I’ve read every issue of Free Inquiry from Vol. 1, No. 1 right through to the present. I write today because I find the February/March 2020 issue (Vol. 40, No. 2) to be a particularly strong one, perhaps the strongest ever. Thank you for that.
James A. Haught’s “Nobody Dares Say It” op-ed was striking. If you’d been sitting beside me as I read it, you would have heard an audible “oof” as I digested its conclusion. I’d long concluded that religion was a malign influence in human affairs, but Haught took me beyond that to thinking of religion as more akin to a global criminal enterprise. That conclusion, stated baldly, sounds extreme, but the article’s concise and persuasive development leaves you no place along the way to fault the logic.
Gregory S. Paul’s marvelous “Time to Stop Undercounting Ourselves” article was both data- and insight-rich. Lest we atheists continue to think of ourselves as something of an anomaly, Paul suggests that we are on the cusp of a time when the truly religious will be the anomaly and points out the various ways the sea change toward irreligion has been concealed and understated. Anyone who doesn’t understand the difference between a None and a Non and why it matters needs to read this article.
Finally, reading Adam Neiblum’s “Are We Born to Believe?” leaves the reader not just informed but changed. His notion of an evolutionary bias toward religiosity is an “aha” that requires us to confront religion and the religious in a modified way. E. O. Wilson speculated years ago that there might be a gene favoring religion. Neiblum takes that idea and runs with it. Where Wilson was just speculating, Neiblum makes Wilson’s contention almost inevitable.
I plan to stay tuned for the next forty or so volumes, so dear editors and contributors, please keep up the good work.
Born to Believe
Re: “Are We Born to Believe?,” FI, February/March 2020. In his excellent essay on how the human brain makes us “natural believers,” Adam Neiblum slightly understates the importance of human wonder. We wonder not only about our “purpose” and “the meaning of life” but also how the universe—and human beings—came into existence in the first place. For the brain, these are difficult questions; in fact, I am constantly amazed at how “educated” people are believers because their brains reject that “we’re related to monkeys” or that “the universe may have come from nothing.” Part of their problem—a cognitive bias omitted by Neiblum—is that our brains cannot easily grasp enormous periods of time, such as the six million years over which humans evolved, or the enormous volume of space (now ninety-two billion light-years in observable diameter) the universe occupies due to cosmic inflation.
Theists do not have a monopoly on the ignorance attributable to cognitive biases. Some of my atheist friends cannot offer reasonably scientific answers when their children ask them, “Where did we—and the universe—come from?” And I was startled that in his recent book, Living the Secular Life, the eminent sociologist and atheist Phil Zuckerman now advocates an “Aweism” (cf. FI 29:3), which posits that life and existence are “mysteries.” He writes: “The depths of the infinite, the source of all being, the causes of the universe, the beginnings or ends of time and space—when it comes to such matters, we don’t have a shred of a clue.” Not a shred of a clue? Are theories addressing these questions—developed from mathematics and strong empirical evidence such as the cosmic microwave background, Hubble’s discovery of our expanding universe, the measured mix of elements in our universe, etc.—empty philosophical speculations?
To help our children counter ignorance and/or religious “answers” to these questions, we must—as Neiblum advocates—create an “atheist curriculum” focusing on epistemology and scientific empiricism. Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact offers students a superb introductory text. But special attention should also be given to evolutionary biology and scientific cosmology in courses that simplify these sciences and emphasize the evidence supporting theories in both fields. “Simplification” is especially important in scientific cosmology because many humans—me included—cannot grasp the high-level mathematics behind quantum theory. (In one interview, Phil Zuckerman said he does not understand and actually “hates” mathematics.)
These days, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science helps to educate middle school teachers about how to teach evolutionary biology, an endeavor all atheists should support. A similar project should bring scientific cosmology to high school classrooms.
I generally agree with Adam Neiblum’s article “Are We Born to Believe?” in the February/March 2020 issue of Free Inquiry. Parents do need to offset any innate “cognitive biases and predilections” children may have that make them susceptible to supernatural dogma.
However, I think Neiblum may have missed one important reason children could be predisposed to religious belief. From the moment of birth, babies begin learning. If those helpless infants have been held, fed, and loved, they have learned the universe is filled with all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving beings who care about them. From a baby’s perspective, the universe has “gods” in it. The very act of loving babies teaches them “gods” exist.
Of course, we are the best “gods” our children will ever have. We will not sit in aloof distraction on our heavenly thrones when poopy diapers need changing. We will not disappear behind a veil of mystery when our child’s cries of hunger pierce the night. We human “gods” do the lowly work of raising children, a job far below the status of any celestial deity. Part of that job is telling our children there is no real god, while still convincing them the universe is safe.
Deeply etched in the mind of every person who has been faithfully loved as an infant is a reassuring emotional certainty. That emotional certainty, I believe, can be twisted into an unwarranted certainty later in life that sustains many believers in their irrational acceptance of an unproven supernatural being. God just feels right to them because it parallels their earliest experiences.
The challenge for every humanist parent is to transform a child’s natural tendency to believe in God into an appreciation for the god-like qualities in mankind, and there is no greater god-like quality than loving our children.
Suicide Is a Human Right
I was glad to read in Mike Quattrochi’s rejection of a general right to suicide (“Alleging Suicide Is a Human Right,” FI, February/March 2020) an acknowledgement that “suicide as a human right is distinct from suicide as a limited right conditioned on circumstances such as terminal illness with short-lived expected survival,” and his conclusion that
rejection of a suicide right limited by an affirmative foundation of relief from specified conditions severely and irreparably damaging well-being and exercised with stable autonomy should no longer be acceptable. Medicine’s maintenance of life beyond the welcomed tolerance of the body is not treasured by everyone.
I think I can state it a bit more clearly: If you’re suffering, physically, in an intolerable and irremediable manner, which typically but not always occurs in the context of approaching death (a “terminal illness”) … if you’re mentally capable … if your suffering has become so severe that death is preferable to continued existence … if you’re making a freely chosen choice … then yes, you should have a right to the means of a peaceful death. Your doctors and loved ones should have the right to provide that means and otherwise assist, free from concerns about prosecution for “assisting in a suicide.”
The struggle to establish this right goes by various names: “aid in dying,” “medical aid in dying,” “death with dignity,” “assisted dying,” “right to die,” “voluntary euthanasia.” Whatever the name, one thing is sure: a society without such a right for the suffering terminally ill is a barbaric one, condemning many to die in agony and torture. The diseases that kill us often cause immense, unbearable, agonizing pain and suffering, even if we are lucky enough to have the best palliative care. This is why the Canadian Supreme Court, in its landmark and unanimous 2015 ruling striking down all laws prohibiting aid in dying, conditioned its argument on the fundamental rights and liberty of the person.
I would go further. All humans should have a fundamental right to medical care and compassionate care at end of life. The fact that these rights are not yet established in our society should not be used as an excuse to deny the right to aid in dying. But in a more humane and compassionate society, terminally ill people would choose to hasten their deaths only because their suffering has become intolerable to them—not because they can’t obtain the care they need.
I urge all readers of Free Inquiry to visit the websites of Final Exit Network, Compassion and Choices, and/or the Death with Dignity National Center to learn more and become involved in this supremely important human rights cause. That is, if you’re planning to die someday. If not, don’t bother.
Edward M. Gogol
Crystal Lake, Illinois
The February/March FI article parenthetically noted about the Binghamton Centenary Church, built in 1866, “it is unclear what centenary it was observing.” Here’s the answer:
Centenary Church — named to signal the 100th anniversary of Methodism in the United States.
Doll, Anne. “Centenary Church Begins 100th Anniversary Week.” Sunday Press [Binghamton, NY]. A3 cols 1–3.
Tom Flynn replies: Many thanks to Christopher Philippo for this information. The page about this church, site of an important woman suffrage convention, on the Freethought Trail website has been updated to explain the church’s name.
Could it be possible that as enlightened as our Founding Fathers were, they denied women the right to vote because they simpy couldn’t modify the power of patriarchal monotheism that considers women inferior to men?
For example, the Tenth Commandment makes it clear that a man’s wife is his possession—and when has a possession had the right to vote?
Another example: St. Paul, the most revered man in Christendom (after Jesus, of course), had this to say about women in I Timothy 2:11–15: “I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet. … It was the woman who fell into sin. Nevertheless, she will be saved by childbearing.”
Does St. Paul’s opinion of women in sacred text inspire men, even today, to respect them or to hold them as equals? Of course not! According to that great apostle, a woman’s duty in life is to sit down and shut up—and let the man, her master, do all the thinking and make all the decisions.
It’s shocking, really, how far women have strayed from the righteous path that God ordered them to follow. Instead, they have joined the ranks of men as doctors, lawyers, and professors and have found success in all professions.
Who gave those inferior creatures the audacity to defy God’s instructions anyway? Satan? So now it’s time for all God-fearing men to put women in their place—in the home where they belong bearing children so that they can be saved.
Re: “Feinstein’s Folly,” FI, February/March 2020. Regarding Edd Doer’s column about school vouchers: Certainly, many proponents of school vouchers are cynically promoting school vouchers to further religious education at taxpayer expense. But the idea also appeals to those free-market purists who are convinced that the private sector can do anything and everything better than government. In the case of vouchers, this is a testable hypothesis. However, to accurately compare the performance of private schools receiving voucher money with that of public schools, there must be a level playing field. Therefore, I propose that vouchers be made available to private schools, with the following requirements, all of which currently apply to public schools: 1) Absolutely no religious instruction, in-class prayers, etc. 2) Open enrollment. All students must be accepted, regardless of academic performance, behavior problems, etc. 3) Provision of special education for any and all students who need extra attention and help. The only problem with instituting this experiment is that I fear we may not be able to find any private schools willing to accept vouchers under these conditions.
Listening to Our Opponents
Regarding Jamieson Spencer’s article “On Listening to Our Opponents,” FI, February/March 2020, I respectfully disagree. It’s a beautiful liberal ideal to seek out our ideological opponents, listen carefully, and fully understand their positions. I agree that should be our goal as an open and democratic society. “A mechanism of regular and articulate opposition,” he says. Sounds like a charming place.
We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where, for one example, a president doctored an official NOAA weather map with a Sharpie to force science to comply with one of his pronouncements. That was bad, but it was worse to see the scientific organization then kowtowing deferentially to the politician’s opinion and stumbling over itself to apologize, lest it offend the powerful man. It’s some theater-of-the-absurd come to life. As a society, we’re on our way down an Orwellian rabbit hole.
Such examples abound. You know what I mean. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens actually believe this nonsense. What good is it to practice “nonjudgmental and genuinely disinterested openness to contrary opinions” when much of the other side has jettisoned facts and reason? What dialogue can be productive in the world of “alternative facts”? When we can’t agree on basic (and in many cases, easily confirmable) realities, we have no basis for discussion. Although it would be wonderful if the suggestion of calm dialogue were a realistic answer to our current national problems, it is impossible to reason with irrationality. Attempting to do so is a fool’s errand.
Open discourse isn’t the cure for brainwashing. Kudos to Mr. Spencer for his earnest self-reflection and intellectual honesty—but he would be unwise to expect the same courtesy from the other side.
Claremont, New Hampshire
Flowers and Fire
In “Flowers and Fire,” FI, February/March 2020, James Underdown has written a touching memoir of a day that he and his wife spent near the statue commemorating the burning of Giordano Bruno in Rome in 1600 for heresy. But, alas, freethinker that he was, Bruno’s brilliant mind had been led astray by the very same evolved human mental predispositions that are so thoroughly dissected by Adam Neiblum in his excellent article in the same issue, “Are We Born to Believe?” Bruno was no atheist, despite his denunciations of the Catholic Church and its teachings. He believed that there was a universal soul that gave agency to everything in the universe, down to the smallest particles of matter. The universal soul and universal matter together he called God. Bruno’s god had created the infinite, eternal universe by the teleological process of choosing what possibilities would be actualized at each place and time. Bruno was a martyr for the freedom of the intellect, but not for secularism.
Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina
Religion has two natural adversaries. The first is man’s inborn self-interest. The second is the institutionalization of religion so that it becomes a societal entity seeking its own survival and expansion.
I would not hold these features against religion itself. The first pits religion against an extremely powerful force that often overpowers it. The second results from the tendency of religion-bound individuals to form a corporation, which then operates as any other aggressive corporation.
Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico
There is a conflict between church and state over whether congregations should be filling churches during this epidemic. But the question of First Amendment Freedom and the right of assembly is a minor one.
The real question is, if God is present in every church with its congregation, and he is an elderly male, who are the ones most susceptible to the disease, and the disease is undoubtedly a tool of the devil. So, the religious should stay away from the churches or they will be doing the devil’s work for him!