I read with interest Tom Flynn’s editorial “Smearing Humanism” (FI,June/July 2017). I have read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. Flynn’s last sentence of his piece, “We’ve got a lot o f work ahead of us,” is so very true. I am grateful for your and other organizations that fight every day to inform and educate people.
Flynn also stated another truth: “Many, many times more people will absorb Harari’s account of humanism and simply file it away among ‘Stuff They Know’ than will ever read Free Inquiry or ponder the Humanist Manifestos.” Of course there is/are no “Humanist Religion(s).” My personal view is that, yes, we are humans. And thus is our launchpad from which I make my way through existence via my Holy Trinity of science, reason, and logic. I/we are not “over” the earth and the components of nature thereof. We are stewards only in the sense that taking care of the earth is a best-use practice that serves us; our fellow men, women, and children; and the earth itself. Dropping all of the indoctrinations and shackles of my life has been the most liberating experience of my sixty-two trips around the sun. So, thank you once again.
Richard F. Ferdon
Georgetown, South Carolina
It is beyond me how a distinguished professor such as Yuval Noah Harari could consider humanism the “worship of humanity.” Humanism doesn’t worship humanity. It worships nothing. Esteem for optimal humanity and “worship” of humanity as if suggesting a religion are not the same thing. Esteem admits of errors; worship usually does not. In fact, the latter usually leads to thralldom, which in turn becomes a blight on reason. Moreover, fiascos such as Nazism and Communism are not the worship of humanity but rather the worship of political power. Historically, this has usually resulted in atrocities against humanity, not humanity’s optimal development. It just goes to show that alphabet soup beside one’s name does not necessarily imply wisdom.
John L. Indo
People without Religion?
Gregory Paul’s assumption that the Hadza of Tanzania have no concept of religion may or may not be accurate (“The Hadza: A People without Religion” FI, June/July 2017), but his assertion that the Chinese have “never been particularly pious” is way off the mark. Beliefs that derive from Confucianism and Taoism go back long before the Common Era, and Buddhism from India that moved across Central Asia appeared as early as the Han dynasty, which has an end date of 220 CE. While the two indigenous belief systems may have been embraced more by the elite, Buddhism was widely adopted so that sizable monastic communities grew up—so much so that they usurped state power and attracted too many young men to celibacy, thereby impairing the prominence of the family. The dominance of these monastic establishments was contested by the Tang dynasty, but Buddhist beliefs and rituals had completely permeated Chinese society. From then until the modern Mao era, people broadly practiced a complex and varied mixture of the three systems along with local, popular beliefs. The Buddha and various Bodhisattvas are memorialized in statues, shrines, and pilgrimage sites. Today, I think that Paul will find a fairly considerable religious revival going on in China.
I was intrigued by Gregory’s Paul’s article. My questions are: How do the Hadza (or other nonreligious people) view their own death? Does it bother them? In general, do they see death as a tragedy, or as a reason for joyful celebration, or not such a big deal at all?
Gregory Paul responds:
I have not found much information on exactly how the Hadza view death, perhaps because it is not particularly distinctive in its basics. Certainly they do not highly ritualize much less celebrate it; until recently pushed into doing so they did not even bother to bury their dead. They do try to avoid death, so they fear it to at least some degree.
To clarify a point, the Pirahá are sufficiently supernaturalistic to claim to see nearby spirits while the onlooking Westerners are scratching their heads. The much-less spiritual Hadza never do that.
Frederick Robinson’s letter is an opportunity to expand the discussion on the Chinese. The Confucianism that was a long-predominant societal thought system is a philosophy with a dash of pantheism, and its recent rejuvenation is largely political-intellectual. There were and are no major deities or priesthood running a powerful, organized church-type complex. Buddhism is also oriented strongly toward philosophy, to the point that whether it is a theistic faith is widely disputed. In terms of an organized system, it was not highly popular among Han Chinese in more recent historical times. Taoism is more of a religion than the other two, but it too is philosophy-oriented pantheism, so that experts warn that being one with the Tao does not necessarily indicate a union with an eternal spirit in, for example, the Abrahamic or Hindu sense. And Taoism is mainly observed along the southeast coast. As Robinson notes, the above beliefs were oriented toward the elites, which in combination with the low grade of theism present among the masses helps explain why there was not all that much fuss raised by those masses when the atheist communists went after the spiritual philosophers (unlike in deeply Buddhist Tibet). The Chinese have never been the kind of highly pious people as per Hindu India, the Islamic world, old Christian Europe, or the Aztecs as they ripped out beating hearts to keep their overly touchy gods happy.
As for today’s China, Robinson makes the mistake of not citing statistics when he claims a major revival. According to the 2012 RedC Global Index of Religion and Atheism, about half consider themselves convinced atheists, a third more are nonreligious agnostics, and a mere seventh are religious. Whether the latter is higher now than during the Mao era is plausible but by no means certain; practicing Christians make up just 3 to 6 percent of the population depending on who is counting, and predictions that a fifth or more will be Christian in coming decades are wildly speculative at best.
The point of my column was to show that the still-common presumption, found even in the academic literature, that all societies have always exhibited high levels of spiritualism and religion to the extent that serious piety is universal is false.
In reference to the June/July 2017 Op-Ed, “Springtime for Bullies,” it is with appreciation that I applaud the willingness of Ophelia Benson to initiate the awkward conversation about emotional abuse. The longer adults refer to our national epidemic of blatant aggressive emotional abuse by childish, foolish, and useless terminology, the longer we prolong daily violence against us. In an adult discussion about an adult-centered issue, why not employ adult terminology? Why not identify the dangerous, persistent, and pervasive emotional abuse by the term it embodies: aggression? Why not accurately represent the offender who engages in this unjust behavior as an aggressor? Habitual aggressive emotional abuse is a form of mental illness; it requires professional evaluation and treatment.
The obvious confusion in celebrated authors of fiction developing their literary themes upon emotional aggression is that for one person what seems like exposure of a societal evil may read for another as tangible inspiration to imitate. Unl
ikely is it that we understand which had been the intention of the author.
While we continue to almost exclusively associate abusive emotional aggression with fictional stories, the impact of the reality of assault remains unacknowledged. Is this a convenient avoidance tactic? Is it because so few if any recipients of emotional abuse ever relate their abuse in written, publishable nonfiction form that society remains unwilling to grasp and respond to the seriousness of the offense? Or is it because there exists fear in publishing the truth? Far more recipients of aggressive emotional abuse need to step forward with the legitimate and truthful account of the events they have endured.
In his lecture, “The Liberty of Men, Women and Children,” Robert Green Ingersoll cleverly portrays the behavior upon which Benson has touched.
A. Kathleen Collins
I read James A. Haught’s “Purpose-Driven Lives” (FI, June/July 2017) with interest and was struck by what seems to be a recurring theme in some Free Inquiry articles: looking for some purpose in order to distract us from (as Haught puts it) “the Abyss, the blackness of death ahead, [which] breeds existential gloom, a sense that everything ultimately is meaningless” etc. This is the exact irrational fear of a natural event that has caused the invention of supernatural beings that may negate our death by some magical means in an afterlife.
I am seventy-eight years old and have COPD and heart arrhythmia. If I go to bed tonight and never wake up, so what? I would not know it. If this is the night when you simply do not wake up in the morning, what in the world is so frightening about that? When you die, will you miss your loved ones? Of course not—there will be no “you” to miss anyone. As far as trying to figure out the big “why” of everything, I am too busy enjoying life: looking forward to the next rare prime rib of beef or playing chess or enjoying my wife, children, and grandchildren or any of a thousand wonderful experiences I have yet before me. And when all that is suddenly gone? Poof: end of story, literally.
Please let’s not waste our present by dreading our future. There was a song in the movie Hans Christian Anderson called “Inchworm” that sums up my feeling about life: “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds, seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are.” I don’t waste time measuring or figuring out the big “why.”
James Haught relates asking “why” questions and concluded that the only honest answer is “I don’t know.” In doing so, he leaves the impression that there is an answer—we just don’t know what it is.
For questions such as “Why is the universe here?,” we can turn to science for answers in terms of “By what means?,” but for answers in terms of purpose, I suggest that no answer exists. Haught’s expression implies a lack of knowledge and leaves the wrong impression. (His later quote from Macbeth implies that he does realize that there is no answer.)
Like Haught, I advocate a purpose-driven life, sometimes phrased as “therapeutically busy.”
Women as Priests
What a good job Leah Mickens did in “The Catholic Church’s ‘Woman Priest’ Question” (FI, June/July 2017) of reviewing the history of this issue. I attended the first meeting of “The Women’s Ordination Conference” held in Detroit in 1975. I spent many decades being involved: went through the diaconate program knowing I would not be ordained because I was “unfit matter” (similar to a dog being unfit matter to be baptized); went to Rome; attended as an outsider and protestor the American Bishops annual meetings; writing, thinking, and, yes, prayed. Many intelligent and strong people who were Catholics were part of my awakening on my journey. I had a professor at (now) Dominican University who said in the late 1950s that you could not build good theology on bad biology. Her name, interestingly enough, was Sister Albertus Magnus Magraff.
I studied and changed and realized that there was not enough honesty within the Roman Catholic tradition to remain “within the fold”; I also realized I was not a sheep. I guess I was a slow learner. I signed the “Book” of the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2008, but my path is still not very bound by religious practice but rather reflection on nature and the mystery within and without of myself.
Dr. Catharine Stewart-Roache
Socorro, New Mexico
The Big Bang
Although I enjoyed the article in the June/July 2017 Free Inquiry by Joel Kirschbaum, “The Big Bang Enabled Evolution,” I found two technical errors that should be corrected. First, on page 38, the author says “Porphyrin is found in chlorophyll, where it uses the energy from the sun to rip oxygen from carbon dioxide molecules….” I had always taught that this photolytic phase of photosynthesis uses solar energy to separate the oxygen from water, not carbon dioxide. Checking with a few online sources confirms that. Carbon dioxide becomes incorporated with the hydrogen from that photolytic event to produce glucose, and beyond.
Second, on the same page, near the middle of the second column, the author says “These organelles, named ‘mitochondria,’ are found in almost all animals cells.” True, but this leaves out another major group that also contains mitochondria in its cells: virtually all plants. Essentially, mitochondria are characteristic of the cells of eukaryotes, namely plants and animals.
San Jose, California
Karen Shragg’s otherwise edifying article on the dangers of overpopulation winds up preaching to the wrong choir, oblivious to the geographical distribution of population growth in the twenty-first century (“Calling All Wimpy Activists,” FI, June/July 2017). Total fertility rates have reached stability or sub-replacement rates in forty-three countries. North America and Europe have ceased to grow by natural increase. (The United States will add population only through massive immigration.) East Asia has effectively seen average fertility drop to 2:1 replacement, including China and soon India, with population momentum still adding people for decades to come. By 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in Africa or Asia.
The terrifying population bomb, largely defused elsewhere, will keep ticking in Sub-Saharan Africa for the rest of the century. With fertility at five children per woman, projected to drive 80 percent of global population growth after 2050, the world could easily arrive at a place with three to four billion Sub-Saharan Africans, struggling through bloody conflicts for economic advantage in a quagmire of poverty, seeking a decent standard of living, and trailing monstrous pollution, resource depletion, and environmental degradation in its wake.
Woodland Hills, California
The June/July 2017 issue of FI contains two items on human overpopulation: Karen Shragg’s article and Edd Doerr’s “Planetary Suicide in Slow Motion.” I am pleased with the attention paid to this subject, for no other problem is so large and at once so belittled on this planet. Yet, I cannot enthuse about everything I read.
Shragg tends to portray (human) overpopulation as the “real&rd
quo; problem instead of overconsumption. In fact, however, it is both the average size of the environmental footprint and the number of these footprints that count. Look at it as i(mpact)=n(umber)*s(ize). It serves little or no purpose to argue that n (“upstream”) is more important than s (“downstream”). Focusing on either overconsumption or overpopulation will not solve the problem.
Doerr explicitly links the issue of overpopulation with that of the number of abortions per year. Arithmetically speaking, there is certainly some connection, but it seems rather morbid to thus implicitly invite abortions at the front door. The question of (not) allowing and of (not) forcing abortions, and under what conditions, should be one of the last questions to enter the discussion of overpopulation. What will work in Shragg’s opinion? Reproducing at the level of “a one-child average for at least three or four decades”! This (familiar) scheme will make forced abortions enter via the back door before free choice has even had a chance.
To tackle the problem of human overpopulation, we should not start from abstract proposals that entail a maximum of state interference. Besides conscientizing the crowd, we should start from concrete proposals that put an end to current forms of state-run or subsidized education, family benefits, foreign aid, etc., if and when this unreservedly lets human beings have more than the two children they may justifiably have on average.
Vincent van Mechelen
Finally, an article on the elephant in the room: overpopulation. Everything in Karen Shragg’s piece is true as she addresses the cause of global warming and so many other planetary evils—the fact that the Earth is drowning in humans and their effects. In her “good news” final paragraph, she points to the decline of religion in the world and an example of Mexican soap operas encouraging small families. Please! As my fellow geologist M. King Hubbert (of Hubbert’s Peak fame) told me over half a century ago: It is too late to avoid the catastrophic planetary meltdown caused by human overpopulation. For my part, I have purchased a chair on the top deck of the Titanic (Earth) to watch the collision with the iceberg (overpopulation): ugly but fascinating. Enjoy.
R. C. Gibson