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The East, the West, and Religion

While Christianity appears to be dying a natural death throughout Western Europe, it is proving to be amazingly resilient here in the United States. It should come as no surprise, however, that Americans, the richest and most powerful people on Earth, the most aggressive and sell-assured, should also be the ones most susceptible to religious sentiment. One does not have to look to history to explain this phenomenon. Simple observation of contemporary American life provides important clues.

All this time we thought that it was the poor who were especially inclined to be religious, for obvious reasons. Now it seems that an excess of prosperity may have the same effect.

There is a strain involved in maintaining the pace and equilibrium of our American-style lives. There is a sense of emptiness lurking at the heart of the endless pursuit of personal happiness. There is a sense of loneliness and responsibility at having achieved such phenomenal mastery over the natural world.

How, then, can there not be a tendency to seek out a realm of calm and stability to find a sense of personal fulfillment, and a welcome sense of humility? Religion is the answer par excellence to these supercharged needs.

Western Europeans, of course, are subject to the same dynamic, but hardly at the same intensity. There these forces are mitigated by other cultural factors, making religion less necessary. A more human scale of development, the ubiquity of local agriculture, the presence of ancient buildings and byways, the memory of social hierarchy, fewer automated modes of interaction, and an altogether greater sense of history and permanence may seem individually insignificant but collectively have a tempering effect. By providing a sense of identity, stability, and comfort they thereby subserve some of the functions of religion. Here in America, unchecked by ancient guidelines, the neuroses of modern life rage most fiercely and must be assuaged.

Stephen E. Silver

Waterford, Connecticut

Many thanks to Gregory Paul for his exceptional article "The Secular Revolution of the West" (FI, Summer 2002). He did, however, make the same mistake as a couple of you previous writers: his footnote 16 refers to Francesco Franco as a fascist. Franco never belonged to the Spanish fascist party (the Falange), and, by following the path of traditional rightist authoritarianism, he helped to keep the Spanish fascists from gaining power. Although truly a nasty dictator, Franco never came close to attempting thought control and total mobilization of society that have been essential characteristics of fascism. Among good sources is Max Skidmore's Ideologies: Politics in Action (1993).

John George, Professor Emeritus

Political Science and Sociology

University of Central Oklahoma

Edmond, Oklahoma

Gregory Paul replies:

As usual the situation is complex. Franco took over the Falange in 1937 as part of his consolidation of power, and although he moderated it in some respects and cared little about its fascist economic programs, the fascist salute was not dropped until the final Allied victory made it bad form. Franco was not Hitler, nor a Mussolini, although he had more power than the Italian dictator.

Franco can be considered to be at the "moderate" edge of the Euro facist movement. Certainly his sympathies lay in that direction, though he was careful to preserve his power by not allying too closely with Hitler and Mussolini, to their extreme frustration. What is clear is that, despite some quibbles, the Catholic Church was an ardent supporter of the hard right anti-Bolshevist until the relatively liberal years of the Second Vatican Council. Raised Catholic, Franco became devout as death approached. Had Pope John Paul II and his Opus Dei allies been in charge during Franco's time, matters would have been different--something the increasingly nontheistic Spanish people have not forgotten.

Coming Out

Re Richard Dawkins's "Come Out of the Closet: A Challenge to Atheists" (FI, Summer 2002). Of course, sign me up for APAC (Atheist Political Action Committee), but reading your article gave me an idea. Perhaps a wider net could be thrown very quickly to gather in all types of nonreligious people and make a little splash.

Here's the idea: set up a nonprofit organization of nonreligious people (call it something like "Individuals for Nonreligious Giving") to unite their charity giving. Individuals would send whatever money they wished to donate with a list of charities that should get their money ING would collect these checks and enter the amount that would go to each charity into a database and then once a quarter issue a check to each of the charities that members have chosen. The checks (and a letter explaining INB) would go to each charity that members pick with no limits. (One-tenth of 1 percent of thirty thousand nonreligious in America according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2001), each giving an average of a thousand dollars a year, could create an organization that gives out $30 minion a year. That starts to be real money that would give us clout.

I would think that ING could get a fair amount of publicity in the media as a nonreligious nonprofit organization with a goal of only telling the American public that nonreligious people exist in America in large numbers.

Steve Feltes

New York, New York

Regarding Richard Dawkins's thoughtful essay, yes, the word atheist is a stumbllng block. It is an ugly sounding English word. When uttered, it sounds like a snake hissing. I agree with Darwin in the quote offered by Professor Dawkins: "'But why should you be so aggressive?' He went on to suggest that atheism might he well and good for the intelligentsia, but that ordinary people were not 'ripe for it.'" I ask why Professor Dawkins should be so aggressive in pushing atheism to the general public?

Religion came into being for a good reason. We humans are out of harmony with the rest of the animal kingdom, because through evolution we have developed self-awareness. We can foresee that we will die and all those we love will die, and that when we have learned in life and our unique identities will be annihilated by death. That is why humans invented religions--to try to bring harmony, where Nature offers us none.

Rolf Jansen

Houston, Texas

Reason Must Prevail

How rich in information, in good writing, in enthusiasm FREE INQUIRY is. It should be in every home. I was particularly pleased with the Stanley J. Alluisi article, "Consequences" (Summer 2002). It brings up and brilliantly discusses a point that has been all too often overlooked--the rigid inconsistency in the actions of religious fundamentalists. I have often thought that if I "believed" I'd applaud every word, ever deed perpetrated by the Robertsons and Falwells of the Right. They are doing and saying exactly what is correct according to their professed beliefs.

Dr. Alluisi rightly asserts that Andrea Yates, in killing her young children, was doing what she thought was demanded of her as a loving, believing mother. The pilots crashing into the New York towers on September 11 were doing what would bring approving rewards from Allah. Over and over again, through all the weary centuries, religionists of all kinds have done terrible things in the belief that they were simply living their faith.

We shudder as we think of the suffering engendered, but we cannot call them criminals. Other writers have pointed out that we cannot call them cowards, either. What do you think it cost Andrea Yates in anguish as she revved up her courage to hold her small, helpless, trusting children under the water? Who among us would not have flinched with terror as the airplanes neared the great towers?

Acknowledging the above, it behooves those of us who hold this life dear to do all we can to show that reason should be the only guide in making choices.

Abigail Ann Martin

Brandon, Florida

Giving the FBI the Business

If we are really concerned about the Federal Bureau of Investigation now having the power to seize the records of an individual's transactions at a bookstore or a library ("The FBI Can Find Out What You Read," by Nat Hentoff, FI, Summer 2002), I think there is an obvious solution. Every bookstore, public library, video rental outlet, and any store or Web site that makes available material covered under this law should post a large sign, right above its cash register, and/or on its Web site where it will be seen during Web purchases, that says something like

NOTICE TO CUSTOMERS: Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT ACT, recently passed by Congress, gives the FBI the right to obtain a court order demanding, WITHOUT NOTWYING YOU, any records we have of your transactions at this location. We will be required to give them the requested information, AND WILL BE FORBIDDEN FROM TELLING YOU OR ANYONE ELSE ABOUT IT.

I suspect it won't be long before Congress will make the folly of this law more clear than when everyone realizes that the government now has the authority to snoop into your business, not just the bad guys.

Hugh B. Haskell

Cary, North Carolina

Deists for Secular Humanism

I beg to slightly disagree with fellow physicist Matt Young (FI, Summer 2002): I believe the purpose of the universe is to be the cradle for life, allowing it to form and evolve. I suspect that most astrophysicists would agree with me. I still prefer to call myself a deist since I believe that that which sustains the universe and that which caused it to form some 15-20 billion years ago I loosely refer to as God. And this God can only be known through a study (or appreciation) of the universe. Thus, a minor quibble with Richard Dawkins. He enumerated many thoughtful choices for alternative names (flavors?) of secular humanism, but neglected to include deism. But thanks to this fine issue, the deist that I am is very comfortable (now) with identifying myself also as a secular humanist.

John G. Eoll

Amesbury, Massachusetts

Another Task for Tom

I liked Tom Flynn's article, "When Words Won't Die" (FI, Summer 2002). I use the synonym personality (not on Tom's list of "95 Ways Not to Say 'Spirit'") to counter the "spirit" label whenever someone tries to apply it to me. If a religious friend tells me "You have a spirit," I always reply, "Nope, I have a personality and it comes with an expiration date."

Still, old habits die hard, and it is really difficult to eliminate from my vocabulary all the old religious words and expressions I acquired as a pious youth. If only I could find a way to halt the expletive "God damn it!" which, for example, I use reactively when I miss a nail, and whack my finger with a hammer. It's annoying, and I think lots of people have a problem with that one. We could use another helpful list here, Tom--even the religious would appreciate it!

Dean Schramm

Key Largo, Florida

On Surviving Humanist Teachings

A few observations regard DJ Grothe's "Responding to the Religious Right" article (FI, Summer 2002): While it is true that we had an enjoyable two-hour conversation on the Bob Grant Show (in which Paul Kurtz and I conversed for a few minutes) regarding the religious nature of secular humanism, I deny that I hold a definition of religion that's "decades old and dismissed in the academy because it it is too broad." In point of fact I hold to a definition of religion that is academically respect-able. One can't get more timely and academically in tune with "the consensus definition of scholars" than Ian S. Markham's A World Religions Reader (Blackwell, 2000). Markham deals with the following religions: Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism, Chinese Religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Secular Humanism. I copied Markham's list from bottom to top. He places secular humanism first in his listings of world religions!

I'm not sure what Grothe means by "Noebel and other powerful religious-political extremists." How can preparing Christian teens to survive their high school and college "humanistic teachings" be considered a religious-political extremist position? In the very same issue of FREE INQUIRY, Richard Burke notes that "there is a kernel of truth, however, in the linkage between secular humanism and religion" and that "Secular Humanism ... is the appropriate stance ... for educating children in public schools" (p. 23).

Why should Summit Ministries be termed "religious-political extremists" for setting forth some protection to naive Christian students who don't understand the hidden agenda in the canon or curriculum of what goes under the label "education"? Irving Kristol in Commentary magazine (August 1991) sought to protect Jewish students from the humanist-riddled agenda and noted that secular humanism "is the orthodox metaphysicaltheological basis of the two modern political philosophies, socialism and liberalism." Does that make Kristol a "religious-political extremist"?

Besides, why is the "Right" always extremist? Is there no extreme Left? Someone there needs to read Goldberg's Bias! Is Grothe a "nonreligious-political Left extremist"?

And then to marry bin Laden to our efforts is merely seeking to quiet discussion. We are not blowing up any towers or universities. This kind of rhetoric can boomerang, e.g., humanist madrassas inculcating humanist dogma, etc. Linking us with bin Laden is below FREE INQUIRY's normally high standards of spirited controversy.

I am willing to send our 150-page book Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism free of charge to anyone interested in seeking an objective, rational, academic look at the issue. I know it is objective, rational, and academic because it accurately quotes secular humanists.

David A. Noebel

Summit Ministries

Manitou Springs, Colorado

DJ Grothe replies:

I see David Noebel as a sincere and well-meaning man, intelligent, and less extreme than some of his associates. Of course he and his organization do not blow up any towers or universities. My comments about the similarity of his rhetoric to Usama Bin Laden's was not intended to "quiet discussion" on the important topics he addresses. On the contrary, I think he's asking some of the most meaningful questions of any evangelical Christian. I do consider his language of war to be reminiscent of bin Laden's rhetoric: He says he is in a "cosmic war for the soul of our country," seeking to assemble an "army" against the "powerful forces ... assembled against" him. He asks his followers to "enter the battlefield" and to be prepared to fight with "blood, sweat, and tears." (1)

As to our disagreement regarding definitions: he says secular humanism is the state-supported religion of America's public schools, and that this is a violation of the establishment clause. He cites Ian S. Markham's listing of secular humanism in his world religions textbook as evidence. But in the pages of the very book he cites, Markham himself says that "secular humanism is not a religion." (2) Markham's own definition of religion excludes the secular humanist worldview as a religion. (3)

Noebel asks "Is Grothe a nonreligious political Left extremist?" To assume that every secular humanist is on the political Left is to commit a conspiracy fallacy, imagining that some cabal of leftist secular humanists are in control of America. (4) While he's right to call me nonreligious, he's wrong to assume I'm a leftist. Economically, I consider myself a "classical liberal," a conservative. Socially, I am persuaded by a tempered libertarianism.

Secular humanism, a nonreligious but ethical worldview, isn't partisan. At the Center for Inquiry, where the international offices of the Council for Secular Humanism are located, he'll find conservatives and liberals, Marxists and Libertarians, Democrats and Republicans, all united despite our political differences to "defend and promote reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor."

Lastly, I would strongly encourage readers to take Noebel up on his generous offer of a free copy of his excellently argued book, Clergy in the Classroom. Though the case he makes doesn't stand up to final examination, his argument is worth respectful consideration. More important, he highlights important philosophical differences between the Council for Secular Humanism and other national humanist organizations that share some of our aims. We at the Council look forward to fur her dialogue on his important thesis in the future.


(1.) David Noebel and Tim LaHaye, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), pp. 106, 225, 259, etc.

(2.) Ian S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), p. 6.

(3.) Ibid. Markham's own definition of religion states that it "is a way of life that refuses to accept the secular view."

(4.) See the chapter in David Noebel and Tim LaHaye, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000) entitled "Humanists Control America" where secular humanists are said to direct (among other organizations) UNESCO, UNICEF, the National Council of Churches, American Civil Liberties Union, the television networks, National Public Radio, and the World Health Organization.

On Humanism and Speciesism

I am a new subscriber to FREE INQUIRY and like the magazine very much. Many of the articles are written in the language of philosophy which is hard for me to follow, but the ideas are worthwhile, so I struggle through.

However, I am not a humanist. I believe that all animals are of value equal to our own. Every weekday evening from 5 to 7 P.M. I watch two spellbinding hours of animal episodes on Wild Discovery. I love all animals. I love them for the emotions they are capable of, for their magnificent evolutionary adaptations, and for the the great courage they should in facing the dangers and hardships of their lives. I am proud that we share this Earth.

Esther Mattson

Mequon, Wisconsin

The Editors reply:

Humanism is not, and does not imply, human speciesism. Secular humanists occupy a broad spectrum of positions regarding humans' obligations to other creatures. (Surely few can ask for a more animal-friendly stance than that of our columnist Peter Singer.) Of course, even humanists who do value humans sharply higher than other life forms can join with "green" humanists in acknowledging the need for ecostewardship--if only because human survival depends on a healthy environment, too.

A Little Help from Our Friends

I am a Christian and a veteran and proud of it. But I think it is wrong, and a slap in the face of millions of American citizens, for Big Government to make their children say a little prayer ("under God") before they can pledge allegiance to our flag and country in school, teaching them that if you are not a Christian, you are probably not a good American. Would a Christian parent like his children to be forced to pledge allegiance to "one nation, under Allah, indivisible," etc.?

Amend the Pledge to read: "... one nation under _____," and let the children add whatever their parents teach them. Adults can say whatever they like.

John Tomasin, Esq.

West New York, New Jersey
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Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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