Atheism and Social Justice
I completely agree with Greta Christina’s thesis in “Why Social Justice Is Essential for Atheism” (FI, February/March 2014). However, it seems to me that she could more easily achieve her goal of harmonizing atheism with social justice by starting at the other end—that is, by joining organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Unitarian Universalism, whose primary mission is social justice. In my opinion, it’s much easier to demonstrate that atheism is a consequence of concerns about social justice than the other way around.
If Greta Christina is correct in her belief that “atheist stuff” such as “church-state separation, atheist visibility, anti-atheist bigotry, and discrimination, etc.” fall under the category of “issues that primarily concern white, middle-class, middle-aged, college educated cisgendered men,” then the atheist/humanist movement is indeed in serious trouble. I was under the impression that these were the core issues of the freethought movement worldwide, although I would add to the list the fierce attacks on public education, modern science, and women’s reproductive freedom, along with the massive transfer of taxpayer funds to religious institutions.
I am one of those humanists who reject the notion that “we have failed at our mission” unless we turn our focus from these concerns to the various social justice issues that Christina lists. Yes, we should not insult, threaten, or treat condescendingly people for who they are at our meetings or online forums. That’s a no-brainer. And perhaps we could arrange to have the now ubiquitous sign-language interpreters at our gatherings.
However, I did not become a part of the atheist/humanist movement to devote myself to combating grievances over “sexism, racism, classism, ageism, transphobia, disability issues, and more.” There are already many national and international groups out there that are devoted to focusing on these matters, and I am a member of some of them: e.g., the ACLU, People for the American Way, and NARAL. I am also a member of Handgun Control and the Civil War Preservation Trust. However, I do not feel that gun control and preservation of Civil War battlefields are “atheist stuff.” Nor do I believe that any of these organizations have ever declared, or should declare, to their members that unless they became more open to matters concerning atheists or humanists “we have failed at our mission.” These groups have limited resources and are properly focused on the core issues over which they were founded. I can only hope that the various atheist and humanist organizations, with much smaller memberships and fewer financial resources, have the same attitude.
Brooklyn, New York
Greta Christina makes some outstanding points. However, I noticed one group, small though it may be, who was left out. When nontheists who are social and/or political conservatives do not feel welcome because they are told “atheists are liberals,” we have failed at our mission. Yes, believe it or not, there are nontheists who are social and/or political conservatives who do not feel welcome at many nontheist gatherings. Nontheism and secular humanism are not the same thing, and I myself have been told that “most secular humanists are liberals,” which is precisely why I explicitly do not identify with secular humanism. Indeed, every time my subscription to FREE INQUIRY comes up for renewal, it is a struggle as to whether I will do so due to the severe left-wing bias of the magazine. It is only because occasionally there are articles, comments, and op-eds that I appreciate that I can bring myself to spend the money.
Every organization has its bad actors, but to take Greta Christina’s litany of vile accusations at face value is to renounce the Center for Inquiry as a morally corrupt organization whose conferences license a forum for bigots and misogynists. We in the community know that secular humanists demonstrably welcome new members regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, or any other contingent characteristic.
Recognizing legal efforts to protect the rights of nonbelievers and educational efforts to promote critical thinking along with the principles and practices of free inquiry compatible with civil society, our institutions have remained basically intellectual in nature for good reason. Our “leaders”—such as they are—men and women alike are public intellectuals: professional scientists, philosophers, scholars, educators, and writers whose curricula vitae and command of language, evidence, and argument on behalf of atheism and naturalism have engaged a far- wider audience than we could heretofore imagine.
But why not reimagine secular humanism as an activist organization working on multiple missions of “social justice” consistent with Christina’s ideological imperatives? Initially, as dictated by radical feminism, we would have to take part in a nasty ongoing project to discredit and purge the “old white male” patriarchy. Take comfort there if you would. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and others have already beaten a hasty retreat from some “marginalized” forums leaving a toxic niche for Atheism+ advocates.
Clearly it is not possible to replace intellectual leaders with political leaders without sacrificing intellectual credibility founded on science and reason. Political leadership will inevitably empower troubled people obsessed by personal vendettas and ideologies from which self-serving mandates and grievances extinguish any glimmer of dissent.
Woodland Hills, California
We atheists who remain skeptical of the political progressivism proffered under the label of social justice often find that the definition of the term is quite vague; after all, isn’t justice inherently social? Thankfully, in her recent article, Greta Christina provides us with a good working definition via the many vivid examples she includes.
One wonders though, in a world of scarce resources, are interpreters and babysitters the most effective use of our money and time? In a nation with approximately 10.8 million illegal immigrants, are we to remain silent about the effects on economy and carrying capacity? In discussions with high-school graduates or dropouts, are we to ignore the evidence about education levels and religiosity? And in a diverse nation with complex and challenging minority group histories, is it an indictment of our fellow atheists that we don’t map proportionally onto the racial breakdown of the general population?
I’ve always understood the atheist movement to be about a shared lack of belief in god(s), not about creating a miniature heaven on Earth among the nonbelievers. Honestly, I wish Christina luck; because if human history is any indication, such an agenda has a low probability of success.
Gabriel J. Gardner
Freedom of Speech
In his otherwise excellent article, “Upstream, Downstream: Liberalism, Direct Harm, and Hate Speech” (FI, February/March 2014), Russell Blackford is vague on the distinction between saying and doing that is the crux of free speech. Along with that there is the issue of venue. Saying something in a letter to the editor is simply saying something. Carrying a sign in front of the premises of someone you disagree with edges to
ward doing. Doing so as part of a large and threatening crowd is much more, not just saying something. Also, advocating that someone else should do something is more than just expressing an idea. While the distinction is not clear-cut and requires judgment, it makes it possible to substantially narrow the debate about what is protected speech and what is not.
Westerly, Rhode Island
The First Amendment promises free speech to all American citizens. Yet what we practice in this respect sometimes belies what we say. In 1963 Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was stricken from my school library because it was said to agitate for racial integration. A few years later, black civil rights groups objected to the same book because it used the notorious . word. When I was in college, the works of Rudyard Kipling were struck from English literature studies because he was said to be praising racism and British imperialism. Some feminist organizations claim that some men’s magazines defame women. This may be true, but actually, there is probably more misogyny being promoted from the pulpits of Christian fundamentalist churches than from the scores of porn shops in New York City.
The people calling themselves “liberal” invented “political correctness,” which in my opinion is nothing but fascism by default. Community censors go around thumping their Bibles in peoples’ faces. But if I were to make a movie explicitly portraying everything one finds in the Old Testament, I would probably be arrested for obscenity. Some antiabortion groups consider the advocacy of abortion rights “hate speech against the fetus.”
The practical truth is we do not always have unconditional free speech. Sometimes we have to fight for it. Assuredly, were all opinions popular, the First Amendment would never have been necessary. It is often said that free speech is for political expression only. But indeed, in this age of mass media and information implosion, there is virtually no topic that cannot become political. The age of insular expression is over. John Stuart Mill’s formula for censoring speech that causes rather than directs harm sounds good in principle, but it is hard to enforce, notwithstanding the diverse opinions in our complex society.
The proverbial man who yelled “Fire!” in a movie theater when there was none was exercising free speech. But he was also committing a public fraud, which may have caused a panic in which people might have been hurt. In a case like this, he could be subject to public censure. He was definitely offending the well-being of others. But most cases where free speech comes into question are not so clear.
We may rest assured, that in this time of smart phones, cable television, Internet, and virtual reality, we shall be obliged to redefine the meaning and limits of free speech. Otherwise, the same digital electronic genius that brings us unlimited information on any topic imaginable can bring us effective censorship as well. The latter is a control strategy used in China and some Muslim countries at this time.
John L. Indo
James A. Haught’s “Theology and Honesty” (FI, February/March 2014) was an entertaining piece on theology and the study thereof. It reminded me of a wit’s observation I read years ago. A doctor of theology is someone who knows everything there is to know about something that is unknowable.
Castle Rock, Colorado
In “Why I Am Not an Agnostic” (FI, February/March 2014), Barbara Smoker seems to have stayed on the fence with the label of “agnostic” because of her “years of mental turmoil . . . to rid [herself] of [her] childhood theistic indoctrination.” What the church calls “teaching” too often ends up with the child in an unconscious terrified state in which he or she cannot even think an atheistic thought let alone say it. Eternal damnation is feared, which is what makes this child abuse.
Augustus F. Kinzel, MD
Canaan, New York
When I was a boy, I was sent to Sunday school and then church. Later, I lived with people who took me to Sunday school, church (right after Sunday school), and also Wednesday-night prayer meetings at someone’s house. When I moved away, I no longer attended any religious ceremonies. I now live between Gainesville and Ocala, Florida. In the yellow pages of three phone directories that cover this area, I found listings for 960 churches of 127 denominations. I have been published in the local newspaper over fifty times in the last eight years, mostly concerning my atheist viewpoint. I have asked why, even in this small area of the globe, my fellow citizens cannot agree on one religion.
This issue of FI was very gratifying in that I found so many intelligent articles confirming my nonbelief. The comradeship was . . . almost Christianlike.
The “Why I Am Not a . . .” essays in the February/March 2014 issue of FREE INQUIRY were instructive. Many of us, I believe, could write similar accounts of who we left religious beliefs.
There is another category of religious-avoiding people I would like to know about—the so-called Nones. When asked what church they belong to, their answer is “None.” Some may be “eggshell” Christians who pretend to be religious while really they give the matter very little thought. They are busy with what they consider more important things.
If asked by a survey if they believe in God, their answer is no doubt “yes” because it is the popular reply. In public meetings if there is prayer or other religious activity the eggshell Christians know the drill—when to bow their heads, close their eyes, and keep quiet. At funerals they know when to kneel.
Eggshell religious believers, which include Muslims and all other followers of all other belief systems, are leading society out of religious beliefs. But they are not in a position (yet) to admit it.
In the late 1930s, while still in high school, I read a number of “forbidden books” in order to form an opinion about their validity. Darwin’s Origin of Species came in first and The Book of Mormon last. When I got to the part of the Book of Mormon where the angel demanded return of the two golden tablets from which Joseph Smith had obtained the text, I stopped reading. The dimensions of the solid gold tablets had been mentioned, from which I calculated that the tablets weighed about 1,200 pounds each. No mention had been made of problems in transporting them or needing a magnifying glass to read the text. The book utterly ceased to be credible to me. (As a double-check on my six-decades-old estimate, I got 24 x 36 x 2 inches as a possible size of a 1,200-pound slab of gold—water weighs 62.43 pounds per cubic foot and gold is 19.3 times heavier than water.)
I recently obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon copyright 1961. At the end of the Introduction there was the following brief paragraph: “About this edition: Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with the publication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
This modern copy of the Book of Mormon contains a 250-page concordance (labeled “Index”) which I searched thoroughly without finding the dimensions of tablets. I despaired of tracking down an edi
tion of sixty or more years ago to obtain the dimensions actually recorded there. When I showed the quoted paragraph to a librarian and told her that I stood by my recollection of the dimensions and my memory of the calculation of 1,200 pounds per tablet, she insisted on obtaining a copy of the Book of Mormon of appropriate age. She found a copy dated 1920 with some difficulty. The book noted that the copyright was renewed in 1948. This edition states that the golden plates were 6 x 8 inches and the thickness of common tin, with no mention of the number of them.
An older edition is yet to be obtained. We are left with (1) my recollection from about 1938 when I was fifteen, (2) a 1961 edition of the Book of Mormon containing no mention of the dimensions, (3) the minuscule dimensions mentioned in the 1948 edition, which mentions common tin, quite likely not Joseph Smith’s very words—tin cans were not available for food preservation until long after 1830.
John A. Frantz
Ian Hayward Robinson, in the last sentence of his essay, “Exploring the Limits of Christian Rationality” (FI, February/March 2014) declares, “The quintessential Christian intellectual activity is not reasoning but rationalization.” He bases this on the Christian apologists’ reliance on selecting only evidence or arguments (masquerading as evidence) in support of pre-conclusions. Highlighted here, aside from Christian apologetics’ loose definition of “evidence,” is the Achilles’ heel of the entire discipline; namely, they are putting limits or conditions on their conclusion-making in an effort to remain ‘doctrinally correct’”! This is anathema to the principles of historical investigation and may, were it not for a moral and intellectual responsibility to hold all arguments to the rules of reason, remove further apologetic argument from scholarly consideration. This liability is compounded even further as the apologist is often unwilling or doctrinally unable to admit to a probabilistic nature to his/her arguments and conclusions as is implicit in any scientific theory (Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It, by Steven A. Goldman, The Teaching Co., 2006). I view these flaws as sufficient to bring down most religious doctrines and to expose Christian apologetics for what it is not—namely, a means to convey sound scientific and historical assertions. Robinson has made a strong contribution in confronting this error.
I’ve just finished a very pleasurable reading of Reynold Spector’s article on the early history of Christianity and about Portugal’s efforts to convert Japan to Catholicism (“Invasive Religion: Effects on Society,” FI, February/March 2014). His writing is lucid and without a trace of pedantry. But what I found most refreshing is that, in only a little more than four pages of clear prose, he explains what often takes a thick and heavy book for the slow metabolism of my sluggish brain to finally digest! With thoughtful consideration, he attentively guides his readers though a non-torturous path of understanding.
No Free Will
Dale DeBakcsy’s conclusions in “The End of Atonement: Law Without Free Will” (FI, February/March 2014) have “no meaning” where secular humanism is concerned “and shouldn’t inform our approach toward you” as a secular humanist. After all, you are just a “bag of chemical reactions” doing something that makes certain other people uncomfortable. Secular humanism seen in this light is just an inefficient waste of energy. Further, how can there be intention if there is no choice, so how can you even choose to be a secular humanist if you had the misfortune to be born an evangelical Christian?
And what is with the name of this magazine, FREE INQUIRY, and its main theme this issue of “The Faith I Left Behind?” Are the editors and writers suffering from “willful self-deception?” And, by the way, how can self-deception be “willful” if we have no free will? It seems to me that to be true to his argument, DeBakcsy needs to eliminate anything in his language having to do with volition, but how can he do this without free will?
Proving that free will is or isn’t is a matter of “reason.” How can we develop the rules and principles of reason without free will? Were they an innate option within our brain from the very beginning, or did we invent them?
I am not sure why it is so important to prove or disprove the existence of free will. I either have it or I don’t, but I am going to continue to be me either way. It is obvious to me that DeBakcsy believes there is no free will, and that is going to color his methodology. It is not good science to “know” your conclusion before all the data is in.
David A. Sahr
The God Particle
Victor Stenger’s review of Beyond the God Particle by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill (“On to Project X,” FI, February/March 2014) was authoritative and lucid. Nevertheless, two nits merit picking. First, Stenger states that the Higgs mechanism gives fundamental particles their mass by collisions with Higgs bosons. In contrast, Lisa Randall says (Higgs Discovery and other books) that the Higgs field fills the particle-free vacuum with “weak charge,” not to be confused with electric charge. The interaction with this weak charge provides a fundamental particle’s mass.
Second, Stenger reports that Lederman and Hill defend basic science using an old anecdote involving Faraday and a British government official, Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone. This story has been repeated many times and is instructive no matter what its historicity. However, the official could not have been Gladstone. As L. Pearce Williams explains (Michael Faraday: A Biography), Faraday’s lab was visited by Prime Minister Robert Peel in the early 1830s, shortly after the invention of the dynamo. This device is now an icon of industry that powers the world. Then, it was crude, puny, and unimpressive. Peel asked what use it was. Faraday replied: “I know not, but I wager one day your government will tax it.” That came to pass, but only after Peel and Faraday were dead. Gladstone did not become Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1852, long after the alleged incident.
The story’s point, that basic science is vital, is stressed by Stenger. Einstein was not scheming to make a bundle selling global positioning systems when he developed special and general relativity. Yet, those mainstays of fundamental science are both required to make functional the GPS in every auto today.
St. Louis, Missouri
Victor J. Stenger responds:
For very quantum field there is a corresponding particle called the “quantum” of the field. The photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field, so that field can be thought of as a field of photon particles. Similarly, the Higgs particle is the quantum of the Higgs field, and so that field can be thought of as a field of Higgs particles. My description of particles gaining mass (inertia) by being slowed by collisions with Higgs particles is intended to give some idea of how the mechanism works for people without PhDs in quantum field theory. You might note that it is basically the same metaphor that was used by many CERN physicists when, after the discovery an
nouncement, they were bombarded by questions from the media asking how the Higgs gave mass to particles.
In “the Jesusification of Popular Culture” by Stephen Van Eck (FI, February/March 2014), Stephen Sondheim is given as the composer of Godspell. It is Stephen Schwartz.—The Editors
A Review of a Review
I was pleased to learn that my book, The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview, inspired reviewer Daniel M. Kane to go back and reread Origin of Species. After all challenging concepts and subtle shades of meaning are often made clearer the second time around, and no book, in my opinion, is more worthy of the effort than Darwin’s classic tome.
In that same spirit I kindly invite Kane to revisit my book as well since his review (“In Praise of the Science-Guided Life,” FI, December 2013/January 2014) contained several statements that I found rather puzzling. Nowhere do I suggest, for instance, that “no discovery in science is inherently easy to comprehend or accept.” Indeed, one need only cite the first law of thermodynamics or the germ theory of disease to refute this assertion. Nor do I “ignore the economic considerations that affect funding for [space exploration] and other research.” Consider the following passage, one of over a dozen instances in the book where I discuss funding, budgets, and other monetary matters:
. . . Whether any of these [space] missions ever get off the ground is still very much in the air, as they remain contingent on both the shifting sands of politics and a shared reluctance to forego short-term benefits for long-term gains. So long as there is poverty, social turmoil, and threats to the global environment, expenditures of this sort will continue to be viewed as extravagance by a great many people. And quite frankly, with so much heavy lifting left to do on this planet it is easy to see where diverting billions of dollars in the search for others like it might be a hard sell. The millions of Americans who are living in poverty and lack access to basic healthcare certainly have every right to question the propriety of such seemingly extravagant spending.
Most disconcerting of all, however, was Kane’s assertion that I have somehow “decided that the only good Earth is a godless Earth.” I believe nothing of the sort. What I do believe, and state plainly in the book, is that the scientific process has proven to be the most open, direct, and dependable way there is to tell truth from fiction, and that this is essential from a moral perspective because “in order to have a true sense of right and wrong one must first know what is true.” Whether our world is governed by a doting deity of a collection of disinterested forces is not the issue. Either way we should do our level best to learn the truth and then act accordingly in order to improve the human condition for ourselves and our posterity. This, to me, is what makes for a good and meaningful life. And this is why I maintain that “scientific rationality and critical thinking are not only good for our physical well-being but also good for the soul—and essential to our achieving the kind of global stewardship worthy of our spiritual aspirations.”
Dennis R. Trumble, PhD