The Stigma of Abortion
Re “Fingernails” by Ophelia Benson, FI, June/July 2014: there can be no question that negative public stigmas can be far more oppressive than adverse laws. There is no greater example of this than in the histor ic struggle for women’s equality. In America women have had the right to vote since 1919. But it is the prejudicial stigma that “nice girls don’t do that” that has held women in check for generations. This was certainly true in the fight for artificial birth control. It is now true in the fight for unfettered abortion rights.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, a safe abortion is a Fourth Amendment right subject to some statutory limitations. This being the case, a woman wanting an abortion should not have to beg the indulgence of any adverse and demeaning person, organization, or moral judgment.
An abortion is not an “unfortunate last resort.” It is not a postdated act of birth control that a woman should have prevented. It is not a selfish evasion of parental responsibility: that, as we have historically known, was invented by men for men’s purposes with women having no say in the issue. For example, in ancient Rome, abortion was legal—but at the husband’s behest, not the wife’s.
If antifeminists want to wail against abortion rights, they should answer one question: If a woman cannot control the functioning of her own womb, then who does and why? As this question is answered candidly and with unabashed historical accuracy, we shall have uncovered the true plight of women down through the ages.
John L. Indo
The New Age of Surveillance
Re “Are You Ready for a New Age of Surveillance?” by Nat Hentoff (FI, June/July 2014): I have difficulty understanding all the concerns related to people knowing what other people are doing. Anything that might diminish privacy is seen as a sign of the downfall of civilization. What is it that people feel needs to be kept from others? Are they acting in a manner that is illegal or possibly just very embarrassing to them? We shouldn’t be committing illegalities, so that is not a legitimate reason for wanting privacy. If we have been socialized to feel embarrassed by some behaviors, it is time to try and get past that sort of cultural pressure. Easy to say, hard to do, I agree, but still it is not an argument for wanting to prevent others from knowing what we are doing.
One could argue that people may try and use such “private” information to harm an individual. This would not be acceptable but should be dealt with by education, socialization, and laws that prevent discrimination based on factors such as sex, ethnicity, health conditions, and so forth. There are things that I would prefer were not known by family and friends, but it is most rational for me to realize I could either not do such things or accept that it is OK to do them and not worry about possible reactions.
The more we know about what others are doing, the more likely we will be able to reduce and prevent the morally and socially unacceptable actions that are occurring worldwide.
West Lafayette, Indiana
Nat Hentoff replies:
I suggest that Mr. Evers read the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights to be more aware of the widespread concerns that the government—without informing us—can wholly and boundlessly invade our privacy. When British officials did that to us colonists, it was one of the precipitating causes of the American Revolution. As for when private sources—from corporations to personal enemies—do the same, this spying is also most rationally un-American. It is most remarkable to meet someone who is so open to being spied on.
Public Choice Theory
Tibor Machan (“Understanding Public Choice Theory,” FI, June/July 2014) does a valuable service by regularly revealing that libertarianism—like the concept of God—is incoherent and inconsistent with observable reality. It is certainly true that politics and policy making must process contending interests and influences. However, there are innumerable actions of government that are very broadly beneficial. For example, people who want to rape children or rob banks are disadvantaged when these practices are outlawed, but Machan will be hard-pressed to find people who agree that outlawing them does not serve a public interest. It would be absurdly wasteful for our houses to be served by three or four competing electrical grids, but to achieve the efficiency of a single grid, government must regulate its owners so they do not extract ruinous rents or provide unreliable service. People don’t like to pay taxes, but without them we would not have roads or bridges, or educated children—investments that are essential to the welfare of us all. Government alone can protect the commons—such as the atmosphere and drinking water. We can debate how stringent these protections should be and how they should be achieved, but without them we would all be less healthy and die sooner, at best.
The public interest is often contested and elusive, but the concept is indispensable. Without it, we would live in the anarchic squalor of Somalia, which is the best extant example of the libertarian paradise.
M. Barton Laws, Assistant Professor
Brown University School of Public Health
Providence, Rhode Island
American Secular Identity 2014
Barry A. Kosmin (“American Secular Identity: Twenty-First Century Style,” FI, June/July 2014) persuasively measures further advances among American college students toward secular identification based on findings from his 2013 ISSSC online survey. Nevertheless, stubborn “discrepancies” continue to frustrate researchers. As Kosmin underscores, the most persistent challenge remains how to determine the accurate share of authentic atheists and agnostics as distinguished from young respondents whose “Yes” answers to “theological” questions appear confused by intellectual ambiguity or emotional ambivalence.
Based on the Nones category, for example, the study implies that 3 percent of the total sample self-identify as atheists and agnostic. Based on the Secular category, the self-identified share jumps to 8 percent. Speculating on combined Worldview (Religious, Secular, and Spiritual) categories answering “yes” to two theological questions, the presumed total skyrockets to 28 percent of the sample.
Perhaps the dilemma could be ameliorated by designing a questionnaire with qualified questions covering a range of coherent beliefs that serve to clarify atheist or agnostic belief systems. Examples: Answer “Yes/No” or “More Likely To Agree/Less Likely To Agree.”
- The natural world, including human beings, evolved from purely physical causes without supernatural origins or interventions.
- Human existence has no connection to any supernatural reality, purpose, or plan.
- While I’m sometimes immersed in the emotional, moral, and aesthetic power of experience, expressed especially in moving language, I still believe that all phenomena can be explained by science and reason.
- I’d be open to recognizing divine revelations or miracles under convincing circumstances • I’m certain that the “mind” or consciousness dies forever with the physical brain.
- Though unlikely, people could possibly have valid mystical, supernatural or paranormal experiences that cannot be explained by sc
ience and reason.
A questionnaire amended with such questions, as well as with their religious/spiritual counterparts, might get us closer to reckoning how many young atheists and agnostics might be coming up through the ranks.
Woodland Hills, California
Religion and the Civil Rights Movement
Atheists will find Leah Mickens’s article, “We’ve Come This Far—in Spite of Faith” (FI, June/July 2014) about the strategies of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century applicable to our current atheist strategy. She contrasts the accommodationist approach of Booker T. Washington with the more aggressive, and ultimately more successful, actions of Martin Luther King Jr. The former did not advocate for social or political equality but assumed that “whites would voluntarily grant” equality eventually. MLK’s strategy was more aggressive, seeking to change public opinion by “confront[ing] their oppressors through protests, court cases, and boycotts.”
We atheists in the spring of 2014 lost two high-profile court cases, with the additional perverse effects of thereby expanding the rights of Christians at our expense. So consideration of changing our current strategy is warranted. Since 2000, and even since 1950, our approach has not effectively secured our rights as nonbelievers. Would a strategy similar to MLK’s work better for us?
To reconsider our options, the Center for Inquiry should call together other atheist organizations. We owe it to future generations of atheists to consider alternative strategies that will more likely move us away from our current second-class status and toward full equality.
On Native American Land Claims and the Courts
I don’t know if I could more emphatically disagree with George Zebrowski’s “Bully’s Justice” (FI, June/July 2014). Central to his premise is a notion that we seculars often and justifiably decry in the Christian camp. They urge that we contemporaries are (and properly should be) punished for the transgression of an ancient forbearer named Adam. In a nutshell, it’s the notion of ancestral guilt. Along the same lines, Zebrowski urges us to bear guilt and burden for crimes by ancestors that were somewhat more recent (of course also less mythical).
Regardless, ancestral guilt is a very tawdry notion. It was used to justify persecution of Jews. Its opposite was often (and sometimes still is) used to justify monarchical rights. It’s a notion that stinks to high heaven. Each contemporary is who he or she is. Societal policy should judge, reward, and/or punish each such person according to what he or she does—as opposed to because of what was done by some antecedent person or group.
I was raised a Mormon. That sect has several “articles of faith,” one of which (contravening most of Christianity) declares: “We believe man will be punished for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” It’s an obvious statement of obvious justice. Zebrowski evidently does not concur.
Speaking more practically, yes, it’s true European immigrants were often very bad to the natives. I wish they had not been. I feel very badly for how terrible they sometimes were. But, how does Zebrowski suppose displaced natives themselves came to dominate the lands that were involved? Did they peacefully purchase each section from previous tenants? Not likely. Rather more likely is that each dominant native group came to its dominance much as the Europeans later did: by ruthlessly pushing out (if not outright slaughtering) the previous tenants. Thus, if Zebrowski was consistent in his premise, it would follow that these tribes have no greater intrinsic right to claim these lands than Europeans did.
But that’s only half the problem. Zebrowski embraces not only the notion that we should be punished or rewarded—now and in our present lives for what our ancestors did, he also embraces the notion that this punishment or reward should be group/race/ethnicity based, as opposed to based on individuals. I thought that, as humanists, we were striving to transcend such parochial, provincial, and tribal thinking. I thought we were seeking to see group-inherited distinctions as irrelevant, and endeavoring to instead see each person as an equal member of a common humanity.
To give any present group special privileges today because of an injustice against their ancestral group does not undo that past injustice. It dries no tears of those who genuinely suffered. It wipes away no blood. Instead, it transfers unearned benefit to those who have nothing but ancestral connection to those that truly suffered and burdens (punishing for Adam’s sin) to those who committed no injustice or crime. It answers ancient injustice (over which we contemporaries have and had no control) with current injustice, over which we have complete control.
Very much related to this is the notion of reparations to persons of African descent. The campaign for that depends on the very same premise as Zebrowski embraces.
We must move past such things. Justice must be in the here and now. We must work to assure we accomplish as much justice, between persons that presently exist, as we can. The past (especially a past in which none of us participated) must be left to itself.
George Zebrowski fails to discuss the injustice of demanding that the court award the land to the Onondaga without requiring that the tribe reimburse the presents owners and the State of New York for all the improvements made (roads, schools, businesses, medical facilities, etc.) since the 1500s and enjoyed by the present Onondagas.
And although Zebrowski may be correct in pointing out that the origin of the Doctrine of Discovery can be traced back to Pope Nicholas V, it should be noted that Nicholas was only following his God’s example of taking over land by force, if necessary. The Old Testament is filled with stories of God ordering the Israelites to invade nations, kill entire populations, and capture slaves (i.e., Numbers 31).
John S. Taylor Jr.
Silver Creek, Mississippi
George Zebrowski replies:
These letters are quite confused. First, I do not believe in ancestral guilt and do not say so anywhere. What I do hold is that if we do not repudiate past wrongs, if only in words, then we make a new compact with the wrongs. In other words, we are blameworthy today if we continue with fresh crimes based on the old ones. This is what makes the issue contemporary.
The Native American nations do not want any kind of extreme solution; only a recognition of wrongs and individual settlements, mostly with corporations. The conclusions drawn by the letter writers from my article are not mine. I urge us not to forget and commit new crimes, as does our criminal-industrial prison system when it commits “new crimes” against prisoners, many of whom are obviously guilty. As Santayana reminds us, if we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. A national reconciliation commision, with no punishments to be handed down, only truth bared, would be best, as Bishop Desmond Tutu organized in South Africa.
Nowhere do these letters decry silence and denial, which still conceal the present-day effects of slavery and Native American genocide. Empires rationalize their pasts, as their descendants continue to benefit from past crimes. I include myself in these benefits.
What is most interesting in these comments about my article is how lightly blameworthiness is concealed, so poorly denied. The consequences of genocide and slavery are still with us, day-to-day
in American life, despite the effort to shift the debate to class differences, where the blame can be put more easily on “economic losers.” The fear of blame is everywhere, because otherwise something would have to be done to fulfill America’s Constitution. Recognition of crimes might make progress easier.
It has only been a few short years since I ran across your fine publication in a bookstore. Nothing had ever so resonated with me, and I immediately subscribed. I read each issue from cover to cover and enjoy the intellectual stimulation immensely.
However, it is “The Faith I Left Behind” series that moves me to write a letter to the editor—my first ever to any editor. I have found the variety of experiences fascinating and the many twists and turns in people’s lives that led them to discover and accept atheism equally fascinating. Although I thoroughly enjoy the essays written by those who are writers by profession and who seem to live the academic life, I find “The Faith I Left Behind” essays, written by people from various walks of life who are not necessarily writers by profession, very interesting and even refreshing. I definitely look forward to the book that includes the essays already published in Free Inquiry and more…
In my humble opinion, FI should seriously consider having a “The Faith I Left Behind” essay as a regular department in every issue. If there was a standing invitation, I believe there could be an ample ongoing supply of such essays. Maybe it would be the first step in some atheists’ coming-out process and thus give the atheist movement a bit more momentum. I am so grateful for Free Inquiry and only wish to see it flourish!
I have been a subscriber to your magazine for some time, but I needed to tell you how much I enjoyed the articles in the last three issues titled “Why I Am Not a. . . .” As I was brought up believing in the ideals of John Calvin, I certainly appreciated these articles and thank you for them.
Joyce H. Bol
Buffalo, New York