Author Response to Letters
I wish Arthur Jackson of San Jose, California (FI, June/July 2019), would learn how to read and think before he accuses me of “missing the mark” and suggest that because I did not define science and religion it is “difficult to take my comments seriously.”
I thought that by now the readers of FI would be well aware of what religion is and what science is. It is best we not take Jackson’s comments seriously. Jackson is upset that the article I wrote was not what he wished I had written. I was interested in conveying some thoughts about debating the subject of creationism vs. evolution, whereas Jackson is interested in “how does the universe work” and “how do humanists build a society that most of us would like to live in.” In so doing, Jackson defines science as “the search for congruency” (whatever that means) and religion as “the search for meaning” (at best, a very limited definition: it does not seem to take into consideration anything about the supernatural; it also seems to falsely imply that science and perhaps other areas of knowledge have nothing to contribute to the search for meaning—one can search for meaning without religion).
Before Jackson criticizes others for what they write, he should spend time thinking of what he is really doing. If he wanted an article about humanists building a world he would like to live in, then he should have written it and submitted it for publication. He should not castigate others for writing what they wanted and not what he wanted. For the record: Considering, to the best of my knowledge, I never met Jackson, I, in no way, prevented him from writing and publishing his thoughts. Jackson would have been better served had he taken my thoughts for what they were and not expect me to play mind reader and write on a subject he preferred and the way he preferred.
I thank Keith Walters for his cogent comments even though they do not directly pertain to what I had written. I have used an argument similar to that of Walters when confronted by proselytizers. As I explained the argument in my book, The Naked Mind, I start with evolution as the origin of humans. Then there is no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden, no talking serpent, no eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and no need for original sin and all that flows from it, including all the associated philosophy and rituals such as salvation, the sacrifice and deification of Jesus, etc.
Sheldon F. Gottlieb, PhD
Boynton Beach, Florida
Two of the letters-to-the-editor in your June/July 2019 Free Inquiry struck a chord with me; they dealt with the lack of inclusiveness of many in the atheist/agnostic/freethought movement. When I moved from New York to North Carolina fourteen years ago, I attended one meeting of a freethought group near Charlotte. They were remarkably—and lamentably—way left of center and scoffed at any notions dissenting from that point of view. I never went to another meeting.
Ironically, in lockstep with those of the leftist persuasion, in the same issue your columnist Russell Blackford (“Terrorist Propaganda and Government Censorship”) favorably mentions the increased gun regulations being proposed in New Zealand and enacted in Australia after mass shootings in those countries. I submit that not only are those policies ineffective, but they produce exactly the wrong result.
We need more guns in the hands of the guys with white hats, not fewer. Is it any wonder that slayings such as recently at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center take place in Gun-Free Zones? Those zones are magnets for terrorists and lunatics, because they know that their victims will be unable to defend themselves effectively.
When seconds count, the police are only minutes away, so therefore the most effective way to defend oneself and one’s colleagues or loved ones is to have available when it’s needed the actual means for self-defense. I’m speaking, of course, about having more honest citizens packing heat, to take out the bad guys before they can carry their evil deeds even further. One wonders how many black parishioners murdered by Dylan Roof in Charleston would still be alive had only one or two of the victims been able to reach a handgun in their purse or holster. The Dylan Roofs of the world need to be thwarted, not rewarded by establishing Gun-Free Zones.
Granted, in a perfect world one would not have to pack heat, but the reality (which we deny at our peril) is that criminals, lunatics, and terrorists will always get access to guns, and therefore making sure the potential victims are disarmed in Gun-Free Zones makes those miscreants’ work easier.
Make America Safe Again! Eliminate Gun-Free Zones!
Gastonia, North Carolina
I read the June/July issue of FI with particular interest. I am an eighty-three-year-old atheist who has retained the same belief (or absence of one) since reaching an age capable of thinking on the subject. I agree that the Right-wing Republicans with their theocratic sidekicks are a giant step backward. But the Democratic Party with its outlaws, noncooperative troublemakers, and impossible dreams is no damn viable solution either.
Certain prerequisites must prevail before this nation—and indeed the planet itself—stands a decent chance long term:
- The national population must be reduced and kept low.
- The United States must stop acting as a dumping ground for the world’s failures.
- The best of our two agenda must be combined and compromised, eliminating much of each.
As an old Missouri foxhunter wrote: “Anyone with two brain cells” can see the agendum of either party will ultimately be a loser.
Treating symptoms will never cure anything.
I have received my first copy of Free Inquiry, the June/July 2019 issue. I read and reread it with great interest and pleasure. I was raised in a narrow, fundamentalist, and millenarian sect. As a young adult, I left because I could not endure the restrictions on thought and opinion. Later I obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the University of London (external). My understanding of the Bible, religion, history, and ethics was greatly expanded. Decades ago, I came to the same conclusions expressed in the “A Statement of Principles.” I should have discovered your magazine years ago. I left religion, but I did not leave the Bible. I was, however, disappointed by several statements that echo the tired old rant against the Bible. The Bible must be read with an understanding of the original languages, the history, the culture, and the stage of religious development of the people among whom it was produced. In the twelfth century, Maimonides, a Jewish scholar in a Muslim world, wrote, “Much of the holy writings are in the form of metaphor with the deeper meaning only to be understood by those with proper training and intellect.” He could have added that much of the scriptures is in poetry that must be read as poetry and not as narrative. Much of the ancient wisdom of the Bible is still relevant to our world and is indeed in line with many of your principles. For example:
- The story of Moses and Pharaoh. After self-exile from the palace in Egypt, Moses became a shepherd for many years. Then he returned to Egypt. Who is not thrilled to see the courage and daring of this man as he confronted the mighty Pharaoh and challenged him with his demand, “Let my people go”? This theme of freedom has continued down the centuries to reappear again and again. The first line of the Magna Carte is, “The English Church shall be free.” And again in our Declaration of Independence, “We are endowed with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And magnificently in the First Amendment of our Constitution, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise (of religion).” We should not denigrate the early expression of this great principle of liberty. (Whether the story is historical or legendary is not determinative of its value.)
- The Book of Job. It is a book of ancient but exquisite poetry and also an intellectually challenging work. To understand its message, one must have an appreciation of poetry, especially Hebrew poetry, and the stamina to work one’s way through forty chapters of it. The outcome is clear: We cannot charge God nor blame Satan for suffering, because suffering does not come from a power in the unseen world. It is caused by conditions in this world of human experience, by disease and by the actions of violent people. The answers to suffering must be found within ourselves.
- The prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s vision for his generation was that the nations “would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spear into pruning hooks … and learn war no more.” We need a modern Isaiah to warn the world that devoting a vast amount of the earth’s resources to the preparation for war is increasing the danger of some madman starting a conflagration.
- Truth and Love. A small book in the New Testament challenges us to rise above literalism and “see God” in a new way. The author said, “God is light” (truth) and “God is love.” As a small boy in Sunday school, I thought this meant God was true and God was loving. Now I think this is missing the point. I think that Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo, understood when he wrote in his Confessions, “Where I found truth there found I my God, the truth itself. Thou residest in my memory and there do I find thee.” Our God is in our own minds, our vision. If our vision is truth and love, we have truly found “God.” Pursuing truth and practicing love: this is true religion.
Free Inquiry should not forget that its ideas have deep roots in the ancient wisdom found in the Bible.
Harold W. Fryday
Santa Clara, California
Having read Free Inquiry over some years, there is a set of intrinsic objectives of theological entities that have not appeared in a single comprehensive article.
- Substantially all religious theories assign the female of the species a single role of providing unending fodder for wars of aggression in pursuit of world sovereignty.
- In pursuit of such dominance, those male leaders are implicitly given sexual access to the entire set of parishioners.
- Parishioners are driven to overturn norms of personal choice in sociological and political action. This is often to immediate detriment to those so acting.
- Overturn of our constitution with screaming lies to convert the nation to a theocratic state thereby instituting a despot/monarch as absolute ruler. Use of mysticism on our currency is the initial method of introduction of this insanity.
- Obfuscation and turmoil are a standardized process that must be prevented and shown to be violations of the espionage and sedition acts of 1917. Those entities participating must be held to be representatives of a foreign government. This makes their properties and income taxable. The national debt is now paid off in several years. Their actions created that debt. See our diplomatic representatives to the Holy See.
- Our currently installed Looney Tunes theocratic government leader is a sufficient demonstration of insanity of fantasy as the basis for state actions.
- Tweet twitter twat
Done without thought
With a night of scorn
A morning headline is born
Robert B. Wister
Humanity’s Future Is Not Lost in Space
Re: “Why Humanity’s Future Is Not Lost in Space,” Gregory S. Paul, June/July 2019. Having such wonderful memories of the Apollo 11 mission, it’s sad that I must now acknowledge many of Gregory Paul’s points. Manned space flight has ended up being far more expensive and dangerous than first thought. Damn that gravity well! The one glimmer of joy comes from what I think is the smashing success of unmanned space ventures. Our probes have done so much for us, both in Earth orbit and beyond, both in practical applications and high exploration. On our world we welcome as a victory any exchange of machine for man in hideous and dangerous labor. The work of exploring and utilizing space, hard and dangerous as it is, should fall to the mechanoid world as often as possible. This may end up being a grand way to leap into the cosmos. If we ever create true machine sentience and are wise enough to consider them progeny, humans will stride forward into space after all. For the times flesh must enter space, let’s not be shy about genetically altering ourselves into being more water bear in resilience to pull that off.
Perspective and vision should remind us that in the end, whatever we evolve into will have to become spacefarers, somehow. We are in a cosmic honey trap of a livable planet destined to be consumed by the raging bloating Red Giant star that the sun will become. In the end, it will be a matter of sail away or die.
J. A. Wroblewski
Vancouver, British Columbia
Ophelia Benson’s article “The View from Mount Patriarch” (FI, June/July 2019) is one of the most biased and disgraceful articles I have read about President Trump, the Trump administration, and the Trump era. I could not use the word misinformed because I have difficulty envisioning Benson as not being informed. However, because of her obvious politically left views and the leftist orientation of FI, I can see and understand the bias and hate she exudes and with which, on many issues, I no longer can agree.
After reading her article, I cannot help but conclude that she despises Donald Trump and will not hesitate to try to denigrate him at any opportunity even if she fails to put her criticism in context. In her opening paragraphs, Benson compares Donald Trump—because of what she perceives to be his narcissism—to God, who she goes out of the way to perhaps unnecessarily derogatorily refer to as Mister. I suppose this description and comparison is a means of emphasizing how disgusting a man Trump is. She writes as if only Trump as president is a narcissist. Yet narcissism among politicians is a well-known trait. This self-absorbed trait was seen in great abundance in Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, to name just two.
To be fair, female politicians also manifest narcissism, for example, Elizabeth Warren and would-be queen Hillary Clinton. In fact, had that article been written about Clinton, it would have been titled “The View from Mount Matriarch,” and the divine reference would be Ms. God. Much of what she says in the middle part of the article can also refer to other politicians, especially Queen Hillary.
I had to laugh when Benson wrote about elites and castigated Trump for supposedly saying he is the elite. But Benson conveniently forgets that the elites she apparently adores and for whom she derides Trump for saying he can match, contemptuously refers to people such as me who live and lived in middle America (disdainfully referred to by the self-appointed elites as “fly over country”) in Clinton’s term, deplorables (I lived in Galveston for three years, Fort Wayne for twelve years, and Mobile for nineteen years). They are called “deplorables” by Clinton and adopted by the self-labeled elites, because these “deplorables” did not vote for her. Instead, these elites, including Clinton, falsely claim she won the 2016 election as if the brilliant Constitution and Electoral College does not exist. Talk about narcissism and its inevitable concomitants: disdain and hate.
Benson describes Trump as a narcissist in deprecatory terms, with malice aforethought, as if only he, as a politician, if not also as a human being, is guilty of such a psychological sickness as self-absorbance.
Benson’s description of a man who, to the best of my knowledge, has done no harm to her and who has, perhaps arguably, been acting successfully in the best interests of the United States, is undeservedly disparaged by bias and hate. Shame.
Sheldon F. Gottlieb, PhD
Prof. Biological Sciences, Ret.
Author of The Naked Mind
Boynton Beach, Florida
Nones and the Vote
There are two related themes in the articles and the letters in the June/July issue of Free Inquiry. The several articles focusing on getting out the vote among the Nones and the second, in the letters, emphasizing the fact that not all Nones are liberals. The idea of increasing voter participation is presumably to get more support for the positions taken by humanists, but the letters suggest that just by checking the box indicating that you have no religious affiliation doesn’t mean you are a liberal Democrat. I would encourage humanists to apply the same concept to voter decisions that they did in becoming humanists in the first place, namely, logical thinking. Every candidate and every issue should be evaluated without being influenced by religious or political ideology. In one of the letters, Michael Davison states, “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.” Does Mr. Davison then consider capitalism, and its many variants, to be a secular religion as well? Does he oppose socialism because of his ideological commitment to capitalism?
Davison doesn’t define his meaning of socialism or capitalism, and few really understand the difference. With the demise of the Soviet Union, we have no examples of pure socialism in which the government controls all aspects of the economy. Even China, while superficially claiming to be a communist state, clearly has a vibrant private sector. The only way to distinguish countries as relates to these two ideologies is to look at the balance between the public and private sectors. The Scandinavian countries are considered by most to be socialist, and their balance is about 40 percent public sector and 60 percent private sector based upon contributions to the Gross Domestic Product or employment. The parallel ratios in the United States are about 30 percent public and 70 percent private.
So the distinction between a socialist country and a capitalist country is a matter of degrees. Those who now support free public education or total access to health care for all are not necessarily advocating socialism as the way to run our economy. Neither are those who think our health care system should be totally privatized are necessarily advocating pure capitalism under which all activities would be accomplished by the private sector. The goal of humanism should be to get people to vote based upon pragmatic logic and not on ideologies.
Green Valley, Arizona
Michael Davison responds:
James Murray wrote that “the distinction between a socialist country and a capitalist country is a matter of degrees.”
If one contributing ideology in that blend were less healthy than the other, would it not make sense to at least minimize or render that element less harmful? That element to me is state control of the economy and, by extension, the individual (i.e., statism), the central feature of all socialist systems we have seen so far and endemic to that view of reality.
The battle between capitalism and socialism will never cease, unless one destroys the other, because each offers benefits that appeal to partisans and each has faults that repel detractors.
Because some members of Congress now declare themselves socialists and criticisms of the U.S. Constitution are appearing more common, it should seem evident that the capitalist-socialist blend in this country is rapidly shifting in favor of the latter, a trend accelerating since the election of Franklin Roosevelt. A critical examination of that trend is much in order.
Rather than argue endlessly about the claimed benefits and faults of these two modes of thought, I think it better to look at what the political application of each system has brought us.
As Murray intimates, capitalism, like any other political-economic system or doctrine, can become a religion if its tenets receive unquestioned acceptance, such as adherence to a dogma. Despite those who make a dogma out of it, capitalism has brought more prosperity to more people than any political structure in history. Some of the more troublesome consequences of unrestrained capitalism are business cycles that cause widespread economic distress, disparities of wealth that evoke envy and cries of injustice, layoffs in times of economic turndowns, and unemployment for the unemployable. All have been discussed in three centuries of critical writings that I cannot possibly treat adequately in a letter.
Suffice to say that the great disparity in individual wealth roughly parallels the great disparity in human ability, ambition, and acceptance of risk. Business cycles result from imprudent investments when interest rates and perception of risk are low. Layoffs during economic downturns could be handled by buying private insurance or individual savings for this or any other unforeseen setback. People unemployable due to some physical or mental incapacity, or fecklessness, are a tragedy that really has no good remedy.
The best defense against unemployment is possession of a wanted skill and to live in a society where authorities at all levels do not consume 30 percent of the gross incomes of people who work for a living. I’ll take Murray’s word for the 30 percent even though my “contribution” to federal, state, and local income and sales taxes is considerably higher.
The demise of the Soviet Union does not preclude its use as a dystopian example of socialism, the third word in that country’s name. The same applies to Hitler’s National Socialism and Mao’s murderous regime. Other examples past and present abound in South America, south Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Socialism has brought ruin to every single nation where it has achieved unchallenged authority. It would be difficult to cite two better current examples than Cuba and once prosperous and now moribund Venezuela.
Compare East and West Germany and North and South Korea in the years following World War II, Hong Kong and mainland China before 1997, Chili during and after socialism ruled it, and Venezuela before and after Chavez. If honest, the picture that will come to you is that of the overwhelming corrupting and impoverishing power of socialism.
Whatever degree of sincerity Murray attributes to those who anguish over the poor and the downtrodden, their claim, hypocritical or honest, has proven itself the paver of the royal highway to power.
Who does not claim to be rational and respectful of evidence? Communists, fascists, laissez faire capitalists, welfare statists, social democrats, etc., all lay claim to Honesty, Reason, and the Truth in capital letters. Does anyone outside of an asylum claim to be irrational?
Reason, logic, respect for evidence, objectivity, and ratiocination are all, like honesty and justice, rubber words stretched and twisted into any shape that conforms to anyone’s emotion-based notions. These wonderful ideals forever recede from our grasp. Can we ever attain them? I think a very precious few have made a valiant effort and come close. Cynics scorn the effort as a delusion. The great majority claim they have discovered them as fundamentals in their conflicting religious and political doctrines, which they then defend like the need to breathe.
Emotion-fired devotion to lightly questioned predilections obscures reality for all of us. It is our notorious universal curse and likely the source of all human caused woe.
If we make an honest effort to respect both affirming and refuting unfiltered evidence and try as objectively as possible to find actual rather than desired truth, what else is possible? We like to think that we already have hold of the real version.
New knowledge must compete for acceptance with existing knowledge, especially difficult if contradictory and more, especially if the existing knowledge enjoys a powerful emotional appeal built up over years. Reality exerts little force in this contest.
Our best hope for finding hope rests in the scientific method, a brutally difficult process fraught with snares and blind alleys: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and verification. We must learn to apply that methodology to political schemes as well. Politicians and demagogues love to spend taxpayer money on the first two, then duck responsibility for failure of the last two.
The last issue of Free Inquiry was devoted to the Nones: how to entice them into the movement, how to get them to vote, etc. I, too, have thought about this and have an opinion, which I would like to share.
First, the rise of Nones. I think one driving force is a reaction to organized religion. As the religionists have increasingly become the shapers of our lives and most importantly wed their religion with politics, and politicians in turn wed to religion. Nones, who have not been shaped by past culture of going along because everyone is going along, see religion as equal to politics. They can see them as equal evils. As such they increasingly turn away from religion and with it the belief in systemized religion. Ditto for systemized political activism in either party.
Second, why they are not forming a political bloc and voting. I think that the answer is a revulsion to the politics. Politicians are not part of us, the citizenry; they are apart and separate. They are an oligarchy. As such we view them not as representing us but as a separate entity. I have asked Nones: Why don’t you vote? The overwhelming answer is, “It won’t make a difference.” The two major parties may be different, but they are more the same than different. One now has a clearly fascist agenda, and the other is “we’re not so bad.” Both sides defend endless war, corrupt regimes, government for the powerful, banks, and corporations. And they both kotow to religion. Neither major party defends the establishment clause. The Democratic Party, which would like to be seen as the party that most defends the separation of religion and state, actually does very little direct fighting of the religious seizure of government. Instead, their proxies such as the ACLU, Citizens United, Planned Parenthood, etc. take on the battle for separation and then support the Democratic Party as the least objectionable. The two parties are just different in their approach. Both have their politicians who go to the Statehouse or to Washington. They go and they stay and stay, until one of the other party’s politicians overturns them.
Nones do not see our country as a government by the people; they see it as a government by the politicians and their parties. They see both as tainted at best and more and more as fully corrupt. Like tainted carrion, it is best not touched or even approached.
Wilfred C. Lyon
Why hasn’t the membership of national “movement” groups kept pace with the “Rise of the Nones”? Two reasons:
- Nonreligious groups don’t have the same shared goals as religious communities. We don’t hear Nones saying, “Hey folks, let’s all get together and not build a church!”
- Nonreligious groups don’t evangelize, to their credit.
CFI is on the right track. Combining classic humanism with scientific viewpoints to debunk pseudoscientific claims and activities is a great motivator. American youth (and some older Americans) are clamoring for ways to improve the quality of life and the health of the planet.
Ultimately, the nonreligious “movement” must adopt the tactics of other movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to gain membership and momentum.
But first, the “movement” must become an actual movement. A good start would be to drop the quotation marks and act as if there really is a unified movement. If you build it … well, you know the rest!
David Frank DeLuca
Checking one of the sources used by Jason Lemieux in his article, “The Nones Are Diverse and Growing. So How Do We Mobilize Them?” (FI, June/July 2019) I found a table in the Pew study, The Religious Typology, that just deepens the mystery of the non-voting Nones explored in the June/July 2019 issue of FI. The two nonreligious types, the “Religion Resisters” and the “Solidly Secular,” are each more likely than any of the more religious types to attend a political event, volunteer for a political campaign, contact an elected official, contribute money to a candidate, and express support for a political campaign on social media. They are second only to the “Sunday Stalwarts” in attending government meetings. But they are considerably less likely than those Sunday Stalwarts to vote in local elections. Worse, the other articles in FI show that the Nones are far below average in voting in national elections. That does not compute! I suspect that the questions used to identify seculars in political opinion polls are much less accurate than those in the deeper Pew study. Mark Kolsen explores this problem in his article in FI. But what are the chances that professional pollsters will read it?
Recently I have been reading further in the Pew report, and I think I see why Nones are likely to be non-voters, whereas the nonreligious are politically engaged. People who answer the standard polling question by saying that their religion is “nothing in particular” are very frequently believers in the various “new age” superstitions! Approximately half of the Nones are classified by Pew’s typology in groups that have not really rejected traditional religion, even though they may dabble in new age ideas as well.
Pew’s statistics show that a good polling question to separate the nonreligious from the religious would be, “Do you believe in God as described in the Bible?” Negligible percentages of the nonreligious say “Yes.” But about half of the new age “Spiritually Awake” type also say “No,” so the question is not perfect. An even better question would be, “Do you believe in heaven?” Negligible proportions of any of the religious types say “No,” and few of the nonreligious say “Yes.”
I think that it would greatly strengthen the political clout of the secular movement if it could be demonstrated in widely read polls that the nonreligious, although half as numerous as thought, are among the citizens most likely to be regular voters and political activists.
Homer Edward Price, PhD
Retired Associate Professor of Sociology
Western Carolina University
Sylva, North Carolina
Re: “A Humanistic Alternative to the Failed and Misleading Concept of ‘Objective Morality,’” Doug Mann, June/July 2019. I largely agree with Doug Mann that morality is a genetically and culturally evolved feature of humanity that has contributed to our Darwinian fitness. I would like to add some of my insights to his on the subject.
The need for the word wisdom in the discussion is related to the fact that human value spans so many individuals and dimensions within an individual. Therefore, it is impossible to state universal principles that always cover all the bases. Historic experience, intuition, and mushy thinking attempt an approximate balance in a ridiculously complex dimensional space of human value. Some almost universals emerge. For example, murder often escalates into endless violence in which everyone loses. When everyone loses, you have an operational definition of evil.
One issue that seems to be getting little attention is that morality within a tribe is very different than that applied to members of another tribe. In mass society, we lost track of this. It has recently become more apparent with the re-emergence of racism and xenophobia. But in the modern world we must learn to be members of a single human family. This was advocated by Congressman John Lewis, when channeling Martin Luther King Jr. (on Meet the Press) the day before his recent birthday, when he said we must do so or “perish as fools.” In a nuclear age, the global village is an inescapable reality.
In my estimation, Doug Mann’s follow-up article is even more important in its implications than his excellent “The Science of the Evolution of Morality” (FI, February/March 2019). Based on that exposition of the naturalistic-evolutionary genesis of human moral sense, Mann offers us the crucial notion of our evolved moral wisdom. The glorious humanistic product of that process of evolutionary development of humanity’s moral sensibilities and, most importantly, a work in progress as humanity continues to struggle for clarity about the good, the appropriate, and the just. After all, at bottom, it is all about justice in human relations to fellow humans and to the total earthly environment.
Mann employs the notion of our evolved moral wisdom to excellent effect as the cornerstone of his devastating critique of the notion of objective morality. He lays bare the essential irrationality and fallaciousness of theistically derived “objective morality.” And he very rightly emphasizes the vital importance of moral leadership to the possibility of human betterment. Given the state of current affairs, the importance of morally informed leadership goes without saying. As he poignantly states, “Morality must continue to evolve and adapt to new challenges faced by humanity.” I am quite certain that the future of life on Earth depends upon it.
One additional aspect that stood out to me as I read Mann’s article is his point about what he calls “the epistemology of wishful thinking,” which he defines as “a widespread human cognitive bias by which ideas that are comfortable and reassuring are judged more likely to be true than are less comforting ideas” (emphasis added). As Sir Bertrand Russell observed, “People’s opinions are designed to make them feel comfortable. Truth for most is a secondary consideration.”
Anthony J. Mendonca
I agree with Doug Mann that the specific words or phrases we use as labels to frame discussions of important topics (such as morality) are very important.
The idea behind “objective morality” is that ethical behavior is determined by its results. Because this concept is fundamental to pragmatism, it seems that a better term for objective morality is pragmatic morality. Even better, it might be called “consequentialist morality.”
One problem with this idea is that the effects of any behavior spread outward in the form of side effects and repercussions that cannot be taken into account. We cannot know the chain of events that may be produced by that seemingly “ethical” behavior. Because the morality rests on the results, and many “results” will be unknown, it is really impossible to say whether any behavior is moral or not.
Besides, the whole concept seems to suffer from circular reasoning. The “results” are judged to be either good or bad
But what is the source of the criteria to judge whether the results are good or bad? The selection of the criteria is itself an ethical judgment, and the judgment itself rests on the outcome, and so on and so on.
Do I detect a negative spin on non-consequentialist ethics by calling them “command ethics”? They are more accurately and fairly denoted as “intrinsic ethics” because the morality of the behavior depends on the motives behind it, which are either intrinsically bad or good (helpful or harmful). Although this has a firm philosophical foundation, such ethics are often more closely associated with religion.
In any case, these ethical systems may be divided into two species:
- Personal ethics: the application of respect, fairness, and kindness between individuals (e.g., against murder, thievery)
- Social ethics: the application of fairness and kindness within the structure of society (e.g., slavery, cruel punishments)
Morality rests on the concepts of respect, fairness, and kindness, and although these behaviors may be seen in other animals, they play a greater role in the behavior of humans.
I believe that the source of morality lies in several factors:
- Pragmatism. Personal ethics in particular has evolved in a pragmatic fashion. The central dilemma of morality arises because we humans are both self-interested animals intent upon our own well-being and social animals who must live together more or less harmoniously in groups. With continued interaction, some behaviors are found to diminish conflict and others to increase it. Thus some behaviors are encouraged, others permitted, and others forbidden, all in the interests of maintaining a cohesive harmonious community. This communal living is not a voluntary association but is genetically programmed in our species so that moral laws are an absolute necessity without which society would either dissolve or descend into a war of all against all.
- Theory of mind. Our ability and tendency to identify with other people and imagine them as ourselves, and ourselves as others. We have an inborn tendency to copy those around us and align ourselves with them. This “fellow-feeling may possibly involve mirror neurons.”
- A third contributing source of kindness and a sense of responsibility to others may be the experience of parenthood, particularly motherhood. The desire of little girls to take care of dolls may be more than role-playing. This instinctual care for the infant may form a mental pattern of caring for others. Recent studies have shown that women tend to be kinder than men, and kindness (“loving-kindness,” agape) is the culmination of morality.
If we recognize that moral laws are a man-made creation and are thus imperfect, provisional, and uncertain, they may be questioned and disrespected. Thus the supernatural realm was enlisted as the source of morality and its enforcer. Moral laws were not invented by religion. Religion was used to reinforce and sanctify them.
Secular rules are used to supplement this “customary” morality. Their advantage is their broad range, their applicability to specific situations, and the certainty of (often immediate) worldly punishment.
The role of genetics in the formation of moral laws seems most unlikely. It is only in that we are biologically programmed to be both self-interested and endowed with fellow-feeling that a dissonance is created that must be resolved in terms of morality. Unless there is strong evidence otherwise, I doubt that genetic inheritance has anything to do with the differing moral views between people.
At present, it is impossible to say definitively how or when moral thinking developed, but it remains an intriguing area for speculation.
Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I would like to share a couple observations/comments.
Mann states: “genetic inheritance will vary within a group of people … easier to understand how different people within the same culture can have different moral views and priorities” (34). I suggest that it is not genetic variation. Morals are functional (structural/functional theory in sociology) for society/culture. However, one size fits all does not work here. What mores are functional for one person in the same environment may not be functional for another in that same environment. For example, “thou shalt not steal” may be functional or at least not a problem for a local millionaire, but for a person working a minimum wage job with five kids, it is not functional. Different people in the same group adopt/follow/alter different social norms/mores as a matter of survival in a particular system—that is, making them functional for them. It’s okay to steal but not to “rat out” another thief.
Anything “abstract,” such as “morals,” is a social construction of reality; it has no basis in the natural world, certainly not in genetics. Social reality is a process. Social reality is constantly being created, maintained, or changed in a constant ongoing process of social symbolic interaction (symbolic interaction theory). Morality is not a fixed phenomenon. What is moral today may not be moral tomorrow, and vice/versa. Mann states: “the phrase our evolved moral wisdom … morality is a shared and cherished human quality with a long, fascinating evolutionary history” (35). “Evolved moral wisdom,” I think, would be better conceived as “shared cumulative human experience” (simply with some abstract name attached to it), which is concrete (unlike “wisdom”) experience derived from the physical world. Morals are an abstract functional phenomena. Their existence and survival depend on functionality, not genetics.
John Karlin, PhD
Doug Mann responds:
I appreciate these thoughtful letters and will respond to each in turn. Mike Mallary made the important point that the world’s people must become “a single human family.” To that end, we desperately need more ways to get to know people from other “tribes,” be they ethnic, local, or national “tribes.” Making friends and becoming familiar with people from another group goes a long way toward breaking down fear and prejudice. Just ask Daryl Davis, the black man who has befriended quite a few high-ranking officers and members of the KKK over the past thirty years; many of them renounced the KKK after getting to know Mr. Davis.
I thank Tony Mendonca for affirming several key ideas from the article.
Stephen Silver made thoughtful observations about morality. Some moral codes strongly resemble those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, exemplified by the rules of behavior within bands of, for example, Mbuti pygmies living in the jungle in the Congo in Africa. These basic prohibitions (e.g., to not harm others) and encouragements (e.g., to share food) represent the essential core of human morality that predates modern culture.
I agree with John Karlin that moral rules are functional and that they change as part of the social/cultural process, but these facts don’t preclude a guiding, non-deterministic role for our genetically evolved nature. On a general level, if human beings didn’t have a deeply evolved set of prosocial traits (as described in my previous Free Inquiry article in the February/March 2019 issue), we wouldn’t stick together in groups and form what Karlin referred to as “shared cumulative human experience.” On an individual level, people do differ in inherited traits such as empathy/emotional arousability that affect the strength of the individual conscience and the desire for the approval of others, which affect how morality is constructed in their lives. To hold that morality is entirely socially constructed, without underlying genetically based influences, would seem to commit the same error as the old nature-or-nurture false dichotomy.
Fundamentalists Lie about the Bible
Re: “Why Do Fundamentalists Lie about the Bible?,” by Brian Bolton, Free Inquiry, June/July 2019. I am an incarcerated veteran at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice C. T. Terrell unit. I do not subscribe to Free Inquiry.
I found the writing to be of the poorest quality (note the use of capitals in the title) and laden with emotional adjectives that besides being selected to engender visceral responses are used in vain attempts to bolster reasoning that could only be kindly called “childish.”
It is true that many people who hold the Bible to be the accurate word of God (not just Fundamentalists) either quote the Bible incorrectly or (paradoxically) fail to know the Bible’s actual contents (as in the article). It is equally true that the Bible holds (also paradoxically) stores of human depravity at its worst, weakness and abject failure that can be used to define and illuminate human nature, but the central and most important content of the Bible is God.
Bolton seems unable to resolve his true question, which is the existence of God as told in the Bible (“I am”). The binary solution set available gives everyone the same options—Yes or No. If for you the answer is yes and your goal is to then denigrate God by using the Bible, maybe you missed its point. If for you the answer is no, then just sit tight and wait for the end (which when it comes for you, I strongly encourage you to argue with that too).
In closing, I note that Bolton also lists Texas as his residence, so I’d enjoy recommending to Bolton that his next essay be the explanation of why lawyers all lie about slavery and that little comma in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Todd A. Feemster
Coverups, and More
Re: “Clergy Sexual Abuse, Coverups, and More,” Edd Doerr (FI, June/July). I have a confession to make: I am one of those foolish optimists who still harbors the belief that humanity will someday divorce itself from religion and its absurd dogmas.
But what lately bolsters my confidence are the reports I’ve been reading that, as a result of the clerical crimes against children that are still festering within the Catholic Church, many thousands of Catholics (particularly the young) are leaving their church—and not joining others.
I also believe that even if none of those crimes had happened, it would be only a matter of time before an increasing number of Catholics begin to distance themselves from the Church and declare themselves nonreligious.
After all, instead of believing only what they are told, more and more young people now view the supernatural with skepticism—as do many old-timers such as me who were indoctrinated in religion at a tender age but no longer allow magical thinking to be a part of our lives.
After reading Robert Semes’s review of Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age, I checked out her book from our public library. I just finished reading it; it was an eye-opener! Like Nixey, I was raised Catholic and was taught the repeated lie that the demise of classical Greek culture was due to constant infighting between the Greek city states, a plague, and eventually their defeat at the hands of the Persians. As for the demise of Imperial Rome that inherited their classical learning—if not embracing all its values, we were told in Catholic history texts that the Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns were in the vanguard of its destruction. Then there was Hollywood’s role in its depiction of the Romans, their degenerate decadence, their (but not the early Christian’s) cruelty toward the Jews culminating in their massacre in the year 70 CE (we Catholics used the initials AD [Anno Domini]) and the “relentless” persecution of early Christians. But theirs that saying: the victors write the history.
Though this indiscriminate destruction occurred centuries before, I felt an undercurrent of anger at the rack-and-ruin these religious fanatics inflicted on a culture simply because its rise predated Christianity. I first learned of Hypathia’s gruesome murder from a segment of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Sagan described the Christians’ execution of her with “extreme prejudice,” concluding that the Bishop who incited his “flock” to this was canonized a saint!
That footnote about the Bishop, “Saint” Cyril, as one of the rare instances that someone was allowed to “let the chips fall where they may” on the broadcast airwaves. According to federal law, the airwaves belong to us the viewers/listeners.
Ron R. Haag