Letters – Vol. 39, No. 4

Humanism’s Chasm

Re: “Humanism’s Chasm,” FI, February/March 2019. Based on my own experience, many of the liberated view the “Organized Humanists” as yet another cult, albeit one somewhat less demanding and noxious than its more ancient and benighted competitors. In short, who needs such help in these times?

This is not, contrary to appearance, a condemnation. Freedom from religion is even now precious and needs protection.

Joseph D. Morgan III
San Antonio, Texas

In the February/March 2019 issue you pose the question: “In an America where the number who live without religion has snowballed, why hasn’t the membership of national ‘movement’ groups … kept pace?”

I suggest an additional answer to those in your editorial. The publication that calls itself Free Inquiry and claims to represent secular humanism suffers a much too-narrow field of view. Perhaps this also applies to those other “movement groups” that you had in mind.

I declare myself an atheist, but that assertion does not define me. It states much more about what I am not than what I am. I am not a believer in God or any theistic religion. Furthermore, I expand the concept of religion to encompass any unquestioned belief system—whether political, social, or personal—that is every bit as intolerant of dissent as any theistic doctrine.

Communism and fascism, two salient examples, exhibit all the characteristics of a theistic faith, the same intolerant dogmatism and the same righteous assurance of commanding the truth. For a current example close to home, look no further than college-aged kids who scream “Fascist!” at speakers and writers they don’t like while their professors snicker off-stage at the success of their indoctrination. These are the true fascists. They want the government to control everything, the defining characteristic of communism and fascism. Is this discussion not worthy of some space in Free Inquiry?

Some years ago I was a member of Humanists of Colorado. What stood out for me at their meetings was a smug presumption of moral superiority, often explicit, as if these “liberals” were so much more enlightened than those backward-thinking believers in religion. I was struck by their ignorance that their own condescending doctrine closely resembled a religion. Two other members of that group shared the same thought with me and probably, like me, did not hang around.

I do not spend much time or ink criticizing theistic religions. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer do—and Christopher Hitches did—so much better a job at that than what lies within my ability. I prefer to look at secular religions such as socialism and its innumerable variants, including the welfare state, that much more effectively than theism are bringing down our beautiful country.

Perhaps those other “movement groups” decline to attack the secular religion bankrupting our country because they agree with it. It is more satisfying and safe to ridicule theism, which has been in decline for decades under assault from a more circumspect source of knowledge, science.

Why, with an overwhelming preponderance of evidence to the contrary, do people cling so tenaciously to beliefs ranging from the profound to the absurd with a heavy concentration at the bottom end of that range, and not just theism? Is this question not worth some exposure in your pages?

Are we humans so secure in our knowledge that we can declare with certainty that our own views of reality are free of nonsense?

A precious few intrepid and honest explorers claw their way up Mount Knowledge, grimly aware that Truth snickers at and teases them from a pinnacle far beyond their reach.

Michael H. Davison
Centennial, Colorado

As Australia is a relatively secular country, I can perhaps offer useful insight from another vantage point on Tom Flynn’s editorial (“Humanism’s Chasm,” FI, February/March 2019) noting the large gap between the number of Nones and membership numbers of atheist and freethought groups. It is this: The atheist/freethought movement has been hijacked as a leftist cause. My experience is that many members of the atheist/freethought movement are hostile to certain fellow atheists joining the movement’s ranks merely because their politics happen to be right of center.

Ironically, the atheist/freethought movement has developed a caste system—some are not welcome in the club, based on the irrelevant factor of where they sit on the political spectrum. Preferring smaller or larger government, for example, has no bearing on a common desire to eradicate religion’s toxic influence on society. However, many make the mistake of conflating their atheism with their (leftist) politics, ostracizing right-of-center atheists in the process. I think that contributes to right-of-center atheists remaining in the closet and thus curtailing the movement’s numbers.

History shows that truly sustainable social change is achieved only by building support from a sufficiently broad spectrum of people spanning both sides of the political center. However, the many in the atheist/freethought movement who regard the movement as being “owned” by the Left succeed only in alienating people on the Right who might otherwise privately be open to joining the cause. That only makes achieving our goals so much harder and take so much longer, if it ever happens.

This being the situation in relatively secular Australia only highlights how much more difficult the atheist/freethought movement makes things for itself in the far-more-religious United States. My suggestion is to let go of the prejudice against right-of-center atheists and warmly welcome them, more than possibly making that chasm Tom Flynn spoke of a little smaller. I think it’s essential for us to ultimately achieve our goals.

David Montani
Perth, Western Australia

I was glad to read about FI publishing The Faith I Left Behind column. However, Tom Flynn’s editorial in the February/March issue (“Humanism’s Chasm”) is still too optimistic on why our national “movement” has not kept pace with the growing numbers who now live without faith. Flynn reports that “younger cohorts were born (after the baby boomers) into an era of greater religious diversity and more open tolerance.” But I don’t think that is entirely true.

While that may be true for a few, there are still a great many who feel the oppression of judgement by parents, extended family, and employers. That segment of a young person’s world is older, and many of them have grown increasingly conservative and bold, especially with the election of more Republicans to local, state, and national offices and Donald Trump to the White House. As a leader of our local freethought group, I have seen fewer and fewer young people or people of any age willing to take a position to lead our movement with the kind of increased visibility that we need to grow. When I press them, I learn that there is still considerable pressure—especially from bosses and colleagues at work—to remain “in the closet.”

In a recent review of a book by Moore and Kramnick (“Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic,” The Humanist, January/February 2019), Daniel T. Moran wrote that even today our movement has “fallen short; the fact is that we’ve lost many more battles in the courts and legislatures of this country than we’ve won, and people who speak out are still putting themselves at great personal risk.” One of our local leaders is even being stalked by a fervent Christian, who probably has other emotional problems besides religion.

Furthermore, our young would-be activists are necessarily preoccupied by the economic pressure of high college costs and competition from incoming refugees (whom we must accept and help), automation, and foreign countries. Church-state separation and education about nonbelief are necessarily back-burner issues, when health insurance and job security are at risk for almost everyone.

It may be that leaders of our movement just have to ride out the current backlash by conservatives until good national political leadership has been fully restored. It is vitally important that groups such as CFI remain strong with the continued support of all of us.

Ron Herman
Albuquerque, New Mexico

I buy Free Inquiry now and then at Barnes and Noble, but I have never joined an atheist, agnostic, freethought, or secular humanist group with one exception: a local Unitarian Universalist congregation where I live and have made friends. All these groups consider themselves liberal, and some may be, but they appear to me to be progressive, which I consider to be as dogmatic as any of the religions that Free Inquiry opposes. Perhaps if secular humanist groups did not require belief in socialism or that President Trump is the devil, they might increase membership of Nones who have diverse political opinions but opinions on religion and philosophy that are not that different from those of other Nones.

Frank Boardman
Athens, Georgia

Evolution of Morality

I have no reason to doubt the general thesis of Doug Mann’s excellent article (“The Science of the Evolution of Morality,” Free Inquiry, February/March 2019), but I am concerned about the unstated implications.

If morality is the product of genetic and cultural evolution, and if genetic and cultural factors are largely beyond the control of an individual, what happens to the concept of “deserving” in the definition of merit: “an aspect of a person’s character or behavior deserving approval or disapproval”? (Emphasis added). Does “deserving” simply mean possessing traits because of one’s genetic and cultural heritage? And is “merit” something different than I thought?

If so, I suggest that there are implications for our concept of ourselves—implications with which we are not prepared to deal and which could cause further turmoil in our society.

Allan Halderman
Portland, Oregon

Evolution is thoroughly pragmatic, but morality is generally not. Consider killing other people, which most would consider immoral. However, if you look back at the evolution of humans, which began with hunter-gathers necessarily being at war with neighboring tribes over access to nearby food resources, those that were best at killing won, and the other tribes disappeared. That was how one tribe called Homo sapiens eventually killed off the competing Neanderthals by about 30,000 years ago, though in the process the Sapiens picked up a few Neanderthal genes by capturing some of their women and bringing them back as sex objects and slaves.

I should also mention that the illustration accompanying the article is typical racist nonsense. It shows a chimpanzee-like creature evolving into black hominids, then into a white person, implying that the latter are the most advanced, which is nonsense. The big leap forward happened when the old Homo sapiens tribe, who were Africans with dark skin, managed to develop a full language capability about 70,000 years ago and used that to coordinate their warrior attacks on all other tribes and killed them off. A few of the Sapiens also migrated to higher latitudes in Eurasia and, to survive there, had to evolve light colored skin to make enough vitamin D in weaker sunlight. 

     That did not make them superior in any way but, beginning about 600 years ago, those living in northwest Eurasia started pretending it did while they used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to make cannons, then placed them on sailing ships so that they could go around the world terrorizing and colonizing other people, which they succeeded in doing as a result of becoming the top killers.

Lester Earnest
Senior Research Computer Scientist Emeritus, Stanford University
Los Altos Hills, California

In recent years I have done enough reading on the subject of Doug Mann’s article, “The Science of the Evolution of Morality,” to know that it is a superb summary of a topic that is essential for secular humanists to understand: comprehensive, well-researched, well-organized, and well-written. Thank you for publishing it.

Dr. Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina

I read with great interest Doug Mann’s splendid piece on the evolution of morality. His bio-socio-cultural evolutionary scheme is substantially congruent with the state of knowledge in the various disciplines that he so skillfully draws upon in developing his argument. The assignment of a central place of cooperation and mutual helping in the dynamics of the evolutionary development of human nature is spot on.

     Maintenance of the stability of forager egalitarianism via circumscription by rudimentary cultural norms of band-wide cooperative sharing and rules of social fairness (frequently buttressed informally by engagement in accusatory gossip about violators), coupled with evolutionary trends in the direction of enlargement of the brain and the acquisition of symbolic consciousness, provided the basis for the early-stage development of a shared moral sense. And implicated in that is an internalized conscience and the capacity for empathy—bedrock elements of our humanity. Also significant is Mann’s location of these developments in the broad context of the evolutionary development and diversification of life in general.

     For all his excellence, Mann has a significant blind-spot. Unaccountably, he does not acknowledge a nineteenth-century precursor of his thesis, namely the work of the Russian geographer, naturalist, and philosopher Peter Kropotkin. The main title of this author, which bears on Mann’s thesis, is Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902). In this volume, the author places mutual aid (or mutualism) at the center of the adaptive success and evolutionary advancement of life-forms as diverse as the social insects and we humans. His work is widely acknowledged as being substantially in line with current understandings of the central role of cooperation (mutual aid and mutualism) in the evolutionary development of human sociability and moral sense. For those who enjoyed Mann’s article, I highly recommend Kropotkin’s work. It is truly amazing given the state of the natural sciences, and of the intellectual climate, at the end of the nineteenth-century. 

And, by the way, anthropologists do not refer to forager tribes but, instead, call them forager bands.

Anthony J. Mendonca
Professor of Anthropology/Sociology, retired
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Doug Mann responds:

I appreciate these four thoughtful letters and will respond to each in turn. In relation to Allan Halderman’s concern, my view is that the scientific picture of powerful genetic and cultural influences on an individual’s moral nature and behavior is not rigidly deterministic and leaves room for meritorious self-control and the resulting approval or disapproval of others. People who want to control their own behavior can usually find a way to do so. For example, neuroscientist James Fallon learned by accident through his own lab’s brain imaging research that he was a psychopath (albeit a non-violent one). However, Fallon has learned to compensate for his genetically based condition to improve his personal and professional relationships.

I agree with Lester Earnest’s concern that the article’s illustration could be taken to imply that lighter skin is the result of a more advanced stage of human evolution, which is obviously false, given that the amount of melanin in one’s skin is simply a regional adaptation to sun intensity. In addition, the linear-progression human evolutionary illustration (a style that I chose but will not use again) can easily be misinterpreted to imply that humans evolved from chimpanzees or gorillas, which isn’t true; the ancestors of Homo sapiens diverged into a separate genetic branch several million years ago, and then continued to evolve separately and in parallel with other apes (as illustrated on p. 46 of Gregory S. Paul’s article in the April/May 2019 issue of FREE INQUIRY).

I thank Homer Price and Anthony Mendonca for affirming both the importance of this topic for secular humanists and the accuracy of the article. I appreciate Mendonca’s correction that small groups of hunter-gatherers (foragers) should be referred to as “bands” rather than “tribes” (i.e., a tribe is a coalition of individual bands that share a common culture). Mendonca rightly pointed out that I had overlooked Peter Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal credited Kropotkin’s study of mutual aid among animals as an important counterpoint to his contemporary Thomas Huxley’s dark, Calvinistic view of nature and Huxley’s resulting skepticism that morality could have evolved by natural causes.

From Darwin to Jihad

Re: “From Darwin to Jihad: The Erosion of Turkey’s Secular Education System,” FI, February/March 2019. I found Hannah Wallace’s article regarding secular education in Turkey very interesting (and depressing). There was one statement in it, though, which I think should be modified slightly. It is Wallace’s statement near the end of the article that the teaching of Darwinian evolution has been removed from the high school curriculum “despite its being widely regarded as the scientific basis for understanding the origin of life.” Darwinian evolutionary theory does not, in fact, attempt to explain the origin of life but rather the origin of species, that is, how life-forms, whatever the explanation of how they came to be, have become more diverse and complex over time. Darwin closed On the Origin of Species with this passage:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In other words, one or a few forms of life existed for some reason, and from there the evolutionary processes occurred.  Please see, for instance, https://www.thoughtco.com/abiogenesis-and-evolution-249875 and https://twitter.com/aron_ra/status/1022536240153993216?lang=bg.

This may seem like a quibble, but many creationists promote the idea that evolutionary theory is inadequate or even impossible to be true because it does not explain how life began. See, for instance, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=1631. We should not give them ammunition for a bogus means of undermining evolutionary theory.

David N. Johnson
Kansas City, Missouri

Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I agree with the thrust of Mark Kolsen’s article, “Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A Critical Examination,” appearing in FI’s February/March 2019 issue. Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves a lot of credit for providing a secular, passionate critique of the Qur’an and of Islam in general. It is profoundly disappointing for me, a former Muslim, to see how liberals and the Left have treated a person who is supposed to be a natural ally of theirs: a women who has actually suffered grievous gender oppression at the hand of her community knows firsthand what religious-driven misogyny can lead to, namely female genital mutilation and forced marriage and living in hiding for several years for fear of assassination for her views by Muslim religious fanatics. Hirsi Ali has come out of all these ordeals championing women’s rights, Western liberal, democratic values, and calling out the oppressive nature of her native religion of Islam despite continuing death threats, intimidation, and ostracization by her former co-religionists.

The fact that she keeps company with the political Right is her prerogative. We may disagree with some of her political views, but that should not detract from the reality of her experience and the critique of Islam that largely resulted from such experience. To call her—a Muslim by birth—an “Islamophobe” for criticizing Islam is like calling Jews who criticize Israel “self-hating Jews.” Both are false and meaningless accusations designed to stifle legitimate criticism of ideas and practices associated with these communities by members of both communities. Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves our respect for her courage in the face of adversity and should be embraced and supported for standing up to religious dogma of the Muslim iteration. Criticism of Islam is a legitimate intellectual undertaking, and like her we should not be afraid of engaging in such criticism out of fear of being labeled Islamophobic.

Tarik El-Bakri
Greenwood, Indiana

Science vs. Religion (Redux?)

It seems to me that Sheldon F. Gottlieb in his article “Science vs. Religion (Redux?): How (Not) to Discuss/Debate the Subject, Free Inquiry, February/March 2019) misses the mark.

Since he fails to define science and religion, it’s difficult to take his arguments seriously.

In my efforts to explore all this (How to Live the Good Life: A User’s Guide for Modern Humans), I have come to recognize that “science is the search for congruency” and “religion is the search for meaning.”

So, it’s not a matter of science vs. religion; it’s a matter of how does the universe work and how does humanism and how do humanists build the kind of society most of us would like to live in.

Arthur Jackson
San Jose, California

Surrounded by Christians, I have had to develop strategies to keep from being proselytized while not alienating friends and family. 

First, I acknowledge that they are happy with their religion, but that if they debate me, they might lose their faith and become unhappy. I am sometimes thanked for that consideration.

But when I am pressed, I reduce my argument to this one nugget: 

If there were no literal, historical Garden of Eden (and many Christians will concede that there was not), then there was no God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, no Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, no serpent, no Adam and Eve eating the fruit, and, therefore, no Fall of Man and no need of redemption or salvation through You-Know-Who.

They leave me alone after that. 

Keith Walters
Monroe, New York

The Mehness of Death

Dale DeBakcsy’s essay on Epicurus (FI, February/March 2019) was excellent. But let me also recommend three extraordinary books that develop this theme further: Yaakov Malkin’s Epicurus & Apikorsim (2007), Stephan Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), and Mathew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014). Epicurus should be considered the forerunner of modern secular humanism and even the source of Epicurean Thomas Jefferson’s terms pursuit of happiness and Nature’s God in the Declaration of Independence. Malkin’s book, by the way, was dedicated to Sherwin Wine, the founder of contemporary Humanistic Judaism.

Edd Doerr
Silver Spring, MD

Free Will

Re: “Why No God Cares If Ken Miller Has Free Will,” FI, February/March 2019. On pg. 60, Mr. Paul asks “If anyone knows of a theodicy argument that explicitly discusses the mass death on non-adults, please send a letter to the editor.”

A few years ago, I was talking with a born-againer at work. When I asked how an all-loving, all-merciful god could let all of the men, women, and children who never heard of Jesus and today probably never would go to hell, she replied that her pastor said those people likely did not really have souls and were more like extras on a movie set—there to fill in the background while the rest of us are accountable to accept Jesus or not.

Omigosh.

C. J. Stoddard
Nampa, Idaho

This letter addresses two recent FI February/March 2019 articles and the oft-printed Council for Secular Humanism statement, inside the front cover of this issue, underscoring a link between them. They are:

  • “Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali” by Mark Kolsen
  • “Humanism’s Chasm” Editorial by Tom Flynn
  • Secular Humanism—a definition

Mr. Kolsen begins by identifying Ms. Hirsi Ali as being a “… most prominent atheist,” then raises the question, “Why does an atheist like Hirsi Ali … [make] recommendations that identify her more with right-wing than left-wing thinkers?” further indicating his dismay at her seeming alignment with “right-wing bigots.” One can only wonder why being an atheist would somehow give evidence of one’s political positions in other areas. Why couldn’t an atheist be a bigot, or a fascist, a tyrant, mass murderer, or whatever? (Disclaimer: knowing nothing about Ms. Hirsi Ali other than what I read in this article, I offer no criticism, either way, of her statements.) For an organization that claims in its “Statement of Principles” (inside back cover) “… to be committed to the application of reason … to the solving of human problems,” it is incongruous to expect various labels to apply to all adherents of those principles. Is such stereotyping in keeping with a group calling itself “The Center for Inquiry”?

Mr. Flynn presents a “puzzle,” nay, a persistent puzzle, asking why, in America, where the number who live without religion has snowballed, membership in national “movement” (quote marks added) groups—atheist, agnostic, freethought, and secular humanist—has not increased. Perhaps it is the very sense of “movement” that dissuades folks. For some, a “faith” left behind was an organized movement that demanded compliance without dissent. Perhaps the survey choice “none” as in “none of the above” (religious creeds) indicates none of far more than just the “above.” Perhaps selecting “none” is more in the sense of “not any” group that seeks to replace one doctrinaire system with another.

Now, speaking only for myself, I eschew the term secular humanism. Secular, see inside front cover statement, is a negative; not spiritual or sacred; no religious basis. I am not not something. If I were, I would probably also say things such as:  I am not left handed. Therefore I do not refer to myself as “secular.” A negative reference cannot exist alone; it must always also reference a positive, and a positive is usually seen as being ethically or morally superior. For example, consider what is implied by negative campaigning, a negative reaction, and so on.  Whatever “religion” may be, I am not defined in terms of it. I in fact am right handed.

I must close by assuring readers that I have a high regard for Free Inquiry and look forward to the arrival of each issue. An ethical system in which acts are judged not by their conformance to preselected norms, empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life is a positive. My reservations, as in this letter, expressed in FI from time to time, should be viewed from that perspective.

Ken McCaffrey
Brattleboro, Vermont


Humanism’s Chasm Re: “Humanism’s Chasm,” FI, February/March 2019. Based on my own experience, many of the liberated view the “Organized Humanists” as yet another cult, albeit one somewhat less demanding and noxious than its more ancient and benighted competitors. In short, who needs such help in these times? This is not, contrary to appearance, a condemnation. …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.