Papal Pronouncements

Re: “Maybe It’s the Cabin Pres­sure” by Tom Flynn (FI, June/July 2016). It is true that nothing much came of Pope Francis’s public statements about gay priests, contraception, and abortion. It will take lot more than casual comments even by the pontiff himself to reform the longstanding dogmas of the Catholic Church. However, abstruse as they may seem, the pope’s suggestions that under some circumstances contraception may be a “lesser evil than abortion” may suffice to stir some open controversy among South America’s many Catholic dissidents. The local bishops must know that 62.5 percent of Latin American women use some form of birth control. This figure is probably even higher amid the onslaught of the Zika virus. What morally sane clergyman would demand that a woman take an unreasonable risk of bringing a deformed baby into the world? It is the local bishops who are in actual contact with the miseries of the people; it is they who must be encouraged to speak up despite fears of disdain from Rome. Meaningful reform in the church will come from the bottom up, not the top down.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

If the Catholic Church were to be pitted against a snail in a race to bring about social changes that benefit humanity, I’d put my money on the snail to win by a wide margin.

I shouldn’t lose hope. Surely by the time another thousand years have passed, the Catholic Church will consider the advantages of birth control—at about the same time it ordains its first female priest.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California



Stifling Speech

In the June/July 2016 issue, Russell Blackford (“Suppress and Punish: The Dangerous Impulse to Shut Down Speech”) holds that we should take no action against a speaker we find unacceptable except to argue against what he says. I wondered whether he would make an exception in the case of Glenn Beck. Beck has not just been expressing opinions but presenting false and inflammatory statements and conspiracy theories against individuals and groups in the United States on Fox News. Representatives of the advocacy group The Color of Change persuaded all of the advertisers on Beck’s show to withdraw their sponsorship by asking, “Do you want your product to be associated with what Beck is saying [about some of their customers]?” Fox News had not been giving anyone the opportunity to argue against Beck. It has now suspended Beck, but he has not been silenced: he still has his show on the Internet, easily available to anyone who wants to see it.

Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina



Standing Up for Humanism

I am sure that Paul Kurtz had, and the Center for Inquiry has, no desire to make secular humanism exclusive or excluding, but at the same time, I think we have to stand for something that would enable us to say, “I’m sorry, but secular humanism would not appear to encompass your belief or stance.” What drove me to this was the “35 Years ago in Free Inquiry” in the June/July 2016 issue. In that excerpt from 1981, Kurtz is so accommodating that he prefers to say that secular humanism has no position on sex education rather than say that claimed “secular humanist” and libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz can’t be a secular humanist. Szasz had argued against sex education on the basis that “individual freedom” would exclude the state and the medical/psychiatric establishment from such a private matter as sex education.

I’m sorry, but the only rational basis that we have to replace faith is science, and at least basic science has to be advocated and taught to enable a secular society. And the relevance and importance of science would include a basic human right to know the science of your own body. In my mind, if you don’t believe that a secular society has a legitimate interest in teaching basic science to its population, including sex education, then you’re not thinking like a secular humanist.

William H. Clarke
Missoula, Montana




Re: “Atheism Is Scary Because It Reminds People of Death” by Simon Davis (FI, June/July 2016). In my eighty-seven years of life experience and as an active registered nurse for fifty-five years, I have met death many times. I helped my patients through the long hours of letting go of life. Those with fundamentalist Chris­tian beliefs were the most terrified of death, wondering if they would measure up. Those with no belief were more likely to accept death calmly and were comfortable with the thought of eternal oblivion as their reward.

When I released myself from childhood brainwashing of fundamentalist Christian dogma, I immediately felt total freedom and exuberance in my rebirth as a nonbeliever. No more hell-fire and damnation in my future. Death had lost its terror. I put on my wonderful collection of music, which had been taboo, and danced around my home in joyful deliverance.

I sat with my husband of forty-three years as he lay dying from COPD. He said all he needed was me by his side to help him though those last hours.

Doris M. Green
Prescott, Arizona

If the end of your life is ap­­proaching, if your physical suffering has become intolerable to you, if you are a mentally competent adult, and if you so choose … if all of these conditions are met, then you should have the right to the means to a peaceful, dignified, humane, and pain-free death. And your physicians and loved ones should have the right to assist you in achieving that peaceful death, without fear of prosecution for “assisting in a suicide.”

We secularists know that death is not to be feared. But dying can be hell. A wise person takes advantage of every possible offering of palliative care, executes advance directives, communicates clearly about goals, and attempts to make optimal decisions whether to accept or reject particular medical treatments. No one should ever be encouraged, let alone coerced, to hasten death. But many of us will fervently desire to make that choice, and to deny it is true barbarism. Let’s make aid-in-dying a fundamental human right everywhere. That is, if you are planning to die someday. If not, then please disregard.

Ed Gogol,
President Final Options Illinois

Glenview, Illinois



Revisiting Malthus

Regarding “Sadly Malthus was Right—Now What?” by Madeline Weld (FI, June/July 2016), Malthus was right about overpopulation, but not about his solution. He suggested that the poor and sick should be allowed to die! He was against even the very minor provisions made for the poor in his day. Malthus would be even more vocal today about the necessity of allowing hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to die. He would probably see mass murderers such as Hitler and Assad, etc., as doing the world a favor.

Ernest Field
Cleveland, Ohio



The Bible and ISIS

In “ISIS, Moses, and Sex Slav­ery” (FI, June/July 2016), Steve Sklar commits a number of significant errors of logic that should not go unnoticed. First, he compares current-day atrocities of ISIS to events mentioned in the Bible. Was he not able to find an applicable current-day comparison? Second, his comparison assumes the accuracy of the Bible account. Is Mr. Sklar in the same camp as inerrantists? Third, he claims that kidnapped Yazidi girls and women who converted to Islam would gain “a modicum of legal protection” by claiming rights under Islamic law. Really? Does Mr. Sklar really think that a person who would buy a slave would follow the same interpretation of Islamic law as he does? Isn’t it more likely that such folks would do what every other person who honors religious texts as sacred would do and find some reason to ignore or twist inconvenient teachings? (And, on this subject, in the first place, what does Islamic law teach about slavery?)

Howard Karten
Randolph, Massachusetts

Steve Sklar responds:

I shall start with Mr. Karten’s third objection. According to Islamic law, all sins are forgiven when someone accepts Islam, no matter what his or her background is. Muslim wives and even slaves have rights under Muslim law beyond the rights of polytheists, though they are certainly by no means equal to the rights enjoyed by modern citizens of Western nations. Whether or not members of ISIS would recognize these distinctions is not clear. For instance, ISIS insistently forbids intercourse with a woman who is pregnant. For that reason, before a slave of ISIS is sold she must state the date of her last menstrual cycle, to avoid the possibility of violating this rule.

Let me mention one case in which a Muslim religious leader refused to twist religious teachings. After the triumphant return of Muhammad to Mecca, his worst enemy fled to Yemen, but his wife asked Muhammad to allow her husband to live in Mecca if he accepted Islam. He was allowed back, despite the clear hypocrisy of his intentions. He became the father of the leader who rebelled against the revered caliph Ali, and the grandfather of the leader who announced himself to be the first secular ruler of the Muslim world. Islamic history would have been much different if Muhammad had not allowed his enemy to return.

Mr. Karten also objects that the biblical story might not be accurate. I agree. The Bible states that Moses led 600,000 men of military age out of Egypt. Add to that wives—perhaps more than one for each man—and children and men too old to fight, and you get about two million followers. By modern estimates, that was the entire population of Egypt at the time. There is no archaeological evidence or mention of any such exodus in any of the literature of the time outside of the Bible, even though the major civilizations documented historical events centuries before and after any time in which the exodus could have taken place. The point is not what Moses did or did not do. The Bible sets ethical standards for the faithful, and the point of the article is that the standards set in the Book of Numbers is not very different from standards justifiably rejected today.

As to Mr. Karten’s first objection, I do not find it an “error of logic” at all. Yes, there are modern comparisons. During the war in the Balkans in the 1990s Muslim women were frequently raped as an act of genocide, because a woman who has had illicit intercourse would not be marriageable to Muslim men. The point of the article was not to compare modern atrocities but to point out that the kind of atrocities now being committed by ISIS have some basis in the Jewish and Christian traditions, even in the Bible itself.



Illness and Religion

Of course we should all be sorry for the suffering of children killed by genetic defects, and for their parents also (“Angel Unaware: An Atheist’s Perspective on Child Suffering” by Mark Cagnetta (FI, June/July 2016). My daughter, Pamela, died from staphylococcus aureus infection at age four. I had been playing with theology (partly to keep family peace) and discussing religious matters in a group of intellectual Protestants (not the fundamentalist variety) while having great doubts about the existence of god. While not believing that Jesus was the son of god (god not existing), I was quite ready to believe that he had held a staff meeting on the eve of what became his final effort. Or, at least, some writer thought that such a staff meeting was held.

Pamela died in the presence of her mother, very suddenly and unexpectedly, while I was off getting sickroom supplies. This had an effect on her mother’s religious belief. She came to worry about what sins she had committed to cause God to punish her by killing her daughter. The absurdity of that painful experience, on her and on me in different ways, drove me from any further consideration of religion. It was just too harmful.

John Forester
Lemon Grove, California



When Trouble Meets Atheists, Believers

Like Doug Traversa (“Atheist in a Foxhole [or Rather, an Unarmored Toyota]”) FI, June/July 2016), I too have heard the notion that “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” Not having ever been in a foxhole, much less in one during battle, I can’t say one way or the other that at desperate moments nonbelievers never reach out to “magical thinking.” But what I can say is: “There are no theists in ambulances.” Ever hear of someone experiencing a heart attack telling the driver to get him or her to the church, mosque, or synagogue? Likewise, with the exception of Christian Sci­entists, who for obvious reasons are in demographic decline, I doubt any patient in the operating room has ever told the surgeon to take a hike and send in the hospital chaplain.

What I can say is that for 99+ percent of the population, if they were experiencing a catastrophic illness or injury and had to choose between prayer and modern medicine, they would be whipping out their insurance cards and not their Bibles.

Sam Fields
Plantation, Florida



Imaginary People

Re: “The Rise of the Gran­fal­loons: Overcoming the Stig­ma of Corporate Intangi­bility” by Dan Davis (FI, June/July 2016). Since the concept of a granfalloon comes from the fictional religion of Bokononism in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I am starting with definitions I took from Wikipedia about his concepts of a karass and a granfalloon.

Karass: a network or group of people that unknown to them, are somehow affiliated or linked, specifically to fulfill the will of the “Creator of the Universe.” Only when the members die will they meet the Creator and will be told the real purpose of the karass. The real goal usually has nothing to do with the goal the members believe it to be.

A granfalloon is a group not assembled or directed by the Creator and, therefore, produces nothing of cosmic significance. The larger such a group, the less likely the group will produce anything since there are too many differing desires and goals presented by the members.

In Cat’s Cradle, a small karass brings about the end of civilization. The members had no intention of doing that, but that was the Creator’s purpose in assembling the karass. If Bernie Sanders became president, then it would be the will of the Creator that we have more socialism. Whether that would be a good thing for humans would not be known until later.

There are two aspects of Bokononism that are important: that what happens is the will of the Creator and that what happens is not necessarily good for mankind. If Donald Trump becomes president and starts a world war as many fear, that is also the will of the Creator. In this religion, the Creator is not all good.

Bokonon repeatedly says in his bible that everything written in it is nonsense. One virtue of this is that the religion having no truth, no one can be persecuted for denying its so-called truths. Another virtue is that if you require some religious comfort in the time of mass misery, you can believe that the misery was caused by the Creator, not by sheer accident such as an incompetent president pressing the wrong button.

I am, by the way, an agnostic and a member of a Unitarian Universalist fellowship but not a devout progressive. If there were a Bokononist congregation where I live, I would probably join because I can easily understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies. (The narrator in Cat’s
says that “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book.”)

Frank Boardman
Athens, Georgia

Letters in response to Free Inquiry volume 36, issue 4

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