounty hunters. There was no moral advance on the part of abolitionists and others who were opposed to slavery. They simply believed in different “matters of fact” as opposed to those who held millions in bondage.
According to Lewis, no action can be viewed as a moral failure if the motive is based on sincerely held beliefs. Accordingly, it is my sincerely held belief that Lewis was morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Brooklyn, New York
I read with interest James A. Haught’s “No Qualms” (FI, Oc-t-ober/November 2013). I share his serene attitude toward death. I was born on February 3, 1924, and hence will soon be ninety. I have always regarded death—that, twice in my life was to be my immediate fate—as a quite natural event, not at all tragic. I have been an atheist since I was fifteen years old and hence do not expect an afterlife. I regard the belief in paradise or hell as superstitions dictated by ignorance. I have realized so much in my life—as an author and anarchist political activist—that I feel I have done enough. I also feel that when my day comes it will be high time for me to finally rest. That is why I am not at all preoccupied about this inevitable and natural event. I enjoy life, and I still lecture, read, and make love to my beautiful wife who is thirty years younger. The only thought that I harbor concerning this moment is that my wife will find it very hard to endure. But that, in any event, is something I can do nothing about.
The State of Religious Humanism
Re FI’s October/November 2013 special feature, “Religious Humanism: Dead, Alive, or Bifurcating?”: in today’s society, the term religious humanism is an oxymoron. Most people understand that if someone claims to be religious, he or she believes in a supernatural entity generally called “God.” Because humanists deny the existence of supernatural entities, they are, by definition, not religious. Attempts to subdivide humanists into secular and religious are neither helpful nor convincing.
According to Tom Flynn and William Murry (“Introduction” and “Religious Humanism Today”) the key difference is that religious humanists embrace a spiritual, metaphysical, or transcendent element, whereas secular humanists do not. I have no idea what spiritual or transcendent means in this context, and I don’t believe Flynn or Murry do either. Furthermore, the alacrity with which they use words such as devotion, reverence, and spiritual will make ordinary humanists very suspicious.
The truth is that although religious humanists may not actually believe in supernatural entities, they cannot fully embrace the consequences. There is a kind of nostalgia, a yearning for something more: not quite God perhaps but existing beyond the material world and the immutable laws of physics. They somehow can’t live with the idea that ultimately our lives have no significance and that we are alone in a vast impersonal universe, which is utterly indifferent to our life here on this tiny planet. So they seek sanctuary in some v
ague notion of the spiritual and transcendent and a hidden “deeper” meaning. This is a worldview close to that of the New Age movement which, according to Wikipedia, aims to create “a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas, that is inclusive and pluralistic.”
So I suggest that we rename religious humanists “New-Age humanists.” This allows ordinary (vulgar) humanists like me to carry on with our hopeless naturalism, while votaries of the New-Age humanism can help themselves to any of the available comfort blankets they want. Most important, it does away with damaging oxymorons.
Birmingham, United Kingdom
Toward the end of an otherwise very informative article (“John Dewey and the Fighting ‘Faith’ of Humanism, FI, October/November 2013), John Shook includes an astonishing sentence: “Idealistically, humanists work to establish a universal spirit across humanity united in supporting that common faith.” This makes humanism sound like a messianic, evangelical religion that aims to sweep away all other religions and convert all individuals to its point of view—or even to merge them into some sort of group mind. No such sweeping away of traditional religions is going to happen, and we should not be trying to make it happen. Instead, we should be inviting everyone everywhere who has left his or her traditional religion or become skeptical of it to join us in working toward a more rational and humane global society. One of the foundations of that humane society must be the guarantee of freedom of religion to all individuals, whether they agree with us or not.
H. Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina
John Shook responds:
Mr. Price has a quarrel with John Dewey, not with me. I’m unable to reply for Dewey. I was pronouncing on Dewey’s humanism, not my own.
Re “Congregational Humanism: Throwing Out the Bad, Keeping the Good,”Jennifer Kalmanson (FI, October/November 2013): it has been my observation that many of our colleagues participating in humanist congregations are actually refugees from Christian fundamentalist churches that they feel had been a blight on their youth. They long for the sense of common interests, friendship, shared values, and security that comes from organized communion with others, but they have come to realize that the ignorance, bigotry, repression, and obscurantism of traditional theistic congregations simply will not suffice. Good for them. We all have a need to affiliate. It’s a major part of human evolution. Rational people need to commune with each other, too. So what can be wrong with doing it in an enlightened and productive way? Moreover, we need to have a decent peer group for our children and adolescents. And we need a public forum to proffer our ideas. We can promote humanist values by actually “doing them” as an organized group.
John L. Indo
I was interested in the concept of congregational humanism put forth in your October/November issue. As an agnostic living in a rural, conservative area, it is easy to feel isolated. I can see the appeal of a nonreligious group of like-minded people. Even the singing. Pink Floyd’s “On The Turning Away” comes to mind. Lyrics expressing concern for other humans combined with music is as powerful as any classic religious music.
Lenoir, North Carolina
I found William R. Murry’s article “Religious Humanism Today” helpful and thought-provoking. I have a natural anathema to the term religious, but the way Murry defined it was quite acceptable—especially when toward the end he began to equate it with spiritual. My wife has always said I am spiritual even though a skeptic. I also had a problem with that term, but Murry made me more comfortable with it.
I then read the next article “Congregational Humanism: Throwing Out the Bad with the Good.” I really can’t find a great difference. It seems it is splitting hairs, and it seems more “cost effective” to combine these concepts instead of trying to separate them. Let’s put all our energies into one body.
Arthur G. Howard
Response to a Review
It is not my practice to respond to reviews of my books, but in this case I cannot desist. I fail to understand what humanist value, secular or otherwise, is invoked when an author is slandered by your writer, William Harwood (“A Suspect Sales Pitch,” FI, December 2012/January 2013), as, for instance, “morally depraved.” And as “having as much expertise in biblical criticism” as said Harwood claims to have in Etruscan, namely none.
I am, in fact, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and a very well-published scholar, including in biblical criticism. Because the conclusions that I have argued for in my book displease your reviewer, he thinks that it’s fair to simply refer to them as mistakes that prove my ignorance rather than arguments and interpretations that he is invited to disagree with (I am, in fact, a humanist—more than he, it seems).
My book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ makes no argument whatsoever about the truth claims of the Bible, the Talmud, or the New Testament, as any reader should be able to divine (horrors!) by reading it. It is a book about the history of traditions and where they came from and seeks to disprove—with argument—the statement of your writer that “Christianity is essentially paganism with the names of the gods changed.” Not to argue for the truth of Christianity but simply to account for it historically; but, of course, Harwood already has all the answers and anyone who disagrees with him is just plain ignorant or even depraved. Some humanism!
As for my moral depravity, it is occasioned by the fact that I write “B.C.” and “A.D.” rather than Harwood’s preferred BCE and CE. I prefer not to take the Christian era and refer to it as the Common Era, preferring rather to acknowledge that it is a Christian era. Perhaps bad judgment, but “morally depraved”?
Professor Daniel Boyarin
From Joel Kirschbaum, author of “Teaching Tolerance to the Texas Textbook Committee” (FI, October/November 2013): “13.8 billion years is the accepted age of the universe, not the 13.4 billion I wrote in the article. In my early drafts, I had 13.7 billion, but in attempting to be current and increasing the age by 0.1 billion years, I wrote the incorrect age. I am sorry about my error.”