Archive for February, 2010


Stephen Batchelor Talk On Tuesday

The Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy and the Humanist Contemplative Group are co-sponsoring a talk and book signing by Stephen Batchelor, author of the new book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, this Tuesday, March 2, at 6:00pm, at 45 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA.

Batchelor’s views are highly compatible with Humanism. Here is an essay on Batchelor by John Horgan.


Armenian Golgotha

60 Minutes had a segment tonight on the Armenian genocide of 1915, including contemporary footage from Syria, where Armenians were deported and massacred while it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

By coincidence, I just finished reading Armenian Golgotha, a powerful memoir of the genocide by Grigoris Balakian, a priest who survived in part because he had studied in Berlin and was able to pass himself off as a German.

I’d never read anything before about the Armenian genocide, and now I feel that I’ve missed an element of what should be part of Humanist cultural literacy. About 1.5 million Armenians died during World War I. Some were males who had taken up arms against the Ottoman Empire, but many were women and children, and it’s clear that there was an intention by the Turkish leadership to exterminate them. They were evacuated by the government from villages and cities under the pretense of deportation, and massacred in remote areas (the 60 minutes reporter dug up some bones on camera from a mass grave). This truly was a “pilot program” for the Holocaust, including the use of deportation as a cover for extermination. It’s noteworthy that Turkey was overrun with Germans during World War I, including German military units operating jointly with their Turkish allies and German engineers building the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. Balakian recalls that the German civilians tried to protect Armenian deportees but German military officers were mostly hostile. Certainly, Germans were well aware of the genocide, and some drew the lesson that the Turks successfully got away with it.

Since 1922, Turkey has had a secular government that denies a genocide occurs. However, some courageous Turks such as the author of A Shameful Act are now coming to terms with what happened 95 years ago.

The actual genocide was carried out by an Islamic government, and Turkish military operations during World War I were formally declared as a jihad by the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph (who unlike Osama bin Laden, actually had the legal authority to declare a jihad).

Sadly, however, although the secularists who took over in 1922 did much to modernize Turkey, the shameful and dishonorable nature of their predecessors’ crime was too much for them to admit, and even mentioning the Armenian genocide in Turkey can lead to one’s prosecution for insulting Turkishness.

I highly recommend reading Armenian Golgotha. It is simply a gripping read, and filled with striking, memorable details. The writing is vivid, and the author displays a love of nature that comes out in admiration for the mountains and countryside that he and his doomed band were forced to march before he himself made his escape.


A White House Briefing for the Nonreligious Community

Yesterday representatives from the Council for Secular Humanism “participated in a first-of-its-kind White House briefing for members of America’s secular community.” At this meeting, “Officials of the Obama Administration met…with a delegation drawn from the nation’s leading secular humanist, humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations to discuss policy in areas of concern to the nonreligious community.”

Three things struck me regarding this briefing. First, the fact that there has never been a prior meeting of its kind. Think about that – it has taken until 2010 for the White House to officially meet with representatives of the nonreligious in this country. This has never happened before. Of course, briefings with representatives of various religious communities have been going on for a very long time. This, in a country that is explicitly secular in its foundation. I find this surprising.

Perhaps the disparity is linked to this second point: notice how the discussions are described as a chance to talk about “policy in areas of concern to the nonreligious community” (my emphasis). It seems significant that this term is used – the idea that there might be such a thing as a meaningful nonreligious community is not uncontroversial in this country, and I think it is valuable that, more and more, we should start to view ourselves in this way. This self-reconceptualization might lead to a deeper discussion of what services we should offer as a community, how we might make our community more welcoming, and how we should relate to other communities, be they religious or otherwise. Also, by re-cognizing ourselves as a community, we will begin to realize the power we can wield through collective action – presumably the White House is beginning to realize this, hence the briefing.

Finally, I am intrigued by the topics chosen by the nonreligious representatives to raise in this forum: “[the] issues included protecting children from religion-related neglect and abuse, ending proselytizing in the military, and fixing the faith-based initiative to conform with accepted secular principles.” These are all important issues, valuable to work on. Doubtless, the read testimony of  Liz Heywood, “a survivor of a childhood bone disease left untreated by her Christian Science parents”, would have been powerful, and nonbelievers should feel as welcome in the military as believers.

At the same time I can’t help detecting a certain poverty of ambition and parochialism in the raising of these issues in a briefing at the White House. Why not talk about increasing inequalities of wealth, or educational disadvantage? As a Humanist these are just as important to me as “specifically nonreligious” issues – indeed, even more so. I wonder if the esteem in which nonbelievers are held in this country would improve if we were to speak more passionately to these broader issues of human concern, rather than to those issues that affect nonreligious people as “nonreligious people”. The tragic loss of human potential due to educational failure is a deeply Humanist issue, and I think the White House would have benefited from hearing that message from our representatives.


Being right doesn’t always feel good.

I’ve spent most of my adult life hoping that I was wrong.  As confident as I may have appeared to be to many, I always wished for proof that what I held as truth was actually not so.

On Valentine’s Day, 2010, life showed me that I was not wrong.

I will always believe in the moveable middle.  Those who are capable of being both loving and rational.  Those whose lives prove that education and life experience can undo learned inequity and acquired fear.  Those who know that loving others is only possible by first loving yourself.

Over the past 14 years I have told thousands of people who have taken a moment out of their life to listen to mine that there are those who are incapable of moving beyond where they are because their religious beliefs will not allow it.  As consistent as I was in conveying my belief that relationships are contingent on real love that is not based on obligation or manipulation, I always wished that I had misinterpreted my own life experience.

Two years ago, when my biological (fundamentalist Baptist minister) father died from blood related cancer, I realized that my thoughts about him were true.  Life was too short for him to get to a place of understanding and loving himself, let alone those around him. 

It was a difficult moment of acceptance for me.  I looked to the future and hoped that I would still be proven wrong.

Over the past four months I observed from a distance, the slow and menacing advance of an incurable condition in my biological mother.  Regardless of my faith in the strength of the human spirit, I knew every day that soon I would be writing these words.

With her grim prognosis and her immediate inability to communicate or even comprehend what was happening to her own body, it was only a matter of time until this day would arrive.

As much as I’ve told people of my mother’s commitment to the god she believed in and how that commitment created a world in which I was not welcome as I was, I’ve always hoped that I was wrong.  I hoped that somehow natural parental instinct and familial love would override everything that prohibited us from experiencing a true familial bond.

I grieve for yet another life passed without coming to an understanding of my place in it.

At this moment I look to the example that my grandmother lived.  Her ability to express unconditional love to a son and daughter-in-law who believed she lived a life of sin, showed me how to truly love others, particularly those who think or speak ill of me.  Her kindness to me in my days and nights of coming out eased the pain of lost relationships and gave me the courage to begin new, healthy relationships.  Her simple life of loving and her display of human kindness inspired me to extend my own hand to others in need.

I’ve always secretly hoped that I would be proven wrong about my deductions.  Alas, I have learned over the years that while some people are capable of change, there are others who simply are not.

More than any other moment in my life I am grateful not only for my grandmother and her life of transparency but for the lessons I learned through her example. 

So I wasn’t wrong.  For some, there are not enough minutes in a lifetime to move past self-imposed obstacles.  While it is never an easy thing to learn of the end of a life, I look to my grandmother’s life example which is carried forward every day in the actions I take.  The work that I do is only done because of her influence on my heart.  She was proof that I was right that there are those who are capable of understanding the lives of others and that there is such a thing true familial love.  It is her mercy and her grace toward others that set the example for me to follow for the rest of my life.


The Sin of Evolutionary Fundamentalism

I feel vindicated. For several years, I have been warning my friends and neighbors of Evolutionary Fundamentalism. I’m defining Evolutionary Fundamentalism as a simplistic argument to explain things in an evolutionary manner that is based on someone’s teachings from a long time ago rather than based on scientific observations – but presenting it as scientifically true. And here I will admit that I’m not sure how much of Evolutionary Fundamentalism is the product of Darwin, or how much is the product of his disciples. Like the fundamentalism of Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, and now even Hindu, much of the problem is the result of the disciples more than the originator of a belief.

Specifically, the Evolutionary Fundamentalism I have been warning people about is the singular explanation for all traits found in all species: “preservation of the species”. Whenever anyone would ask “why do giraffes have long necks?” or “Why do we have oppositional thumbs?” or why to any trait of any species, the answer comes back as “to promote the preservation of the species.” I have always found this argument to be unscientific for a variety of reasons, but because I am not a scientist, I felt I was never effective in my warning. I remember cringing as I read “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris realizing that he was passing off stories as science in explaining why and how humans lost their body hair during the evolutionary process.

Now, two scientists have come out with a book which vindicates my feelings. had a book review on “What Darwin Got Wrong: Taking down the father of evolution” by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini – both atheist scientists. ( They show that there can be some traits that are not carried just for the sake of preserving the species. There can be other reasons and we need to make these determinations based on scientific observations rather than on a simplex statement made by a mortal a long time ago. Just as “shit happens”, so too can some things happen just randomly apart from a unifying explanation.

I have used the question of the giraffe’s neck myself and asked why other co-existing species didn’t develop the same long neck, or perhaps necks of different lengths up to the length of a giraffe? These authors also use the giraffe as an example and state that “A creature that has a long neck may have that neck because a different trait was selected, and the long neck came along with it.” Since we do not have observations, we are resorting to the intuitive mind which uses the language of story and metaphor to reveal truths – of which there may be several (including some which are opposite to others). So while there may be a truth in the story, it should not be presented as scientific fact or scientifically true. Science and logic are the languages of the rational mind to determine what is true or not true (one or the other, binary, either/or) and that leads to knowledge.

Just as it is wrong for fundamentalist religionists to take the stories of the bible and present them as “true” rather than possessing truths (like the stories of the Grecian gods), it is also wrong to take some of the “why” and “how” of our observations of naturalism and insist that they are science when they are story. Science is great at defining “what”, but not “why” or “how”.

This article is quoted as saying, “Why are certain traits there? Why do people have hair on their head? Why do both eyes have the same color? Why does dark hair go with dark eyes? You can make up a story that explains why it was good to have those properties in the original environment of selection. Do we have any reason to think that story is true? No.”

We need to make sure that when we are saying something is scientific, that it is observable, repeatable, capable of being negated, and the other aspects that make up science. Otherwise we need to admit that it is story and not fall into the trap of other fundamentalists and presenting story as fact. Otherwise we are guilty of the sin of fundamentalism.


Eyeballs are attracted to anger

My former professor, Robert Reich, writes:

Not long ago I was debating someone on television. I thought the discussion was going well until the commercial break when a producer said into my earpiece “be angrier.”

“Why should I be angrier?” I asked him, irritated that he hadn’t appreciated the thoughtfulness of debate.

“That’s how we get channel surfers to stop and watch the program,” the producer explained. “Eyeballs are attracted to anger.”

Well, an angry guy flew a plane into an IRS building in Texas yesterday, killing at least one other person besides himself.

This seems to be an angry time at our country. The angry voices are heard, and the news media does not report the quiet, reasonable ones.

Should we Humanists get angry? Should we become agressive, militant, and violent in our rhetoric?

I’d say no. We’re not in this for ratings or to maximize our income, but rather to make the world a little bit better. I don’t think anger will help us. But I would appreciate some suggestions on who to improve our communications so we do have our voices heard.


Amy Bishop

By now, you’ve probably heard about the horrible killings in Alabama alledgedly conducted by neuroscientist Amy Bishop against members of her biology department. The word “alleged” seems to be generous, since there generally is not much mystery in these kind of workplace shootings, and some of her victims survived.

It turns out she also killed her brother when she was a teen, and claimed it was an accident. She is also now suspected of sending a mail bomb to a Harvard professor.

I don’t know what her religious views were, but my right-wing evangelical friend Wintery Knight links to a web page that lists scientists who consult with liberal clergy who support evolution. As of today, Bishop is listed among the Alabama scientists who help clergy understand evolution.

What to make of this? Bishop is certainly mentally disturbed, though she also appears to have been in control of her behavior most of the time sufficient to graduate from Harvard (led Ted Kaczynski, she probably does not meet the legal definition of insanity).

While I don’t know what Bishop’s exact beliefs are, and she may be a religious liberal rather than an nonbeliever, I think its fair to say she appears to be a rogue member of our side of the secular vs. religion divide. I think it’s important to acknowledge this, because when religious fundamentalists set off bombs or gun down opponents, it’s very easy to blame the religion for inspiring them, and this example should caution us that sometimes the violence is driven by personal issues.

If this gets politicized, we should not that Bishop’s targets were not creationists, but in fact people with whom she was probably in intellectual agreement, and her motives were personal revenge. There is certainly nothing in neuroscience to inspire people to attack others.

But no one is perfect, and some people are vastly imperfect, and the imperfect people show up on all sides of any debate.