Blog Site

Friday, December 29, 2006

Religious Leaders & Sexual Issues

Most are aware of the Ted Haggard scandal at New Life Church involving homosexual activity and drug use. In another recent news item involving a gay sex scandal, Paul Barnes has resigned from his pulpit at the Grace Chapel megachurch in Denver. In yet a third news item, back at New Life Church, another pastor, Christopher Beard, has admitted to sexual misconduct and resigned. Of course, we all know of the many allegations against Catholic priests in the news media as well. I do not mention these to 'kick a religious group when it's down', but rather to ask what in the world is going on here?

Many don't remember this, but just prior to the attacks of 9/11/01, the top news item across several networks was the alleged shark attack epidemic. As it turned out, the rate of shark attacks was unchanged. What happened was a strange phenomenon of news reporting. Apparently, whenever something is considered a 'hot topic' within the 'reporter and producer subculture', every opportunity to report on it is seized, I'm guessing so as not to let competing networks get all the credit for reporting something they didn't. Or, possibly this happens because news people get it in their heads that the subject matter is something with teeth (pun only partially intended).

In any event, the result is a public that walks away with the overall impression of something that isn't true about their world. I have written about this disservice to the public, which can happen even if no particular lies are told in a specific case. In reality, the rate of sexual misconduct for religious leaders is no higher than for the rest of the population, and in many cases quite a bit lower, including even for teachers.

But even acknowledging this, there is something especially egregious about this sort of abuse when committed by a person who is supposed to be a moral authority. Even if we realize that we needn't be disproportionately frightened of religious leaders pouncing on us in dark alleys, it becomes a fascinating question to ask, in the cases that do exist, why did they happen and (for these individuals, not the group) is there some strange psychological connection between choosing a social role of projecting morality and their own individual downfall?

Over at the Self Help Magazine website, Henry E. Adams, Ph.D., Lester W. Wright, Jr., Ph.D. and Bethany A. Lohr ask the question, is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? There seems to be a connection and this may explain some of these cases, but it is too easy to fall into the temptation to brand all anti-homosexuals as having homosexual tendencies, simply because we know it will irk them so.

In other cases, it may be that the feelings of guilt over what they've been raised to believe is evil may cause them to try and make up for their feelings by acting in the opposite extreme. Or perhaps the reason is less personal and more abstract - meaning there is a philosophic perspective that people need rigid authoritarian ethical institutions to 'keep them in line' because they know from their first hand experience how difficult it is to self regulate. In cases involving celibate clergy, it may simply be that this lifestyle attracts people with a variety of personal or social difficulties involving sexual relations or the perceived need to hide them.

I'm sure, as with all things involving people, the reasons are varied and complex, which is what makes it an interesting and important topic if explored thoughtfully, fairly, and without exaggerating frequencies or simplistic agendas of demonizing or making fun of other groups.

Many thanks to my wife Julie, who supplied me with many of the linked references for this post.

Friday, December 22, 2006

New Parent ISO Reason & Truth

A reader named Matt recently wrote to me to ask about Stoicism and with a dilemma that I think must be fairly common in the Western world these days:

"I wanted to thank you for the brilliant website you maintain. I have found it to be tremendous and thought provoking resource as I have been researching and understanding various philosophies of life. What has recently intensified my search for a new philosophy of life has been the recent birth to my wife and I our our first child. My belief is that I have a duty to provide to our son a logical and moral system of beliefs that he can use to deal with the difficulties of modern life and use to live a happy, fulfilled and moral life.

"While not a regular church-goer, I have been nominally Christian for much of my life. However, since my middle teen years, I have been increasingly unable to reconcile so many precepts of Christian faith with logic and reason. The traditions, sense of community and fellowship, and generally sound moral guidance that are part of many churches are a wonderful thing. However, I find it difficult to reconcile myself to what I see as the inherently hypocritical position of belonging to a church when I do not in my heart believe in the most basic 'supernatural' tenants of Christian faith."

We had a nice exchange on the issue and I thought it might be useful or interesting to others. Therefore I've posted the full email exchange on my philosophy site, which can be read by clicking the link below...

Stoicism and the Search for Truth

The Supernaturalization of Scripture

My wife, Julie, has recently alerted me to an interesting article at the Freedom From Religion Foundation website, extracted from an earlier book, Abuse Your Illusions. The article is called, "Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?" by Dan Barker. In the article he point out several discrepancies in detail between the gospels. More interesting is his data showing the rise of extraordinary (usually interpreted as 'supernatural') events in the scriptures as time went by. One would tend to think that if these extraordinary events actually took place, they would be the first events reported, with the mundane details being elaborated upon later, rather than the reverse.

Astoundingly, former preacher Barker reports:

"Many bible scholars and ministers--including one third of the clergy in the Church of England--reject the idea that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30% of born-again American Christians!"

The references to these claims can be found in the notes of the article. He also reports:

"Bible scholars conclude: 'On the basis of a close analysis of all the resurrection reports, [we] decided that the resurrection of Jesus was not perceived initially to depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus probably decayed as do all corpses. The resurrection of Jesus was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera. . . . [We] conclude that it does not seem necessary for Christians to believe the literal veracity of any of the later appearance narratives.'"

The article can be read by clicking this link:

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Susan Blackmore & the Paranormal

I've recently discovered the website, work, and existence of a very interesting woman. Her name sounded familiar to me so I may have read her work before, but Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer and lecturer who apparently writes about memes and other interesting stuff. With a degree in parapsychology (as well as psychology and physiology), she used to write about and investigate paranormal claims. In the article linked to below, she explains why she's given up on investigating the paranormal. I hope to look into her other work more when I get the time.

Why I Have Given Up, by Susan Blackmore

Update, January 10, 2007: Susan Blackmore was a featured guest on the December 15, 2006 edition of the webcast "Point of Inquiry" (link HERE).

Friday, December 8, 2006

Panel: Faith & Morality

This December 2, 2006, Professor Thi Lam hosted a Philosophy of Religion Panel Discussion at San Jacinto College. It was subtitled, "Exploring the Relationship Between Faith & Morality". The panel consisted of four participants: Jim Ashmore representing Freethought, Zeeshan Ramzan representing Islam, Patricia Gehret representing Christianity, and myself (DT Strain) representing Humanism. It was attended by approximately 200 people.

The panel was asked four questions on the Divine Command Theory, morality, teaching morality to children, and the meaning of life. To read the questions and my response to them, you can click HERE for the full article on my Philosophy Site.

Update, December 14, 2006: A video of the conference is also available. Part I is HERE and part II is HERE.

Kurtz on "Atheism News"

There is a website called "Atheism News", and this November they posted a video from the Center for Inquiry, which is run by the Council for Secular Humanism. In the video, founder Paul Kurtz explains, "What is Secular Humanism?"

The video lasts about an hour and makes for a good overview of the Secular Humanist approach to those not familiar with it. To see the video, click the link below.

What is Secular Humanism?

Monday, December 4, 2006


With the passing of this November, the two-year mark has been reached for this blog. As an anniversary special, I've decided to look over all my previous posts, and list the 'Top 20 Posts' from the past two years (or, ever, in other words). These are posts that I thought were either the most interesting, the most important, or represented some of the more significant notions I've considered or learned about over this time.

There were several other posts that I was sad to weed out of this list, but didn't quite make the cut. These can still be read by seeing the archives, of course. In addition, much of the significant work I've done over the past two years can be found as articles at my Philosophy Site, and were never blog posts, so they aren't present here.

Many thanks to all my readers and please spread the word to your friends about this site, so that we may continue on! :)

TOP 20 POSTS FROM 2005 & 2006
(in order of posting)

Summary of the Primary Virtues
Virtual Virtue: Your Online Self

The Nature of the “Force”

Life & Death Are Not Opposites

The Big Deal About Complexity

Cultural Conceptions of “Life”

Good for the Individual & Society the Same

Forgiveness Is A Gift To Ourselves

Terrel Pough & Being Good

ISO The Real Buddha & Jesus

Philosophy or Religion?

Exploring Meditation

Denver on Nature & Life

Revulsion at the Natural Brain

The Minions of Hitler

Consciousness Around Us?

The Puzzle of Our Time

Notes on “Christianity Without God”

Threads on Violence

Dehumanization: A How-To

Friday, December 1, 2006

The R-word

I would like to make a plea to all philosophers, theologians, and others who would write formally on the topic of religion. But first some background...

Last Sunday my wife and I attended a presentation by Reverend Robert Tucker at a service of the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston. The presentation was, "A New Debate of Religions: Atheism and Belief". His presentation was a criticism of recent atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. However it was his juxtaposition of religion and science that got me wondering about the use of the word 'religion'. Certainly, his use of the word was very different from Harris' use of it.

Then I thought about Buddhism. Some say it is a religion and some say it is a philosophy (or both). In another example, we have things like Humanism, which people also debate about as being a religion, or an alternative to religion. Even within the fundamentalist evangelical Christian movement, you have some Christians actually saying they 'aren't religious' - that it's "not about religion but about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ". My wife pointed out that when a person says they are a Christian, we really don't know much about what that even means. They could be a Jeffersonian deist, to a follower of the historic Jesus' teachings, to a liberal traditional Christian, to a fundamentalist evangelical biblical literalist, or anything in between.

More importantly, are the differences of meaning when it comes to serious formal articles and arguments on 'religion'. In some cases, the author may be speaking of a bundle of practices, traditions, and rituals - blurring the line with culture. In other cases 'religion' may mean a community of people. Then there is the 'religion' which refers to a body of beliefs, scriptures, myths, and dogma.

When Sam Harris criticizes religion, he is criticizing things like supernatural beliefs based on no evidence, dogmatism, violence, and so on. When asked, "what about Stalin?" he responds that what he's really talking about is more broad, and that what Stalin was practicing was a 'secular religion' just as steeped in the problems he is attacking as traditional religions are. When someone asks him about his support of certain Buddhist practices, he says that Buddhism isn't really a 'religion' in the same sense.

But consider people like Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) himself. As I have often mentioned, when he was asked about souls and the afterlife and such, he specifically said he had not elucidated on such things. And he said the reason he had not done so was because these things were not relevant to religion. The Buddha seems to have a completely opposite view of religion to Harris. To him, all of that stuff about superstition, dogmatism, and mythology is not religion, but rather true religion are those things which help us experience happiness and contentment in this life.

This is a similar view to that found in a quote often spuriously attributed to Einstein, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which is based on experience, which refuses dogmatism. If there's any religion that would cope the scientific needs it will be Buddhism."

So here is my plea...

I would move that scholars, academics, theologians, philosophers, and anyone else involved in formal writing on these matters cease using the word 'religion' altogether. I would have it officially declared a nonsensical word with no formal value.

This would be similar to what has happened with the word "race" in formal biology circles. Race is no longer considered a real concept in biology. It's simply a cultural label applied to certain groups who have shared traits. According to biological science, if we took all the left handed people in the world and considered them "the race of left handed people", this would be as biologically irrelevant as "the race of dark skinned people" is.

Likewise, formal writers on matters of human spirituality should henceforth consider the word "religion" a layman's informal word - a cultural label with no concrete meaning of purpose in serious work.

If this practice were adopted, it would have several effects:

Firstly, we would have to develop a new vocabulary with formal functionality to it. As you can see above, I wasn't even able to write this article without paradoxically using the word 'religion' myself, so that you'd know what I was generally talking about. We have to find new ways of discussing these concepts that are more precise and meaningful.

The second effect of discarding the R-word is what I really like about the idea. That is that when people like Sam Harris and Reverend Tucker converse, it would force them to get on the same page. Instead of saying that religion is harmful, Harris would have to say that superstition is harmful. Instead of saying that religion helps people, Tucker would have to say that fellowship helps people.

I think we could get much further in debates and discussions if we stop relying on such a blunt term, and start focusing on the individual practices, beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and structures. In this way, we could carry on meaningful dialog without being distracted by the war on the side over what religion is or isn't. If we do this, it seems likely that we will be able to save a lot of time and see that we really agree on much more than we think we do.

I seriously doubt the term is actually going to be abandoned, but at least by thinking of the issues I've raised, it's my hope some people may not be so sidetracked by what is, in the end, a word that's more trouble than its worth.

Dinner & Religion

An interesting multifaith group has formed in Houston to gather and discuss religious issues over dinner. It is sponsored by the City of Houston, The Boniuk Center for Religious Tolerance at Rice University, and Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. The project seems to be inspired by a book called The Amazing Faiths of Texas by Roy Spence. The website for these dinners is I and a friend in my Humanist group have signed up for a dinner around January 20th. I guess we'll see what happens and report back after.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sci-Fi Takes Its Next Step After 'The Matrix'

This week I saw The Fountain. While I'm not surprised to see a number of folks hating it, I for one thought it was inspiring, amazing, and genius. I won't attempt a full review or a decipher right now. I'm going to wait until I see it again on DVD, at which point I'll write my interpretation, similar to what I wrote on the Matrix. However, I will say that the film incorporates Eastern and Western philosophy, iconography, and religion, has a profound message, and delivers it in a devilishly confounding manner. If you don't like film as interpretive art or puzzle, then stay away. But if you, like me, relish in films that challenge the viewer's comprehension and have no need to establish an 'official' interpretation, then The Fountain is wonderful.

For now, let me list some articles of my own that touch on its themes, and then some links to reviews and articles I thought were written by some people who are on the right track...

Articles that touch on themes in The Fountain:

A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth
2.16 Meaning of Life, Transience, and Hope
Life & Death Are Not Opposites
The Shimmering Voice
• and possibly, Black Iron Prison
• and I would say my Notes on Chuang-Tzu, however it would be best to read a more full translation available on another site, particularly this chapter on "The Preservation of Life"

Reviews and articles I find near or on the mark (but I always recommend seeing a film before reading reviews!):

Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Review by Walter Chaw
Groucho Reviews
Groucho Reviews interview with creator Darren Aronofsky

Friday, November 24, 2006

Dilbert Artist Adams on Atheism

Scott Adams, cartoonist for the famous Dilbert cartoon strips, maintains a blog on his website that is frequently as funny as the strip. In a less-funny, but very interesting post, he has recently written of Atheists and their seemingly increased profiles since 9/11. I'm not sure myself if this is in fact the case, but Adams' post makes for good reading nonetheless.

Link to: "Atheists are the new gays"

Decency Prevails

I wasn't planning on writing about the OJ Simpson incident this week. While I do want to incorporate current events in my blog from time to time, I've decided to only do this in relation to what I have to say about an event and what relevance it has to something that is important enough to be mentioned - and not to incorporate current events in proportion to how much hoopla they are causing in mainstream media.

The new book and Fox special where OJ Simpson describes how he 'would have' killed two people there is much evidence he in fact did kill, was one of those big stories which nevertheless had little place on my blog. It was something so obviously bad that to say it here would be offering nothing new.

However, something somewhat rare happened this week when both the book and the special were canceled in response to the outcry from the public and criticism from rival media companies [article HERE]. In this rare instance, the public actually said in full force 'no' to vulgarity and in another rare instance, a large corporation actually listened rather than going forward despite controversy, knowing that people's base curiosities would yield profits. What this tells us is that when enough people speak up loudly enough for decency, change is possible. It also tells me that there are still some people out there who will not be lead merely by their own morbid curiosity.

Unfortunately, it seems Simpson was still compensated a portion of the original moneys he would have received, but possibly the pressures of this outcry might help ensure that the money does indeed go to his children as has been claimed.

As an aside, what does this say of 'freedom of speech' for Simpson, Fox, and book publishers? It says that you are free to say anything you like, but you are not free to avoid the free actions of others in response.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Moral Strategies

Yet another example of how philosophy directly effects the lives and well-being of people: In an article at titled "Fairy-Tale Failure" [link HERE], Esther Kaplan explains how AIDS cases in Uganda were decreasing until the U.S. began emphasizing 'abstinence-only' programs. After that, HIV infections doubled in two years.

The article itself is not long and I hope readers will click the link above and take a look. But there is one point I wanted to note. Uganda's AIDS commissioner, Kihumuro Apuuli, says at one point:

"There must be evidence-based strategies—not moral strategies—if we are to break the cycle of infections."

How sad that the twisted notions behind abstinence-only philosophy have so consumed the moral spotlight that sensible programs are not even seen as 'moral strategies' - as if morality were some sort of extraneous concern independent of practicality or effectiveness.

More people should be aware that evidence-based strategies (not only here, but in life) are moral strategies. It is precisely because of the harm the abstinence-only philosophy does that makes it immoral.

People who proclaim morality and then proceed with willful ignorance of facts and ideological rejection of reason - to the detriment of innocent people - are not moral at all, but rather immoral charlatans. Ethics are to be judged by their effect on human happiness and well-being. Just a hint: anytime you're doing something and you notice millions of innocent people are suffering and dying - it might be a clue that something you're doing is immoral. The struggle of organizations like Planned Parenthood to give people full information to make informed choices is not merely a strategy - it is a moral cause.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The New Atheists

Recently Gary Wolf wrote an article in Wired called, "The Crusade Against Religion" [link here]. In it, he describes the works of authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. These three authors have been writing books highly critical of religion, each from a different perspective however.

As a Humanist, I certainly agree with their conclusions about forming our beliefs based on rationality and evidence, rather than authoritarian dogma or unreliable 'feelings' and intuitions. I also agree with their conclusions that faith-based thinking is pernicious and does more harm than good to people. And then there are the institutional criticisms of religions, which even the religious will often agree with.

I don't, however, agree with the insulting and combative approach that Dawkins and Harris seem to advocate. Dawkins wonders aloud if we shouldn't have the state grab up children from parents who try to teach them their religions, while Harris even directly rejects the notion of religious tolerance itself in his book The End of Faith.

Within my local Humanist and Freethought organizations, there have been many debates on these authors and what they say. We have picked over their words (especially Harris') wondering just what it is they do and do not advocate. Many of their words would seem to encourage the basis of a totalitarian anti-religious regime of sorts, but when pressed they always come back to water down their statements until it resembles nothing more than: "atheists should feel free to express their beliefs openly".

Dennet seems the most palatable to me, although I disagree with him on the other end. In the article it seems he is far too willing to say, 'yes it's all silly but we really should just look the other way and permit some silliness for the sake of functionality'. I tend to think that reason and compassion are sufficient when employed in concert.

To me, the best summary Wolf gives of the confrontational atheist approach outlines its key flaw:

"The New Atheists never propose realistic solutions to the damage religion can cause. For instance, the Catholic Church opposes condom use, which makes it complicit in the spread of AIDS. But among the most powerful voices against this tragic mistake are liberals within the Church -- exactly those allies the New Atheists reject. The New Atheists care mainly about correct belief. This makes them hopeless, politically."

I think it is far better to always voice our own beliefs, but do so respectfully and with a sense of compassion. Humanists should focus on the positive things that are beneficial in the naturalistic and Humanistic outlook, and trust that reason will tend to prevail when given a chance to flourish in human minds. Instead, what many of these types of atheists stoke in those of other beliefs is their base animal defensive impulses. This is the opposite of what is needed for rationality to blossom.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Personal Humanism

I recently received my latest issue of The Humanist magazine. It had many well written and interesting articles as usual, but I was again somewhat disappointed to see it so heavily focused on politics. Even the subtitle to the magazine is, "A Magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Concern". Both of these things are important, but where is the personal Humanism that is supposed to guide and enrich our daily life practice?

Paul Kurtz (ironically, the strongly self proclaimed Secular Humanist) has done an excellent job of outlining many elements of this personal Humanism, its virtues, and the pursuit of excellence in life in his books, including Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, and The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism.

Getting to the personal side of Humanism as a life practice is precisely why I have formed a local activity called the Humanist Contemplatives Club, as a focus group with my local Humanist group. I was seeking to improve my lifestyle, my values, my commitments, my habits, etc. and decided I needed the feedback and support of others in these efforts. After participating in these explorations for some time now, getting the latest issue of The Humanist was a stark contrast to a very different focus concerning Humanism. It's not that there isn't room within Humanism for different foci, but I wish more Humanists were working on what I'd call 'Natural Spirituality', which seems to be the best direction for human religion (in the broadest sense of the word) in the future.

So I went to the web and ran a search for "personal Humanism". Ironically, my own site came up high on the list, but I also found another article by the former Director of the American Humanist Association (which published The Humanist), Frederick Edwords. I would recommend reading this wonderful article, especially to my fellow Humanists...

Life Is To Be Lived Now: A Vital, Personal Humanism

Take Care :)

A Tale of Two Philosophies

I have just recently run across this amusing but poignant clip on YouTube called, The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus. It is an animated version of Al Franken's skit about the story of Supply Side Jesus, who espouses the values of the modern American right. Far from a satire on Christianity, it rather defends what most people think of as Jesus' teachings against those who allegedly follow them. The contrast it paints is amazingly sharp. I think many Christians would be in agreement with the point of this clip...

Click Here to watch The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus (5:32 in length)

Friday, October 27, 2006


This is a Stoic poem by Joe Wells, who posted it recently on the International Stoic Forum...


Pneuma folds fields, encompasing Kosmos
in fiery generation. Me, a puzzle piece
yet whole. A gentle conception lost most
often. I flow freely and feast
outside rigidly defined self. Between
dog and me, nothing. Each a vortex
a singularity of mind softly seen
spinning in space-time. Psyche soar
in the place where causality is
chance, wave functions prance and
reality unwinds into strings. Fists
full of tachyons engorged with sand
of primal tide. Star born child
frolics in cognitive field, wild.

Secular Parenting

The Houston Church of Freethought has been developing a Sunday School for the members to bring their children to. Like the HCoF, the Sunday School will be nontheistic in nature, and there is discussion going on as to how to form the Sunday School and also how to attract more nonreligious families. Here is one member's thoughts on parenting as atheists, which I thought might be interesting for my readers, regardless of their own views...

1. There seems to be a general belief among parents that assuring your children attend church services and sunday school is part of being a good parent, and something that many parents do just for that reason. I honestly don't believe that it has much to do with any religious conviction but rather an idea that if you want to teach your kids to be good moral citizens they have to have religious instruction. So I think even couples who were not church attendees before they had children start attending as part of raising their children. Perhaps we could counteract this by having some moral message in sunday school?

Personally, I think it is my job to teach my children right from wrong and I want them to do the right thing, not because they think some god is watching them and will punish them if they don't, but rather just because it is the right thing to do regardless of whether anyone is watching! This is what I would tell anyone who asked how my children can have good moral characters without religion. I teach them self respect and compassion and empathy for others, and that (hopefully) is why they do the right thing, not fear of divine retribution. Using religion for moral instruction is like telling your children Santa will only come if you are good, and he will somehow know if you are not. That might make them behave better, for a while at least, but it won't teach them right from wrong. So far this seems to be working out as my children are not little monsters, don't get in trouble, are Honor Role students, have plenty of friends, and have both received awards for citizenship.

2. Overcoming cruelty from other children and parents also probably keeps families away. By raising our children atheist we have caused them to experience some unpleasant treatment from other children who have the unfortunate stereotypical view of athiests as moral degenerates. This hasn't happened very many times, as it's not something kids discuss much, but maybe as they get older it will happen more frequently. So far there have only been a few times when they have been excluded from playing with all the other kids in the street, and told "since you don't believe in god, you're bad, so you can't play with us." I have explained that it is not acceptable for the other kids to treat them that way, just as they know they must respect other people's beliefs. Still they find it upsetting of course. I can't say that anyone has every told me to my face that I am a bad parent because I am raising my kids atheist, but I am sure there are those who feel that way. The fundamentalists across the street who tell my daughter she is going to hell because she reads Harry Potter, are not really among those whose opinion I value too much anyway.

3. Maybe the shock and disapproval of family and friends is much more severe when children are concerned. I am sure that no one is happy if they are strongly religious and their son or daughter is athiest, but when that son or daughter starts raising their child atheist the objections increase. It was easy for [my husband] and I as we were not raised by religious parents and have both been non believers all our lives. If you come from a family that is religious I can imagine that deciding to raise your kids as actively athiest would be very difficult. I don't see what HCoF [can] do about that, like anything else with parenting you have to do what you think is right no matter what other people say, but I can see that it would keep people away. We could offer support of like minded parents. Perhaps that is a good selling point, because athiest parenting can be a lonely task.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dehumanization: A How-To

This week something very interesting happened to the United States. It moved, yet another step away from the United States even people my age grew up in – not the dictatorship that reactionaries might characterize things, but not quite the free democracy that the founding fathers envisioned either.

Last Tuesday, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was signed into law[1]. It is, yet again, one of those tools we’ve created to fight against the bad guys. What has this got to do with philosophy?

Philosophy includes religious ideas, political principles, the concept of rights, and more. What is terrorism? When should it, if ever, be used? What do we do in response to it? How many lives are worth a change of government? What is torture? Should we torture? How many rights are worth our security? What practical options are there to war? How should we treat our enemies? All of these are philosophic questions and, far from sitting on dusty bookshelves, they are profoundly impacting our world and our very lives today. The ‘War on Terror’ itself is an ideological battle, strewn throughout with conflicting philosophic ideas and ideals. This philosophical struggle is not merely between the terrorists and the rest of the world, but it is also between different nations, and different groups and individuals within nations.

So, when the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA2006) was signed last Wednesday, it was based on a philosophic vision of how things ‘ought to be’. Much more, it solidified that philosophic vision into policy. Some of the key points of interest in this act are as follows:

1) It defines who is an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ and solidifies broad power of the President to, for all practical purposes, unilaterally declare someone as such (as long as he can find three officers to appoint to a tribunal who will go along with it).

2) An ‘alien unlawful enemy combatant’ is defined as being an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ who is not a citizen of the U.S.

Once the President (in effect) has decided you are an ‘alien unlawful enemy combatant’...

3) You may not invoke Geneva Convention protections in this or any other American court.

4) Effectively, the right of Habeas Corpus is nullified.

5) The President has the sole authority to determine whether or not all of this is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

6) Hearsay evidence may be used against you.

7) Evidence may be used against you that was obtained without a search warrant.

8) Evidence, if the government decides it is classified, may be used against you which you are not allowed to see.

9) Evidence may be used against you when the degree of coercion (including torture) used against you to obtain it is disputed. In other words, if the people who tortured you say they didn’t, that’s enough to admit the evidence.

10) Only a 2/3 vote is needed to declare judgment on you.

11) Narrows the effective definition of torture to ‘severe’ physical or mental pain or suffering.

All of the above are contrary to the many protections the U.S. Bill of Rights affords to its citizens. These same protections can be found in international common law and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are designed to make trials more fair, impartial, and accurate than they would be otherwise. Without the sort of protections nullified by the above, proceedings tend to evolve into ‘kangaroo courts’, where a person who the prosecutors want to find guilty, will be found guilty regardless.

Amnesty International says of this act that it allows[2]:

- Secret detention
- Enforced disappearance
- Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
- Outrages upon personal dignity, including humiliating treatment
- Denial and restriction of habeas corpus
- Indefinite detention without charge or trial
- Prolonged incommunicado detention
- Arbitrary detention
- Unfair trial procedures

Some might take comfort in knowing that this sort of process has been used before, or that it can only apply to alien unlawful enemy combatants and not citizens. Indeed, there is a great debate going around on whether or not these provisions of the MCA2006 could in fact be applied to a U.S. citizen.

In the draft legislation Domestic Enhancement Security Act of 2003 (also referred to as the Patriot Act II), the Department of Justice suggested (in Section 501) that U.S. citizenship be stripped of anyone the President decided to call a ‘terrorist’[3]. If something like that act were to go into effect, then a U.S. citizen could quickly go from being an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ to being an ‘alien unlawful enemy combatant’ where all of the MCA2006 would apply. All of this categorization would happen based on nothing substantially more than the President’s individual desire.

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley (who testified in favor of the Clinton impeachment, by the way) said of the MCA2006, “The framers created a system where we did not have to rely on the good graces or good mood of the President... people have no idea how significant his is.”[video here] [4]

Constitutional law attorney Alison Nathan wrote, “...the U.S. Constitution establishes as a fundamental structural premise that there will be three independent branches of government that serve as checks and balances upon each other. Removing entirely the independent judiciary from any role in checking the conduct of the Executive and Congress is a substantial alteration to that structural premise.”[5]

There are those who simply hate the Republicans or the President and make wild statements for this or other political reasons. They will invoke all sorts of conspiracy theories about 9/11, make melodramatic statements about dictatorships, or have ridiculously wide-sweeping definitions of terrorism such that it includes their political opponents. This is not unlike wild claims about liberal agendas or of President Clinton having murdered troublesome people. Philosophers who concern themselves with Truth and genuine wisdom must be above this sort of political demagoguery. What is more difficult is parsing our fact from fiction; spin from genuine reason. Those who make overstatements and distort information for some perceived greater good, are as much of a problem as those they criticize, for they make it difficult for reasonable people to understand what is really happening and to then do something about it. Further, they create a sense of helplessness by suggesting that things are far more hopeless and ‘rigged’ than they really are – thus minimizing the public’s willingness to act.

Still, all demagoguery aside, reading several sources, one can’t help but get the feeling that there is something happening in this nation - something disturbing for which we are all to blame, regardless of party or position. Even on the highly and inflammatory conservative radio talk show of Michael Savage, where pleas to bomb the entire Sunni triangle are the norm, a loyal listener and Christian conservative asked, “I wonder if some of these laws we’re passing might come back to hurt Christians later on?”[6]

Professor Benjamin Davis of the University of Toledo College of Law says, “Something deep in the American soul was stirred by the 9/11 events. Something that reminds me personally of what one sees in the eyes of lynch mobs in the old pictures.”[7]

This mentality is playing out in our courts and in our laws. If someone were to declare an outright coup and attempt a dictatorship, that would probably be preferable. At least then it would be obvious what is being done and by whom, and what must be done to stop it. But it seems our loss of liberty is not to come with the marching of soldiers down our street. More likely, it is slowly degraded away law by law. For people about my age and older, it is easy to forget that there are people who can vote now with no active memory of the Soviet Union or even a world before the first Gulf War. Each generation that grows up will think it’s normal for a President to be able to sweep people off the street by declaring them ‘terrorists’. And, in that environment, how much easier will it be to take the small next step? An average human life lasts a fewer number of decades than the number of fingers we have to count them, and the average human adult voting life is even shorter. It thus becomes quite easy to change what is palatable to U.S. citizens little by little until those of perhaps two or three generations prior would hardly recognize the country.

The really concerning thing about efforts such as the MCA2006 or the draft Patriot Act II, is their subtle legalistic thinking and their interplay with one another. Notice how key phrases from other documents are used in clever ways, like a shell game. This is why we hear so much talk about ‘the rule of law’. Notice that we hear relatively little talk from those in office about foundational principles of the variety that the founders spoke of. The reason the ‘rule of law’ is more prevalent in their rhetoric these days is because our focus is being directed to the legalistic word game. It is important that we have clear laws that are followed and respected, but without a sound philosophic basis of principle, the ‘rule of law’ alone becomes nothing more than the ‘rule of lawyers’. This is a losing game for the people, where literally any freedom or right can be taken away, nearly any atrocity made proper, by the mere careful arrangement of words and phrases in document after document.

All of this debate over whether or not the MCA2006 can be applied to U.S. citizens is an example of being suckered into that game. Instead of being so concerned with the specifics of legal minutia, which none of us non-attorneys have much chance at doing well to begin with, we should be focusing our attention elsewhere.

The fact is, that when we attempt to revoke or suspend basic human rights for one class of people, this inevitably comes back to infringe on the rights of more people than we intended. If one person’s rights can be taken away, we are all in danger. When the founding fathers set forth the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they weren’t playing a word game designed to preserve privileges for them and theirs. The Declaration of Independence was not a legal argument – it was a philosophic argument of principle. They weren’t attempting to provide legal procedures to be followed for those who had the proper label applied to them. The rights they proclaimed were proclaimed on a universal basis, endowed throughout mankind. Surely, it took long while to fully acknowledge who was included within mankind, but the basics of liberty were certainly never envisioned as pertaining only to U.S. citizens. Their basis was a broad ethical and philosophic one, not a narrow legalistic one. These documents were surely penned by men who thought that all people, regardless of citizenship, are human beings first.

Alison Nathan pointed out something along these lines in quoting Alexander Hamilton[5]:

“To bereave a man of life …without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.” -- Federalist No. 84

Davis noted of the MCA2006, “For this special process, this group of human beings is segregated from the rest of mankind. They are segregated and by that segregation they are declared a different type of human being.” [7] He goes on to show that the procedures of MCA2006 are decoupled completely from all other legal processes, isolating them in their own realm.

That is what we must ask ourselves now: what kind of people are we? Do we really wish to create a ‘special class of human being’ that is not worthy of the basic protections to a free and fair trial when accused? Do we wish to create a special label our ruler can apply to any human being which removes what is essentially their personhood? We harm ourselves when we do this, and it is my hope that more people will come to see that, soon.

Update, January 9, 2012 (5 years later):
It has now been 5 years since the article above was written. Unfortunately, we have not, as a nation, asked ourselves what kind of people do we wish to be. Efforts like those described above have continued relentlessly. It's true that progress was made when Obama came into office and ordered the use of torture (including waterboarding) banned, ordered our interrogation standards to be compliant with the military code of conduct (and with the Geneva Conventions), and ordered a closing of the 'black site' secret prisons. However, Congress has fought back hard against his efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. They eventually attached a legal restriction against trying those prisoners in the U.S. to a critical defense bill the President had little option but to sign, which makes processing the prisoners there properly impossible. Obama has also not reversed policies on warrantless wire-tapping, as many hoped he would.

More to the issues of this article, today we face a similar tandem interplay of laws designed to accomplish the same one-two punch. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 has now given the President the power to indefinitely detain anyone he suspects of terror related activities indefinitely and without access to an attorney or a trial. This action is required for non-U.S. citizens. But a revision before the law passed excluded citizens from this requirement, though did not remove the President's power to do so with citizens if he chooses. This has confused many people into thinking that citizens were excluded from indefinite detention in the NDAA, which is not the case. So this NDAA has done even more harm than the MCA 2006 did.

Nevertheless, the issue may be moot, in that HR 3166 and S. 1698 (also known as the Enemy Expatriation Act) is being considered in the Congress. While the Domestic Enhancement Security Act of 2003 mentioned in the article above never came into fruition, they are trying once again to make it legal for the government to strip you of your citizenship with these latest bills. It seems inevitable the U.S. will have all of these powers eventually, and the Bill of Rights will continue to be slowly revoked.

I highly recommend reading and watching all of the following references, and any others that can be found. More importantly, I highly recommend participation in all elections by at least voting:

[1] Wikipedia article: Military Commissions Act of 2006

[2] Amnesty International on the MCA2006

[3] Wikipedia article: Domestice Security Enhancement Act of 2003

[4] VIDEO: Jonathan Turley on CNBC

[5] History Starts Today: The Perils of Habeas-Stripping

[6] This was something I heard while listening to the Michael Savage show about a year or so ago, before I quit listening to that sort of media. I have no specific reference information on it.

[7] 'All the Laws But One': Parsing the Military Commissions Bill

See also, a PDF of the full text of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 HERE.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Evangelical Teens

It seems that evangelical Christians are becoming concerned about their teens leaving the church, according to an article passed along to me from Jim Knierien, "Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers" on the New York Times website.[1]

I found many other instances on the web discussing the trend. As one example of the evangelical concern, Summit Ministries' website features an article on the issue[2]. In it, they say:

"Each year thousands of Evangelical high school students take the Nehemiah Institute PEERS worldview test, a survey revealing their worldview perspective regarding politics, economics, education, religion, and social issues. Every year since 1988 our Christian students have been answering those questions more and more like Humanists and less and less like Biblical Christians...

According to findings published in a UCLA dissertation, Dr. Gary Railsback notes that between 30 and 51% of Christians renounce their faith before graduating from college."

The author goes on to interpret the meaning of the study:

"That means one out of two professing Christian youth are turning their backs on the 18 years of Christian instruction from their homes and churches and embracing the atheistic ideas of their professors."

This interpretation puts the blame on the 'evil atheistic college professors'. In reality, a strong majority of college professors in the U.S. consider themselves not only spiritual, but 'religious'[3] (this is not Humanism). Furthermore, most classes never even touch on such subjects and in those that do, it is standard practice for professors not to do anything that reveals their own beliefs. More likely, contributing factors are the learning of raw facts about the world (which form foundations of our opinions), interactions with a wider variety of students and student groups with more diverse beliefs than existed in their home town, and the general inquisitive soul-searching that comes with that period in life.

It seems to me a more accurate interpretation would be that the conservative Christian mindset and worldview are based on such flimsy medieval reasoning that, for anyone not predisposed to want to believe it, all it takes is a few bits of rational argument and facts to overturn 18 years of indoctrination. You don't see the same percentage of conversion to such types of beliefs coming from people who are well educated and raised with Humanism. The reason for this has less to do with politics, culture, media, or 'evil influences' by either party than with the objective qualitative differences of reasonableness inherent within the two viewpoints - and how they each resonate within any healthy human brain, given a fair chance.

I didn't find any mention of the internet in these articles, but it seems to me that the internet will likely have a profound impact on society, including religion. I believe many of these kids raised in conservative, fundamentalist, or evangelical religious homes before went many years before ever interacting with people of other beliefs. Some out in small towns even get well into their adulthood without ever seriously examining or being exposed to alternate worldviews.

I remember asking about Buddhism as a child and getting an answer something like, "Oh that's those crazy people that worship cows and think when they die they're going to come back as dogs and chickens and so on".

But now we have young teens interacting with, reading, and learning about the viewpoints of many different worldviews, from their own mouths. This tends to have an overall effect of casting doubt over everything, which is a problem for fundamentalism. Perhaps the only way to "protect" their children from that evil 'doubt' will be for evangelicals to become extreme isolationists, similar to the Amish. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some small branch of this develop over the next few decades, but I digress.

Concerning this generation of teens, we should wonder how many will return to evangelical Christianity once they have children or grow older? I would expect some recidivism. Right now, these teen beliefs are residual, based only on exposure to a variety of contradictory views and typical teen rebelliousness. As humanistic as their beliefs may tend to be, most have never heard of Humanism per se. If Humanists hope for this trend to remain intact, they'll need to reach out to these young people and make sure their beliefs are informed by Humanist principles and philosophy, and not merely based on rejection of something else.

I have recently thought of writing something I plan to call "12 Things All Conservative Christian Teens Should Know", which might be helpful to teens (I hope). It will be in a very informal conversational style, not too long, and should be an easy read. I have all 12 things in mind, but haven't written it yet, so I think I'll save the details for now.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Some Words from Epictetus

Epictetus was a prominent Stoic philosopher in the Roman Empire, born a slave in 55 CE. I've recently read a collection of his writings, translated, summarized, and paraphrased into modern language (warning: very loosely) by Sharon Lebell, in a book called Epictetus: The Art of Living. I came across one passage in particular I wanted to share. It's called, "The Pursuit of Wisdom Attracts Critics":

Those who pursue the higher life of wisdom, who seek to live by spiritual principles, must be prepared to be laughed at and condemned.

Many people who have progressively lowered their personal standards in an attempt to win social acceptance and life's comforts bitterly resent those of philosophical bent who refuse to compromise their spiritual ideals and who seek to better themselves. Never live your life in reaction to these diminished souls. Be compassionate toward them, and at the same time hold to what you know is good.

When you begin your program of spiritual progress, chances are the people closest to you will deride you or accuse you of arrogance.

It is your job to comport yourself humbly and to consistently hew to your moral ideals. Cling to what you know in your heart is best. Then, if you are steadfast, the very people who ridiculed you will come to admire you.

If you allow the mean-spirited opinions of others to make you waver in your purpose, you incur a double shame.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Friday, October 6, 2006

Mahmoud Muhammad Taha

I have recently learned about a man named Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. This was an intellectual and engineer Muslim who lived in Sudan, and was executed in 1985 for his radical interpretation of the Koran. According to Taha's interpretation:

The Koran was revealed to Muhammad in two phases. First in Mecca, where for thirteen years he and his followers were a besieged minority, and then in Medina, where the Prophet established Islamic rule in a city filled with Jews and pagans. The Meccan verses are addressed, through Muhammad, to humanity in general, and are suffused with a spirit of freedom and equality. They present Islam in its perfect form, as the Prophet lived it, through exhortation rather than threat.

The lives of the early Muslims in Mecca were the supreme expression of their religion and consisted of sincere worship, kindness, and peaceful coexistence with all other people. Thus, Islam was offered first in tolerant and egalitarian terms in Mecca, where the Prophet preached equality and individual responsibility between all men and women without distinction on grounds of race, sex, or social origin.

But as that message was rejected in practice, and the Prophet and his few followers were persecuted and forced to migrate to Medina, some aspects of the message changed.

Whereas Muhammad propagated "verses of peaceful persuasion" during his Meccan period, in Medina "the verses of compulsion by the sword" prevailed. The Medinan verses are full of rules, coercion, and threats, including the orders for jihad. In Taha's view they were a historical adaptation to the reality of life in a seventh-century Islamic city-state, in which "there was no law except the sword."

In the Meccan verses we find "You are only a reminder, you have no dominion over them" which is then appended with the Medinan edict, "Except he who shuns and disbelieves, on whom God shall inflict the greatest suffering." It was the Medinan verses which became the basis for Sharia law, developed over the next few centuries.

According to Taha, the elevation of the Medinan verses was only meant to be a historical postponement of the Meccan verses. The "ideal religion" represented in them was to be revived when humanity had reached a stage of development capable of accepting them, ushering in a renewed Islam based on freedom and equality. In support of this notion, Taha quotes a saying of the prophet, "Islam started as a stranger, and it shall return as a stranger in the same way it started."

Taha's reading of the Koran seems to maintain all of it as accurate and true, while at the same time allowing for modern Muslims to live faithfully to Islam while consistently enjoying the modern values of tolerance, peace, and equality.

Most of the above is edited, paraphrased, or pasted from an article on Mahmoud Muhammad Taha in the New Yorker called "The Moderate Martyr", made known to me by Al Robison. It can be read by clicking the link HERE. In addition to the above, when you read this article you'll learn the fascinating political details behind his execution, about his small group of followers today, and more.

I have ordered two books related to Taha. One is called "Quest for Divinity: Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmud Muhammad Taha" by Mohamed A. Mahmoud. The other is by Taha himself and is called "The Second Message of Islam". You can also read much more about Taha at the Wikipedia article HERE.

Stephen Browne Observes Arabs

Anthropology graduate and teacher Stephen Browne runs a blog called "Rants and Raves". A friend in my local Humanist group, Art Fay, recently made me aware of a post of his. Browne lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in 1998 and has come back with some impressions of 'what Arabs are like'. Of course, broad generalizations are always dangerous and should be taken with caution. But at the same time, there's no denying that a cultural gap in understanding exists between the West and Middle East, and any attempt to understand one another better would be desireable.

Therefore, I think it's well worth the risk to consider what a visitor to the region believes to be major differences in the ways we think. It makes for a fascinating read, and something I wanted to share here. I'd also be interested to see what Arabs think of Browne's observations. His post is called "Observations on Arabs" and can be read by clicking HERE.

Agnostic Mom on Parenting

A friend from my local Humanist group, Jim Knierien, alerted us to an article by Humanist mom Noell Hyman at the Institute for Humanist Studies website. It's called "Coping with Parental Difficulties" and can be read by clicking HERE.

One minor point she mentioned (among many others worth reading in the article) reminded me of my own thoughts on nontheistic 'coping'. When a believer breaks a leg, they're often consumed with questions like "why did this happen to me?", "what is God trying to teach me?", and so on. Judging as an outside observer in many of these cases, it seems to me to cause them a great deal of stress. When nonbelievers break a leg, they experience pain, anger, etc. but they simply realize they were unlucky and move on. There isn't a parallel existential crisis going on along side the physical crisis. At least, this seems to be one observation that applies in a certain subset of people and incidents I've noticed.

The article by Noell Hyman also made me aware of her wonderful blog Agnostic Mom: Raising A Healthy Family Without Religion. I recommend folks check it out.

Monday, October 2, 2006

Happy Birthday Bapu

Today is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the political and religious leader of the Indian independence movement in the 1940s. He should need no introduction for most, but I'll just say he became famous for his advocacy of nonviolence, civil disobedience, and simplicity in living. He's considered the father of modern India. Much of his philosophy would go on to inspire others such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In my recent considerations on violence in this blog, I mentioned Gandhi and it was in writing that post that I learned his birthday.

Although Gandhi is well known for his philosophy of nonviolence, what is less appreciated is the element of his philosophy that emphasizes truth (Satya). Gandhi said that "Truth is God". This often got him into disagreements with some on his own side who (as people often do) sometimes put their 'team's banner' ahead of truth.

Gandhi was reluctantly given the title of Mahatma, which means "great soul". Many who followed him referred to him with the affectionate term Bapu which means "Father". While we all have our own opinions on the specifics of the various elements within Gandhi's beliefs, it is not unreasonable or undeserved, I think, to consider Mohandas Gandhi a hero of humanity and consider his words and actions with careful thought.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Matter and Spirit

Yesterday I met with fellow Humanists at our monthly Humanist Contemplatives Club. After a silent period of reflection, reading, and/or meditation, we had what I thought were one of our best conversations yet.

One point that I particularly liked was made by former Catholic Priest, Ron. We were all talking at one point about how some people like to split everything into two realms of experience. Tom said that we don't have different realms of experience, we just have our experience. I noted that, implicit in the materialist position is almost the necessity of a special kind of spirituality in which we think of Nature with a capital 'N'. By that I meant that, we know for a fact, through our first-person experience of consciousness, that something bizarre and amazing is going on - just by the fact that we have a sense of experience. If matter and energy is all we have reason to suspect exists, then that says something remarkable about matter. It says that, in certain circumstances or conditions, mere matter can become experience or experience consciousness. If that's true, then we have no way of knowing if some sort of rudimentary qualia or consciousness exists in other complex interactions of matter.

Then Ron said that, for we Humanists, perhaps the problem is that we haven't developed the vocabulary to discuss some of these things we're trying to discuss yet, and so we use outdated terms like 'spirituality' [or 'soul'?] as stand-ins. I thought that was a good point and added that, perhaps it is people such as the Humanist Contemplatives who might be among the ones to think about new vocabularies for discussing such things?

We also discussed many other interesting topics and how they related to our lives, but that's for another time.

In other news, I have recently learned that the American Humanist Association has approved my becoming a Humanist Minister. However, the full process won't go into effect until sometime around February of next year. I heard this through the grapevine, but I hear they're supposed to officially let me know soon. I'm very grateful to those who helped me along and gave their recommendations, and to Minister Ross Henry, who has offered to tutor me a bit on the various ceremonies Humanist Minister preside over (weddings, funerals, namings, celebrations, and so on).

Friday, September 22, 2006

Philosophy Roundtable

I have been asked to fill in for my friend, Humanist minister Ross Henry, in a philosophy roundtable. The discussion forum will be held San Jacinto college this December 2nd, moderated by Professor Thi Lam. I attended one of these in the past as an audience member and it was quite interesting. There was a representative of Christianity, Islam, Atheism, and Buddhism at the table, each of whom answered a variety of questions posed by the moderator and the audience. It was wonderful seeing audience members learning new things about other beliefs that they hadn't heard before.

This year they're going to have a chair at the table representing Humanism and Ross has flattered me with his referral. I'll do my best to represent that position, hopefully without interjecting my individual views which might be a little more specific than what one might call general Humanism (at least, not without notice to the audience). We have been told what the moderator questions will be, tentatively. Rather than answering them now, I figured I'd simply post them, and encourage readers here to explore answers for themselves. After the event I'll likely post a report, along with several of the answers the panelists gave...

1. Do you find the Divine Command Theory to be persuasive? Is it a viable ethical theory that one can use in the real world to resolve ethical problems? Are there any difficulties in its application?

2. Can one lead a morally virtuous life without belief in God? If so, how?

3. How can parents best teach their children about morality?

4. From your position, what is the meaning of life?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

New Header & Name

You might notice the new header across the top. No worries - it's still the same weekly philosophy blog, but I've decided to change the name and the look a little. For one, this will help distinguish it from my philosophy site a little better. Secondly, I thought having a modern picture would emphasize that philosophy is not a matter of academia or history, but it's about how we live our lives, here, today.

Also, the reason I chose Philosophy Fridays is because I want to make it clear that new posts come out on Fridays from now on. Even before the recent lag, I had made a point to always put something up at least once a week, but it would fall on different days. But I've decided, for the sake of readers, to be regular about when the new post comes out so they know when to expect it. Of course, if you happen to like to read on Tuesdays or any other day, it'll still be here and can be read then too. In addition, that doesn't mean there might not be occasional short bonus posts on other days from time to time, especially if the timing is important.

Please let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Humanism on Stoicism

The following was a talk titled, "Stoicism And Rational Psychology" by Frederick Edwords, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. It was prepared for the Humanist Association of Massachusetts and delivered Sunday evening, February 14, 1993, at the Harvard Science Center. Many thanks to Mike Darley, who I know through the Houston Church of Freethought and the Humanists of Houston, for bringing it to my attention...


"To be a philosopher," said Thoreau, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."

Yet that's often what we Humanists have overlooked in many of our activities. To solve some of the problems of life, or help others solve them, in very practical and down-to-earth ways, is, in the final analysis, what I think the Humanist philosophy was developed to accomplish. After all, Humanism can be defined as a commitment to the use of reason and observation in the service of human need and interest in the here and now. And, as such, it is an ethic that aims at what thinkers ancient and modern have termed "the good life." For Humanists, the good life is one where reason is the tool and happiness the goal -- happiness both for ourselves and others.

Now, if modern Humanism were to trace its roots to some particular ancient philosophical system, what system would that be? Well, given our heritage in the freethought movement, there is a tendency to choose Epicureanism. It's founder, Epicurus, challenged the religious traditions of his day, declaring clearly that the superstitious fear of hellfire was a major cause of human misery in the here-and-now. That sort of thing warms the hearts of the debunkers among us. But did the Epicureans, or their Cyrenaic forebears, have the right idea on how happiness is attained? I don't believe they did.

Contrary to the teachings of these ancient hedonists, it seems that happiness can rarely be attained directly, through a forthright pursuit of a well-balanced set of pleasures. Happiness is rather like "wellness." Its prerequisite is an absence of disease. And when it came to providing that prerequisite, to relieving the diseases of the mind, and even of society, it was the ancient Stoics who often proved to be the best philosophical doctors.

Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, set forth the Stoic dictum in modern terms. "I believe," he wrote, "unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life..." Following Russell's lead, 1971 Humanist of the Year Albert Ellis has taken a similar approach. In his Rational-Emotive Therapy, which he freely acknowledges as humanistic and rooted in ancient Stoicism...

And it was for this purpose that the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his essay On the Shortness of Life. In that essay, he drew attention to the fact that people often don't get their lives in order in anything like a timely way. He wrote:

The majority of mortals complain bitterly of the spitefulness of nature, because we are born for such a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Yet the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

And he added, "our life is amply long if ordered properly."

What Seneca meant here was that people would do well to have more concern for the values and priorities of life. He was urging his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves, to give the truly important things more time, and to act now.

We can we look around us today and see many people living life on what might be called the "deferred payment plan." Children commonly say, "Just wait until I grow up." Students can't wait until they finish school and leave home so they can begin to live as they like. When young people date, they look forward to the time when they will be married. Then they'll be happy. When married they look ahead to owning their own home. Then they'll be happy. When winter comes, they look to Spring, or to the day they can move to California. If they have children they say, "When the kids grow up and leave home, then we'll be able to do what we want." Of course there's still the job. So they look to retirement as the time to live. Seneca denounced this attitude in the strongest language:

Are you not embarrassed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? . . . What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point which not all have even attained!"

Seneca believed that we can live now, every day, can find our meaning and joy at this time, not some other. Don't wait for happiness, he argued, create it.

Albert Ellis has written much on not worrying about what other people think. So did the [stoic] Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who, in his Meditations said:

Constantly observe who they are whose approval you seek, and by what principles they are guided. For if you look to the sources of their opinions and appetites, you'll neither condemn those offenses they give nor desire the approval they withhold.

It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough. We will pass this way but once and no one can guarantee any paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is probably our only shot. But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give meaning to our existence. For it is in the context of this life that we love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy triumph. And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage, bear adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure. Yet so many do give up the good life. They join ascetic religious orders, political mass movements that put all the benefits ahead to future generations, adopt creeds of excessive self-denial. The price people pay in adherence to such ideas, devotion to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical crusades is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in mind when he wrote:

They spend life in making ready to live! They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.

Many ex-fundamentalists have found this out too late, often regretting sacrificed years. This can lead them into a frantic effort to make up for lost time. For example, when an article on Fundamentalists Anonymous, an organization for ex-fundamentalists, appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine, the positive response from ex-fundamentalists was overwhelming, since so many were reading the magazine to catch up on some of the living they had earlier missed.

Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for the here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is an ethic that puts life first, death last. It is a way of life that finds joy in a spring flower or the crash of waves on the seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten. It is a focus that includes purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits, and high aspirations...

Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.

To some, this vision sounds a bit like Omar Khayyam:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!

Which comes close to the hedonistic doctrine Humanists are accused of advocating: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Or, as Mad magazine once put it –

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou--
Pretty soon I'll be drunk, fat, and in trouble.

But we needn't take Omar the Tentmaker literally when it comes to all that drinking and carousing. The physical pleasures are far from representing the whole. For the Humanist there are also the pleasures of an unfettered mind making new discoveries, solving problems, and creating. There is the enjoyment of art, music, dance, and drama. There is the joy of helping others and the challenge of working to make the world a better and more peaceful place. And, of course, there are the joys associated with love and family. The Humanist seeks the enjoyment of as many of these as reasonable, and cannot do so if an over-focus on just one overtakes life completely.

In this, we are clearly at one with the ancient Greek ideal of wholeness and the integration of life. For example, in the ancient Olympic games, competition included not only athletics but drama, music, poetry, and philosophy. And the whole combination was viewed as a religious event. The Greeks put it together and did it all. So can we.

Such a worldly and good-natured view of life that claims no ultimate radically different from conservative Christianity, which has sometimes called this world a veil of tears, has seen pleasures as vanity, and seems to find the goal of human life beyond the grave. Such believers might quote Ecclesiastes --

Better a good name than costly oil,
the day of death than the day of birth.
Better to go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit.

As an antidote, Robert Louis Stevenson offered these words in his Christmas Sermon:

Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality: they are the perfect duties. If your morals make you dreary, depend on it they are wrong. I do not say, "give them up," for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better men."

Yet, now we can ask, if this good life is to be the goal, is it a goal accessible only to the affluent, the intelligent, the educated? If so, then we are advocating a way of life only for a relative few of the world's people.