The gun in our faces.


Marc Adams

I’ve stared at the business end of guns twice in my life. Once at the hands of a criminal and once at the hands of overzealous police. Neither incident will ever leave my mind.

Each time I see death and destruction like we have seen this past Friday I am quickly reminded of how I would have responded back in the day when I believed in the same theology as Mike Huckabee and those like him. A time when I lived life without owning a shred of empathy for others. My reaction would have been to respond just as he did, blaming others for removing (my) god from public schools.   Oddly enough I would have said (my) god was not allowed in public schools knowing in my heart I believed (my) god was omnipresent and knowing the impossibility of a government restraining access to my omnipotent god.

I would have done just as he did, ignore the insane and incomprehensible deaths of teachers and students and focused on trying to use the incident as a way to evangelize for my version of truth.

I would have responding in the only way I knew how, with selfishness and self-service.

It was a lonely path, thinking I was always being persecuted for my faith. Especially in moments like this when people would “attack” me for speaking (my decided) truth.

During times like this I feel humbled and still amazed that I was able to find a path to self-acceptance, the ability to love myself and miraculously, a way to learn empathy for others. It took me years to get those things right.

Now when I see the guns, the destruction of life, and the inevitable religious (it’s not always someone who identifies as a version of a christian) chaotic call, I still feel unsafe.  But it’s a different kind of lack of safety.

We are all responsible for lost lives and vanished hopes when we do not take moments like these as turning points. It’s not about guns, it’s not about my right to own a gun, it’s not about mental issues, and it’s definitely not about religion.  These days, right now, are about how we as human beings choose to make the world a safer place for everyone.

Safer for kids who should never feel bullied at school, let alone worried that they might never go home. Safer for teachers who should never wonder if their school will be next.  Safer for parents who trust so many other people with the safety of their children.  Safer for me and you, who need to be able to sign off on just one year where we didn’t have to watch or hear about loss due to our inability to do the right thing to protect each other physically, mentally and humanly.

Doing the right thing takes courage and compassion, something which is learned and tested by life’s experience.  In this instance it also means putting others before ourselves for the greater good of all.


Living Well – Discussion Highlights

These are some highlights from a recent Harvard Humanist Discussion. If you’re in the Boston area we invite you to join us for an upcoming discussion. You can join the list at https://memdir.org/HHA or at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HHADiscussionXYZ/.

This discussion had five participants, all men of at least middle age.  The discussion was wide-ranging so I’ll just try to capture some of the highlights.

We each started with a fairly concise statement of our individual perspectives, though subsequent discussion showed that there was more consensus than our initial statements reflected:

  1. A minimal level of financial security, strong relationships with family; giving back to society as much as one gets.  “The softest pillow is a clear conscience.”
  2. Freedom from extreme pain and unwanted loneliness.  Considered optional: close friends and family relationships, art, music, philosophy.  Freedom from all pain was considered unnecessary and impossible!
  3. Balancing a thorough enjoyment of one’s own life with service to others; healthy relationships; minimizing anxiety and avoiding depression.   “Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body).”
  4. Small amounts of toxins can increase health; making the world a better place.
  5. Adequate financial security; minimal stress; positive relationships; experiencing life fully; compassionate actions.

I found it notable that our definitions of happiness were rather modest:

  • None involved wealth (apart from basic financial security), fame or power.  While this surely reflected our particular temperaments rather than universal characteristics of human beings, it was still interesting.
  • None of us cared about “living on” through memory or works.  Living well for us involved the texture of this life, not comforting ideas about what might (or might not) happen after our deaths.
  • While several of us mentioned the importance of good relationships with friends and family, none of us identified “love” as a necessity, or even a goal.  This may in part reflect the fact that we were all older, most of us had already formed families, and several had been through nasty divorces.  But it’s also interesting that romance left us all cold.

Nobody challenged the concept of “happiness,” but none of us felt that living well involved anything like a passive condition of bliss.  I recommended The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, which presents a lot of scientific information concerning human well being.

Several of us, though not all, felt that kindness and compassion is an essential element of living well.  I agreed, but perceived a core of selfishness within my own charitable impulses.  Being compassionate — to a certain extent — makes me feel good about myself, and being callous makes me feel bad.  I give to various charities and sometimes do kind things for individuals.  But I do only as much as feels good, and I don’t think I would give up much of anything important to help others if I were forced to choose.

Several  of us agreed with Socrates’s injunction to “know thyself.”  While the term “mindfulness” has come in for criticism most of us felt that one element of living well is being thoughtful about our actions and fully conscious of our experiences.

Several of us enjoyed experiences in which we were fully engaged in a task or other activity, with a heightened awareness, yet also an absorption that leads us to lose track of time.  (This is a state that Haidt refers to as “flow.”)  While these moments are relatively rare, in some way they illuminate the rest of our lives with meaning.

One of us declared that, “humor is my religion,” and several of us agreed that a humorous perspective is hugely important.  More generally, we identified the importance of having a “glass half full” attitude towards the experiences of our lives.  “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”




Faith Healing works on Pain

Tikkun magazine just published my article, “Faith Healing for Skeptics”


It explains, using neuroscience, how people like Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, can overcome back pain through a variant of the placebo effect.




Humanists and the Occupy Movement

Do you think the Occupiers are justified in engaging in civil disobedience by camping in parks without a permit? I do. It doesn’t hurt anybody, and the people have a constitutional right to assembly.

What about marching without a permit in streets, tying up traffic, or shutting down the port of Oakland? That does inconvenience others. I’d rather queasy about that, and think those tactics should be used sparingly if at all.

Would engaging with the Occupy movement give Humanists a potential new source of adherents?

I’ve described my participation with Occupy Boston in a post on The Humanist magazine’s blog, Rant & Reason

I’ve led meditations there as an outgrowth of what I’ve been doing at the Humanist Mindfulness group. I have also published an ebook on Amazon called Occupy the Moment, which obviously has to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement and perhaps less obviously with the idea of “being in the moment.”

It only costs 99 cents, but each sale will help give me a track record to maybe someday get this published as a real, physical book, so I’d appreciate your support. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the free Kindle app for Mac, Windows, iPhone at my Occupy the Moment web site.


Death and Dying – Discussion Highlights

These are some highlights of last Wednesday’s Harvard Humanist Alumni Discussion. If you’re in the Boston area we invite you to join us for an upcoming discussion. You can join the list at https://memdir.org/HHA or at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HHADiscussionXYZ/.

We all agreed that there is nothing after death (or “very probably” in the case of an agnostic). I made the argument that the fact that life is finite only makes it more precious, and focuses us on finding meaning in the texture of our actual lives rather than in an imaginary afterlife. Another participant noted that there’s no point in wasting your limited time on earth worrying about death. It was pointed out that people who are confident in either atheism or religious beliefs have less fear of death than those who are in between, and that confident atheists should make an effort to understand the fear of death that others have.

One participant expressed no fear of his own death, but great anxiety about how to comfort someone else who might be grieving or dying. We agreed that Humanists have strong intellectual arguments, but you need to offer emotional comfort as well as logical arguments to console someone. Even though religion may be factually wrong it may still have an advantage in its ability to offer consolation to people who are afraid of death, or grieving the death of a loved one. It was noted that a Humanist funeral is mostly a celebration when the person who died had lived a long and rich life, but that such a funeral is a lot harder in the case of a tragic early death; in that case one has to acknowledge shock, anger and grief first and foremost since there isn’t as much to celebrate.

One participant described how s/he had avoided someone who had experienced the tragic death of a child because s/he didn’t know what to say to the person; we all agreed that it is natural to be afraid in such a situation but that we shouldn’t do this.

We didn’t agree on the best way to die: one of us wanted to die in his sleep; others thought it would be better to have some time to say goodbyes; though we all agreed that lingering severe pain wasn’t appealing.

The participants ranged from under 30 to over 60; it was interesting that the older ones on the whole expressed less fear of death than the younger.

We discussed a couple of ancient texts. My personal favorite was this one from De Rerum Naturae by Lucretius:

Nothing to Fear in Death

15 Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession. .

For, if by chance grief and pain are in store for a man, he must himself exist at the time ill is to befall him. Since death forestalls this and prevents his existence, into which such misfortunes might otherwise crowd, we may be sure that we have nothing to fear in death, and that he who is no more cannot be wretched, and that there is not a scrap of difference to him if he had never at any time been born, when once immortal death has stolen away mortal life.

16 Again, suppose nature should suddenly lift up her voice, and herself rebuke some one of us in these words: “Why is death so great a thing to you, mortal, that you give way excessively to sickly lamentation? Why groan and weep at death? For if the life that is past and gone has been pleasant to you, and all its blessings have not drained away and not been enjoyed—as if poured in a vessel full of holes—why don’t you retire like a guest sated with thee banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, you fool, a rest that knows no care? But if all you have reaped has been wasted and lost, and life is a stumbling-block, why seek to add more—all to be lost again foolishly and passsed away without enjoyment? Why not rather make an end of life and trouble? For there is nothing more which I can devise or discover to please you: all things are ever as they were.”



Humanism and Religion – Discussion Highlights

This is a guest post by Kirsten Waerstad, reporting on last Wednesday’s Harvard Humanist Alumni Discussion concerning Humanism and Religion.


Wednesday evening’s meeting (9/28/11)  of the Harvard Humanist Alumni Boston Discussion Group brought about lively debate on issues of how Humanists engage with religious people on both a personal and  group level.  Should the Humanist community build bridges with religious groups, and if so, how?  Are certain beliefs and practices of religionists fair game for ridicule?  Are some religious practices worth emulating within a humanist context?

The following is a summary of the questions raised, highlights of the group’s input on various themes that arose during the discussion, and my personal thoughts on the issues.  Having grown up in the deep South, my formative years were, not surprisingly, shaped by religion.  My parents were transplants, immigrants from Norway, so I was not a complete insider and fortunately was able to maintain a skeptical eye for most of my thirty years in Alabama.  Though the tie of religion to life is one that I perhaps will never be able to completely untether.

Do you engage personally with religious people about faith issues, and if so how?

On a personal level, I think that religion is a private affair.  I do not go out of my way to confront my religious friends about their faith.  My compulsion to engage someone is largely based on the context in which a religious issue is raised.  If a friend sincerely tells me that she is praying for me, I take that as a wish of good will and leave it at that.  If stronger remarks are made that this or that life event was “meant to be”, then I might feel a prickle on the back of my neck and am likely to engage in a discussion about the nature of life’s tragic events, and how callous it sounds to hear that some one’s misfortune  “was meant to be” .

During the discussion, the point was made that successful engagement is best achieved by first recognizing and respecting the fact that we are all people.  Interacting with religious people first on a human level before launching into a deep discussion will go farther than starting with contention.  Politeness aside, there was a consensus that we should not let silence be misconstrued as condoning or agreeing with a certain belief.  Humanists should feel comfortable openly supporting reason over superstition and declaring that we do not share a belief in the supernatural.

The discussion turned to the topic of our interactions and “actions” within religious settings.  When we attend a religious service such as a marriage or a funeral, can we respectfully not participate?  Is that what you do?  Or do you participate in or mimic the rituals out of courtesy?  There were thoughts on both sides of the aisle.  Comments were made that going through the motions without sharing the belief is disrespectful, while someone who had attended a friend’s funeral felt that his childhood familiarity with the rituals and a wish not to make the moment about his beliefs made him inclined to participate as a gesture of goodwill.

Religious expression within a public context was also brought up.  One of our group had recently attended an environmental event where one of the speakers told the crowd that “God wants us to take care of the planet”.  The attendee pondered this unexpected reference to religion at the rally.  Invoking God’s name was not appropriate in such a setting.  As nonreligious supporters, should we take offense? Certainly most of the people present shared the desire to spread a sense of stewardship for the Earth.  Rather than feeling alienated, should we simply welcome having a common goal with an uncommon ally?  There does exist a progressive religious left, albeit small, that cares about the environment.  Does progress toward a common goal trump voicing indignation over small infractions?  How do we best deal with overt religious expression when working with groups who share our goals on certain issues?
How engaged do you think the Humanist movement should be with organized
religions?  (Building Bridges)

I think Humanists should regularly be involved with organized religions in community projects.  Working on interfaith projects gives us the opportunity to educate the community and religious organizations about what Humanism is. It also reminds people that being a contributing, moral member of society is not dependent upon a person’s religion.

Someone pointed out that, as humanists, it is also important to build bridges with organized religion as a commitment to being inclusive, a quality not shared by many religious groups who by their nature suffer from elitism; if you do not believe in their particular God or brand, then you are excluded.  Humanism embraces a wide range of people: nonbelievers, nonreligious, atheists, agnostics, free thinkers.   Basically, humanism welcomes anyone who does not feel that their morality is derived from a belief in a god.  Even the progressively religious can be humanist, or at least friendly allies, since the basic framework for being a humanist is to seek the best in yourself and others, and to believe in your own ability to make a positive difference in the world.

There was a general consensus  that reaching out to the thousands, millions actually, of individuals who are already free thinkers, are not associated with religion or who have left their faiths for whatever reason is more important than building bridges with religious organizations.   In the U.S. today, 1 out 5 young people polled do not associate themselves with a particular religion.  There is a treasure trove of free-thinkers out there with which to align ourselves.  Reaching out to them should be our top priority.  By raising the visibility of Humanists as a group, we are likely to attract many like-minded people in the community who simply never knew that we existed.

When, if ever, is it appropriate to ridicule religious beliefs?

In general, I don’t believe that ridiculing another person’s beliefs is constructive.  However, there are certainly egregious examples of religious doctrine which call for exceptions.  For instance, practices or beliefs that impinge upon the rights of women or those that single out groups such as gays for ill-treatment, should be met with the same latitude of candor or constructive ridicule that would be evoked by a particularly racist comment or promotion of a racist agenda.

There were strong sentiments within the group that certain religious beliefs that have been foisted into the public sphere should be vigorously contested.  The addition of “under God” in the 1950s to the original text  of our pledge of allegiance is an infringement that should be remedied.  “In God We Trust” on our currency falls into the same realm.  The teaching of intelligent design or any other form of pseudoscience holds no legitimate place in public schools.  Encroachment of religion into the public sphere should be met with indignation and a demand for government that is unencumbered by the overt or subtle promotion of religion, especially a particular brand of religion.

What religious practices or emotions should humanism seek to replicate in a non-theistic context?

I think there are quite a few positive things that can be said for the role that religion plays in the lives of its adherents. Outside of its own particular brand of dogma and spiritual guidance, religious institutions lend a sense of community for their members and provide a common place to discuss matters important to them, to socialize, and to celebrate life’s milestones.  An equivalent resource does not really exist for  nonreligious people.   Certainly, there are societies for free-thinkers, atheist associations and the like; but we lack  institutions that provide a more holistic approach.  I think that emulating religious institutions in ways that address people’s needs on an intellectual, social, and personal level would greatly enhance the Humanist movement.  As Greg Epstein emphasizes  in his book, Good Without God, “being a good person in a vacuum is not a very satisfying experience”.

Someone in the group pointed out that Europe has accomplished a largely secular society without the coalescing of a humanist movement.  Another expressed doubt that such emulation of a “community feel” is even possible among the diverse, individually minded free-thinkers in our society.  Agreeing with the skepticism, someone asked if it was better to have a “small group of people with focus and clarity or a large group with an unfocused view”.  He advocated for the former.  I agreed with the person who sided with the latter.   We risk suffering the same elitism of religion if we dismiss the many new and enthusiastic free-thinking voices that have appeared over the past decade.  It is refreshing to see a more unified movement stir that seeks to simply be good for the sake of being good, to bring awareness of the oppressive side of religion, to ask serious questions about widespread beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, and to provide an alternative, supportive community for people to become involved in.  I’m optimistic about building Humanist communities here in the Boston area and all over the United States.  I think that we are on the verge of a tipping point in which a growing cohesive voice of reason may eventually become louder than that of dogma and fantasy.


Goodness Me! – Discussion Highlights

These are some personal reflections on “goodness” sparked by a recent discussion at the Harvard Humanist Alumni Boston Discussion Group.  The tag line “Good Without God” is marvelous on many levels, but it makes me queasy because I’m not sure what “good” really means.  Whatever it means, I’m quite sure we can accomplish it without the help of any gods. But I didn’t feel comfortable claiming to be “good” until I had a better idea what it means. The discussion didn’t completely dispel my unease, but it did crystallize my thinking and impel me to post.

First, Do No Harm

I do feel fairly clear about what might be called “passive goodness,” i.e. avoiding the unnecessary infliction of harm on others (or, I would add, on myself).  Cruelty, lying, cheating, stealing, violence — all can cause injury to others, and also make me feel bad about myself.  Whenever possible I try to avoid them. Would I tell a lie to save someone’s life? Of course. I might even tell a little “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, if I were confident that the harm it might cause were minimal.  I would steal if I were starving, etc.  But as it happens I have the luxury of avoiding active badness almost all the time.

I’m also comfortable doing things that some religions condemn if I’m confident that they don’t cause harm. Most of the “seven deadly sins” don’t trouble me as such, unless they are pursued in a way that causes injury (to me or others): lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, even pride. While wrath may have its place, in general I do try to avoid it. And I’m not sure envy is ever harmless, although it may not always be possible to prevent. And even though I feel no intrinsic compunction about the other “sins” any of them can be injurious if pursued to excess.

It was pointed out the other night that the concept of avoiding harm resonates with the injunction of Maimonides: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”  While few would disagree with this, we all felt that a robust idea of “goodness” means more than simply refraining from active badness. Some religions might see a life of passive meditation as the supreme good. A Humanist, however, would not consider that to be an especially “good” life. “Goodness” requires something more.


Perhaps the simplest form of active goodness is common courtesy. Being pleasant, listening attentively, expressing sympathy, not interrupting. Sharing, waiting your turn, avoiding conflicts. Simple niceness will not solve the world’s problems. But it does improve the texture of our daily lives, and I do try to accomplish it.

The Categorical Imperative and The Golden Rule

There is another type of minor-league “goodness” that I practice because it makes me feel good. I think of it — perhaps mistakenly — as having something to do with Kant’s “categorical imperative,” that we should live by principles that we can will to be universal laws.

One example is jaywalking. I happily ignore traffic signals and markings, so long as I don’t require any driver to brake. My reasoning is that I would be happy — either as walker or driver — with a world in which this behavior were universal. I hate jaywalkers who make me brake, when I am driving, so I don’t inflict that on other drivers. (Of course I have no compunction about stopping traffic when I have the right of way.)

Another example involves busy coffee shops. I don’t take or “reserve” a seat until I have received at least part of my order. If everyone followed this rule the available seats would be put to their best use, and nobody would ever have to stand with his/her order because otherwise available seats had been “reserved.” Most of the time this works out — someone gets up by the time I receive my order. But I consider it an acceptable price to pay, for acting in accordance with a sound general principle, that I occasionally have to stand for a while. (I don’t follow this rule if the coffee shop is empty since in that case putting down my coat doesn’t risk anyone’s inconvenience.)

I’m not sure how much further this idea can take me; I haven’t tried to apply it in more serious contexts, but I do feel that jaywalkers who block traffic, and people who “reserve” seats in busy coffee shops, are not my idea of “good.”

There’s a resonance between this idea and the “Golden Rule.” I am in these cases behaving the way I wish others would behave. But to my mind “do unto others as you would have them do to you” is so broad as to be meaningless, unless you limit it to the minor-league domain of niceness. I would like people to give me all their money; so I should give them all my money? There are lots of things I would like that I don’t do, that it would make no sense for me to do. To my mind this — as a fundamental principle — is incoherent.

Competence and Goodness

Competence is obviously not goodness; an evil person could be highly competent.  But I submit that incompetence, especially extreme incompetence, is incompatible with goodness. A bad person intentionally causes harm. A “good-hearted” but incompetent person means well, but causes harm all the same. Lying may require an intent to mislead, but telling the truth requires competence: a person who doesn’t know what’s true or believes other people’s lies will say things that are just as false as if s/he were intentionally lying. The promises of an incompetent person are just as unreliable as those of someone who has no intention of keeping their word. A person who is insensitive to the feelings of others can hurt them as badly as if s/he acted with intentional cruelty. While from a religious perspective intention may make all the difference, in my view a highly incompetent person is scarcely distinguishable from a truly bad person.

Charity and Service

I give money to a variety of charities, mostly because it makes me feel good, and less guilty about what I don’t do. I am especially generous to several charities that cater to the homeless and indigent in the Boston area. I do this specifically so that I will feel less guilty about not giving money to panhandlers. I don’t give handouts on this theory: if I don’t like what people are doing — and I hate being asked for alms — I won’t pay people to do it, thus encouraging them to continue and others to emulate them. On the other hand, I always buy Spare Change newspaper because it gives homeless folks a chance to earn an honest dollar, and because the organization gives them opportunities to work their way out of poverty. I also give generously to musicians and other performers who I like, both to help them and to encourage them to entertain me.

I avoid “service projects,” despite the fact that many love them. An example might be gluing together scarves to keep homeless people warm in the winter. This is a kind idea and I wish all the best to people who want to do it. I am even attracted by the community aspect of getting together with a bunch of nice people to do something virtuous. I don’t particularly enjoy gluing (or whatever), and I’m not particularly good at it, but if those were the only considerations I might sometimes go or sometimes not. This further argument, however, almost always keeps me away: If I am going to spend an hour working for homeless people it is both more enjoyable and vastly more productive for me to do something that I enjoy and am sufficiently good at to be well compensated for, then to donate my earnings. In the example of scarves, the (say) $100 I could earn might buy two dozen scarves professionally made in a third-world factory, as opposed to the handful of amateurishly-glued scarves I might make.


In the discussion I raised the question of what we thought we would do if we were faced with a motorcyclist trapped beneath a burning SUV (as happened recently in Utah). A dozen bystanders tipped up the SUV and pulled the cyclist to safety. I don’t know whether I would be so heroic. I kind of hope I would, but I can easily imagine myself being too timid, and coming up with rationalizations for inaction. One of us pointed out, however, that there isn’t much point dwelling on such extreme examples because we really can’t know in advance how we would behave.


Apart from the sketchy ideas outlined above I really don’t have a formal framework for resolving moral questions. There is no Humanist Bible. The most important rule I try to follow is to think about these questions — both in the abstract and when possible issues arise. I try to be sensitive to when I may be causing harm, and take the time to consider whether there is a better way to proceed. And I am deeply skeptical of anyone who claims to have a formula or holy book that purports to answer the question of what is or isn’t good.

Why Try to Be Good?

One participant the other night said that s/he has no particular interest in being good. It really is a fair question: since there’s no danger of divine retribution why bother being good at all?

Anyone of course will be influenced by the likelihood of real-life rewards or punishments. It’s obvious that we avoid committing crimes if we think we might get caught, and we can be motivated to do do good deeds by the prospect of applause or compensation. The behavior is good but these cases are uninteresting because they reflect simple self-interest.

What’s interesting is a situation in which a good or bad deed will never be known, or will never have consequences for the actor. In these cases there is only one non-religious reason to be good: that it will make you feel better than if you behave badly.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that this is usually true for most people in most circumstances. The only explanation I can offer for this happy fact is that most people I know have been brought up with good values in a relatively healthy society. They are hard-wired to feel good about themselves when they behave well and badly about themselves if they don’t. When this is true it is once again a matter of self-interest — thoughtful, enlightened self-interest — to behave well.

It must be acknowledged, however, that not everyone feels this way, and for anyone there will be situations in which other considerations outweigh concern about one’s future feelings. Some people evidently feel no guilt, because of organic defect, faulty upbringing or the coarsening effects of a hard life. It’s easy to call them names — “sociopath” for example — but ultimately we are just lucky there aren’t more of them. There are intermediate cases: someone who thinks s/he will feel no guilt but then is wracked by it (Lady MacBeth), and someone who fears guilt but finds in the event that s/he feels nothing (MacBeth himself).  I would like to think, however, that most of us would do the right thing, absent a strong countervailing motive. I personally have the luxury of indulging my sense of self-satisfaction almost always because there happen in my life to be relatively few motives that tempt me to behave badly (according to my own values).

Regina Spektor sings a wonderful song about someone who finds a wallet. It ends as follows; I get chills at the final note:

I’ll take your wallet
to my local blockbuster
they’ll find your number
in their computer
you’ll never know me
I’ll never know you
but you’ll be so happy
when they call you up

Empathy and Dignity

I think the basis for our desire to be good — such as it is — lies in empathy, our capacity and propensity to put ourselves in another person’s place, to feel — to some extent — their pain and pleasure as our own.

Adam Smith explains in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that empathy for others, while natural, is naturally much less intense than concern for ones own feelings.  One might imagine someone who is truly more concerned about the feelings of others than about his or her own feelings, but this is more likely to be pretense than reality. And I much prefer the real world, in which people pursue their own interests, tempered by a reasonable measure of concern for others.

It was also pointed out the other evening that empathy varies depending on the degree of kinship with the other person. Stephen Pinker argues in “How the Mind Works” that our empathy for others is proportionate to how many of our genes the other person shares. While I would argue that the mental systems evolved through pure genetic natural selection have in many cases been co-opted for broader social purposes I acknowledge the fact that empathy is variable: One typically has greater empathy with relatives than with acquaintances, greater empathy with friends than with strangers, greater empathy with people “like me” than people who are “different,” etc.  One of us pointed out the other night that even nice people can be affected by unconscious racial bias, e.g. in employment.  I can’t be sure that I am free of this, although the breadth of my contacts with people of different cultures and races may be helpful. My only thought about how to correct such bias is to be aware of the possibility and to attempt to consciously compensate for it whenever possible. I perceive the problem of variable empathy as especially problematic in the extreme case where others are “depersonalized” so as to be excluded altogether from empathy. Humans seem all to ready to do this to “the enemy,” or even just to someone from a different tribe. A minimum level of empathy for all other humans, however different, would go a long way towards mitigating the most horrific atrocities.

Greg Epstein wrestles with the definition of goodness in “Good Without God,” and settles on a somewhat different formulation, Sherwin Wine’s concept of “dignity.”  (p. 90)  I had the privilege of hearing Wine speak at the New Humanism conference in 2007. He was an extraordinarily powerful speaker: clear, forceful, witty, wise. I didn’t know him personally but I still felt shattered when I learned of his tragic death, in a car crash, just three months later. Wine’s idea of “dignity” is composed of four elements:

  • high self-awareness
  • willingness to assume responsibility
  • refusal to find one’s identity in any possession
  • sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others

This is a powerful combination, which I can easily imagine has the ability change lives. To me, however, it appears to be a recipe for self-actualization, rather than a formula for any sort of goodness.  Someone following these principles would quite possibly be effective in leading others, but where they might lead seems undefined. From my perspective the missing component is empathy.


For the sake of argument, the other night, I threw out the idea of perfection, supposing that it would be quickly dismissed.  To my surprise it sparked a lively interchange. One participant expressed the view that perfection is impossible; that whatever our idea of goodness we are doomed in the real world to fall short of the ideal. But another participant asked what we strive for if we don’t seek to achieve perfection. I was taken aback at this idea since in my own life I try to do a good job and avoid doing a lot of damage, but I never even think about perfection. The idea has a 19th century ring to me; “Excelsior!” Yet I wonder whether that attitude is the way in which really significant accomplishments are achieved! Another participant recounted a wonderful story — too personal I think for me to repeat here — about how “perfect” life can be.

Individual Goodness and the Good Society

One striking feature of the other night’s discussion was the way the conversation veered again and again between individual goodness and social health or illness. We are responsible as individuals for our own behavior. But our ability to be good and our desire to be good are inextricably dependent on the quality and character of the society in which we live. Contributing in whatever way we can to the health and fairness of our community is perhaps one of the most important elements of active goodness.

I mentioned last night a book that I am currently reading entitled “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.”  It presents extensive evidence for the proposition that once a society reaches a certain level of wealth — which the developed world has long achieved — additional wealth adds little to happiness, health, and many other indicia of well-being.  Those desirable characteristics are, however, very strongly correlated with low income disparity between rich and poor.  The authors contend, based on extensive and persuasive data, that inequality correlates with (and arguably causes) a host of social ills.  If the book sustains this argument it may cause me to shift my own political views sharply leftwards, more closely aligned with European socialism than with any mainstream American political movement.



According to the Bible Jesus performed quite a few miracles: loaves and fishes, water into wine, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc. Good stuff, although a skeptic could imagine ways in which they might not have been quite so miraculous.  For example, maybe Lazarus wasn’t completely dead…

But did you know that Jesus also created a living bird from a handful of clay?  Now that’s a real miracle, right up there with God’s creation of Adam from a handful of dust!

I don’t believe this myself, mind you, but 1.5 billion people do.  It’s not in the Bible so how can I make this claim?  Because it’s in the Koran.  Pickthal’s translation of Surah 3, verse 49 reads, “Lo! I fashion for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, and I breathe into it and it is a bird, by Allah’s leave.”  (The story is repeated in Surah 5, verse 110.)

While Muhammad is considered the final (and best) prophet, Muslims also revere Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other biblical figures as earlier prophets of Allah, the God of the Old and New Testaments. Jews and Christians are considered “people of the book,” to whom Allah gave holy, although no longer definitive, religious texts. So why can’t they all get along?  That would be a true miracle!


An Atheist Yearning for Community

The link below is to an item by an atheist on a gay blog site that expresses the author’s yearning for the kind of community that religion offers, even though he rejects religious beliefs. The writer speculates that his Catholic upbringing may have laid the foundations for these feelings.  The author doesn’t mention Humanism, but as I see it part of the Humanist project is to find ways to meet this need for community without reverting to supernatural beliefs.

Corvino: A Skeptic’s Faith


Angels and Innocents

By Sikivu Hutchinson

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware that children could die.  It was early evening in the leisurely dusk of summer, and after eating with my mother at a local coffee shop, we passed by a newspaper vending machine outside.  A child victim, kidnapped, murdered and disposed of like garbage, stared ominously out at me from the front page of the paper in grainy black and white.  I remember my sense of horror when my mother told me that the child, who was approximately my age, would never see his parents again.  Associating death with old people, I was stupefied by this seeming contradiction.  Although raised heretically in a secular household, I had been corrupted by the prayer-saturated social universe of waxen blue-eyed Jesus’ plastered on my friends’ living room walls.  Alone in my bed that night, I wondered how “God” could have countenanced such unspeakable evil.

Decades later there is an aching space where this child’s life would have been, his personhood “frozen” at abduction.  Violent death by homicide at an early age is a grim reality for many youth of color.  Gangsta rap romanticizes it and dishes it up for the voyeurism of white suburbia.  Mainstream media ignores it or relegates it to social pathology.  Every semester when I ask my students if they’ve had a young friend or relative die violently at least half will raise their hands.  Their tattoos, notebooks and Sidekick phones are filled with vibrant mementoes for the dead.  It is not necessary to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other theatre of American imperialism to experience the devastation that the killing fields of disposable youth inflicts.  Yet, God takes care of children and fools, or so the shopworn saying goes.  In the midst of sudden death there is refuge in the belief that the Cecil B.  De Mille epic doomsayer of the Old Testament must have a special place in his heart for this tender constituency.  Pied Piper religionists pat children on the head and whisper into their dewy ears that the murder of an innocent child is part of some grand design.  They dish up the concept of divine providence like hard candy.  They lure sweet-toothed youth with a ready “antidote” to the quandary of trying to make sense out of the senselessness and randomness of evil.  The Wynken, Blynken and Nod bedtime story of grand design is chased down with the simple carrot of eternal reward for slain innocents. The inexplicable is assimilated.  Senseless evil, evil that befalls the good and stalks the innocent, is legitimized as part of the divine’s hardscrabble boot camp for the living. 

If it can be understood, it isn’t God, said Augustine.  In ambiguity then, prayer is the great equalizer and potential redeemer.  As American children we grow up with recurring images of kneeling girls and boys, hands clasped solemnly in prayer.  These images propagandize faith as a normal, natural phenomenon.  The magic bullet of prayer is trotted out as an escape hatch from the small indignity to the unspeakably cruel act of wild-oats-sewing youth.  Bad kids pray obsessively for forgiveness.  Good kids pray strategically in crisp starched pajamas for family members, friends, and Fido to be delivered to the top of God’s check list.  Sinful thoughts can be defused by requesting a special audience with God.  Good thoughts can be “deposited” into one’s virtual piggy bank of moral worth. 

Blasting the hypocrisy of this brand of yo-yo morality in the Doors’ song “the Soft Parade,” Jim Morrison bellows:

When I was back there in seminary school, a person put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayerpetition the Lord with prayerpetition the Lord with prayer…You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!

Morrison’s fierce monologue highlights the absurdity of prayer as a form of negotiation.  Clearly, the more meditative personal and intimate benefits of prayer can be therapeutic to the believer.   Yet, the assumption that prayer can be a bargaining chip in moments of crisis merely allows individuals to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.  Children who are indoctrinated into this escape hatch mentality are forced early on to reconcile an out of control, evil, morally rudderless world with the illusion of a forgiving tailor-made God that they can summon like hocus pocus.  Picking and choosing morality and dividing the world into the Christian “us” and the immoral, unwashed secular/Muslim/Hindu/“them,” “faith-based” children are socialized to see and enforce hierarchies of personhood rather than embrace fellowship. 

Since God sees and “forgives” everything that is petitioned, the moral universe of children is a tiny, confining funhouse of mirrors.  In communities where death at an early age is considered unremarkable by mainstream media and policymakers, the deferment demanded by faith is an insurance policy against social oblivion.  When death is near, it is easy to arm a child with the “faith” that their 15 year-old cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting, has gone on to a “better place.” When death is near, the fear of retaliation for being a “snitch” compels crime witnesses to remain silent.  As a result, homicide cases remain open indefinitely while perpetrators walk around free and clear in the same neighborhoods.  Yet faith allows victims and witnesses to rationalize this seeming contradiction.  God will take care of the evildoer in the afterlife, whilst granting the departed everlasting peace and deliverance in heaven.

And for the parents of a dead child it is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.   Having lost a child to a congenital disease, this is bitter refuge and rank fraud.  This reductive homily has been especially tailored to domesticate and seduce women, saddled with a thousand obligations, the primary care of children and infirm relatives, dead end jobs with marginal pay.  It is God’s will that you be eaten alive by the “womanly” stress of always being expected to defer, sacrifice and persevere.  And it is God’s will that you must bite back your Eve-bequeathed rage in silent complicity.

In my infant son’s final hours, I stared down at the phalanx of tubes that separated him from death.  Soon, they said, he will be an angel.  I could feel nothing but the obscenity of divine providence, the mockery of robust babies whisked from the delivery room to pink and blue splattered nurseries without incident, innocent of the antiseptic drone of the neonatal ICU. 

But then, there is the stripped-to-the-bone eloquence of women waiting for deliverance; like that depicted in a story I read recently about a homeless Haitian single mother’s heartbreaking quest for permanent shelter.  Desperately she waits for God to “put something into her hand,” to perhaps give her a sign that she won’t be like scores of parents fated by this rudderless God to outlive their young children.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.