Category Archives: Humanism

Book recommendation: His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It’s a delightful series which presents a humanistic worldview, so I thought I’d write a quick recommendation for it here. (Readers unfamiliar with the trilogy may know the title of its first book, The Golden Compass, which was also made into a movie in 2007. The movie didn’t impress me, but the books did!)

The Golden CompassThe story is set in a parallel universe similar to our Victorian England. In this world, humans have animal companions called daemons – sentient creatures that go wherever their humans go, and are inextricably linked to them. There are differences between children’s and adult’s daemons; the daemon of a child can change shape at will, but then settles into one particular form as the child reaches adolescence. The main character of the story is Lyra, a parentless child who has been raised and educated by Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. When she finds out that all over the country children of low-status families are being abducted, including one of Lyra’s friends from Oxford, she becomes involved in a quest to save them. Along the way, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle that permeates the universe, called Dust, which may have something to do with the difference between children’s and adults’ daemons. Lyra and her allies also come into conflict with a powerful church called The Magisterium, that wants to destroy Dust and obscure the truth about it.

Though His Dark Materials contains adventures and battles and interesting worlds galore, ultimately the story sends a message about the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of inquiry. There is a scene near the end where the heroes are told by one wise character to never stop learning, and to keep their minds “open and free and curious.” What’s not to love about that?

Something, apparently – as there has been a good deal of controversy about the books and the movie. A number of Christian groups and representatives for the Catholic Church have called the story “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” An archbishop in New Orleans wrote that the trilogy poses a “special threat to Christianity”! That’s quite the review, if three books can undo what two thousand years of history hasn’t.

I must say I don’t quite understand the protest. While the Magisterium in Pullman’s books bears a number of superficial similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, the reason they are portrayed as the “enemy” is because they want to keep people ignorant. The Magisterium opposes the values of thinking for oneself and making one’s own decisions, and the heroes of Pullman’s story don’t take kindly to that. Is this message inimical to the Christian religion or to the Catholic Church? I’d say it’s up to them to decide. But so far, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In 2007 when The Golden Compass movie was about to be released, a bishop in Austin had the books removed from every Catholic school in the diocese. If the Catholic response to books that encourage thinking for oneself is to ban them, then I would say they’ve conceded Pullman’s point rather nicely.

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PS: Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of His Dark Materials way back in 2002. Readers may want to check it out, as it’s always a delight to read anything by Hitchens. But beware – it does include spoilers!

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Filed under Books, Catholic Church, Freethought, Humanism

How I live as a moral relativist

I was surprised at how much I identified with this NY Times opinion column on morality. The author is Joel Marks, a bioethicist and emeritus professor of philosophy. In the essay, Marks describes how he came to realize that morality was not objective, and how this realization affected his actions and interactions with others.

A quick summary of Marks’ thought process goes like this (though you should read the whole thing if you find this summary isn’t enough for you):

A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset.

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

Hume said something similar. Though my thought process was not quite the same as Marks’ or Hume’s, I do agree that morality, like beauty, is subjective, and moral rules do not actually exist.

The problematic thing once realizing this is… what do I do now? What is the basis for choosing a “moral” action over an “immoral” one? And if I want to convince another person not to commit an action that I find offensive (Marks gives the example of [tossing] male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry) how could I do so? I can no longer say “don’t do it because it’s wrong.

My own answer to this problem was to focus on what I want to do in situations that have a so-called “moral” valence. How do I feel about things like lying, stealing, or injuring others? In examining my feelings, I find that I generally want to treat people well. I like being honest, and not hurting people, and not taking their things. I don’t treat people well because it’s a moral rule, I do it because I want to. Others’ happiness makes me happy, and their suffering makes me sad. I think most people are similar.

What struck me about Marks’ essay was how similar his answers were to mine. For starters, he too focuses on desires:

It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

For Marks, animal agricultural elicits the same feeling that any of us would experience if an innocent person were being tortured or detained in squalid conditions. It is an empathic response to the suffering of other conscious creatures. Naturally, we want it the suffering to stop. Again, rules do not dictate this experience for us. It is simply there, and we act upon it.

How, then, do we get others to act with us? My answer has been to teach others what I know. Humans naturally respond to the suffering of others. The key is to teach people about what others are going through, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. When they do that, their actions naturally incline toward greater empathy and consideration.

Marks says much the same:

…to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

Indeed. Good does not come from forcing people to do what you say, or what you think they ought to do. It is better to be convince them*. (This is why I object so strongly to religious morality, in which people are not convinced or entreated, but simply told what to do. This has nothing to do with morality, and amounts to merely following orders.)

So I take it as good news that two people who agree about the non-existence of morality can come to similar conclusions about where to go from there. I think society will be better if we move away from moralistic thinking, and instead focus on showing others why we care about the things we care about.

 

*This isn’t to say, by the way, that we should not put dangerous people in jail. But we do this not because they have broken some moral law, but because we cannot allow them to threaten others’ safety or freedoms.

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Filed under Humanism, Morality

The best video about sex on the Internet

You guys, this is GREAT sex education video. Seriously. It uses a musical collaboration analogy to talk about sex in a sensible way, and to put to pasture the BS ideas about sex our society has provided us with. I can’t recommend it enough!

Give it a watch.

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Filed under Humanism, Relationships, Sex, Women's Issues

Making headway in the Boy Scouts

BSA LogoWell, I must say I’m impressed, and cautiously optimistic – the Boy Scouts of America seems to be seriously considering changing its policy on gay members.

I got an email from them this week asking for my feedback on the policy, as an “alumni of Scouting.” The survey they linked me to asked detailed questions on how I would feel about specific scenarios that might result from a change in policy. Even more impressive, there was a section for open-ended responses. Here are two of the questions and my answers:

1) What is your greatest concern if the policy remains in place and openly gay youth and adults are prohibited from joining Scouting? (Please be specific.)

I responded: My concern is that wonderful scouts and scout leaders will be denied participation in a wonderful program, simply because of an outdated social bias. And I think that the individuals denied participation, as well as the BSA, will be worse off because they weren’t allowed to benefit from each other.

2) What is your greatest concern if the policy is changed to allow charter organizations to make their own decisions to admit openly gay Scouts and leaders? (Please be specific.)

I responded: My concern is that the charter organizations who would be most likely to discriminate would be those in parts of the nation where anti-gay discrimination is at its worst, and therefore the gay scouts and scout leaders who most needed the BSA’s support would be the least likely to get it.

The point of a nationwide change in BSA policy isn’t, in my mind, to accept gay scouts and scout leaders only in areas where people are already of an accepting mindset. The point is to do the right thing, to be convinced of what that is, and to *lead others to do it too.* That’s what the Boy Scouts are all about.

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So keep your fingers crossed, friends. And keep signing petitions and writing letters, if you can. This is a serious opportunity to change something for the better.

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Filed under Humanism, News

President Jimmy Carter writes about women and religion

I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status  of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,

…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.

And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.

Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

How about this passage?

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Or this?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.

Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.

On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.

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Filed under Freethought, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion, Women's Issues

Some changes to my approach

Last weekend I attended a blues dancing event in Minneapolis (video to come soon!) – a weekend full of great friends, great dancing, great workshops and competitions. I’m always extremely happy when I get back from such events; they’re good for the soul.

Over the weekend and for a few days thereafter, I found myself avoiding my blog subscriptions, mainly because there’s so much negative stuff in there. Evil corporations, human rights violations, conflation of church and state… I just wasn’t in the mood for it. For a few days I also avoided posting about any controversial issues on Facebook, or starting any “fights,” as it were. Again, I was simply in a happy mood and didn’t feel good about the negativity.

This got me thinking. How can we demonstrate concern over issues we care about without getting bogged down by the negativity of it all? How can we fight against things that are bad without unpleasantness filling our minds? My answer – when I was ready to post again on Facebook – was to focus on affirming what I wanted the world to be like, rather than focus on denying the negative state of affairs I’d just read about. Instead of just saying “This is bad and wrong and stupid,” I said “This is bad, and this is what would be better!” I think it made a difference in my attitude.

Atheists often tout humanism as a logically positive complement to atheism. Whereas atheists spend so much time denying the claims of religious people, speaking about humanism gives us a chance to make positive statements about what we value and what we care about (not to say that atheist = humanist, but there is much overlap). I haven’t always put much stock in the importance of making logically positive statements, but I’m beginning to think it’s an important thing to do, for one’s own sanity.

What methods do you have for fighting the negative while still staying positive?

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If you read one thing this week…

On the anniversary of his wife’s assisted suicide, Eric MacDonald is in excellent form on the subject of assisted dying. This cannot be shared enough.

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Filed under Assisted Dying, Government, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion