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The new humanism

May 2, 2007
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Harvard University hosted a wonderful conference of “new humanists” recently (as far as I can tell, the new humanists [Rushdie, E. O Wilson] are different from the new atheists [Dawkins, Harris], by being not quite so pissed off and more open to religious humanisms such as Ethical Culture, though there are exceptions to this rule on both sides). You can read an article about the conference that quotes Ethical Leader Bob Berson of the Northern Westchester Society (also my mentor during leadership training, and someone to whom I’m deeply thankful).

The conference was organized by Harvard’s new humanist chaplain, Greg M. Epstein. Ethical Culture leaders have founded humanist chaplaincies at Columbia University and Adelphi University in New York. A humanist chaplaincy provides a place for ethical and spiritual support and guidance to students who have humanistic beliefs.

As far as I know, no St. Louis school has a humanist chaplaincy. Maybe we should find out if the students would like one.

Prius, schmius

May 1, 2007
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I finally solved my commuting ecological dilemma–I bought a scooter. It gets me where I need to go in a timely manner (which walking and public transportation often can’t around here), when I get to my destination I’m not soaked with sweat (the problem with biking in this climate), and it gets great gas mileage. The only problem is . . . it’s fun. So it’s tempting to use it when I don’t really need to, which would partly defeat the whole trying-to-be-ecological part, great mileage or no. Oh well, nothing’s perfect.

Terrapass

April 27, 2007
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If you’ve calculated your ecological footprint (a good thing to do every Earthday), you know that air travel uses a lot of energy and creates a lot of pollution. A company called Terrapass (which I just learned about through the web site livingwithed, which I learned about through noimpactman–it’s an eco-surfing day) will calculate the carbon emissions of a trip and let you offset your pollution through investing in alternative energy.

For instance, my trip to New York in June for the American Ethical Union assembly will add 796 pounds of CO2 to our atmosphere. For $9.95, Terrapass will invest in a comparable amount of alternative energy production (such as by investing in wind farms and solar arrays). Terrapass is independently audited to ensure that my $9.95 will actually be invested in alternative energy and not, say, the vice fund.

If you’re a savvy-investor type, you could invest directly in alternative energy every year to offset your pollution and help us all move toward a sustainable future. For those of us less savvy, Terrapass seems like a good idea.

Collateral damage

April 25, 2007
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I’ve just finished The Deserter’s Tale by Joshua Key (“as told to” Lawrence Hill). It’s a memoir of a U.S. soldier from Oklahoma who was sent to Iraq in 2003 and became so disgusted with the war and the conduct of his own countrymen (and himself) that he deserted and fled with his family to Canada, where he still awaits a court appeal to see if they’ll be able to stay.

The descriptions of what went on in Iraq are horrific and would shake any faith in humanity. I don’t know if they’re true, or how much they may be exaggerated, but given Abu Ghraib, some of the prosecutions of soldiers going on now, and the stories that came out of the Vietnam War and every other war, if Key didn’t actually see everything he says he did, I’m pretty sure someone else did.

I realized while reading that on some level I bought the line that everything possible is being done to protect civilians, and on another level I’ve known this couldn’t be true. Wars and armies are not organized to protect civilians; they’re organized to kill enemies. But as long as I believe the lie I don’t have to work very hard to change things. I can file my taxes and help fund the war instead of taking a stand and facing the consequences.

Key talks about knowing right from wrong and yet often doing wrong anyway. Clearly belief and even values are not enough in many circumstances. A lot of the beating, robbing, raping, and unprosecuted murders Key describes happened in part because the soldiers were pumped up and sent out to find weapons that aren’t there and to fight enemies they hardly ever get to fight. The insurgents attack and run, or plant bombs and hide, or blow themselves up. The civilians are the only people left for the soldiers to take out their fear, anger, and humiliation on. This may also explain in part why Iraqis are now killing each other. It’s easier for Iraqis to take out their fear, anger, and humiliation on their neighbors than the U.S. soldiers. (I know the religious reasons as well, but they’ve managed to live together peacefully at other times.)

How often do those of us under more “normal” circumstances fail to live up to our values and take out our fears and angers on the innocent? Adler said that seeing suffering and wrongdoing in the world is an opportunity not only for action but also for looking in ourselves and recognizing the potential for cruelty within each of us–forewarned is forearmed, or so we hope. I don’t know how I would act if I were a soldier in Iraq under these impossible and increasingly indefensible circumstances. Support our troops–get them home and get them help.

The Handmaid's Legislators

April 18, 2007
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Yesterday, the Missouri state legislature started debating an omnibus bill (SCS SB 370, 375, 432) that would further weaken sex education and family planning clinics in Missouri. All the available evidence, and two seconds of clear thought, shows that weakening sex education and access to birth control means more unwanted pregnancies.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on one of the safest kinds of late-term abortion. The “reasoning” of the decision is bizarre and paternalistic—as Justice Ginsberg, THE ONLY WOMEN ON THE COURT, ably explains: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-380.ZD.html.

I recently heard someone use the term “government-mandated childbirth.” Are Americans really going to allow the U.S. to become a theocracy? What’s amazing is the depth of denial of adults who wish children would never grow up, of people who have sex (as most people do, a lot) who wish that other people wouldn’t, of people who don’t want children (witness the low birthrate) who wish that everybody else would have them.

It seems to me based on massive Freudian projection, in which those overcome with guilt for their own dirty-bad desires seek to punish other people in their place. As someone trying to be more compassionate, I hope the theocrats learn joyously to embrace their own sexuality; but if they don’t, can’t they at least learn to punish themselves instead of the rest of us?

Virginia Tech

April 16, 2007
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The killings at Virginia Tech are horrifying and saddening. And immediately the questions: How could someone do this? Why do such things happen? Today at least as many innocent people will be killed in Iraq, in Darfur, yet those places are far away (if you are reading this in America), and those conflicts seem not quite as completely senseless–except all murder is equally senseless and is equally . . . evil? Sad? Mad? I tend to believe mad, because the only way I can understand murderers is as severely mentally ill–as never having developed or as having lost the understanding that other people are real.

There is always the desire to jump to fix-it, make-it-better, make-sure-it-doesn’t-happen-to-us-or-those-we-love mode, by mounting an argument for stricter gun control, or an argument for everyone to carry concealed weapons for self-protection; by blaming the American culture of violence, or by pointing out that violence overall is actually down despite this latest horror.

Perhaps when we learn more about the killer there can be actions to take to decrease easy gun access or increase mental-health care. But today all we can do is comfort the living and hold on more tightly to each other and our ideal: “May the humanity that is within every person be held more and more precious, and regarded with ever-deepening reverence.” And please, soon?

This Sunday after platform we will hold a special forum for those who would like to share their thoughts and feelings about this tragedy. If you have readings or other materials that help you in painful and confusing times, please bring those to share as well.

Humanists and charity

April 11, 2007
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Just wanted to share a couple interesting blog entries I ran across:

http://www.queercents.com/2006/04/17/god-and-mammon/ : Primarily about religion and charity, but what particularly struck me is a couple planning children going church-shopping because they believe that raising children in an agnostic household would be too scary for the children. I’d like to hear what any agnostic parents reading this think.

http://plonkee.blogspot.com/2007/04/atheists-should-tithe.html : An English humanist makes the case for tithing to charity.

"What's So Funny" links

April 6, 2007
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Here are some links related to my April Fools’ Day platform (which you can listen to at http://ethicalstl.org/libraryaudio.html):

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yes, the Ethical Society accepts dual affiliation.
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God”
The Onion‘s post-9/11 article “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule”

Any other links to share, fun-loving readers?

The Stanford Prison Experiment

April 1, 2007
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When I was studying psychology I read about the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a number of psychologically healthy students were divided into two groups to play prison in the basement of a Stanford building. Within days, the “guards” were abusing the “prisoners” so badly that the experiment was called off. The experiment showed how having absolute power over others can corrupt our ethics, as well as the power of context and role to shape our actions.

The head researcher of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, drew parallels between the experiment and the Abu Ghraib scandal. While not letting the low-level guards who became torturers off the hook entirely, Zimbardo argued that instead we should be indicting the system at the prison and the people who set it up, as torture and abuse were practically inevitable under those circumstances. He has now published a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, and you can read a transcript of a supportive interview with Zimbardo at http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/03/30/1335257–it has some riveting quotes from student “guards” and “prisoners” from the experiment. You can also read a rebuttal to Zimbardo’s arguments about the Abu Ghraib guards at http://www.slate.com/id/2100419/. What do you think? Was the problem the “bad apples,” the “bad barrel,” both, or something else?

There’s also a related but much more positive article on what the Stanford Experiment teaches us about heroism and how we can “nurture the heroic imagination” at http://www.prisonexp.org/pdf/greatergood.pdf. We do have the power to act for good even in the worst circumstances–we just need to remember that we do.

More follow-ups to "Ethical Sex"

March 27, 2007
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The Center for Disease Control has recommended routine vaccination of girls age 11/12 against HPV, a virus that causes cervical and other deadly cancers. You can read the report at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/rr/rr5602.pdf
(Thanks to Alan E. for the link).

For more poetic reading, Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” is available at poets.org (I read from section 9).

ECSSV!

March 27, 2007
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Just back from a wonderful weekend in San Jose, visiting the forming Ethical Culture Society of Silicon Valley. It’s good to see Ethical Culture spreading on the West Coast. There were planning meetings, workshops on dialog and meditation, and a platform (“Spirituality without God?”) that drew old friends and newcomers, young parents, octogenarians, and everyone in between. The Silicon Valley group doesn’t have a website yet (oh, the irony), but if you’re interested in an ethical community and you live in that area or have family or friends who do, contact me and I’ll get you more information.

Thanks Mom!

March 21, 2007
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The podcast for last Sunday’s platform address on “Ethical Sex” will be up soon, and since I’m about to leave for a long weekend in California visiting the new Ethical Society of Silicon Valley, let me now give credit where it’s due. The platform is dedicated to my mother, Nancy, whose passion for women’s equality and open good sense about sexuality influenced me to no end. A few people have told me that they found my platform “brave”; I find it sad that approaching the topic of sex with positive common sense should be considered anything but banal, but these days in America that seems to be the case.

Speaking of truly brave women, let me recommend these books again: How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, by Christina Page; and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, by Judith Levine.

Highest-ranking non-theist in America

March 13, 2007
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A U.S. Congressman has publicly declared that he does not believe in a supreme being. A recent poll (mentioned in the article) says that 55% of Americans would not vote for an atheist, but I don’t think anti-atheism sentiment is really that bad. Those kind of poll results simply measure stereotypes–it doesn’t say much about how people would feel about any particular atheist (or Mormon, Muslim, etc.). Many folks used to think they didn’t like gay people, because they didn’t know they knew any; now that they know that people they already like, admire, and love happen to be gay, they’re shedding many of the old stereotypes and fears. I believe the same will happen with atheists, which is why I’m glad Rep. Stark is willing to be public about his beliefs. Many voters fear that atheists are immoral, and the more openly atheist politicians there are, the clearer it will be that supernatural beliefs are irrelevant: all politicians are immoral.

Thanks to Stephen L for sending this link.

Hey, I know this one!

March 13, 2007
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Being a small (but scrappy) movement, it’s nice when we’re acknowledged in the wider culture sometimes. On a Prairie Home Companion a few years ago, Garrison Keillor referred to Ethical Culture as “the Jewish version of Unitarian. Also known as A.W.C. — Atheists With Children.” Not necessary an accurate joke, since we have many members who are neither of Jewish background, atheist, nor parents, but in the ballpark.

Today, Tony Hileman, Leader of the NY Society for Ethical Culture, sends word that the hint for 34 across in this morning’s Washington Post print edition is “Ethical Culture Movement’s founder.” It’s five letters beginning with A. . . . (Note the online crossword is different.)

Craig Ferguson video

March 6, 2007
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In this clip, late-night comic Craig Ferguson talks about the cruelty of humor and his struggle with alcoholism. It’s a remarkable moment of true humanity on TV. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch this video. (I know some of you don’t like AA, but he only makes a reference to it at the very end.)

A thought on scriptures et al. and morality

March 6, 2007
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When I tell people that I do not follow or believe in the Bible or other religious scriptures, I am often asked, incredulously, what I base my ethics on. I find this curious, because as far as I can tell, no scriptures, holy books, ancient philosophies, etc., give us a moral code to follow. Rather, humans have innate intuitions about morality that are continuing to evolve as we learn more about the world and cause and effect and interact with more and more different types of people and try to all get along. That’s why when we read ancient texts now, we mostly agree that the bits on kindness and mercy are good and “timeless,” and the bits on stoning people to death for adultery or cutting their hands off for stealing are unfortunate products of their time and no longer to be followed. We decide this within our consciences and in discussion among each other. The gods, prophets, and ancient thinkers have not been providing errata or updates. (“BTW, the part about murdering the children of your enemies being okay? I changed my mind about that.–God”) Perhaps the next time someone tells me that they follow or believe in religious scriptures, I should say, “Really? Then what do you base your ethics on?”

Harris versus Sullivan

March 3, 2007
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If you like these sorts of things, check out this rather long but very interesting debate on faith and reason between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. Although it’s a shame that they skim so quickly past what they agree on, I’m impressed that they remain civil.

Toward the bottom Harris expresses a longing for “a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality.” I await his pledge check.

Thanks to Gwydion for this link.

Religious TV on cold medicine

February 27, 2007
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I apologize for not writing recently.  I’ve had a bad cold, which meant a lot of lying on the couch watching TV.  We don’t have cable, so we get about 8 channels, and at least 4 of them usually seem to be broadcasting Protestant sermons.  It’s been interesting watching them.  Based on my completely unscientific sample, there seemed to be two kinds of shows: megachurch meetings, in which a professional-looking woman or man explains how following the Bible will improve your everyday life.  The advice in these is usually helpful common sense: be positive, exercise self-control, be nice to people, support your kids’ self-esteem, pursue your interests with energy, etc.  They’re like Oprah with a much larger studio audience and a much much more limited book club.  They appeal to the average American’s desire to improve his or her life in concrete ways: get a better job, better relationships, feel happier and more purposeful. I don’t believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but I didn’t feel threatened by these shows.
The other kind of show I saw was frightening, at least to me: the us/them peddlers.  These shows attacked “unbelievers,” questioners, Catholics (which surprised me), and their preachers promised (vague) heaven to the obedient and (graphic) hell to everyone else. These shows feed the human tendency to pump ourselves up by scapegoating others–and they had much, much smaller audiences, at least the ones I saw.  So maybe it was all the cold medicine, but I was at least comforted by the thought that all the religious revival going on in America might not be fed so much by a rejection of science or fear of people who are different as by a lot of people needing more help than they’re getting in making their lives and relationships work out better.

Which isn’t to say that these non-hating average folks can’t also be led somewhere ugly if they have blind faith in their Oprahlike preachers.  But I think what we’re seeing in the across-the-board rejection of the war, the tentative acceptance of stem-cell research, etc., is that Americans are much more practical than theological.  If we could just show how the theory of evolution helps balance your checkbook, keep your kid off drugs, and build a faster, cheaper car, “intelligent design” would be dead in the water.

Intelligent Design in Missouri?

February 20, 2007
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The legislation to which our Darwin Day speaker, Dr. George Johnson, referred recently is House Bill 1266, the “Missouri Science Education Act.”  The text of the bill is here, and you can listen to Dr. Johnson’s excellent talk here.

It’s hard to see at a first reading what could be controversial about the bill–it doesn’t have the words “creationism” or “intelligent design” anywhere in it. It just tells teachers to “separate” “verified empirical data” from that which only appears to be.  Dr. Johnson explained how recent DNA evidence is verified empirical data that proves the theory of evolution. But I’m doubtful that will end the threat of such bills. I’ve heard some creationists say that evolution can never be considered a fact, because we can’t see humans evolve from lower forms of life with our own eyes–because it happened in the past.  I know Missouri is the “Show Me” state, but it is taking the thing too far to undermine the teaching of empirically verified theories because no one alive today actually witnessed them in action.  If we follow that logic, teachers should also feel free to present “alternatives” to anything that happens too far away or too small to see with the naked eye: astronomy, cosmology, quantum physics, molecular biology. Perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster is responsible for more than we thought. . . .

I don’t know the current state of HB 1266, but it’s not dead.  Let me know if you have current information on the bill, and if you have an opinion on it one way or another, let your MO representative know.  It can be easy for bills without the words “intelligent design” to fly below the radar.

If you're reading this, you're probably rich

February 14, 2007
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An article on msn.com reports on a UN study of global wealth:  “The research indicates that assets of just $2,200 per adult place a household in the top half of the world’s wealthiest. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world, just $61,000 in assets is needed. If you have more than $500,000, you’re part of the richest 1%.”

I read a lot of these kinds of statistics, but this brought me up short.  It also mentions that the three richest people in the world have more money than the poorest 48 countries combined.  But don’t let that distract you from the fact that most of us reading this are rich compared to the rest of humanity.  How does that make you feel?  Guilty? Weird? Generous? Protective?  Another rich person wants to know.

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