Archive for December, 2009

27
Dec
09

HUMANISM AND RESPONSIBILITY REPORTING

I have just returned from one week of intensive training for Sustainability consulting and Sustainability reporting for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs).  This was through the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, Austria.  UNIDO is the only United Nations agency tasked with developing jobs and work opportunities in the developing countries.  (The other agencies, like UNICEF, WHO, etc give aid and assistance to people in the least developed countries.)  Of the 20 attendees, 4 were from Croatia, 3 were from Bosnia, and one each from several countries including Ecuador, Moldova, Ukraine, Greece, Austria, Germany, etc.  I was the only representative from the United States and was also the only one there not involved in consulting in a developing country.  I was there not because of my job, but just because I have become very involved in many aspects of the United Nations as a personal interest and as a hobby.  As such, I have become quite involved with the United Nations Global Compact which is the UN’s work with the business sector in assuring that businesses are run in a Sustainable fashion. Continue reading ‘HUMANISM AND RESPONSIBILITY REPORTING’

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21
Dec
09

pantheism and humanism

Ross Douthat, the new conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has an item entitled Heaven and Nature in today’s issue, pointing out the pantheism in the movie Avatar, as well as in many other Hollywood movies in recent decades. While I haven’t seen Avatar, his general argument rings true to me. Exceptions such as the Christian-inspired Narnia films stand out precisely because they are rare.

As he develops his argument he finds time to suggest, almost in an aside, that pantheism is “a form of religion that even atheists can support.”

Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The conclusion of his essay is a ringing attack on pantheism as an abandonment of self-consciousness and morality, a “downward exit” from civilization itself. I don’t wholly disagree with this: Pantheism alone, not informed by humanist values, has as much potential for harm as any other religion.

I take issue, however, with the implication that atheists typically or even often embrace pantheism as their sub-rosa religion. There is a big difference between feeling awe at the natural world and “divinizing” nature. Humanists may reasonably share Douthat’s concern about Hollywood’s embrace of pantheism, to the extent that it represents a deification of the natural world to the detriment of human values. But any implication that Humanists exalt nature-worship over human values is simply wrong.

I do acknowledge a division among Humanist in how we feel about nature. (This emerged in a lively discussion at a recent meeting of Boston’s Humanist Small Group.) Some of us feel that nature is to be valued only because of its potential to contribute to human thriving, both materially and aesthetically. If some element of the natural world has no potential to serve human needs these folks would feel no compunction about destroying it. Others feel empathy for animals, plants and even other natural features, as well as for other humans. This second group sees it as a Humanist value to preserve and protect nature as such, while recognizing that the flourishing of human beings is a more important value. Even though some Humanists care more about nature than others, none of us deify it at the expense of human values.

17
Dec
09

Nonviolent Communication

At our last Humanist Small Group, we had a presentation on nonviolent communication, a method of interaction pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg of the Center for Nonviolent Communication that seeks to “communicate in ways that inspire compassionate giving and receiving toward meeting the needs of all concerned.” It’s a way of getting a message across without escalating conflict. Among the books that discuss this technique are:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg,

Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real by Thomas d’Ansembourg

Peaceful Living: Daily Meditations for Living With Love, Healing, and Compassion by Mary Mackenzie

For an example of something that is the opposite of nonviolent communication, see this statement by Richard Dawkins:

I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt. Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

The challenge for those of us who prefer nonviolent communication is not to just communicate our disagreements on substance with religious people to them nonviolently, but also to communicate our differences over tone to those with whom we agree on substance, like Richard Dawkins.

For instance, here is a post by P.Z. Myers in which he said he felt attacked by someone on his own side:

That was before I got to chapters 8 and 9, however, which open with very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.

This dustup lead to quite a bit of back and forth sniping. I think it’s quite an art to disagree without being disagreeable.

14
Dec
09

Charity

At the late November Humanist Small Group session, we discussed Charity (and Selfishness).  We touched on both financial giving and volunteering one’s time and assistance, though some felt that those two types of giving were very different.  We talked about both giving to the people in our lives and giving to large organizations.

One recurring theme was that giving and receiving often went together.  When we give to others, that act makes us happy, so we are really serving our own interests as well.  In another formulation, when we give to others, we are supporting a norm of giving that we expect will also benefit ourselves when others observe the norm.  In yet another version, when we volunteer our time to help others, we learn new things, meet interesting people, find fulfillment in the effect that we have on others, experience entertainment, and so forth.  I am a strong believer that most charitable impulses function along these lines.

We did touch on how charity may harm others by promoting dependency or denying the recipients their own agency.  The dependency issue is certainly acute for charitable endeavors in developing countries, where foreign aid may severely disrupt traditional patterns.  The cultural distance between the donor(s) and the recipients in development aid is particularly problematic in this regard, i.e., the donors often have little idea how to help the recipients in a sustainable way.

The issue of denying recipients their own agency is a complicated one.  We mentioned both that structuring charity with appropriate restrictions and incentives could be necessary to prevent the recipient from using the resources in a harmful way, and the idea that such restrictions are an affront to the dignity of the recipient. 

I tend to favor the paternalistic view.  I never give money to panhandlers, but I will give them tokens for transportation or food.

In terms of Humanist community and charity, some felt that service projects for the needy were a first priority, while others emphasized the importance of caring for the members of the community itself before embarking on such endeavors.  I tend to favor the latter view.

11
Dec
09

A Choice

I found this column by Stephen Prothero that describes the event I attended at Harvard last month to kick off the Good Without God campaign and the Boston Area Coalition of Reason. Prothero prefers the kinder, gentler type of atheist, and wants to hear from more women’s voices, which would certainly be a good thing. But while Fred Edwords did take potshots at religion, he did so not with anger but with humor and a flair I found quite appealing. To some extent, the gay rights movement may serve as a model for nonbelievers seeking tolerance. But unlike gays, we do hope to convert others. Unlike homosexuality, nonbelief is certainly a choice.

03
Dec
09

Climategate, So-called

There has been a major controversy roiling the Internet about emails stolen by hackers from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. They are being used to push the idea that global warming is a hoax (e.g. http://www.globalwarminghoax.com)

A fair reading is that there may have been some unethical behavior among some scientists in discussing (and perhaps performing) deletions of e-mails to prevent them from being turned over to global warming skeptics who requested them under freedom of information provisions. But this molehill, along with some nasty office politics, and charges of data manipulation that are most likely untrue, is being trumped up into a mountain on venues like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

This piece in Popular Mechanics (via Andrew Sullivan) gives, I think, such a fair reading.

Continue reading ‘Climategate, So-called’

01
Dec
09

The White Stuff (Atheism & Its Discontents)

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Her name was Sarah Baartman, aka the Venus Hottentot, and she had ass to spare.

Like many Africans staged for public exhibition in 19th Century Europe before her, Baartman became an object of scientific investigation. She was poked, prodded, measured, assessed and ultimately dissected in death by British and French empiricist wizards like the esteemed scientist Georges Cuvier. She was marshaled as resident Other to determine the exact nature of her “difference” from “normal” (i.e., white) men and women. This standard only had weight and relevance in the context of Baartman’s grotesqueness. Her deformations provided white femininity with its mooring as the standard of feminine beauty. Her sub-humanity gave her white male examiners a biological compass (and canvas) that was then translated into immutable racial difference. The sexual deviance signified by her enormous backside literally functioned as an epistemological frame and cover for her interpreters’ own cultural biases and assumptions. Identified as the “missing link,” Baartman’s anatomy was critical to affirming white racial superiority and capturing inexplicable gaps in the ascent from “savage” to “civilized.” Through the lens of the scientist, looking, seeing and interpreting were deemed to be “transparent” enterprises–not naturalized through the cultural position of the observer.

Tim Wise, the foremost white critic/interpreter of the phenomenon of white supremacy, once noted that whites “swim in white privilege.” Like fish in water, whites don’t grasp or see the complexity of white privilege because they breathe it and live it 24/7. It immunizes them in the predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, social networks, media, places of worship and scholarly traditions that they inhabit. It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible. And it marginalizes race and racism as part of the narrow, sectarian and, ostensibly, divisive concerns of a “minority” lens.

Continue reading ‘The White Stuff (Atheism & Its Discontents)’