The Supreme Court’s Wake-Up Call
I agree with Ronald A. Lindsay (“The Supreme Court Sounds a Wake-Up Call” (FI, August/September 2014). It is very disappointing for us and America that we did not win the Greece and Hobby Lobby cases. But all is not lost. In fact, I think SCOTUS has given the Center for Inquiry and us atheists a great victory—the right to give atheist invocations, with equal standing as Christians, at government meetings where invocations or prayers are allowed.
While we can still have as our long-range goal the reversals of these decisions, I fear a “use all our resources to resist and reverse” response will neglect ways to better use our resources and miss opportunities. Plus, it will reinforce negative stereotypes of atheists as angry, petulant whiners. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) needs to thoroughly study the court’s opinions and determine which of its rationales we can use to advance our atheist interests and freedoms right now. Then CFI should engage the services of game theory strategists to determine our optimal courses of action. Public relations specialists and community organizers can also advise. An example: the court ruled that government may allow, but not censor or endorse, the religious views of its citizens. Thus, if the local unit of government allows invocations or prayers before its meetings, it must allow all belief systems the opportunity to give them, including atheists/humanists. The speaking opportunities are to be apportioned based on the rough proportion of citizens with various belief systems. Each invocation we give is another little victory for atheists. CFI can plot these atheist victories on a map on its website to show the impact as atheists give invocations from Maine to Hawaii, Alaska to Florida, and all over America.
One reason atheists are so despised in our country is that we have let our opponents define us. But with invocations, we atheists can define ourselves in our home communities. We can show nonatheists that we are decent, reasonable people. What great PR for atheists, not just the invocations themselves but the likely follow-up in local newspapers and on television and radio—and it’s all free publicity! CFI should strongly encourage its local affiliates and all other atheists to get on the list to give invocations in their particular locales. CFI should even prepare sample invocations of varying lengths; I’d recommend they all include a suitable signature slogan like “Humans Yes—Gods No” at the opening or closing (or both) of the invocation.
Tom Flynn wrote in “Brain States All the Way Down” (FI, August/September 2014: “it’s time for us to consign transcendence, reverence, and their cognates (my emphasis) to the linguistic hoosegow alongside spirit and its cognates.” That leads me to ask, does this not nullify statement number 9 of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles? Isn’t transcend a cognate of transcendence? What should transcend be replaced with? Clarification please.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The logic of secular humanism certainly eschews the supernatural connotations of the terms spirit and transcendence, whether in new age or old age communication. To totally abandon use of the words, however, blocks the opportunity to use other powerful connotations of them in different contexts. Spirit in varied uses may mean a ghost, a chemical distillate, an alcoholic drink, one’s essential characteristics, an emotional state, or an activating drive. “Team spirit” or “personal spirit” in context can communicate connotations of a positive activating drive. Both indeed are “brain states” involving biological cognitive and emotional processes.
“Human spirit” can be another contextual use of spirit as a positive activating force. The brain/body processes of the human spirit include evolved human capacities such as empathy, curiosity, conceptualization, cognition, reasoning, and creativity. Learned disciplines such as objectivity, skepticism, empiricism, and pragmatism also can be part of human spirit processes as a positive activating drive. So defined, the human spirit contributed to the Enlightenment, to sanitation and disease prevention, to the industrial and technological revolutions, and to the development and spread of democracy. And, in a quite literal use of the term transcendence as climbing above or exceeding limits, human spirit then contributed to the transcendence of humans and humanity. Such use of the terms may contribute to the meaning and mission of secular humanism without getting entangled in supernatural connotations.
Marlin L. Tanck
Tom Flynn replies:
To Russel Hall: the statement that he refers to reads “We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.” If Paul Kurtz had consulted me when he was drafting the “Affirmations of Humanism” in 1980, I might have urged him to avoid the word transcend for all the reasons set forth in my op-ed. (In actuality, Kurtz and I first met in 1983.) Two obvious synonyms leap to mind: either overcome or surmount convey the same meaning without transcend’s risk of being misunderstood to imply mystical action. That said, “Affirmations” is a historic document. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a context in which transcend less lends itself to a supernatural misreading than when Kurtz writes about the humanist community joining in an action. So, yes, I find the word choice lamentable, but no, we have no plans to rewrite the “Affirmations.”
To Martin L. Tanck: in practice, when humanists use spirit in the sense of “positive activating force,” it’s far too easy for hearers to think we just caved and admitted the existence of souls. Why not speak of the mind, or even the brain, in such situations and avoid the risk of misunderstanding?
Struggling with Nuance
In her op-ed, “The Problem of Nuance in a Wonderful and Terrible World” (FI, August/September 2014), Greta Christina draws a privileged distinction between secularists like herself who appreciate the moral complexity of “the world” and the benighted legions held captive by “Christian mythology” who remain clueless in their with-us or against-us echo chamber. Thoughtful humane believers, living with vicissitudes like Christina and everyone else, understand that the world is both good and evil; that moral decisions must be made sometimes under difficult circumstances; that such decisions are subject to error coupled with the agonizing burden of responsibility as well as inputs for improvement, etc. To stereotype religious people navigating challenges in the moral environment as obtuse automatons marching in lockstep to fundamentalist authority is contrived and self-serving.
Woodland Hills, California
The Beginning of Life
In the August/September 2014 FI, Arthur Caplan posed a question that was also the title of his op-ed:, “When Does Human Life Begin?” Human life continues when a live sperm fertilizes a live egg. Once fusion occurs, it is a human being. What else could it be? There is no “personhood.” Labels show stages of development only. Some want to force protection of a fetus against the wishes of the p
arents. Women who are forced to be host a new life and carry it to birth against their will have been made chattel. That is slavery; it is not a motherhood to cherish.
Those who claim moral justification see no contradiction when they impose their values while opposing conflicting opinions and values. Personhood is but a surrogate for a moral position in this conflict. It is laden with religious values held only by a few and lacks intrinsic meaning.
Arthur R. Thomas
Arthur Caplan’s op-ed on “fetal personhood” was spot on, though the science consensus seems to be that the cerebral cortex is not ready for the functions of “personhood” until sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. In any event, the conservative religious backers of “personhood at conception” have little interest in what science has to say. So let’s play their game and note that their Bible nowhere opposes abortion or supports “personhood at conception.” Indeed, the biblical idea is that persons are “created in the image of God” (see Genesis 1:27 and 2:7), and since the idea of “God” has nothing to do with flesh, blood, and DNA, it must refer to consciousness and will, which, again, are not possible in fetuses before twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks. This argument may not convince the hard-core anti-choicers, but it may isolate them.
Silver Spring, Maryland
The Right to Freedom from Religion
In his otherwise well-reasoned argument for freedom of religion (“Freedom from Religion Is a Civil Right,” FI, August/September 2014), Nigel Barber objects to the use of “a Bible and religious language” in the presidential swearing-in ceremony on constitutional grounds, stating that it amounts to a “violation of the Article VI prohibition on religious texts as a condition for holding public office.” In fact, Article VI states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That’s test, not text. In fact, the word text in that context is incoherent. Barber confesses he is not a constitutional scholar, and there are good reasons to object to the use of a Bible and religious language in this context. But surely he can read.
Woodland Hills, California
Nigel Barber replies:
The point is well taken, yet irrelevant. The use of a text is a sort of religious test because it is hard for a nonbeliever to swear on the Bible.
Lose Religion, Save America
Re “Why We Need to Lose Religion to Save America” by Lauren Becker (FI, August/September 2014): they told us in the second grade that the Puritans came over from Europe seeking religious freedom. This, they say, was the true source of our blessed national origins. However, they never told us that the Puritans were nearly expelled from Europe not because they were not tolerated, but because they wouldn’t tolerate. When they got to the new world, they persecuted religious dissent in their midst; they executed women on charges of witchcraft, they deliberately infected the Native Americans with smallpox, and they justified slavery. If this is our philosophic source to which we must return in order to save ourselves, I think I will take my politics elsewhere.
John L. Indo
Morality without God
Re “How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters—without God,” by Ronald A. Lindsay (FI, August/September 2014): it seems that if we had a fuller knowledge of history, sociology, and psychology, then much of morality, as Lindsay defines it, would be driven by conscious social engineering, analogous to civil engineering. There are objective facts underlying bridge design that constrain how you build a bridge once you select the size and type of bridge. Similarly, there are objective facts underlying social design (which appears to be Lindsay’s gauge of morality) that constrain moral systems once you select certain aspects of society. Lindsay seems to assume one of those aspects is enlargement toward “something like a global moral community” that serves all humans. However, historically “moral” expansion has tended to be implemented more as enforcing one group’s fixed (absolute rather than objective) social (religious) morality upon all others or destroying them, rather than as developing an objective social morality that can be accepted by (almost) everyone. This is an advantage of humanism, that it tries to respect commonalities among all humans (and other creatures to the extent that they share them), rather than selecting a chosen group and excluding all others. A few who will not agree to the social system have to be excluded, but perhaps the most moral society uses the most well-founded arguments to exclude the fewest. I look forward to Lindsay’s complete book.
Kenneth J. Peters
Los Angeles, California
Ronald A. Lindsay lays out a persuasive ethical argument that God is not necessary for morality. He briefly discusses the evolution of morality in primitive human societies as a rational existence for morality without the need for the supernatural. I would suggest that biology offers many examples of moral behaviors among not only other primates but also in herd animals such as elephants and wolves and in even cooperative insect societies such as bees and ants. Morality may be in our DNA, which may be a sufficient explanation for its existence. Evoking a higher power is certainly unnecessary. Adaptive moral behaviors that resulted in the greater success of a given population ensured its evolutionary promotion throughout the species. I do not believe that the religious consider a god to be involved in the moral behavior of nonhuman animals, but many species exhibit behaviors we would describe as moral.
Michael Hamant, MD
Ethics and Scripture
Steve Sklar’s article “Scientific Ethics and the Scripture of Abrahamic Faiths” figuratively blew my socks off. In my seventy-nine and a half years, I have never read an article that so adequately encompassed mankind’s position in the universe. Sklar’s claim, “Our most essential task, then, is to survive and take responsibility for the sustainability of life on Earth,” simply and directly states that we are it. There are no others.
Rodger A. Sanders
The whole series of “Why I Am Not a . . .,” has been marvelous but Mark Cagnetta’s article “Why I Am Not a Catholic” (FI, August/September 2014) was particularly moving. His raw, honest account of his loss of religion, his “arguments” with his mother, and his heartbreaking account of the death of his son, Michael, was stunning for both its passion and its quietly heroic conclusion. It is this kind of personal writing, along with the scholarly essays and sometimes wickedly satirical tone of articles such as Mark Rubinstein’s (“Anticipating Hamlet in the Gospels,” same issue) that makes Free Inquiry such a wonderful and unmissable read.
The continuation of the “Why I Am Not a . . .” series in the August/September 2014 FI provides excellent confirmation that morality without God is not only possible, it is alive and thriving. I would like to add my two-cents worth. In the spring of 1950, I was president of two Christian youth groups, very active in Youth for Christ and
the Southern Baptist church, and had been accepted/preregistered to attend Northwestern Theological School (enter the Korean War). I grew up and obtained a good, broad education. By 1958, I was an agnostic; by 1968 I was a confirmed atheist. I can attest (on a stack of Bibles?) that I became and have remained a more moral person since I broke out of my religious straitjacket.
The Face of Christ
I enjoyed the article by Michael Paulkovich (“The Face of Christ,” FI, August/September 2014) on the “incredible shrinking son of man,” as Robert Price calls him. I’m sure Jesus Christ is an invention of the Gospel hacks. Paul of Tarsus (or of Brooklyn or wherever the hell he came from) made up a Jesus that was completely different from the one in Matthew, Luke, Mark, or John—which weren’t even their real names, of course. Everything in the Christian Bible is recycled fairy tales. I especially appreciated the list that Paulkovich provided of contemporary (i.e., early CE) writers who never heard of the Christ.
Louis S. Bedrock
Roselle, New Jersey