Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fourth Secular Holiday Display at State House



Humanists of Rhode Island                                              

Contact: Tony Houston 401-419-5456

December 21, 2013

Rhode Island Humanist Book Club
Installs Holiday Banner
in Rhode Island State House

Today the Rhode Island Humanist Book Club placed a banner in the Rhode Island State House celebrating Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams. The banner is a reminder that the state’s founder—although religious—was a champion of secular government. Williams disapproved of ostentatious displays of piety such as those on display at the State House.

The Humanist banner depicts Williams meeting with the Naragansetts and features a representative quote by Williams that demonstrates his defense of "soul libertie" and opposition to the "monstrous partiality" of sectarian dogma.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Humanists of Rhode Island are dedicated to good works and service projects that will best demonstrate our ideals.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Secular Coalition Banner in Rhode Island State House



Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
Contact: Christine Eldridge 401-484-0147

December 18, 2013

Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
Places Pro-Secular Banner
in Rhode Island State House

Today the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island (SCRI) placed a banner in the Rhode Island State House celebrating Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams. The banner is a reminder that the state’s founder—while religious himself—was a champion of secular government who disapproved of public displays of piety.

The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for America share the common mission to increase the visibility of and respect for non-theistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Photos of the HRI State house banner

Please feel free to use these photos in your coverage of the Humanist Banner at the RI State House.

Secularists put 'seasonal banner' in RI State House

From the Providence Journal:
Secularists put 'seasonal banner' in RI State House
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A group of secularists has placed a "seasonal banner" in the State House to celebrate the 410th birthday of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams.

The Humanists of Rhode Island erected the 2-foot by 5-foot banner on the State House's second floor on Monday. It's intended to be a reminder of the separation of church and state and Rhode Island's founding as a place of religious freedom.

The humanists also say the banner is a "counterpoint" to the Christmas trees and Jewish menorah now on display at the Statehouse.

The group's president, Steve Ahlquist, says Williams would be "appalled" by recent controversy over the State House Christmas tree.

Governor Chafee's decision to call the tree a holiday tree in past years prompted angry protests. Chafee backtracked this year.
 As usual at the ProJo, the comments are extra-special.


Secularists put 'seasonal banner' in RI Statehouse

Humanists of Rhode Island Place Seasonal Banner in RI State House

Yesterday the Humanists of Rhode Island (HRI) placed a 2’x5’ banner on the second floor of the RI State House celebrating the birth of Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams and the separation of church and state. The banner is intended to be a counterpoint to the various and sundry religious displays now scattered throughout the State House, and to serve as a reminder that the government of the United States, and in particular the state of Rhode Island, is secular by nature and design.

“Roger Williams was a radical in his time, and a visionary,” says Steve Ahlquist, president of HRI, “He would have been appalled by the faux controversy being generated around the Christmas Tree/Holiday Tree debate and against any kind of holiday inspired religious displays currently on display in the State House. Rhode Island boasts the first government formed, anywhere in the world, that specifically protected freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. We should be proud of our heritage.”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Humanists work to place secular banner in RI State House

williams banner small

At 4pm on December 21, 2012, Kara Russo and Chris Young led a group of about twenty-five people into the Rhode Island State House and erected a small nativity scene at the base of the “Holiday Tree” not too far from the large Hanukah menorah. According to reports the group sang Christmas songs, engaged in prayer, and erected a seasonal holiday display that was to last until January 6, but was apparently taken down just after Christmas along with all the rest of the Christmas decorations on display.

The Youngs were advised in their efforts by the Thomas More Society, whose president, Thomas Brejcha, said, “So long as these Christmas religious displays and ceremonies are privately sponsored, funded, and held in traditional public forums, they are constitutionally protected.”


Recently I became aware that the erection of a nativity scene at Rhode Island’s State House was the second in an organized, national effort to put up such displays in or near every state capitol in the country. According to the website, “for the past five years, a very special Nativity Scene has gone up in a prominent spot in the Rotunda of the State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois,” based on the Federal Court decision Grutzmacher v The Chicago Building Commission.
Rhode island joined the party in 2012 with their own Nativity Scene at their state capitol. Mississippi also has a Nativity Scene which makes it the third capitol to feature the real meaning as to why we celebrate Christmas. All of these are the result of a small but determined group of people who wanted to honor the Holy Family enough to get involved, and get the job done."
In Rhode Island, Governor Chafee gave up trying to call the large evergreen in the Rhode Island State House rotunda a “Holiday Tree” and decided to officially refer to it as a “Christmas Tree.” I wrote at the time that the Humanists of Rhode Island were disappointed with the governor’s decision, but the group would instead focus on our seasonal blood drive, and of course we are continuing that important work and urge everyone to join us, whether you identify with our secular values or not.

However, in light of the fact that there seems to be a national effort under way to invade every state capital with permanent displays of religious imagery, (as can be seen in this recent piece about Florida’s capital) the Humanists of Rhode Island have no choice but to respond in kind.

Today we have sent an email to those in charge of public displays at the State House declaring our intent to prominently display a secular humanist seasonal banner in the main rotunda of the state house, celebrating secular values and separation of church and state. You can see the art for the banner at the top of this post.

As we await a timely reply from the powers-that-be in the State House, people should know that this was not a decision our group came to easily, as we would much rather focus on our community service efforts, but we are a group that firmly believes, as John F. Kennedy once declared, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” This is why our banner honors the founder of our state, Roger Williams, and attempts to claim the season as a celebration of his wildly progressive and radical ideas.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Humanists of Rhode Island for Syrian Refugee Relief

The Humanists of Rhode Island (HRI) learned last week that our group has won 2012's Heart of Humanism Rookie of the Year Award for Best Team Added in 2012. This is an award given annually by the Foundation Beyond Belief, a "a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate humanist generosity and compassion."

HRI was recognized because of our monthly work with Habitat for Humanity, where we help build houses on the second Saturday of every month, (feel free to join us, whatever your philosophical orientation might be) our participation in Light the Night, a walk to generate money to combat Lymphoma and Leukemia, (you can contribute to our cause here), our four time a year highway clean-ups in Cranston and our infrequent blood drives, among other things we do.

The Heart of Humanism award came with $50 in prize money, which the group has decided to donate to the International Rescue Committee's efforts to aid Syrian Refugees, and we're sweetening the deal by raising more funds for that effort. Don't be surprised if you see a couple of Humanists with buckets collecting money at Saturday's "No War on Syria" rally at Burnside Park from 1-3 pm as well. (But if you can't make it there you can always contribute to our efforts by clicking on the photo that accompanies this piece or following this link.)

Too often, when big things are happening on the national and international scene, we can feel hopeless and small. When that happens we have to look to ourselves and work together to make the world a better place. A few dollars given today may help change the life of a child thousands of miles away tomorrow.

Syrian Refugee Relief Fund

Monday, July 1, 2013

Press Release | SB 298 and HB 5053


Humanists of Rhode Island                                              
Contact: Debbie Flitman 401-300-4674
Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
Contact: Christine Eldridge 401-484-0147

July 1, 2013

Humanists of Rhode Island and 
The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island 
Unite to Oppose Excessive State Entanglement with Religion

It is a wonderful facet of our society, and a testament to our freedom, that Americans every day engage in vigorous debate over a myriad of social, political, and religious questions. Additionally, Americans are free to donate their money to further the causes that inspire them to act. For the most part, this is through privately run organizations that sell products such as bumper stickers, magnets, and yard signs that bear no imprimatur of the State. However, the State has, within constitutional boundaries, chosen certain entities to benefit from the sale of state-issued license plates. Up until now, these have been restricted to non-political and non-religious organizations such as the Red Sox and the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation. The State certainly has the authority to select certain organizations to benefit from its assistance, for "a government entity has the right to 'speak for itself.'" However the "government speech must comport with the Establishment Clause" (Pleasant Grove City v. Summum). And therein lies the problem.

Half of the proceeds derived from the sale of these license plates will go to Care-Net, an organization which describes itself as having the primary focus of "engag[ing] evangelicals in responding to the abortion crisis. For the State to allow a religious organization to hitch itself to the motor of a government agency to drive its fundraising would be to show the "excessive entanglement" with religion that the Constitution prohibits (Lemon v. Kurtzman).

Unless the State is prepared to enact similar fundraising schemes for all religious organizations, this bill would show overt favoritism by Rhode Island for Christianity, and more specifically, one interpretation of the faith.

In the interest of defending the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state provided by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and extended to the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Humanists of Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island formally oppose SB 298 and HB 5053.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Humanists of Rhode Island are dedicated to good works and service projects that will best demonstrate our ideals.

The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for America share the common mission to increase the visibility of and respect for non-theistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. 

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My Testimony Today on S-298

S-298 is a Trojan horse. At first glance it's about a license plate. It gives the appearance of cooperation between the state and the community. But the community initiative is not an uncontroversial one. It supports a message with an authoritarian subtext: that any motorist bearing the plate is entitled to weigh in on a woman's private reproductive decisions. The state will be lending its imprimatur to the message that women are incompetent moral agents.

The funding would support yet another such message, simultaneously creating an undue delay and unreasonable barrier for women making a difficult, time-sensitive decision. Lawmakers who think that this contemptible measure will slip through unnoticed because of the subterfuge will soon find that they have underestimated their constituents.

This measure is an outrageous abuse of state power to support religious interests. It clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter of the establishment clause. It is contrary to the state's interests to impose the will of those who would place religious law above civil law. Justice delayed is justice denied. Reproductive freedom is justice.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May 2: ‘Day of Reason’ in RI

Secular Coalition for Rhode Island Successfully Urges Gov. to Sign National Day of Reason Proclamation | Secular Coalition for America

Secular Coalition for Rhode Island Successfully Urges Gov. to Sign National Day of Reason Proclamation | Secular Coalition for America

Day of Reason Proclamation


Humanists of Rhode Island                      
Contact: Debbie Flitman 401-300-4674
Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
Contact: Christine Eldridge 401-484-0147

May 14, 2013

Humanists of Rhode Island and The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
Co-Sponsor Request to Governor Chafee to Issue
Proclamation for a Day of Reason

The Humanists of RI and The Secular Coalition for RI are pleased to announce pursuant to their request, that on April 30, 2013 Governor Lincoln D. Chafee issued a State of Rhode Island Gubernatorial Proclamation officially declaring May 2 the Day of Reason in Rhode Island. In doing this, Governor Chafee helps raise awareness throughout the State of Rhode Island of the importance of Reason as a guiding principle of our secular democracy. (See signed Proclamation below.)

Humanists of RI and the Secular Coalition of RI join with The National Day of Reason, a consortium of leaders from within the community of reason endorsing the idea of a National Day of Reason. This observance is held in parallel with the National Day of Prayer, on the first Thursday in May each year. The goal of this effort is to celebrate reason—a concept all Americans can support—and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Humanists of Rhode Island are dedicated to good works and service projects that will best demonstrate our ideals. 
The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for America share the common mission to increase the visibility of and respect for non-theistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Today, the Humanists of Rhode Island turned in this testimony to the House Corporations Committee. It looks like this legislation will pass without problems.
Chairperson Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy


Representative Cale P. Keable
Representative Peter G. Palumbo
Representative Gregory J. Costantino
Representative Linda D. Finn
Representative Raymond H. Johnston, Jr.
Representative Katherine S. Kazarian
Representative Kenneth A. Marshall
Representative Mary Messier
Representative Jared R. Nunes
Representative Jeremiah T. O'Grady
Representative Robert D. Phillips
Representative Joseph A. Trillo

The Humanists of Rhode Island in keeping with our commitment to equality and opposition to discrimination, fully support House Bill 5243 AN ACT RELATING TO INSURANCE -- GENDER RATING.

This bill seeks to eliminate insurance rates for health coverage based on gender, and gender equality under the law is an important concern to our members, over half of whom are women.

That this rule is already adopted in seven surrounding states and mandated under Obamacare should make the passage of this bill a simple decision. Rhode Island can either get ahead of this now for all the right reasons: equality, fairness, etc., or have the mandate forced upon us as if this wasn't the right thing to do all along.

On a personal note, as a husband and father, I want the three women in my life to be treated fairly and equitably in society, and laws that support gender neutrality help to achieve this.

So once again, I urge you to pass House Bill  5243.


Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: "Good Without God"

Good Without God , by Greg M. Epstein (2007), was the Humanist Book Club selection for our inaugural meeting in July. There could hardly be a more appropriate choice for a first meeting than this primer on Humanism. Epstein's book gives Humanism a concise but comprehensive treatment, but is given to moments of intellectual vacuity. Epstein's simplifications might be forgiven in light of his conscious effort to write in a way that is accessible to the uninitiated.

Epstein describes Humanism in the Introduction. So far so good.
Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence. To put it another way, Humanists believe in life before death. 
More formally, the American Humanist Association defines Humanism as a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity. 
Also in the Introduction, Epstein entertains the question of whether Humanism is a faith. Unfortunately, he does so in a way that glosses over the differences between optimism of the will and optimism of the intellect. He seems to suggest that faith in humanity is a willful delusion. There is a difference between acting as if you believe in a favorable outcome and acting because you believe. If we do nothing, we are assured a negative outcome. Humanity is its own best hope because we're all we have.
Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. 
Epstein gives a nod to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens in the Introduction, only to pick a postmodernist fight with an science, reason and the New Atheism. This is a tiresome straw-man argument. There is no danger of being too rational or scientific. Rationality is as organic to humanity as emotion, instinct, and intuition. Anyone governed by pure rationality is a psychopath. Saying "don't be a psychopath" is a superfluous warning. As for science, it is just a more rigorous variant of the informal hypothesis-testing we do unconsciously as we experience and learn about the world.
But atheism goes astray when it adopts a certain posture, one best captured by a cover story in Wired magazine in November 2006: "The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science." 

The mention of three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is curious for its omission of Dennett, who directly confronts the problem of postmodernist relativism.

In the first chapter, Epstein returns to the question of Humanism as faith. His discussion could have benefited from finessing the difference between faith in a truth claim and faith in a principle.  Moreover, his wordplay is suggestive of the obscurantism that he later repudiates. He executes a successful course correction by declaring his commitment to reason.
Call Humanism a faith if you like--we should have no particular allergy to that word--but recognize that it is a faith in our ability to live well based on conclusions and convictions reached by empirical testing and free, unfettered rational inquiry. In other words, we question everything, including our own questions, and we search for as many ways as we can to confirm or deny our intuitions. We have no holy books meant to be taken at face value or blindly obeyed. We are open to revising any conclusion we have made if new evidence appears to contradict it. (p. 10)

Epstein denounces mockery of religion. Whenever accommodationists call for civility, I have to wonder whether they understand the difference between deriding irrational beliefs and debasing irrational people. Do they understand that the only reason blasphemy is shocking is that religion has enjoyed a protected status and that shielding untenable beliefs from criticism is the reason such ideas persist? Does he understand that the collateral damage of hurt feelings is the price we pay as a society for freedom of expression and that freedom of expression is the only way to insure that the best ideas prevail?
The point is not to mock religion, but simply to drive home that we have high standards when it comes to deciding whether a story is true or not. (p. 11)

He begins to redeem himself when he aptly points out the irrelevance of the question. "Do you believe in God?" With the concept of God defined so broadly, the more pertinent question is "What do you believe about God?" Epstein answers on behalf of Humanism.
Here is the Humanist answer: we (the nonreligious, atheists, Humanists, etc.) believe that God is the most important literary character human beings have ever created. (p. 13)
Epstein turns to modern religious reformers who have infused religion with humanistic principles. He begins with Paul Tillich, who redefined faith as "the state of being ultimately concerned." Here, Epstein reclaims the Humanist repudiation of obscurantism.
Tillich's is a popular, influential, and widely respected approach to theology, yet he makes the difference between an atheist and a Christian into nothing more than a slippery semantic game. (p. 15)
Also noteworthy is Epstein's treatment of John Dewey.
Essentially Dewey proposed a formal, lightly refined version of Spinoza's theology. God was not in the universe, but the positive forces in the universe as far as humans were concerned. Dewey was not exactly a pantheist, but rather called himself a "Reconstructionist"--one who reconstructs the definition of the word God in order to refer to natural human values instead of a supernatural deity. (p. 17)
Mordechai Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism was influenced by Dewey. Epstein also observes that Oprah's God of personal empowerment is indistinguishable from a Reconstructionist god. Of of this is to say that Humanism's only quarrel with obscurantists is their obscurantism.
If you believe in Spinoza's god, Dewey's god, Tillich's god, or Oprah's god, we Humanists are your allies and friends. But we believe that calling what you believe in "God" is at best utterly irrelevant to whether you're a good person, and at worst it can confuse and distract others and even you from what is really important. (p. 17)
As Epstein dedicates his book to Sherwin Wine, it would seem an omission not to mention him in a review. Epstein mentions six form of atheism that vary along the dimension of theistic probability but result in de facto atheism, living as if there is no god.
There are different kinds of atheism. The first is "ontological" atheism, a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe. There is "ethical" atheism, a firm conviction that, even if there is a creator/manager of the world, he does not run things in accordance with the human moral agenda, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is "existential" atheism, a nervy assertion that even if there is a God, he has no authority to be the boss of my life. There is "agnostic" atheism, a cautious denial that claims that God's existence can be neither proved nor disproved; this type of atheist ends up with behavior no different from that of the ontological atheist. There is "ignostic" atheism, another cautious denial, which claims that the word "God" is so confusing that it is meaningless; this belief, again, translates into the same behavior as the ontological atheist. There is "pragmatic" atheism, which regards God as irrelevant to ethical and successful living, and which views all discussions about God as a waste of time. (p. 18)
From the God question, Epstein transitions to the implications on a Humanist lifestance. He begins with the evolution of cooperation.
From a detached, coldly scientific standpoint, measuring only whose genes get passed on, the lives of our siblings, not to mention our children, mean almost as much to us as our own lives. But it would be a sad world if the passing on of family genes was only reason to be good to one another. (p. 22)
There is something vaguely postmodernist about Epstein's association of science with cold detachment. At this juncture, Epstein turns to walking the reader through the evolution of cooperation via direct reciprocity (tit for tat), indirect reciprocity (paying it forward) and the evolutionary advantage of group selection.
As Darwin said in The Descent of Man, there is no doubt that "a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (p. 24)
Epstein anticipates the usual objection to social Darwinism--asserting that Humanism disavows it--and transitions to hypotheses about how religion became ubiquitous if not adaptive in its own right. He explains that religion may have been a byproduct of some other adaptive features.
 When you take a good scientific look at the human mind, God is not a gene, but a spandrel. A spandrel is the triangular negative space created between two archways when they are positioned side by side, often elegantly decorated in churches and other imposing architectural structures. Evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin first pointed out that this term, and the idea of a spandrel in general, can explain something critical about our God-beliefs: that they are by-products, not adaptations. (p. 26)
Although these hypotheses fall within the scope of evolutionary psychology and present methodological challenges to empirical testing, they are valuable in that they offer a counter argument against the assumption that religion is adaptive and therefore good. Epstein explains that causal reasoning is responsible for our tendency to assign purpose to unexplained events. Theory of mind, in turn, accounts for our ability to ascribe motives to real or imagined actors. It is also our source of empathy. Taken together, causal reasoning and theory of mind form a spandrel of faith.
Well, belief in God is also a by-product of two of the most important architectural features of our minds: archways of our brains that produce the spandrel of faith--what cognitive scientists call "causal reasoning" and "theory of mind." (p. 26)
Having explained the ubiquity of religion without affirming its utility, Epstein employs Plato's dialogue Euthyphro (380 BCE) to drive home the point that goodness is independent of any gods.
In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers: "Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them. 
But Socrates responds: "Is that which the gods love good because they love it or because it is good?" (p. 32)
After a discussion of Thomas Nagel's ethics--that radical selfishness leads to unhappiness--Epstein turns to a morality based on needs and contracts. He then walks the reader through the emergence of humanism from the Lokayata and Carvaca, to the contributions of Jefferson, Darwin, Marx, Nietzche and Freud, before rendering another concise definition of Humanism.
Humanism is an acknowledgement that a meaningful life is a moral life, and a moral life is a meaningful life. (p. 63)

Having dedicated attention to western liberalizing influences, Epstein turns to Buddhism  He relates his personal experience as a westerner drawn to the "exotic" religion. He was ultimately deterred by Buddhism's emphasis on detachment.
For Humanists, it is good to desire, and it is good to care. The questions are; what do you desire, and what do you care for? Humanism's message is no more or less than: be passionate about things that are worth being passionate about. (p. 80)
Epstein further describes Humanism in terms of dignity. To this end, he returns to Sherwin Wine.
He defined it by describing its four qualities: "The first is high self awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one's own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one's identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one's behavior is worthy of imitation by others." 
Along with these four characteristics come three moral obligations for the person who values them: First, "I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life." Second. "I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy." And third, "I have a moral obligation to be generous." (p. 90)
In an intimately self-conscious confession, Epstein reveals his trepidation and purpose in writing this book.
Suddenly, once I realized that the purpose of this book was less to advance my own career and more to help others to advance their lives and address their fears, my own fear of failure began to melt away into insignificance. (p. 102)
Having connected his purpose to helping others find dignity, Epstein returns to Sherwin Wine on the subject.
The dignity of mutual concern and connection and of self-fulfillment through service to humanity's highest ideals is more than enough reason to be good without God. (p. 103)
Having declared himself on the side of helping others to live with dignity, Epstein summarizes the argument for tolerance of religion by atheists in terms that evoke a similar mutuality.
If the emotion I cultivate is hate, or indifference, or bitterness, then that's what I will become, and it doesn't matter if my so-called enemies have earned the scorn, because now I have given over to it. (p. 156)
As an antitheist, I am inclined to see religion as deserving of all the scorn that comes its way, but I avoid absolutes such as "you can't go too far." When you become toxic to yourself, you have probably discovered a good place to draw the line. Given the prevalence of religious belief, antitheism could become self-destructive if not tempered with pragmatism. The best guidelines I have discovered for coexistence with the religious comes from Daniel Dennett's view of religion as a "worthy alternative" rather than a "sacred cow."

As might be expected, Epstein's call to tolerate the religious leads into a justification of atheist inclusion in interfaith work accompanied by concrete suggestions. From there, Epstein transitions to Humanism's religious roots.
Regardless, for better or worse or both, modern organized Humanism began, in the minds of its founders, as nothing more or less than a religion without a God. (p. 169)
Epstein attributes the founding of religious humanism to John Dietrich, and its popularization to Curtis Reese and John Potter. He then discusses the importance of religious identity and community, as well as the sense of transcendence that believers experience.
As the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explains, regular ritual participation creates "resonance patterns" in the brain, making mystical experiences that shut off the "self" more likely, by confusing the parts of the brain that track our physical boundaries and map the space around us. And when it isn't shutting off the self, religious worship can help people focus on difficult problems. In a moment of crisis, the act of kneeling, lowering the head and whispering Dear God, I need you" may seem helpful only insofar as it provides a relationship to the deity or divine intervention. But it actually provides an opportunity to collect oneself and marshal internal resources that might otherwise go unnoticed or untapped. (p. 180) 
As a Humanist alternative to prayer, Epstein recommends a technique from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, developed by Humanist psychologist Albert Ellis. The technique is known as an "ABC" (Adversity-Belief-Consequences). The good that religion does, however, is arguably to alleviate the symptoms of the very ailment it incubates.
The central idea behind [REBT-ABC] is that our emotions and behaviors are profoundly connected to our thoughts, so by changing your thinking, you may be able to positively affect your future thoughts and actions. (p. 181)

Epstein ends with a look forward, offers suggestions for organizing Humanist communities. His comparison of organized secularism to herding cats points to the resistance of Humanists to the mindless elements of organized religion. In presenting the objections as impressionistic, he dismisses them. When Atheism+ supporters characterized Humanism as "churchy," I found the characterization lacking in precision--too impressionistic to be constructive. On the other hand, there may be something behind the impression that trained Humanist leaders are too priestly, especially if they take too much umbrage when the cats don't flock like sheep.

Esptein seems to take it personally that his efforts are politely dismissed instead of accepting the responsibility of selling his vision to a population predisposed to reject it. What is missing is the acknowledgement that the predisposition is born of laudable qualities. It's a self-serving logic that blames an ungrateful constituency. To be fair, building Humanist community is arguably a worthwhile endeavor. I personally enjoy my local Humanist community. The challenge is to make a forceful case for a meaningful personal investment without the expectation of universal appeal.
For too long, organized secularism has been an oxymoron, like herding cats. People who believed in a more humane, Humanistic world mostly wrote off the possibility of gathering their peers together so that together they could actually have some influence. Weekly meetings were too dogmatic. Trained leaders were too priestly. Dedicated meeting spaces were too churchy. (p. 217) 
Good Without God is a wealth of information about Humanism and an excellent primer. It is not a primer on atheism, as the reader who has read the Four Horsemen will have an advantage. Epstein is at his best when compiling and synthesizing information objectively. While reading his book, I sometimes found myself shaking my head and thinking that he had missed the point somehow. As an antitheist, I found Epstein's most compelling point to be that disdain for religion can be toxic for the atheist. While insincere reverence for religion is still a form of submission, taking the high road does not necessarily concede the point. A concession to our higher selves is just that. Finding a way to coexist with the religious may be a lifelong struggle, but who wants to live an examined life?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: "The Demon-Haunted World"

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Carl Sagan 1995) was the Humanist Book Club selection for August 2012. Carl Sagan was a physicist and beloved science populizer. His book is a passionate case for the awe of understanding over the mystery of ignorance. Early on Sagan invokes Hippocrates of Cos, author of the Hippocratic Oath, to make the case.
Hippocrates wrote: "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they don't understand it. But if they called everything divine that they don't understand, why, there would be no end of divine things." Instead of acknowledging that in many areas we are ignorant, we have tended to say things like the Universe is permeated with the ineffable.

Sagan's book is a bulwark against credulity. It challenges the axiom that ignorance is bliss. Sagan cites a counterargument from Edmund Way Teale's (1950) book, Circle of the Seasons.
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.

Making the case in his own words, Sagan provides the following popular quote from the book.
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

One of the dominant themes in the book is the delineation between science and pseudoscience. Sagan explains the importance of this distinction as follows.
If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error--even serious error, profound mistakes--will be our companion forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.

Sagan extols the virtues of the scientific method in a way that seems to anticipate the objections of postmodernists who would claim that science is doctrinaire and that all truth is relative.
The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.
The self-correcting mechanism of science is, of course, its advantage over pseudoscience and superstition, as Sagan indicates below.
When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Where postmodernists tend to take the provisional nature of scientific claim as support for relativism, Sagan explain scientific progress in terms of incremental approximations of the truth. He illustrates using the distinction between Newtonian mechanics and Einstein's theory of General Relativity, and then contrasts science with religion.
This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?

On the importance of rationality, Sagan cites Kenneth V. Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent at the Behavioral Science Instruction and Research Unit of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia who wrote the following in the October 1989 issue of The Police Chief.
Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments ... The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don't like that statement, but few can argue with it.

Sagan's book is primarily about the dangers of credulity as it is about the wonder of discovery. The following quote sums it up well.
Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless value they may have for inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is an exquisite book that makes the case for science and scientific thinking in Sagan's own unmistakable voice. His treatment of pseudoscience is comprehensive and well worth the effort. I can't recommend this book highly enough.