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Posts Tagged ‘secularism’

The Affirmations of Secular Humanism – A Series

Posted by mikebftw on June 27, 2008

During the question and answer period following John Loftus’ presentation last month, an astute believer in attendance noted that it’s much easier to critique or tear down than to create or build up. His particular point was that if you eliminate the Bible, what are you offering in its place as a literary work or a moral guide?

Regardless of this gentleman’s ulterior motive to catch John in a “gotcha” moment on grounds that he never sought to occupy, he does make a valid point that we freethinkers should consider, if only as a matter of public image. That is, we’re generally pretty skilled at finding fault in the various religious systems, but shouldn’t we at least try to articulate what we do believe? What guides our objective morality? This is not to say that we need to write a “new” bible. We don’t need a rulebook. However, I believe that the better we’re able to communicate our shared positive beliefs, the more effectively we can engage believers in meaningful discussions on morality.

Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch when it comes to putting our beliefs into words. While they’re not perfect, and they’re subject to the same scrutiny and skepticism we apply to any and all ideas, the 21 affirmations put forth by Paul Kurtz and the Council for Secular Humanism are a great place to start when considering the values we freethinkers tend to share. These affirmations can be found on the inside cover of every issue of Free Inquiry magazine, or on the Council for Secular Humanism website here.

Today I’m starting a series of posts, one each Friday, considering each of the 21 affirmations of secular humanism. As you read, please bear in mind the following:

  1. The affirmations are not meant as rules, imposed from the top down. Rather, they are articulations of the beliefs upon which most freethinkers tend to agree.
  2. The affirmations are meant to withstand the same skepticism and scrutiny we apply to all ideas.
  3. Ultimately, I speak only for myself in my analysis of the affirmations. The conversation only stands to gain from new perspectives, personal experiences, and other input that may differ from what I have to offer.
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The Future of FreeThought

Posted by Skeptigator on June 10, 2008

I have spent the last few days putting my thoughts to digital paper but they weren’t really my thoughts. They were thoughts that I only think are mine but really have come about from reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. In my first post on the matter I mentioned how profoundly this book has changed my view. How I feel to some extent a sense of connection with the past.

I liken it very loosely* to what I can imagine perhaps a homosexual in America might feel and may I be so bold as to draw a comparison between FreeThought and Homosexual Rights. The first step in the acceptance of homosexuals was the acknowledgement that “they” exist and that there is a community of them. I suppose step 2 was try not to get killed but then came step 3 begin to discover a shared history. There hasn’t been much of history for the GLBT community to draw on, they sort of sprang out of nowhere as you might be led to believe. Of couse, it’s becoming more and more apparent that there is an extensive “gay history” however it hasn’t been very pleasant and we’ll never know the full extent to which the homosexual community has always been around.

I suppose this is the natural evolution, if you will, of all groups as they struggle for identity.

This brings us to the main point of this article, the Future of FreeThought. What does tomorrow or even 5 years bring. Maybe we should be saying to ourselves, “Forget about the future. What does the present look like?”

Where we stand today

There are plenty of very good reasons to be pessimistic about the future of FreeThought considering the last 20 years in one sense hasn’t been that great. We’ve seen the ascendancy of the Religious Right during the 70’s through such organizations as Falwell’s Moral Majority and their ability to shape the political landscape of today (not to mention their power within the Republican party out of proportion to their numbers). The 80’s brought us the almost laughable Satanic Panic. The 90’s brought us the Republican Revolution and the rise of the Christian Coalition led by Ralph Reed. The 21st century was kicked off with a bang, specifically 4 bangs on 9/11. An event that should have led to soul-searching within religious circles on the power of faith and that without some kind of check or measure like reason and evidence all ideology particularly religious ideology can lead to some of the greatest atrocities of mankind. Instead, in America, the various Christian sects circled the wagons and drew Us vs. Them distinctions while the liberal left called Islam the Religion of Peace and tried to categorize the 19 young men as fundamentalists or extremists. No doubt they don’t represent the mainstream muslim but there are some very basic questions that are not being asked.

Today secularists and skeptics, atheists and agnostics face some of the same recurring issues that have cropped over the decades, nay, centuries. That thing called Intelligent Design (AKA warmed-over creationism) has been making inroads or at least the strategy has changed again to “academic freedom” bills. The broad support for faith-based initiatives and school vouchers is a reincarnated version of the very same kind of bill that was working it’s way through the Virginia Assembly that attempted to get the state of Virginia to fund religious education. The very thing that Madison and Jefferson worked vigorously to oppose and many evangelical groups of the day also opposed.

Susan Jacoby begins the final chapter of her book with a recent speech given by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia [full text here],

… the real underpinnings of Scalia’s support for the death penalty are to be found not in constitutional law but in the justice’s religious convictions. He believes that the state derives its power not from the consent of the governed – “We, the People,” as the [Constitution] plainly states – but from God. God has the power of life and death, and therefore lawful governments also have the right to exact the ultimate penalty. Democracy, with its pernicous idea that citizens are the ultimate arbiters of public policy, is responsible for the rise of opposition to the death penalty in the twentieth century. “Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings,” Scalia noted in his speech. He would have been just as accurate had he pointed out that most subjects in absolute monarchies also supported the right of kings to torture and to impose the death penalty by drawing and quartering. To bolster his argument, Scalia turned to the perennial favorite of conservative politicians the evangelist Paul: [quotes Romans 13:1-4]

And this is from a Supreme Court justice. What happens when abortion makes it’s way to the SCOTUS? I wonder what a devout Catholic will make his decision based on, clearly not case law or prior precedent or any other impartial manner. I wouldn’t doubt if he quotes Psalms 139:13-16 in his opinion.

Now all of that is kind of a drag and I’m generally an optimistic person.

A Plan for the Future

If you are looking for me to start making predictions of what will happen in the future you can stop reading now. I don’t know and neither does anybody else but I do have some ideas about what we can begin to build today.

1) Identify that non-believers exist, acknowledge that you exist

  • A recent Pew Study shows that approximately 10.3% of the U.S. population identifies itself as either atheist, agnostic or secular-unaffiliated, there’s an additional 5-6% of the U.S. population that is religious-unaffiliated, maybe they just need to be told it’s OK to not believe.
  • Read that again 10% (that’s about 30 million people). We more than exist, we are significant chunk of the population.

2) Recognize that you have a history

  • I hope the last 3 posts have given you a taste of the extremely rich history that secularism and freethought have in America. If you don’t know about the last 3 posts here they are:
  1. Revolutionary FreeThought
  2. The Golden Age of FreeThought
  3. FreeThought in the 20th Century

3) Get involved

  • Join a group or start one. I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, not exactly a liberal bastion by any stretch. We have a group, you can find us here, freethoughtfortwayne.org. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in starting your own.
  • Groups like CFI On Campus provide excellent resources for starting college campus groups.
  • Write letters to the editor, attend speeches and conferences promoting secular thought, scientific literacy and freethought.
  • Write your story, start a blog, write a book. We don’t live in an age anymore where you have to jump through hoops and sell your soul to get published anymore. You can self-publish. Every piece of literature out there adds to the growing number of freethought voices.

4) Begin Building Bridges

  • Instead of fighting or resisting religious groups, we should be defining where we have common ground. I suppose this goes back to that old adage, “The frontiers that trade won’t cross, armies will”, or something like that. If we won’t engage with religious groups we will only ever exchange volleys and that won’t get us anywhere
  • I’ve said it before and I say it again, we really should promote advocacy for secular government within the religious community.

Let’s do what we can to change the tone and tenor of the nation. If you are unhappy about the invasion of religion into every nook and cranny of our political discourse then speak up. Write your congressman, yours can’t be any worse than mine, Mark Souder (R) – 3rd Dist. IN. He or she works for you, remember that.

I would be interested in your comments. AM I missing something? Am I too optimistic?

* Of course, I’m a heterosexual, middle-class white guy, so what do I really know about being gay or even oppressed for that matter. Like I said “very loosely” based on the recent history of homosexuals.

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The Golden Age of FreeThought

Posted by Skeptigator on June 8, 2008

In my continuing series on the history of freethought and secularism in America I would like to spend a little time focusing on the “Golden Age of FreeThought”. It’s called by the author of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, the Golden Age for good reason. During the period following the Civil War it was perhaps the most open period in American history to disagree with religious authority and even mock the more irrational aspects of religion. This openness wasn’t nearly as utopian as it may sound.

Unbelief during the Civil War

Perhaps the most telling comments about the status of secular thought during the 19th century comes from the following passage of Susan Jacoby’s book,

Today’s Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan “let’s put God back into the Constitution,” thereby implying that “secular humanists” have managed to overturn what was originally intended to be a marriage of church and state. Nineteenth-century clerics knew better and were honest about their desire to reverse what they regarded as the founders’ erroneous decision to separate church and state.

The late nineteenth-century was merely a foreshadowing of the kinds of vitriol that would be poured out on our elected leaders in recent decades. “In God We Trust” was first engraved onto our currency during the end of the Civil War and was soon made the butt of a number of jokes, such as “In gold we trust” during the debates surrounding the removal of U.S. currency from the gold standard.

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most devout Christians ever to be elected president, attempted in 1907 to dispense with the motto precisely because of the sacrilegious puns. He succeeded only in arousing a storm of criticism from ministers who had previously been among his strongest supporters. Roosevelt, who had dubbed Paine a “filthy little atheist,” was himself called an infidel for his attempt to remove God from American money.”

Ah, the irony is overwhelming.

The Great Agnostic

Much as Thomas Paine was perhaps the most reviled infidel of his time, Robert Green Ingersoll was much admired and called the Great Agnostic. Ingersoll wrote many pamphlets during his time (c. 1870-1899), including the Gods and Other Lectures and Some mistakes of Moses.

Unlike today, the American people often went to see speakers give lectures. In fact, you could make quite a living going on the lecture circuit. Ingersoll was an extremely popular speaker with many connections to the Republican party of the day. In many of his talks he did not pull any punches in his ridicule of religious belief and social issues such as slavery and women’s rights.

From the Gods and other lectures, after quoting Deuteronomy chapter 20 from the Old Testament detailing the slaughter of men and the… uh… acquisition of the women,

Is it possible for man to conceive of anything more perfectly infamous? Can you believe that such directions were given by any being except an infinite fiend? Remember that the army receiving these instructions was one of invasion. Peace was offered upon condition that the people submitting should be the slaves of the invader; but if any should have the courage to defend their homes, to fight for the love of wife and child, then the word was to spare none – not even the prattling, dimpled babe.

And we are called upon to worship such a god; to get upon our knees and tell him that he is good, that he is merciful, that he is just, that he is love.

The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Reading Ingersoll is like reading Dawkins or particularly Hitchens. In fact, I dare say The God Delusion and god is not great are modern day versions of the very lectures that Ingersoll was so famously recognized for and the Four Horseman are so roundly criticized for.

FreeThought Activism

I don’t want to make it sound like the late-nineteenth century was a free and unfettered time to be a freethinker. In fact, the roots of what would ultimately become the “red scare” and much of the McCarthy-ist persecution was beginning to take root at this time particularly during the turn of the century. I will wait to delve into those issues with the next post, FreeThought in the 20th Century.

Among perhaps one of the most astounding things of the mid to late-1800’s was the prevalence of Freethought literature, newspapers and pamphlet printing organizations. Throughout the 1800’s FreeThought periodicals began popping up everywhere, the most famous of the bunch would be D.M. and Mary Bennett’s Truth Seeker. Some of the other periodicals were the Boston Investigator, the Blue Grass Blade, the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator, and my personal favorite the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer. Of course, like all “movements” they are rarely centralized and cooridinated as evidenced by the Iconoclast of Austin, Texas run by William Cowper Brann, a strident racist who was ultimately shot in the back by an enraged Baptist. The diversity of thought among those who wore the FreeThought banner was loosely held together by the almost universal opposition to organized religion and their support for a clear separation of church and state.

During this time period the roots of feminism were planted beginning with attempts to gain women the right to vote and the dissemination of information regarding contraception. There are so many famous figures from the women’s rights movement who came to fame during this time period, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine L. Rose.

There are so many things that happened during this time period that I have only barely scratched the surface. I only glossed over Ingersoll’s life and almost the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke nothing about the emancipation of the slaves and Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. I guess you’ll just have to read the book 😉

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Revolutionary FreeThought

Posted by Skeptigator on June 7, 2008

I have recently finished reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It is in my opinion an essential read in understanding the history of FreeThought and Secularism in America. I have re-read a number of sections and followed up on other articles and a number of historical points.

It’s hard for me to understate what an enormous impact this book has made in my understanding of freethought and secularism. I’ve had bits and pieces before, like the secular roots of the American Constitution, Robert Ingersoll and the role of many humanists and secularists during abolition, women’s suffrage and the early civil rights movement. But I’ve never had these pieces woven together into a cohesive history.

I’m so impressed I’ve decided to write a 4-part post on this one book alone. I won’t make any one post too lengthy however it looks like the book and the history of secularism in America could be broken into 4 rough periods. The first is the remaining portion of this post, Revolutionary FreeThought (c. 1776-1861)*, specifically the role that secular thought played in the founding of America, the way minority religious sects embraced secularism and the early foundations of freethought activism in the form of abolition and feminism.

I have posted in the past regarding the secular and specifically non-Christian origins of the American Constitution however this book spends only a small portion of the first chapter talking about the beliefs of Jefferson, Adams, Madison and other Founding Fathers. Instead, Jacoby focuses on the debate that raged around the wording of the Constitution and how any mention of any God was a strong point of contention among religious clerics at the time..

Secular Thought During the Revolution

During the formation of this country with rare exception each State had an official and established state church. And in some of those states you had to take an oath supporting that church in order to hold public office, elected or appointed. The Founders knew that if there was going to be strong and unified Federal government then religious tests for office would have to be eliminated and hence the following line shows up in Article 6 of the Constitution

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

To further extend the clear fear that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, had of sectarian strife within the new nation, they clearly infused the American Constitution with the same philosophy that embodied Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Madison conveyed his views on the dilemma posed by sectarian differences (let alone the pluralistic society we live in today) to the Virginia Assembly to proposed funding of religious schooling

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

Thomas Paine

Perhaps the most notable Freethinker during this revolutionary period was Thomas Paine. A man that contributed directly to the people’s support of the American Revolution to only be reviled as the Arch-Infidel upon his return from imprisonment in France. Of course, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the former a support for the American Revolution and the latter a support for the French Revolution and a critique of hereditary rule, was looked upon quite differntly after publishing The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason was a scathing critique of many of the Biblical doctrines at the time. He soundly rejected divine revelation and miracles. He wholesale discounted all supernatural aspects of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike. He puts forth not a disbelief in God, despite the accusations of atheist at the time, but a belief in a deistic God. One who could be known through Nature’s Laws.

Religious Support of Secular Government

The most notable subplot, if you will, during this period was the role that early Evangelicals played in supporting the secular nature of government. As you can imagine some of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution at the time came from established, state-sponsored Christian denominations, such as The Episcopal Church (official church of Virginia) or to Protestantism in general. Catholics in America at the time were highly distrusted due to the perceived dual obligations to the papacy and to the civil governments. For example, Massachusetts only allowed Catholics to hold office if they renounced the papacy’s authority in all matters civil. New York, ironically, allowed Jews the right to hold office but not Catholics.

In the previously mentioned debate in Virginia regarding special assessments to fund private, religious education it was the minority religious sects, such as, the Quakers, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians who opposed the special assessments and ultimately would support Virginia’s religious freedom act.

It’s not at all surprising although ironic that the early roots of the Evangelicals around today would fight so strongly to oppose religious language only to turn around in the 20th century to fight to have it included. It only goes to show that the Founding Fathers were right to fear the mixing of religious and political power. Because yesterday it was the Episcopal Church and today it’s the Baptists.

I have also posted on FreeThought Fort Wayne’s blog about a need to cultivate religious advocacy of secularism in America. I now have a better understanding that I wasn’t proposing anything new and that there is a history of support that needs to resurface

* I know the timelines don’t have “clean” demarcation but it helps to give an idea of the time periods involved.

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Promoting religious advocacy for secularism

Posted by Skeptigator on March 24, 2008

I am writing this to contribute to the Blog Against Theocracy 2008 campaign however it’s something that’s been sitting in my rough drafts folder for a while and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get this idea out there.  To be honest I have read a number of articles over the weekend that are being submitted to this blog carnival and most are a “negative” position. I don’t mean negative in a bad sense just in an “against” something sense. I thought it might be good to have a “for” something thrown in the mix. I’m aware of the difficulties in writing a “for” something post when the campaign is “against” something but here’s my best shot.

The best way in America (in particular) to guard against the pitfalls of theocracy is to encourage our religious fellow citizens to embrace Secularism. That’s right, the big, bad, god-destroying, bring out your daughters secularism. This won’t be easy when we would have to work against the likes of Pat Robertson but it is necessary for a lasting peace between the religions appetite for power and our freedoms.

The first step of this new renewed effort is to spend some time explaining that religious advocacy for secularism was there in the beginning of our country and written into the Constitution itself. Many of the Founding Fathers in particular were very well aware of the dangers of mixing religion and politics. In fact, they went out of there way to ensure that religious authority had no explicit political power. Unfortunately, many people will not be persuaded by this since the arguments at the time were about the different and competing Christian denominations, but everyone believed in God. The concern was that one particular branch of Christianity would hold power over all others, not that God in general should be removed from our government.

We must be diligent in explaining that the underlying philosophy of the separation of Church and State is sound. It was simply being represented historically as a sectarian issue. You could take this one step further if you have an open audience, to simply state that our Founding Fathers went out of their way to remove the possibility of sectarian Christian political power and we should be even more diligent now that America has a pluralistic religious (and non-religious) citizenry.

The second step must build on the historical foundation laid down in the first step. There must be a renewed campaign to explain within the historical context mentioned above that removing God (or more accurately keeping him out) of government is the important safeguard to religious freedom today.

The more pessimistic and probably alarmist argument could be made that the early Americans were scared enough of their Christian brothers, can you imagine what would happen, if in their religious fervor Christians tore down the wall of the separation of Church and State, and in a few short decades Islam (or Scientology) or some other fairly hostile religion used that precedent to institute Sharia law (or perhaps more frighteningly Dianetics) in America. The safeguards to religious freedom that have directly contributed to the stability and freedoms in America, ironically, were torn down by the very people who felt their religious freedoms were being infringed upon. How short-sighted they will appear. I think I once heard a sermon that said something like, “if you beat a path to the devil what will prevent him from turning around on you.”

I know this isn’t an easy task. I know this message will fall upon deaf ears particulary within fundamentalist and evangelical communities (and unfortunately more strident Atheists) but it’s important to get this message out nonetheless. This sort of education needs to begin in the history and government classes at the high school level and continued through secondary education. It’s an important argument to make every time that legislation, resolutions and other governmental acts begin to chip away at our religious freedom or blur the line between personal religious belief and a secular government.

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