Good Without God
In response to Ronald A. Lindsay’s editorial, “Good Without God—But Better Without God?” (FI, August/September 2015), I strongly agree with his statement that “too many religious people still adhere to their religious doctrines (or to religious leaders who interpret the doctrines for them) as a guide of decision-making,” and that, contrary to them, we as humanists do not base our morality on scripture or the instructions of an authority. However, I would have to respectfully disagree with his view that “The nature of one’s belief about God is simply not a reliable predictor of one’s moral character, and, because of that fact, we can’t claim that humanist morality is an improvement over religious morality when it comes to shaping one’s character.”
Granted, there are dishonorable and immoral actions being committed by people on both sides of this divide; however, I would ask you to name one war or pogrom carried out for the purpose of defending humanist morality. There are none. Moreover, the element that makes humanist morality superior to religious morality is that the latter is inextricably linked to a divine promise and threat of heavenly rewards or eternal punishment in the afterlife. A morality that is predicated on an expectation of future rewards and a phobia of perceived penalties is a morality of mediocrity. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, if we humans are only good because we hope to be showered with prizes (in this life or a next one) or we fear punishment (in this life or a next one), then we are indeed a sorry lot.
As humanists, our morality is not constructed on our own self-interests. It is not a veneer that we slap on our hidden agendas, to mask some ulterior motive. It is for this noble reason that I believe we, as humanists, are truly better without a god and all its trappings.
Adam S. Thomas
The August/September 2015 issue of Free Inquiry inquires, serendipitously, into the truth, or untruth, of two separate but complementary subjects: altruism and free will. Our opinion, pro or con, on these two subjects are, I think, a good indicator of how egotistical or how humble we are.
In Tom Flynn’s op-ed piece on altruism, “Where Have All the Anti-Altruists Gone?,” he states that those who don’t believe in altruism are egoists. But who is the real egoist: the one who acknowledges that he does things for others, at risk to himself, because it makes him feel good about himself or the one who claims he’s more admirable because he does those things altruistically, without any expectation of benefit?
The same can be said on the subject of free will discussed in the Letters to the Editor column of the same issue. Who is the more egotistical—people who believe that from the moment they were born, they had the will, freely arrived at by their own accord, without outside assistance or influences, to make choices that would make them the successful, intelligent people they became; or the person who believes that everything as it is at this moment was caused by everything as it was the moment before, that the choices we make as we go through our lives are determined by the life and the world we inherit, and that the choices we make are the only choices that we can make?
Personally, I believe that when humanists say they believe in altruism and in free will, it’s their mighty egos that are doing the believing.
Mount Sinai, New York
I see absolutely no conflict between humanist objectives and a rational and pragmatic concept of altruism. In fact, I am rather inclined to believe that the latter may be necessary for the furtherance of the humanist cause. With the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came a notion of democracy that allowed toleration for religious and intellectual dissent. This could be interpreted as a reasonable concern for “the other” which had its long term benefits for the development of humanism. Otherwise, organized religion would have repressed science and free thought, and medieval ignorance would have persisted.
I think we should remember that human evolution contemplates the development of co-operative behaviors as well as individual subsistence. This created selective pressures for genes that allowed for social organization and the emergence of “culture” which provided for the survival and the well-being of the group. This is how our species survived the Ice Age and moved into the age of computers.
Today, there is little question that we are creatures of thought and creative imagination rather than creatures of pure biology. With our continuing exploration of the human genome, we shall soon seize control of human evolution. This, of course, may work for better or for worse, depending on our chosen course of action. We can “think” ourselves into a reasonable course of altruism, or we can “think” ourselves into overpopulation, environmental destruction, and nuclear war. As I reiterate, we are no longer creatures of pure biology. Our fate is in our own hands. This is our biggest problem today.
I am not a socialist, but I do argue for a humanist-oriented concept of altruism, which provides for more cooperative behaviors worldwide. Our survival on this planet may well depend on it. Of course, we know what the greatest impediment to this objective is—organized religion. This is why we humanists need to speak up more.
John L. Indo
I find Tom Flynn’s “Where Have All the Anti-Altruists Gone?” seriously deficient, for he makes no mention of the philosopher who coined the word altruism and what he stood for. Compassion, empathy, and generosity are universally considered positive human traits, yet no one uses the terms compassionism, empathyism, or generosityism because the suffix ism denotes doctrine, and with doctrine comes an agenda. In August Comte’s case, it was to plan a tightly administered society, complete with green and white banners, based on a science of man or what later became known as the soft sciences.
Flynn confesses he is no longer an altruism skeptic be- cause of new scientific information, but a conundrum remains. Consider these two quotes: first, “Government should be the means by which we show our concern for others” (Rabbi Michael Lerner); and, second, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master” (George Washington). I have always found secular humanism weak in political philosophy; this is one more example.
Tom Flynn’s essay on altruism was absolutely brilliant, profound, insightful. I am at loss for words in describing how extraordinarily inspirational it was. It clearly was one of Free Inquiry’s best of all time.
By the way, I’m in the process of buying a new Lexus LS (I need the LS model to coincide with my initials—a real bargain at only $72,250) and am wondering if he could loan me a couple thousand dollars for the down payment. If that’s too much for him personally, perhaps he would pass the hat and allow FI staff to participate with a contribution for the sake of altruism.
Tom Flynn responds:
Actually, Mr. Salisbury, my altruism has advanced to such a high level that it will not permit me to help you. The Lexus LS is a very high-performance car, and I don’t think Stillwater is ready for it—the water being so darn still and all.
Re: “Skepticism and Emotional Response to Terrible Ideas,” by Greta Christina (FI, August/September 2015): Christin
a wants us to be more emotional and less reasoning when we encounter those we disagree with. One problem is that her approach works just as well for people who are wrong as it does for people who are right. Calm reasoning, however, strongly favors correct positions over false ones.
If we want to change somebody’s values, we need to have their respect. If a person we admire tells us we’re off base, we may change our view, but criticism from somebody we don’t respect just makes us respect them less. Religious bigots and the like don’t respect secular humanists and so putting them down is useless, outside of whatever ego satisfaction it gives us.
While it won’t change values, we may be able to get people we don’t like to stifle their views if they fear us: for example if we are in a position to ostracize them or take legal action against them. This is, of course, what many people do to stifle people like us. We are rarely in a position to do this, and it is something we should want no part of in any case.
I don’t recall ever feeling that someone handled a difference of opinion poorly because they were too reasonable. I have often seen people handle things poorly because they were angry. I think Christina’s approach is very unwise.
Cary, North Carolina
Greta Christina may feel that the willingness to avoid reacting strongly and angrily to certain arguments and to discuss all ideas with a completely open mind is a viewpoint that “should be taken out into the street and shot,” but she must recognize that this approach is a double-edged sword. There are many people who regard abortion, gay marriage, gun control, disbelief in a deity, and opposition to vouchers or prayer in public schools with sincere outrage, and they should have the same right to react strongly and angrily as humanists and skeptics would to arguments that they find offensive or ridiculous. The result would be mutual recriminations and a polarizing breakdown in dialogue.
Having said this, I recognize there are certain viewpoints that are beyond the pale of reason, as is the case with the extreme examples of bigotry that Christina gave to justify her confrontational stance. However, I find it best to ignore people advancing these opinions rather than try to reason with them, and I would avoid insulting them or reacting angrily as that would certainly not change their closed minds and only raise my blood pressure. That is why I avoid discussions with Holocaust deniers, creationists, Birthers, anti-Semites, racists, and 9/11 Truthers. Just ignoring them is the best counterargument I can think of, unless they would be in the unlikely position to make their biases public policy.
Brooklyn, New York
The Myth of Heaven
In your special section, “The Myth of an Afterlife” (FI, August/September 2015), the article “Problems with Heaven” by Michael L. Martin struck a chord with me. My question is: What do you do in an eternal afterlife? To spend eternity wanting to do something but not having eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel seems like the worst possible nightmare. On the other hand, speaking for myself, if I had no desire to do anything I might as well be nonexistent.
Westerly, Rhode Island
The Catholic Church’s Castrati
I read with interest the article on the use of castrati in the choirs of the Roman Catholic Church until the end of the nineteenth century (“Theology of the Odd Body: The Castrati, the Church, and the Transgender Moment,” by Leah Mickens, FI, August/September 2015). The unification of Italy, which ended the direct rule of the Church in central Italy, resulted in the end of the barbaric practice of the castration of boys so that they could retain high-pitched singing voices into adulthood. I do have one quibble with the author. She refers to the unified Italy of 1870 as a republic. Actually it was a monarchy, initially under King Victor Emmanuel II, formerly the King of Sardinia. Much of the time it was a constitutional monarchy. Sometimes, especially under Benito Mussolini, it was a dictatorship with a figurehead monarch. Italy did not become a republic until 1946.
In “The Madness of King Charles” (FI, August/September 2015), James Snell paints a gloomy but, I fear, quite accurate picture of what the United Kingdom will be stuck with pretty soon. Mad Charles Windsor may be on the basis of his homeopathic gibberish, his ideas about talking to plants, and his preposterous remedy for cancer—examples mentioned in the article.
The attempts to keep Prince Charles’s letters to the government private speak volumes, but they are not typically British. In the Netherlands, where I live, it happens continuously that one hears much later about touchy matters that were diligently kept secret by the minions of the monarchy. And the cozy relationship with Gulf State royalty? The Dutch royal family is on friendly terms with the sultan of Brunei, who is now introducing sharia law to the country.
Perhaps Prince Charles’s claim that the pursuit of scientific inquiry creates a “moral and spiritual vacuum” (assuming it was put that way) is obnoxious nonsense. Indeed, he may have some backward Christianist solution in mind. However, it is not nonsense to argue that scientists need a system of norms and/or values to support their undertaking; that without such a normative system they operate in a moral vacuum.
A sarcast might reason: the madder an interventionist monarch the better, for it will hasten the final demise of the feudal system. And yet, we should not forget that the one who is really mad (if he is) is not Charles Windsor; the ones who are mad are the monarchists who use family membership, instead of personal merits, capacities, or suchlike, as a criterion to give out state incomes and state positions to adults and even children. The more democratic a country the more co-responsible these monarchists are.
Vincent Van Mechelen
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Imprisonment and Religiosity
Richard Dumont’s conclusion (“Imprisonment and Religiosity,” FI, August/September 2015) that religiosity “plays a very minor and basically inconsequential role” in incarceration rates apparently derives from the regression analysis that found only a 2.7 percent increase in variance explained by all three predictor variables (race, income, religiosity) compared to the analysis using just race and income, without religiosity.
To put the 2.7 percent increment in statistical perspective, it would be necessary to have the parallel figures for the two other two-variable predictor combinations (religiosity and race, religiosity and income) compared to the result for all three predictors together. My guess is that the incremental increases in variance explained for income and for race, respectively, would also be quite small. This is because multiple regression equations quickly reach a point of diminishing returns as new predictors are added.
The primary difficulty with using multiple regression analysis as a basis for judgments about the relative importance of predictor variables is that regression coefficients are unusually sensitive to slight fluctuations in the pattern of inter-predictor correlations in relation to the predictor-criterion correlations. This phenomenon is known as the “problem of oscillating beta weights,” which refers to the instability of the coefficients and their dependence on a particular set of predictor variables.
For these reasons, it is essential to consider the simple correlations of the three predictors separately with incarceration in conjunction with
the various combinations of predictor variables in determining how to best interpret the results of the study. Without an extra-statistical argument, such as positing that structural (demographic) variables should assume explanatory priority over subjective (preferential) expressions, Dumont’s assertion that the relationship between religiosity and incarceration is “spurious” (false, unreal, illusory) is contradicted by the correlational evidence.
The Faith I Left Behind
The department “The Faith I Left Behind” in the August/September 2015 issue of Free Inquiry featured an article by Shirley Blumberg titled “Why I Am an Atheist Jew.” We are saddened to report that Ms. Blumberg died in May at the age of ninety-one, while the issue was in production. Her death was reported to us by her daughter, Debra Blumberg, who told us that her mother’s only regret was that she had not “learned everything there was to know about the world.” We are happy that FI readers got to know the elder Ms. Blumberg a bit through her essay.
—The Editors /p>