Letters – Volume 39 No. 2

“The Signature of Freedom,” by Tom Flynn

After reading Tom Flynn’s editorial, I wanted to respond because although it could be argued that the right to suicide might indeed be the ultimate right and “signature of freedom” as Tom Flynn describes it, it still may be an enormous mistake and loss for the individual and for others.  For many individuals, there is no doubt that committing suicide is the result of a momentary lapse of reason or a sudden poorly thought out decision due to an emotional shock. There is no doubt that for many, preventing their deaths is a huge moral good. Unless we can devise a way to know in advance whether this choice was rational or instead drug impaired or brought on by a crisis that would eventually pass, I believe it is best to err on the side of prevention.

The compromise would be to decriminalize, remove the stigma, and not necessarily brand suicide as a mental illness while at the same time offering all the assistance to prevent it, even if, at the time, the individual protests. The concession would be to allow a form of assisted suicide that would not be abused by others and not be the result of a rash decision-making process by an individual. That would be the best of both sides of the argument.

Gerry Dantone
Cofounder and former coordinator for CFI Long Island

I am writing about Mr. Flynn’s editorial. I found it a bit casual about a rather big issue. I am in favor of suicide for people who, for example, have unending pain that cannot be treated or for those who are in situations such as Auschwitz.

But most people who are considering suicide deserve a good psychiatric evaluation and a chance to talk to reasonable, intelligent, experienced, caring people who might give them some ideas about what might help improve the situation.

Also, what suicide does to the people who are left is terrible.

Carl Saviano, MD
Northampton, Massachusetts

Tom Flynn responds:

Carl Saviano is right that “what suicide does to the people who are left is terrible.” But I suspect that much of suicide’s negative impact on survivors is not inherent in the act but rather reflects the social stigma surrounding it. Contemporary culture offers those left behind few tools for coming to accept, much less affirm, a friend or loved one’s choice to stop living. At the same time, it serves up an endless smorgasbord of concepts that encourage survivors to blame the deceased—and, too often, themselves—for the “horrible thing” that happened. As for Gary Dantone’s compromise proposal, I would welcome it if some way could be found to achieve it starting from our dysfunctional present situation. Fortunately, as I noted in my editorial, more accepting attitudes toward suicide appear to be building among the young.

“The Age of Theism Is Over,” by James H. Dee

James H. Dee’s excellent article (FI, October/November 2018) listing the untenable definitions of “god” in the monotheistic religions omitted a few, just as important as those he listed: God is perfect, unchanging, and has always existed.

What does “perfect” mean, anyway? The Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible, which are usually translated as “perfect” mean complete, faultless, whole, finished. Believers usually also claim that God has always existed. God never changes, so he must have always been perfect. Believers can cite scriptural passages to support all these claims.

But why would a perfect god create a universe? Imagine God in the eternities before he created the universe. What was he doing? Remember, he was perfect. He needed nothing; he wanted for nothing. He was perfectly content, since if he was not content with just himself, it would imply that he was needing something else. It would be inconsistent with the idea of perfection to use the verb want with a perfect being as the subject, as in “God wanted to create mankind … .” Merely saying that amounts to an admission that God was not perfect—he lacked something.

What was this perfect being doing? Since he had not yet created anything, there was nothing for him to be acting upon or even contemplating. He was the only thing that existed. Was he just thinking? About what? He can only have been thinking about himself. (Can you be perfect and narcissistic?)

He would have simply remained the perfect, complete, solitary being that he was frozen, immobile, in an eternal solitary state.

It seems that the existence of the universe, rather than being evidence for the existence of God (as many believers assert) is instead evidence that the perfect god they believe in does not exist and never did. 

Richard Packham
Roseburg, Oregon

The Age of Theism Is Not Over

I almost sighed from sheer relief when I received FI‘s October/November 2018 issue and saw the title of James Dee’s article: “The Age of Theism Is Over.” No more executions and incarcerations of the brave and clear-headed by religionists abusing the state, no more discrimination against anything without (a) god(s) anywhere. Greatly disappointed, however, was I by a spoiler right at the beginning: “the title says, theism should now be considered a failed understanding of the universe.” That’s not what the title told me! Dee’s conclusion that theology is the baby talk of adults did not bother me. Actually, I was pleased by the mention of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma with its two fundamental choices, of which one, indeed, renders divinity superfluous. But today that necessity to choose can and must be formulated in more general and systematic terms. The option is, then, either the recognition of the primacy of one or more gods and/or demons or the primacy of one or more values and/or norms. The former position is theocentrist, the latter I like to call “normistic.” The choice between them lies at the root of a basic distinction between worldviews, and of what we will be talking about: our domain of discourse. The theocentric issue is the same for theists and atheists alike, the future of God or gods being at stake. Self-labeled atheists or “antitheists” forget that all their continued attempts at proving that God does not exist and how bad theism is merely serves the domain of the theocentrist discourse, while meanwhile the other domain misses out on any comparable zeal for the evolution of a new, now normistic paradigm. This is the main intellectual reason the Age of Theocentrism is not over yet. It is theists who keep it alive and atheists who keep it kicking.

M. Vincent van Mechelen
Amsterdam, Netherlands

“The Humanist Case against Patriotism,” by David Mountain

While I generally agree with “The Humanist Case against Patriotism” as presented by David Mountain in your October/ November 2018 issue, I am inclined to think that my American patriotism is different. It is grounded in my commitment to the humanist principles enunciated by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. These principles are universal, and American patriots ideally seek to extend them, first to all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or national origin, and second to all humans in any country. While these ideals have been perverted and besmirched by the neoconservatives who inspired the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they remain the basis of principled criticism of American policies that violate the human rights of anyone. A good example of this came from the late John McCain, the last principled patriot in the leadership of the Republican Party. In his opposition to the use of torture against suspected Muslim terrorists, he said, “It is not about who they are; it is about who we are.” “We” are the American patriots whose very identity is rooted in the principles on which our republic was founded. Barack Obama used similar language when he was president, saying, “We are better than that,” in the face of the NRA enabling mass shootings.

It is not clear to me whether David Mountain distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism, but let me suggest that the latter term, which carries the ethnic connotation of the word nation, be applied to the attitude Donald Trump and his followers, who reflexively champion the interests of white Christian Americans, and particularly male white Christian Americans, above all others, and who care nothing about American principles (with the exception of the Second Amendment).

I am not unaware of the delicious irony of my argument. Like all patriots, I feel that my form of patriotism is better than any of the others!

I have just finished reading an article by Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic (“A Warning from Europe,” October 2018, pp. 53–63) in which she describes the same split between what I called “principled patriots” and “nationalists” in several European countries as well as in the United States. That shows how foolish I was to feel that my American patriotism is superior to any of the others. But in his article, David Mountain does not note that distinction at all.

Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina

I heartily applaud David Mountain’s article on the case against patriotism. Way back in 1953, I was fresh out of the military and full of unquestioning patriotic fervor, although I was beginning to have my doubts about religion. I happened to read Man and His Gods by Homer Smith, with a foreword by Albert Einstein. Whenever anyone tries to say that Einstein was religious, I tell them about his approving foreword of an atheistic work that even took the mythic position in regard to Christ.

While I loved the fact that Einstein was in accord with Professor Smith, a distinguished renal physiologist, I wasn’t too happy with his added opinion that in addition to religion, exaggerated nationalism had done much harm to the world. He was questioning patriotism! I didn’t like it then, but it got me started thinking and questioning—and I have really done a complete 180 since then! I get annoyed with politicians who always have a flag pin someplace on their suit or dress. As much as I loved the military back then, I am absolutely dismayed now with our basically garrison state and hundreds of bases around the world.

A successful democracy is by nature dependent upon an informed citizenry. People who don’t question are not informed. If you take that attitude that our foreign policy is always right, relying on patriotism, you aren’t informed. David Mountain is to be congratulated for his excellent and long overdue piece.

Richard F. Stratton
San Diego, California

As an infantry company commander who fought for and helped win the freedom of seventeen million South Vietnamese, only to see my nation give them to the North Vietnamese Communists, I, unlike David Mountain, author of “The Humanist Case against Patriotism,” know the difference between freedom and slavery. Damned right I get teary-eyed listening to our National Anthem performed correctly and seeing our Flag of Freedom. Mountain should get down on his knees in appreciation for men and women like us who fight and give our lives for our freedom and the freedom of others, including him.  Freedom is not free. I have watched my men die and held one in my arms as he died during a firefight on April 8, 1969.

  And damned right there is such a thing as good patriotism as well as bad, a distinction that Mountain does not draw. In his world, all patriotism is bad. He could not be more wrong! He should ask his fellow Brits about something called the Lend Lease Act, when we came to England’s support while they were standing on their shores with pitchforks, awaiting the onslaught of the Germans. But he is much too young to know anything about that, in addition to that information not supporting his thesis.

But the unforgivable act of Mountain is to equate my president with Putin, et al., not once but several times. My president and the United States are literally standing in the way of dictatorships such as Putin’s that kill people such as Mountain after a takeover. He is too naive, biased, immature, or stupid to know or admit it. What a brilliant ignoramus!

Since you see fit to publish such an article that disparages my true, priceless, selfless patriotism, take my name off your subscription list and off any membership role. I do not want any future association with you. DO NOT MAIL ANY MORE MAGAZINES TO ME. Free Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism have lost my support for the rest of my life. In addition, I shall do everything in my power to counter any influence you may have in my circle of friends and acquaintances.  

Congratulations on showing your true colors! Call on them to protect you the next time danger threatens.

Dr. Clyde H. Morgan, LTC, IN-MP, USAR, Ret.
Brandon, Mississippi

David Mountain’s article is truly engrossing.

Yes, the patriotism that our children and young people are taught in our nation’s history classes is, bluntly speaking, nothing but propaganda that has enabled untold numbers of commissars to silence those who have the temerity to mention any wrongdoing, which our government has committed.

Fostering young people to become patriots should not be the goal of teaching history. If the truth is concealed to make students unaware of America’s moral blemishes, they’ll be robbed of the intellectual oxygen they need to make sound political decisions.

Thus, our nation’s history will no longer be an academic subject. Instead, it’ll be a cult whose devotees will become pliable zombies in the hands of their masters. Sadly, there are already many people who proclaim their patriotism for no other reason than what their teachers and textbooks have taught them to believe … that our government is good, noble, just, charitable, altruistic, and unselfish.

What a pity!  Those naiveties are unaware that in Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Philippines, ad nauseam … our government eagerly supported the dictators who brutalized the people living in those nations.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

David Mountain conflates patriotism with religion (“The Humanist Case against Patriotism,” FI, October/November 2018) and urges humanists to reject it. But humans are social animals, hardwired by our origin as hunter-gatherers to belong to groups. 

Our social instinct leads us to favor those we know and has made our identity dependent on the language, ethnicity, and culture of the group we are randomly born and/or raised in.

The group impulse is strong even for inconsequential matters. Why else do fans of a winning sports team feel superior to the loser’s fans? Fans come long distances to see games in cities they left years ago but still consider “home.” Otherwise irrelevant sports contests unleash powerful emotions because they reinforce a sense of group solidarity.

For millennia, the human impulse toward group identity has proven ineradicable. Patriotism is just another expression of the need to belong to something familiar, powerful, and protective.

Patriotism needn’t be a bad thing. As John B. Judis said in the New York Times of October 15, 2018, “the perception of a national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.”

Humanists have many battles to fight; let’s not fight human nature. We must distinguish what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism from what is small-minded, bigoted, and ultimately contrary to the national interest.

Under the current administration, it’s more important than ever to stand up for our national identity as a country dedicated to the high principles on which it was founded—equality and freedom for all—even if they sometimes exceed our grasp, and even if some of our citizens wrap them up in the flag with god. 

Lawrence I. Bonchek, MD, FACS, FACC
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

It would appear that, to some extent, David Mountain, in his piece “The Humanist Case against Patriotism” may be conflating patriotism with nationalism. Webster defines patriotism as “Love or devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is defined as “A sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Thus, one can certainly love his country without necessarily thinking it is better than all others. Only what’s occurring in it, as far as that person is concerned, is quite good for most, if not all, of its citizens. While, obviously, this could be reactionary, it certainly could also be just the opposite—a very liberal order. Perhaps he is convinced only a supranational regime makes sense. Eliminating the national borders physically, of course, would be rather impossible to achieve. Even a world-wide sense of “oneness” may just be idyllic. If all of the principles of secular humanism, as outlined by Paul Kurtz, were part and parcel of, say, the United States. I suspect even Mountain and other progressive humanists would literally love that, i.e., a “patriot.” Nationalism, on the other hand, can be a deadly influence and has been responsible for far too much destructive history.

Marvin Thomas, MD
Blacklick, Ohio

I would like to congratulate David Mountain on his wonderful article in the October/November issue. Bravo! For many years I have been ranting about the similarities between patriotism and religion, pointing out that religion and patriotism tend to superimpose their fundamentalist, exclusivist mentality on each other, creating a symbiotic relationship in which one feeds off the other. This is especially true in the United States. My solution to the problem would be to find a way to take the emotion out of patriotism by thinking of citizenship as an almost businesslike, contractual relationship like the one that we have with an employer. I see citizenship in the following way: I agree to obey all laws and pay all taxes due in my country of residence. In return for this, the country agrees to grant me citizenship or residency and all the benefits that go with it, such as police protection, a fire department, social security, health care, the use of roads, and so on. Approaching citizenship in this unemotional, contractual manner guarantees that a country and its citizens/residents will receive everything they need to thrive but will prevent irrational, blind patriotism. Admittedly, we are a long way from achieving this kind of mentality on a large scale.

Robert Cirillo

David Mountain responds:

In a world where national pride is so often expressed in terms of unshakable faith and tired mantras, it’s refreshing to see it discussed here with intelligence and open-mindedness.

I do not distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Perhaps I should have been more explicit. Mr. Price and Dr. Thomas both provide competent distinctions between the two, but I’m afraid these will have to join the hundreds of other distinctions between them that have been made over the past 150 years. We can define them how we like, but nowhere in the real world does national pride fall into our neat categories of good and bad, civic and ethnic, peaceful and aggressive. It’s far too messy for that, and I think this compels us to treat it as a single phenomenon. Nevertheless, separating nationalism from patriotism remains very popular among politicians because it provides them with a convenient scapegoat for the crimes of patriotism.

I completely agree with Dr. Bonchek when he writes that “patriotism is just another expression of the need to belong to something familiar, powerful, and protective.” But the argument that we therefore shouldn’t reject patriotism, as it would be a battle against human nature, could be made for any other group identity, such as religion, ethnicity, or race.

As with these other group identities, it’s true that patriotism can inspire good—although there’s no scientific evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that national pride encourages people to vote or pay taxes. (If that were true, then why did roughly 45 percent of self-professed U.S. patriots fail to vote in the 2016 election?)

However, I maintain that patriotism and humanism are ultimately incompatible. The principles of humanism must necessarily be clipped and cramped to conform to the more parochial worldview of patriotism. As a humanist, I believe the most coherent response to this problem is to abandon patriotism altogether, although I appreciate there are other approaches. I applaud Mr. Price’s humanist-influenced patriotism, even if I do not agree with it entirely, and I hope that many more patriots will give their beliefs a similar level of consideration and critical examination.

Finally, a few words ought to be said about patriotism and the military. Not once in my article was I critical of servicemen or -women. The fact that condemnation of national pride is so often interpreted as disrespect for the armed forces shows how inseparable patriotism and militarism have become. Despite this, and as I alluded to with the story of the Belgian lieutenant, there are many accounts of troops throughout history who reject patriotism and yet continue to fight with incredible courage and selflessness. I kindly suggest Dr. Morgan take a look at some of these accounts, including those from Vietnam, where many soldiers bitterly dismissed national pride as “a joke.”

Once we appreciate this perspective on war, we can see through the myth that patriotism is needed to fight for morally worthy causes. As young and naive as I may be, I do appreciate that freedom must be fought for and that sometimes the fight will become physical. Had I been alive in 1939, would I have picked up my pitchfork and fought in the Second World War? I like to think I would have—not out of any love for my country but due to the overwhelming moral case for resisting the Axis. We don’t need patriotism to fight for what we believe in.

“The Signature of Freedom,” by Tom Flynn After reading Tom Flynn’s editorial, I wanted to respond because although it could be argued that the right to suicide might indeed be the ultimate right and “signature of freedom” as Tom Flynn describes it, it still may be an enormous mistake and loss for the individual and for …

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