The Road Ahead for Seculars
Re: “For Seculars, Challenges Ahead,” by Tom Flynn (FI, February/March 2017). Donald J. Trump won the election by the Electoral College, not the popular vote. The American people are not as solidly behind him as he thinks. The populist liberal element is still there and potentially powerful at the polls. It’s just in disarray right now and needs to be reorganized. But as the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, demonstrated, this can be done. Attend town hall meetings, join the local civic club, write to newspaper editors, and teach and explain our point of view. But under no circumstances should we become complacent as we did during this last election and expect our political goals to come to pass.
John L. Indo
A Call to Action
Greta Christina invited us to dismiss or not dismiss her article (“This Is Not a Drill,” February/March 2017) as being “hysterical hyperbole.” It didn’t seem all that hysterical, but it certainly traveled deep into hyperbole. The word fascist gets thrown these days at someone who simply isn’t liked by someone else. Historical fascists, originally the Mussolini followers, featured organized Blackshirts, later sort of imitated in Germany as Brownshirts. The closest people to Brownshirts we see in the United States have been showing up in places like Washington, D.C., unhappy after the recent inauguration and at various college speaking events, anonymously destroying public buildings and streets, beating up people, and burning immigrants’ cars and businesses. That sounds closer to old-fashioned fascism, no? I gently suggest that the columnist widen her circle of experts, as well as her range of skepticism.
Rochester, New York
Greta Christina sends a message that is alarming yet tempered by reason and the lessons of history. Donald J. Trump’s only qualification to be our president is that he was born here. He does not, in my opinion, represent American values. Americans embrace diversity; most of us descend from foreigners, and many are foreign-born ourselves. Our collective hard work and innovative ideas are the catalysts that have made our country a productive land.
Unlike Trump, who attracts white supremacists, true Americans distance themselves from those repulsive elements. His brand of Americanism is an insult to our ideals and to the spirit of our country. I will follow Christina’s advice to join the ranks of those who are fighting his regime. Nevertheless, if the worst of my fears come true, I hope one of my Anglo friends will hide me in his or her attic.
Re: “That Radical Islamic Terrorism Question” by Faisal Saeed Al Mutar (February/March 2017). I agree with former President Barack Obama’s refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism when describing such acts. Al Mutar lists three benefits to such labelling. First, he says that it protects Muslims who are not Islamists. I challenge you to find ten random Americans who could tell you the difference. Next, he continues the fallacy that the main motive of the many terrorist groups is to “impose and force their lifestyle on the rest of humanity.” I would argue that they use their religion as a foundation and justification to mask the real issue: they don’t have anything (power, money, authority, rights, respect, etc.), and they want violently to change that. Last, he states that the term Islamist terrorism suggests a secular solution. It does no such thing. Instead, as proven by our recent election, it suggests that prejudice and racism is the solution. The problem with the term isn’t that it isn’t descriptive enough; it’s that most of the country isn’t smart enough to recognize how descriptive it may be.
A. J. Fortunato
Silver Spring, Maryland
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar blames Islamic terrorism on inhumane “interpretations” of Islamic scriptures. The example he cites (death by stoning of a woman for not being a virgin) and many other passages in both Islamic and Christian scripture are not amenable to an interpretation that renders them innocuous. Muslims and Christians should acknowledge that their gods are not invariably benevolent but can be evil. Advocates have the choice of rejecting those gods or denying the divine inspiration of their scriptures.
Thousand Oaks, California
Harnessing the Power of the Nones
In “The Nones Weren’t Strong Enough” (FI, February/March 2017), author James A. Haught suggests that if we can increase the political participation of the Nones we may be able to influence the results of elections in a more liberal direction. But as we have just seen, national elections are not won by which candidate received the most votes but on a state-by-state basis, i.e., the Electoral College. So it won’t help our cause much if all of the Nones mainly live in California or New York! We need to determine what the percentage of Nones is in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, etc., and work to increase their political activity (as well as their numbers). Then we might see a significant impact of this group on national elections.
Thank you for the enlightening, perceptive essays from Rebecca Goldstein and Andy Norman in the “What Really Matters,” the special section in the February/March 2017 issue. Finally I’m able to understand the root sources of racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other isms that plague mankind. On a personal level: when I retired, instead of being overjoyed with my newly acquired freedom, I felt irrelevant (I no longer mattered). By volunteering at the local library and picking up a few odd activities I managed to stave off the gloom. But when the library closed for remodeling, I felt doomed, even to the point of suffering anxiety attacks. The essays you published have given me new insights into the cause of my depression and a path to the way out.
In “The Mattering Instinct,” Andy Norman explains religion as an answer to this instinct. However, Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran tell us that the core of each religion is a simple idea that is so counterintuitive that it sticks in the mind. People love fantasy and make-believe; science is full of counterintuitive ideas about the very small, large, far away, and long ago. The religious counterintuitive ideas, often about invisible people or the living dead or both, are counterfactual, unlike science. There is simply no decent proof for them. Moreover, these ideas are taken seriously by the faithful, unlike Donald Duck and magic shows. The believers do so because the shamans, priests, and ministers use many different ways, not just one, to stay in business. Appealing to instincts such as the tribal instinct, the mattering instinct, the agent detection instinct, the “follow the leader” instinct, and instinctive fear of death or contagion are just a few of these methods. Using force and terror to ensure loyalty to the group also works outside of religion. One of the best tricks of organized religions is the fable that they themselves are the source of knowledge of good and evil to the point of making the flock believe that religion—any religion—is all about goodness. Holy books, impressive rituals, beautiful music, interesting stories (mythology), complicated theories (theology), child indoctrination, the sunk-cost fallacy, and old-fashioned brazen lying are all further means, with the single ultimate aim of preventing unemployment for religious leaders.
In summary, the mattering instinct doesn’t give rise to counterintuitive ideas that are both counterfactual and taken seriously; it is part of the large bag of useful tricks religions use to keep peddling their ineffectual nonsense.
Jan Willem Nienhuys
Taking God to Task
Re: “It’s Time to Hold God Accountable,”Mark Cagnetta (FI, February/March 2017). My neighbor, now deceased, was a gung-ho evangelistic Christian who had braces on both of his lower legs. His shin bones had been crushed many years earlier in an accident where he worked at a small filling station repair shop. A car on the hydraulic lift somehow rolled free as the lift lowered to the ground, pinning him against the wall and crushing his legs. Many times he indicated that he saw God at work in this as his boss, somewhat shorter than he, often stood in the same spot. If his boss had been there that day, the car would have crushed his knees and he would never have walked again. When I asked my neighbor why God hadn’t prevented the car from rolling off the lift he replied, “We never know just how God works to enlighten us.”
Isaiah 55:8 says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways, declares Yahweh.” Contrary to Cagnetta when he writes (quoting Matthew 7:7–8) that “For everyone that asketh receiveth,” it is clear from Isaiah that you do “receiveth,” you just don’t know exactly what it is that you have received. True believers.think that their prayers will be answered, and when seemingly they are not, they think it is due to their lack of understanding as to the details.
The particular irrationality brought up in the article is the disproportion between powerful conviction, tantamount to absolute certainty, and the lack of evidence for the involvement of God in people’s daily lives or even the very existence of God. Isn’t the very existence of suffering proof that there is no almighty, merciful god?
The ridiculous attempts to exonerate God from responsibility for human sinning and suffering demonstrate the logical weakness represented by the incompatibility of an omnipotent and infallible god and the moral infirmity of people. I believe that the main reward of faith for the faithful and the main reason that it is impervious to logical doubts is the illusion of immortality.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The United States and the Atom Bomb
While I completely agree with George Zebrowski’s “Damned Truths” (FI, February/March 2017) regarding the use of atomic bombs by the United States during the war against Japan, the article needs some corrections and amplification of several points.
First, there are two places (pages 38 and 44) where President Harry Truman is reported to have met with Joseph Stalin in Yalta. Truman never met Stalin at Yalta. The meeting that the author refers to was in Potsdam, outside Berlin, in July 1945. Second, concerning the figure of half a million American soldiers allegedly saved by the bombs (table on page 38), in fact, the actual number claimed was larger. When Truman returned from Potsdam, the first bomb had already been dropped, and in his news conference in New York, he asserted that fully a million soldiers had been saved. That figure was also used in a 1947 article over Henry L. Stimson’s signature, but written by several others, to quiet growing objections to the use of the bomb. Nobody seems to have questioned the allegation that more than twice as many American soldiers would have been lost in the land invasion of Japan as had been killed in the entire rest of World War II on all fronts! In recent years, in fact, some politicians have multiplied that figure even further. Any figure significantly larger than the military’s own estimates of twenty-five to forty thousand are pure flights of fancy.
Mention is made of Japan’s own atom-bomb project being unsuccessful. In fact, while it is only in recent years that we have learned that Japan even had such a project, its actual fate is still unknown. The reason is that in the closing days of the Pacific War, Japan did conduct a test—but because the location was in a cave on the coast that is now within North Korea, it is impossible to learn the result.