Letters — Vol. 40 No. 1

Back at the Chasm

Tom Flynn’s August/September 2019 op-ed, “Meanwhile, Back at the Chasm … ,” noted that some young activist Nones are “relatively uninterested” in church-state separation. Really? If so, don’t they realize that without church-state separation women’s reproductive and other rights could be flushed down the drain, our public schools will be replaced by hordes of competing conservative indoctrination centers that fragment the student population along religious and other lines, climate change and science will be increasingly ignored, LGBTQ rights will shrink, secular humanism will face fresh attacks, and democracy will erode as authoritarian theocrats thrive? We have one year left to reverse the gains of the religious Right.

Edd Doerr
Silver Spring, Maryland

This is a response to Tom Flynn’s op-ed in the August/September 2019 issue of Free Inquiry. At thirty-seven years of age, I have some things in common with older humanists and some things in common with the younger generation.

I am old enough to feel personally oppressed by religion. I grew up in evangelical churches and attended fundamentalist schools. I signed a True Love Waits Pledge as a teenager. I broke away from religion in my twenties for intellectual reasons and stayed away for ethical reasons. Like the older secular humanists, I have both an intellectual fascination with understanding religion and a strong ethical need to oppose religion in the public sphere.

But like the younger, leftist Nones whom Flynn discusses, I feel that social justice issues are essential to humanism. Yes, I think that the younger generation often goes too far with attempting to censor dissent, but in general I agree with their goals if not necessarily their means.

I have always felt that if you reject religion, then you are rejecting religion’s harmful positions on social issues. It stands to reason that when one rejects those religious proclamations, then the most obvious ethical stance is some form of humanism.

Humanism seeks to create a better world for everybody. It affirms the inherent worth of everybody. Therefore, it is impossible to be a humanist and be ok with locking up immigrant children in concentration camps. It is impossible to be a humanist and oppose LGBTQ rights. It is impossible to be a humanist and willfully turn a blind eye toward a justice system in which unarmed black men are murdered by police and people of color are incarcerated for profit. It is impossible to be a humanist and support wars of aggression. It is impossible to be a humanist and think it’s perfectly fine to let people die because they can’t afford healthcare. You are not a humanist if you hold these views. These views are the opposite of the humanist stance that all life has dignity and worth.

It is impossible to be a social conservative and a humanist.

Aaron Wooldridge
Ridgecrest, California

Tom Flynn really kicked the hornet’s nest by exposing the split (“Meanwhile, Back at the Chasm …”) between the LGBTQ social-activism-first crowd and the traditional (yes, older) church-state secular humanists. Personally, I see CFI/CSH’s mission as compatible with and supporting the woke cause of LGBTQ rights but incompatible with the fetishistic practices in many of these groups. I’m specifically referring to the trigger warnings, mandatory recitation of preferred pronouns, and dogmatic rejection of the right to speech on certain blacklisted topics. These things may work at liberal universities, but they make for bad politics that will harm both the woke and secular agendas. To see this, let me point out that political correctness is hated by many Americans and fueled the backlash to Hillary Clinton; when you demonize the other side with labels such as racist and homophobe you don’t cause them to change, you just alienate people and lose elections; if you imply a huge mass of “deplorables” is not deserving of dignity and human rights, then this itself smacks of racism and fascism; and suppressing debate actually harms our own ability to rationally defend our goals. As an aside, I have to chuckle that I do not want to belong to a “Center for Intersectionality,” which twenty years from now will be mocked by the next generation of youth!

I agree that CFI/CSH should not be aligned with any political party. But this last FI issue raised some tough questions. For example: Can a modern Republican be a humanist? Let’s see. If you support a wall on immigrants, want to cut Medicaid, Social Security, and Obamacare, want to lower taxes and do nothing about increasing economic inequality, want to restrict abortion, and also deny climate change, can you still be considered humane and scientifically literate? Let’s say the jury’s out.

Laurence Mailaender
New York City, New York

Gould’s Second Stage

Humans are in some ways different from all other living species on earth. Here are two characteristics that are not shared: We have the ability a) to lay waste to most or all of the planet and b) to understand evolution. Furthermore, we are able to develop, communicate, and discuss complex ideas (for example, the article “Gould’s Second Stage: Progress, Evolution and Human Exceptionalism” by Adam Neiblum, FI, August/September 2019, p. 16). 

Evolution imbued us with several characteristic behaviors. It seems to me that we recognize now that some of the behaviors given us by evolution are no longer “fit.” We can and do decide among ourselves to modify behaviors from our evolutionary past. With the same DNA we behave differently. We are breaking from evolution—or perhaps we could say that we are starting a new phase of evolution (“intellectual evolution” rather than biological evolution?)—and only humans are capable of this. Surely that is enough to say that humans are exceptional.

Alwyn Eades
Hallertown, PA

In asserting that evolution does not involve progress, Adam Neiblum has unfortunately put himself in the position of contradicting Darwin himself. As historian of science Robert J. Richards writes,

… it’s quite clear that Darwin thought of natural selection as a kind of external force that would generally produce, over vast stretches of time, more progressively developed organisms. In the penultimate paragraph of the Origin of Species, he explicitly stated his view: “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.”

Neiblum is correct in recognizing that humans have not reached perfection, but he is also correct in identifying the source of human exceptionalism: “… evolution has endowed us with the trait of human intelligence, with the capacity for culture, which means for us the capacity for a distinctively cumulative, communal, and applicable kind of knowledge.” What he avoids mentioning in this context is the biological basis for that intelligence. Elsewhere in the article, he mocks those who do choose to mention it: “Look how big our brains are and how fast they got that way!” They got that way by a progressive process of natural selection among our hominid ancestors, with the more intelligent species surviving and reproducing at a higher rate than the less intelligent ones. So how is such progress possible in evolution?

Two critical processes in evolution that Neiblum does not mention at all are diversification and competition. Many new species may hive off from the original species, sometimes specializing for a unique niche in the ecosystem and sometimes competing with each other for resources they both depend upon. The result is that the species that are best fit for the environment they live in will replace those that are less fit. In other words, over time the species that live there will be progressively better fit for it.

Homo sapiens with their cultural creativity have made themselves fit, with their technology, for every environment on earth except Antarctica. In the process, we have nearly destroyed every natural environment, and we are hell-bent on destroying the climate as well. Our intelligence does not “ultimately require us to work together to come up with solutions to our problems,” as Neiblum optimistically expects. That is precisely because we have not, and never will, become perfectly cooperative animals. We have been selected by evolution both as individuals who selfishly pursue our own interests and as members of groups in which we cooperatively pursue our common interests. Our evolved selfishness is likely to prevent us from cooperating to save the planet and to save ourselves.

Homer Price
Sylva, North Carolina

Mr. Neiblum informs us that human exceptionalism, defined as the sense that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of nature, is false and problematic. I disagree.

In fact, man is an animal that possesses an intelligence so vastly superior to any other known animal as to constitute an existential chasm that cannot be explained by Darwin’s hereditary theory.

A human being is the only animal that is aware of its own existence and can foresee its inevitable death. It is the only animal that can imagine the beginning and end of all existence and has the power to end life on planet Earth.

Man has the ability to speak, laugh, create poetry, music, paintings, sculpture, and other arts. He is the only animal with a sense of shame and clothes himself, the only animal with a sense of humor.

Certainly we humans have an absolute obligation to respect other animals (I’m a vegetarian) and protect our planet from the only animal that can do it harm, i.e., ourselves.

According to Neiblum, evolution has endowed us with the trait of human intelligence. Sorry, not proven. It is true that evolution endowed us with “three pounds of gray goop between our ears,” but wherefrom and how our intelligence came to be is as yet unknown and debated.

I think Mr. Neiblum should speak for himself when he says that “… we are no more or less important than pigs or penguins … .” Excuse me, but I am immeasurably more important than any pig or penguin that I can think of.

M. Mitch McDermott
Orland Park, Illinois

Adam Nieblum responds:

There was a general sense that some did not grasp the concept of humans as unexceptional in the big picture, as much as we have historically indulged in exaggerating our sense of our own self-importance in relation to the greater scheme of things. Central as it was to understanding the rest, perhaps I should have been at greater pains to make clear the precise nature of our common misinterpretation of Darwin’s work. Value exists only within the valuer. For millennia, God served as the objective place holder, the giant valuer in the sky. But post-Darwin, having removed God from the equation, we are now simply animals, just like the rest. Without God, we have no justifiable reason to claim humanity or its unique traits are superior (or inferior) to those of any other creature. Justice, self-awareness, theory of mind: these are all on a par with echolocation, flight, and camouflage from the point of view of nature itself. They are each simply aspects of a given species’ evolved repertoire. There is no objective standard by which to value our intelligence, our unparalleled capacity for destruction, or our ability to comprehend the complexities of evolutionary theory, as having more value in any objective sense than anything else in nature. Once God, as the surrogate human he was for millennia under the Abrahamic religions, is removed from the equation, there is no longer any valid justification for holding human beings, human traits, or human destiny as superior to those of other beings. Humans are exceptional, if you will, precisely as much as any other species is exceptional. In other words, we are each equally exceptional, by which one is saying that we are all equally unexceptional. The consequences of continuing to deny our status as evolved animals puts all life on earth in immediate peril.

A Road to Socialism?

In equating socialism with liberty—specifically, “a life free of indigence”—Allen Agnitti advocates for a greater distribution of wealth and increased workers’ rights in his article “Secular Humanism—a Road to Socialism?,” FI, August/September 2019. That is all well and good, but he is incorrect to think that his equation is as “all-American as the proverbial apple pie.” As Richard Hofstadter has shown (The American Political Tradition), the writers of the Constitution equated liberty not with “political liberty” or “civil rights” and surely not with “the right for everyone to have the minimal amount of property that is necessary to satisfy basic needs … .” Rather, the Founders believed that the propertied class had, by definition, superior faculties and abilities. To them, liberty was freedom from popular insurrections (such as the Shays Rebellion), trade wars among states, currency fluctuations, and anything else that threatened their property rights. In Hofstadter’s words, the Founders believed that “freedom to hold and dispose property is paramount. Democracy … is sure to bring arbitrary distribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

From 1787 until the New Deal, the Courts upheld this concept of liberty, and only after West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) did the Courts open the door to federal government regulation of the economy. Agnitti implies that more government regulation—progressive taxes and more legal protections for workers’ rights—is a better road to economic justice compared to the old, “sterile” Marxist solutions. It’s a bizarre argument, given America’s historical inability to achieve these (oft-proposed) goals.

But no matter which economic system one favors, Agnitti should stop muddying America’s concept of socialism. As the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website clearly states: socialism is social ownership of the means of production. “Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives.” Social ownership does not equate to “an economic system where the means of production (e.g., factories), capital (i.e., banks) and agricultural land (i.e., farms) were owned by the state.”

A “sterile” concept? According to Aditya Charkrabortty, 300 firms have been “socialized” in Great Britain alone.

Mark Kolsen
Chicago, Illinois

As a secular humanist and democratic socialist, Allen Agnitti’s article, “Secular Humanism—a Road to Socialism” in the August/September 2019 issue of Free Inquiry resonated strongly with me. However, I would suggest that the onset of the war waged on unions by corporate America precedes the Reagan administration by roughly thirty-four years. In 1947, after he vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the “the Right to Work Law” and characterized by Truman as “The Slave Labor Act,” a collusion of Southern and South-Western Democrats with Republicans overrode Truman’s veto. The consequences of this license to impoverish are made brutally clear by two observations. First, of the current twenty-seven right-to-work states, only eight appear in the top half of the list of all fifty states and the District of Columbia ranked by average per capita income for 2018. Second, the year 1953 was the high point of union membership in the United States with just under 36 percent of all workers holding union membership. Union membership in 2018 was approximately 10.5 percent. The pauperization of the working class in this country proceeds apace as the wealthy and the corporations they own and operate for their own benefit line their pockets.

Roger Bron Fik
Tonawanda, New York

Allen Agnitti responds:

Mr. Kolsen’s letter admirably describes what social ownership of the “means of production” might mean and distinguishes it from state ownership. But his use of the term as well as his Hofstadter history lesson also reminded me why I stopped attending local DSA meetings: the Marxist discourse predominated and Das Kapital was recommended reading, in contrast to the reformist approach of the DSA founder Michael Harrington. I continue to be a member and wish the organization the best; however, I fear the retention of Marxist terminology and the dismissal of past efforts toward achieving liberty will not be productive in building a successful electoral alliance.

As to my “muddying” what socialism means, I would suggest that Socialism, like most systems of belief, has meant different things to different people. And however the current DSA defines socialism, it is not the final word; socialism is a term with a long history. Unfortunately, Americans are regularly barraged in the media with misrepresentations by mainstream commentators. My point was to advance a definition that would enjoy a wider appeal than social ownership of the means of production.

Incorporating the concept of liberty, which my article describes as Liberal Socialism, does add a concept widely accepted by the United States and ingrained in its mythology. That the Founders had different ideas of liberty seems to me beside the point, as is the objection that the United States has so far failed to obtain certain goals, goals rooted in the language of Jefferson and Madison. The ideas and words live and evolve; they have expanded in meaning as exemplified in the New Deal’s advances and the civil rights movement.

I finally would add that my friends in Great Britain will enjoy hearing its being cited as a success story for social ownership. It has been a long time since Atlee’s Labour government.

Eugenics or Bust

Re: “Eugenics Or Bust” (FI, August/September 2019). There’s no denying that the method by which eugenics became popular, both here and in Germany, during the mid-twentieth century, had the stench of racism.

After all, it was formulated by the whites for the sole purpose of advancing the white race. If eugenics had incorporated all races in its agenda, I’m sure that only a few would have opposed it—and it might have survived. However, it was designed to make whites the master race and the rest of humanity their servants.

Happily, the program was abandoned for ethical reasons, not for religious ones.

As a non-Aryan, I hope my descendants won’t be (at worst) the slaves of a master race or (at best) their inferiors.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Regarding Ron Gibson’s “Eugenics or Bust,” I couldn’t even finish the first paragraph without pausing at a glaring error: the suggestion that “… we can produce all the nectar [food required] we need” in an overpopulated planet. Gibson doesn’t seem to understand the Malthusian catastrophe. Humans can multiply nearly infinitely if fed, but the earth has an uncontested finite ability to produce food. Gibson describes an athletic woman who decides to look for mate, and then he conflates her personal selection process with that of the entire philosophical movement of eugenics, as if personality, career, income, and love had nothing to do with her decision. The couples who the eugenics organizations did not want to have children were people who were unconsciously manifesting natural selection. Therefore natural selection of human mates does not equal the more conscious, deliberative act of eugenics. Large parts of human history were dominated by parents who dictated that their children marry a child of the rich, ignoring how unhealthy, or unfit, they may have been.

Linking eugenics to population control is a terrible idea in that it greatly reduces the success of lowering reproductive rates that our world desperately needs now. Our long-term survival is dependent on us to control population levels, stop climate change, and prevent a nuclear war. When I saw the Marvel movie where Thanos chose genocide for “population control,” my heart sank immediately. I thought, certainly, that Christian nationalists and those who find population management threatening would exploit this to their advantage. Only a year later on September 5, 2019, after Bernie Sanders expressed a legitimate concern over population, the BBC reported: “Senator Ted Cruz said the Democratic White House hopeful’s [Bernie Sanders] remarks evoked Thanos, the Avengers baddie who kills half the world’s population with a snap of his fingers. The Texas Republican joked: ‘In a surprise move, last night Bernie announced Thanos as his running mate.’”

Any expert in “branding” reputations would warn off any such toxic association of eugenics. And where is the proof that China’s fortunes were turned around by the one-child-policy or eugenics. Wasn’t it Richard Nixon and American corporate greed, and their willingness to avoid labor union wages by using Chinese workers, that was the problem? My wife grew up in Taiwan speaking Mandarin, and she directly translated the Chinese-language descriptions of the one-child policy for me. There was no mention of eugenics (and she didn’t know what the word eugenics was). The policy was changed because of the aging demographics of the ratio of retirees to workers and because the ratio of men to women was so unbalanced that young men were looking overseas for brides, not because it had completed their economic uprising.

After Tom Flynn did such a great op-ed on overpopulation and immigration, I can only guess that he must have been on vacation when this sorry piece was printed.

Gary McDermott
Chittenango, New York

Ron Gibson responds:

I have read many of Mr. Quintero’s missives over the years, always well written and rational. I would like to point out to him that Charles Darwin, in one of his lesser known books, predicted that by two centuries after its publication, the Americas would be all one tan-skinned race. His prediction is obviously coming true, a good thing, and a testimony to Darwin’s perspicacity.

In defense of Tom Flynn, he was not on vacation, and he knew the “sorry” piece would be misunderstood and draw a lot of hostile reaction, but he had the courage to print it. I think he, like I, see overpopulation as the greatest threat to humanity. It may well be that after the genocide of Hitler and the Nazis, people will never be able to objectively consider eugenics again. But Darwin, Huxley, and a legion of scientists for nearly a century after Darwin, were not wrong.

What Matters Most?

No. The answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” is that that string of words boils down to semantic nonsense in the guise of reason or, at least, as a rational statement. The word nothing has no ontological meaning. Attempts to visualize its putative referent produce only frustration because only a thing or an idea of a thing can be thought. The word is a perfectly useful noun that functions as a sign to reject another term or idea or thing, for example, “He has nothing to fear from me,” i.e., “I won’t attack or deny or hurt him,” or “There is nothing in the safety deposit box,” “The box does not contain an object, only air, only interior space.” Something that can’t be thought is not a something at all. It is a bit of voodoo, a chimerical linguistic construct piggybacking on the ordinary idea that a noun refers to something thinkable.

As an addendum, I’d note that most theological arguments stumble on similar, relatively childish mistakes in usage, notably those that refer to “God.” That the besotted mystics and theists still pray proves that they have not yet hauled themselves out of the primeval gunk however much they can stomp out the gospel or tweet inspiration to their fellow sots.

Stuart Jay Silverman
Hot Springs, Arkansas

Re: Keith M. Parsons “What Matters Most?” (FI, August/September 2019). My Christian friends all seem to assume that a life without their god is a meaningless life, which has always mystified me considering the chaotic lives that most Christians lead. Personally, I have always been guided by the philosophy stated very clearly by the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith. Reconstructing his quote: “I don’t know the meaning of life, but I do know its purpose. The purpose of life is to keep on living and see what happens next.” Exactly. It’s completely compatible with an ethical and even activist social consciousness. Enjoy the journey, so say I.

Donald Mayer
Long Beach, California

Keith M. Parsons responds:

I agree that “nothing” is not a referring expression. It is a quantifier. To say, for instance, “there is nothing in the box” says, in the language of predicate logic, “it is not the case that there exists an x such that x is something in the box.” Those who ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” therefore do indeed appear to reify “nothing,” turning it into a mysterious “something.”

However, I think that those who ask why there is something instead of nothing really mean to ask why there are any logically contingent entities. A logically contingent thing is something that does not “have” to exist (such as, maybe, numbers), but can conceivably exist or not exist. My cat is a logically contingent being; she (fortunately) exists, but conceivably might not have.

So, we may coherently ask why any logically contingent things exist. The answer the questioner is fishing for, of course, is that contingent things exist because a necessary thing, i.e., God, exists. However, as Professor Grünbaum wisely noted, the question presumes that the natural, spontaneous, expected state is for no logically contingent beings to exist. But nothing justifies that assumption. When asked, then, why any logically contingent things exist, the appropriate response is “Why not?”

Surely there is a better purpose in life than waiting to see what happens next. This sounds far too passive. Aristotle was right that the good life is an active life. You must be proactive rather than merely reactive to have a satisfying life. There are many, many activities that can give one a sense of purpose. Speaking personally, when I retire in a few years, I would like to be a docent in a natural history museum. Life would be purposeful for me if I could teach without having to grade papers.

Back at the Chasm Tom Flynn’s August/September 2019 op-ed, “Meanwhile, Back at the Chasm … ,” noted that some young activist Nones are “relatively uninterested” in church-state separation. Really? If so, don’t they realize that without church-state separation women’s reproductive and other rights could be flushed down the drain, our public schools will be replaced …

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