Letters — Vol. 39 No. 1


I have been a subscriber to your magazine for going on thirty years, and I have to say I do not care for the tone taken by some of your contributors. The worst in the most recent issue is Ed Doerr. While I agree with his position of not using tax money to support religious schools, to call a person who disagrees on policy virulently toxic and a Wicked Witch of the West is far beneath the normal reasoned discussion your magazine has fostered. S. T. Joshi does something similar when he refers to supporters of the 2nd Amendment as “gun nuts.” While I do not own any firearms and have no desire to, I am a strong supporter of our 2nd Amendment rights and know many responsible gun owners who are NRA members. They are definitely not nuts. I support free expression and the rights of these two authors to express their opinions, but by using defamatory language, they are not advancing the discussion nor changing any minds. 

On another note, Tom Flynn referred to tax exemptions as subsidies and costing the federal government money. To me, a subsidy is when the federal government takes taxpayer funds and gives them to a person or organization that did nothing to earn it. Kind of like the $12 billion subsidy recently proposed for farmers. I don’t see letting a person or organization keep more of what they earn as a subsidy or a government expense. For Flynn’s characterization to be correct, you would have to believe that the total earnings of all taxpayers really belong to the federal government and anything they are allowed to keep is a subsidy. In that case, Flynn is also getting a subsidy to the tune of whatever his net income is and also costing the federal government money.

I really enjoy most of the magazine even though, being Libertarian, I do not agree with all of the positions. I hope we can get back to reasoned discussion and lose the invective.

Brian Falony
Lawrenceville, Georgia

Tom Flynn responds:

I’d like to thank reader Brian Falony for his thoughtful criticisms. I will respond with regard only to his question about tax exemptions as subsidies. (I speak as a former Libertarian, which I was for many years until the financial crisis of 2008 made a Keynesian of me!) A subsidy occurs explicitly when the government gives tax dollars, in Falony’s words, “to a person or organization that did nothing to earn it.” A subsidy occurs implicitly when the government chooses not to levy taxes against a person or organization that would otherwise have to pay them. That is not to say that all earnings belong to the government; it simply means that when the government chooses to spare just one class of taxpayer from a tax that would otherwise be properly owed, a subsidy has occurred. As I noted in my op-ed, all nonprofit organizations (including the Center for Inquiry, copublisher of this magazine) receive an implicit subsidy in that they are exempt from federal income tax on their charitable operations. That subsidy is at least partly balanced by a quid pro quo: nonprofits that are not religious must keep thorough books and file a Form 990 in which they make public disclosure regarding their finances. What I objected to is that in the case of religious nonprofits, and them alone, the disclosure requirement is waived. Religious nonprofits get to enjoy the exemption/subsidy and are not required to provide public accountability. That unfairly advantages religious groups vis-à-vis nonprofits of all other classes.

                In my idea of a perfect world, religious organizations would be denied any tax exemptions, on the basis that the Constitution’s unique limits upon the government’s powers regarding religion forbid the state to single out religious groups for any special privilege—even the tax exemption offset by disclosure requirements offered to secular nonproifts. In the real world that’s not going to happen, so what I called for in my op-ed was that religious nonprofits should be treated the same as secular nonprofits. A Libertarian should be able to take some limited pleasure from this, as it would remove at least one of the government’s fingers from the scales.

The Trolley Problem

Let me first say that I enjoy Greta Christina’s op-eds and always find them interesting. I have not always agreed with her opinions entirely, however, and the August/September 2018 FI issue is one that I disagree enough to comment.

The argument is that we should vote for the lesser of two evils.  That we should make an ethical decision based on the Trolley Problem decision. I have a problem with that. This is not entirely a hypothetical Trolley Problem. It can be looked at narrowly in that way, which Christina has. It can be looked at as choosing between evils. But that is still choosing evil.

The problem is, as she has alluded, with the system. It is now rigged to be evil. Voting for one or the other is still evil. This is where one should look for another more ethical solution.  In the Trolley analogy, we should derail the trolley and not kill either of the innocents on either of the tracks. In this case it is the Trolley that is the evil and should be derailed. True, in the original Trolley paradox, we do not know who is in the Trolley, but ours is no longer hypothetical. Those in the trolley are evil; they are intent on doing evil, and in fact, are right now doing evil. They have more evil intended for the future.

The way to derail this Trolley is by voting but not for the lesser of two evils. It is by voting with our feet. We need to put our feet in the streets. There was a massive and wonderful outpouring in the streets immediately after the election. But this was a single event. In retrospect, it should not have been a single event. We waited to see the results of the outpouring. It was ignored and belittled. The Trolley continued down the tracks, and, in fact was killing as it went. We became complacent. Those being killed were not here, and for many of us are not here.

I live in an upper middle class neighborhood and am isolated from most of the terror and dread. But I am a humanitarian and care about my fellow humankind. The two sides of this Trolley, right of the aisle and left of the aisle, are part of the system doing evil. Yes, I voted for Barack Obama thinking that he was easily the lesser of two evils. I was taken in by his promises of undoing some of the evil recently done. He did not release those in Guantanamo. He increased the use of drone attacks and had them cross international borders and attack without declarations of war. These attacks killed innocents to even what was stated as justified. They were not collateral damage but fathers, mothers, and children to a humanitarian. He became the mass deporter. He supported Israel. He supported Saudi Arabia even when they attacked innocents in Yemen. Both sides of the Trolley may argue over which side track to take and who to kill, but we do not have to.

We need to derail this Trolley. The Trolley is the problem. We need to vote in the streets and we need to vote often.

Wilfred C. Lyon
Katy, Texas

Poorly Written

Re:  “Why So Much of the Bible Is Poorly Written,” (FI, August/September 2018). Valerie Tarico postulates that the author of the Gospel of Matthew aligned the Last Supper with the Passover meal for the purpose of attracting orthodox Jews to Christianity.

However, Jesus (a faithful Jew by all accounts) was well aware that Judaism strictly forbids the drinking of blood.  Thus, it’s unlikely that a Christian propagandist among Jews would say that Jesus offered wine to his disciples and told them (even figuratively) that it was his blood.

Such an allusion would surely be more a deterrent than an attraction for a Jew to become a follower of Jesus.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Although it does not bear directly on Valerie Tarico’s essay “Why So Much of the Bible Is So Poorly Written,” it may be of interest to readers that the Bible was, for centuries, kept from ordinary Christians by the Catholic Church. Protestants—and the printing press—brought the scriptures into general availability only after the mid-1500s. The Catholic church continued to discourage attempts by ordinary believers to interpret the Bible, but Protestants, asserting the priesthood of all believers and the ultimate authority of the scriptures, created their own theologies. Thus, much of the book went unread, while all sorts of folk beliefs were mistakenly attributed to it. Not only was the Bible poorly written, it usually was poorly read. 

Dr. Kathryn W. Kemp
Associate Professor of History, Retired
Clayton State University
Morrow, Georgia

Principles of Secularism

Contrary to the views of Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan, the teaching of atheism in public schools is limited, not just by politics but by science itself. Science studies the natural world, which is the world we live in and can perceive.

Science can establish “facts;” only it can observe them or their effects directly or through scientific instruments. It cannot observe supernatural “facts” asserted to exist by religion because they are understood to be immaterial and not visible to humans. Only the claims that religion makes about the natural world can be tested and disproven by science. The truly scientific stance toward the supernatural is agnosticism. Science has no way of knowing whether supernatural things exist or not. My atheism and humanism are based on reasoning from scientific facts about the universe, human psychology, human culture, etc. My atheism and humanism are philosophical conclusions and not “facts,” and other people can reach different conclusions.

The public schools should teach science, which can only remain silent about the supernatural. The schools should also teach world history, world literature, etc., and in those subjects the myths of the ancient Israelites can be treated on the same level as the myths of Greece and Rome.

Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina

Re: Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan, Free Inquiry, August/September 2018. In their Free Inquiry article, Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan list five assertions that they claim are now taught in most American public schools because a political majority accepts the truth of all five based on overwhelming evidence. Suffice it to say, I was nonplussed to see the very first item was “The Sun orbits around the Earth.” I sincerely hope that most public schools are not teaching this discredited geocentric view of the Solar System and that will remain the case even if, perish the thought, a political majority in this county decide that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong and Ptolemy was right.

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan respond:

The authors and editors regret that none of them caught the error before printing. However, they are glad to know their readership includes at least one critical thinker.

Respect Freedom

Regarding Ronald A. Lindsay’s  remarks: “Humans did not evolve from apes. Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor five to eight million years ago.” It seems we have a confusion with the word ape. No, humans did not evolve from gorillas or chimpanzees. Correct me if I’m wrong, though; both humans and apes, such as the gorilla and chimpanzee, evolved from a common ape ancestor. If our ancestors five to eight million years ago were not apes, what were they?

Ernest Field
Cleveland, Ohio

In his article “Respect Freedom of Conscience: Teach Science, Not Metaphysics” August/September 2018, Ronald Lindsay makes a couple statements that I believe are incorrect. He states that “humans did not evolve from apes.” Though humans didn’t evolve from any modern ape, wouldn’t the common ancestor (actually several common ancestors) also be an ape? The taxonomic superfamily Hominoidea (apes) and Old World monkeys diverged from a common ancestor between twenty-five million and thirty million years ago. All modern apes (including humans) are descended from these apes. Between sixteen and twenty million years ago Hominoidea split into two families: Hylobatidae (lesser apes) and Hominidae (great apes). Over the next fifteen million years the great apes separated into the four genera that exist today. First orangutans branched off from the line that led to gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. Then gorillas branched off. Finally chimpanzees and humans split five to eight million years ago. After millions of years of evolving independently, these four genera are still genetically similar enough to be classified as great apes. They all have to be more closely related to their common ancestors than to each other, so the ancestors would also have to be great apes. And the common ancestor of great apes and lesser apes must have been an ape.

He also claims that by saying humans evolved from apes plays into the hands of creationists who “understandably ask:” “Then why are there still apes? Didn’t they catch the evolution bus?” I never felt this was much of an argument, and I doubt that creationists are swayed by being told it was a common ancestor, not an ape, that humans and apes evolved from. Besides, why can’t a species exist at the same time as its ancestor? Speciation often occurs when a plant or animal species splits into two geographically isolated populations. The two populations will adapt independently to their respective environments. Though rare, isn’t it possible, if there is no change in their environment and therefore no selective pressures, for one of those populations to remain unchanged?

I’m not a biologist and accept that my understanding of natural selection could be wrong. I would appreciate Lindsay explaining in more detail how he believes evolution works. Of course, I’d be more interested to have input from Richard Dawkins.

Douglas Aja
Waterford, Vermont

Voices from the Past

I have already written you twice criticizing articles in the August/September issue of Free Inquiry, but now I feel compelled to write you again to tell you that Allen Agnitti’s essay is one of the best I have ever read. Seldom have I seen such wonderful writing combined with such wisdom. The essay is itself an example of the good, the beautiful, and the true.

Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina

Religious Scientists

The August/September 2018 FI magazine features an article with the oxymoron title: “Religious Scientists” by R.C. Gibson.

Gibson’s article, which ponders the contradiction of scientists who still profess to believe in religion, almost certainly formulated the correct answer for this stupefying oddity when he posits that this is simply a lack of moral courage and intellectual honesty.

This article brings to mind a famous 1966 speech quote by the late Senator Robert Kennedy; “Few men are willing to brave the censure and disapproval of their colleagues, and wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle, or great intelligence—yet it is the one essential, vital quality, for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change. “

However, I would add to Gibson’s analysis that unremittent attraction to religion is the philosophical equivalent to bank robber Willie Suttons famous quote about why he robbed banks—“because that’s where the money is.”

Religion is the only societal entity offering “After Death Life Insurance” for the faint of heart.

In other words, looking for the answer for why people with high level science degrees would still cling to religion (with no outward signs of paralyzing massive cognitive dissonance) is similar to the popular political motto; “It’s the Economy, Stupid” except in this case the motto roughly translates to “It’s the Fear of Death, Stupid.”

John L. Williamson
The Colony, Texas

I related to Gibson’s article because I have been a practicing geologist for forty years and I am a long-time secular humanist. Though I flirted with religions in my youth, it was my grounding in geology and other physical sciences that solidified me in rejecting the divine aspects of religions. The unrefutable evidence of the age of the planet and the universe, evolution of life (including humans), and natural causes of geologic and physical forces that affect the planet make it clear that a divine source for such things is simply mythology. With that I agree with Gibson. However, I reject Gibson’s thesis that any scientist who does not totally reject all aspects of religion is “simply lacking in intellectual honesty and courage.” There are positive philosophical principles, social support structures, and community outreach aspects of many religions that can benefit one’s life and help others. One does not have to be a religious fundamentalist to find solace and positive benefits in those aspects. Some people require that social outreach in their lives and scientists and others can compartmentalize the rejection of divine mythology from the acceptance of positive philosophy. I have found it is more helpful to show religious people that being a secular humanist is a good position by not belittling their deeply held beliefs but rather to intelligently show them the science and demonstrate how one can live a good and helpful life without the need for the divine aspects of religion. In my opinion, Gibson’s proposed adversarial position to confront religious scientists and others as intellectually dishonest does the secular humanist cause more harm than good in the public eye.

Alexander Schriener Jr.
Professional Geologist
Bermuda Dunes, California

R. C. Gibson responds:

In regard to John Williamson’s letter I would say: Spot On—the fear of death is at the core of  all religion, worldwide.

As for my geologist colleague Alexander Schriener Jr’s  letter—more scrutiny is warranted. He writes: “There are positive philosophical principles, social support structures, and community outreach aspects of many religions that can benefit one’s life and help others.”  “Positive philosophical principles”—really? All religions fear reason and venerate faith’ they currency in closed minds, anathema to any philosophical principles of which I am aware. As for the social benefits offered by religions, all could be done better with secular institutions, as they do well in Scandinavia today. While it is true that churches and mosques provide “comfort stations” in a cruel world, civil institutions can do a better job. In worrying about me offending religious people by my naked brand of atheism, I would remind Mr. Schriener how religious people view nonbelievers—as heretics, blasphemers, and they have a special place reserved for us after death, a place for us to burn in eternity! It was less than 300 years ago that none less than Edward Gibbon, the noted British historian, wrote a letter to the head of the Catholic church in Portugal urging that the church continue the inquisition to rid the country of heretics. Science (reason) is at war with religion (superstition) for the minds of human beings; progress has been slow, and the last thing I worry about is offending someone who would burn me at the stake or wish me to their version of Hell.

Opinions I have been a subscriber to your magazine for going on thirty years, and I have to say I do not care for the tone taken by some of your contributors. The worst in the most recent issue is Ed Doerr. While I agree with his position of not using tax money to support …

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