ISSUE: May 2001
Edited by Dave Peterson
Sunday, 13 May at 5:00 pm
At Roger Prevost's house
916 E. Cooper Street
IT'S POTLUCK PICNIC TIMEAt 5:00 p.m., Sunday, 13 May, we'll have our last outing of the season, a potluck cookout. Again this year, Roger Prevost has offered to host the event at his home in Folly Beach. Roger had hoped that his new Folly Beach abode would be ready for the picnic, but such was not to be. Still it gives him an excuse to show it off next year. Besides the usual outing activity, we will elect five members to two year terms on our ten member board of directors. Last year, five directors were elected to one year terms and five to two year terms thus ensuring some continuity on the board at all times. Come prepared to run, re-run, if so inclined, nominate, if you have a good candidate, and vote, in any case. You are SHL's future, and we want your ideas.
Just as every newspaper reprints the `Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa
Claus' piece, we repeat the immortal words of Herb Silverman each year:
`For the potluck picnic, atheists will bring only food whose ingredients
they can see, agnostics are not sure what they will bring or whether
there really is food, skeptics will argue whether we really should have
a potluck, pagans will bring wine, anarchists will bring whatever they
damn well please, and humanists optimistically believe they will help to
complement the meal and make it a wonderful experience for all.'
Roger's address is 916 E Cooper (on the north (left) side of the road).
If you have any questions about directions or cuisine, call Roger at
HUMANIST BOOK DISCUSSION
By Sharon Strong
On Sunday, May 6, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., the Humanist Book Discussion
Group will gather to talk about "The Gnostic Gospels," by Elaine
Pagels. This is a concise and very readable account of some "heretical"
texts of the early Christian movement and how they shed light on the
political origins of orthodox Christianity. We will meet at the Barnes
and Noble store on Sam Rittenberg Blvd. in West Ashley. The book should
be available by April 13 in the "Staff Recommends" section at the same
Barnes and Noble (at a 20% discount!). The Humanist Book Discussion
meets on the first Sunday of each month from September to May at that
same Barnes and Noble. Everyone is welcome to participate or just come
to listen. For more information, you may contact Sharon Strong at
By Dave Peterson
At the Easter weekend convention of the Atheist Alliance, Inc., the board of directors changed the name to Atheist Alliance International, thus preserving the initials. This move reflects the growing interaction we are having with groups outside the US; Canada and France had representatives at the convention, and we support a center in India. The Alliance is also, under the leadership of Bobbie Kirkhart of the Atheists United (Los Angeles), making overtures to the American Atheists about some joint functions.
Next year's convention will be held in Dallas TX on Easter weekend, with the 2003 get-together scheduled for Madison WI, although that may change.
Locally, under Herb Silverman's leadership, the four South Carolina
humanist groups SHL, Upstate, Columbia, and the Grand Strand have
joined together in a South Carolina Secular Council, similar to ones in
Minnesota and Texas. This will give us a structure to get our view
across to the media and the government on a statewide basis.
LAKE HYPATIA IN JULY...
By Sharon Fratepietro
A couple of years ago, Herb and I traveled to rural Lake Hypatia, Alabama for a wonderful mid-summer break. I think it took about 6 hours to drive. We were attending the annual Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall Reunion, sponsored by the Alabama Freethought Association. This year, from July 5 ? 8, another reunion will take place. It will be filled with laid-back, kick-your-shoes-off fun and thought-provoking speeches. Children of all ages are welcome and many attend. People without children also participate in large numbers. You can camp in the meadow or stay in a motel a few miles away. You can swim in the lake, play softball, roast marshmallows and eat barbecue at the pavilion. The hall where the speeches take place is air conditioned.
Speakers will include Annie Laurie Gaylor from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (the national sponsor of the event), Woody Kaplan (Wendy Kaminer's significant other), and wonderful Arizona cartoonist Steve Benson `Tooning Out Religion.' (You may remember Steve from our own South Carolina freethought conference last year in Columbia.) Another speaker will be Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education, Berkeley, California.
LETTERS TO EDITORSDave,
I agree with you about the [Post and Courier's] editorial page. I would also say the same goes for the Letters to the Editor's section as well. I tire of the way this area condescends to its denizens. The denizens that stay who don't conform to the traditions of the system get railroaded. I hate to categorize as I know there are folks out there who are similar to myself, but they get so slotted that there is little tolerance, no real promotions, etc. Check out the letter to the editor by a Mr. Murphree, address not listed in the phone directory, who wrote about non-point-source and point-source pollution. At first he's right, but then comes the kicker. He says the swamp is decayed and polluted and needs to be drained! Ignorance or carefully planned nonsense to put doubt in ignorant people's minds about the wetlands? That way maybe some developer or other parties can do things they wish to do and get support for it! Truly a crazy but almost smart way to bamboozle this city's public. Traditions change, thank you!
To the Carolina Morning News
By Dave PetersonBob Cuttino's column, `Worldwide growth of the faithful is astonishing' (4/28/01) demonstrates one of the widespread fallacies believed by all too many Americans; viz., if someone puts some numbers on a subject, why then it must be true.
Cuttino reports on the findings of David Barrett, a `brilliant mathematician' who trained for the Anglican priesthood and who has `dedicated himself to tracking the growth and decline of the worlds' religions. His latest effort is contained in `The World Christian Encyclopedia' by Oxford (University?) Press.' Here we are told (in percentage form) that worldwide Judaism declined from five million in 1990 to one million today. Four million observant Jews, 75 percent of the total, renounced their faith in the last decade? I doubt it. We are told that atheists have declined to 15.2 percent of the worlds' population over the last ten years owing to the decline of communism. I suspect that all this means is that we didn't have good figures in the first place. Real atheists don't change their beliefs with a change in government.
Cuttino then treats us to some numbers for world religions from the Encyclopedia Britannica; e.g., 1,974,181,000 Christians. Another way of saying this is that we know the number of Christians in the world to within plus or minus 500 people. For example, if there were really 1,974,181,600 Christians, the writer would have rounded that off to 1,974,182,000 instead of the number he used. Numbers such as quoted by Cuttino are valueless. Heck, the Southern Baptist Convention alone can't come that close in estimating their membership. As I tell my math and science students at USCB, a false precision only shows your ignorance of the subject.
I suspect the problem here is one inherent to religious belief. When you start by believing, on faith, things that, to say the least, are highly improbable, you lose the skepticism necessary to evaluate information presented to you on a daily basis. What is improbable and what is not become matters, not of fact or judgment, but of what resonates with one's subjective beliefs. It is for this reason that Americans know so many things that are not true.
To the Beaufort Gazette
By Dave PetersonTom Kisken's article (4/28/01), "Faiths and the sweet hereafter," was a laundry list of beliefs people hold about what will happen to them after death. They are all notable for being made of whole cloth. Thus, the note at the end referring the reader to a website for "additional interfaith insights on the afterlife" was risible; how does one gain insights on the imaginary?
One could do better by reading Ecclesiastes 3:20-2 which begins: "All are of dust, and all turn to dust again."
As a humanist though, I prefer Edwin H. Wilson's thoughts: `The Humanist
lives as if this world were all and enough. He is not otherworldly. He
holds that the time spent on the contemplation of a possible afterlife
is time wasted. He fears no hell and seeks no heaven, save that which
he and others created on earth. He willingly accepts the world that
exists on this side of the grave as the place for moral struggle and
creative living. He seeks the life abundant for his neighbor as for
himself. He is content to live one world at a time and let the next
life ? if such there may be ? take care of itself. He need not deny
immortality; he simply is not interested. His interests are here.'
THOUGHTS ON PETER SINGER, HARRIET JOHNSON, AND ETHICAL MATTERS...
by Dave Peterson
In a departure from our usual meeting practice, SHL cosponsored, with several departments of the College of Charleston, a talk by the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, which he titled "Rethinking Life and Death." This was the title also of a 1996 book by him. The talk took place on April 22nd in Physicians Memorial Auditorium at the college. It was well attended, and was notable for the presence of armed security guards. Singer's views are anathema to the "pro-life" crowd, and one never knows when one of their homocide-bent fanatics will attempt something.
I was somewhat disappointed in Singer's presentation. It seemed to me that he brought nothing new to the discussion that had not been made some years ago by Michael Tooley and Singer's colleague, Helga Kuhse. For example, I wrote in the Separationist four years ago, using much older references that:
I think we are all agreed that abortion is the killing of a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. The question is whether or not that killing is murder or indeed is wrong per se. Not all killing is wrong; would you argue that we should only eat vegetables that died a natural death. You may say in opposition: vegetables don't have a life that is sanctified; only humans do. In this assumption/argument (commonly called the sanctity-of-life doctrine, SOL) life becomes an intrinsic good whether or not the possessor considers it of value. This is not apparent to those of us who see death as preferable to some kinds of life, a permanently comatose one, for example. More to the point though, the holder of SOL rarely believes it strictly, usually making exceptions for one or more of such circumstances as self defense, capital punishment, fetuses conceived as a result of rape, gross birth defects, etc. In other words, quality-of-life considerations enter into all their formulations.
Further, many argue that human life has sanctity simply because it is human life. This answer tells us nothing about the value of a human life; it is merely specieism. It is no different from saying the members of a particular race have greater value by virtue of their inclusion in that race.
Others argue that only human life has special value because only we are self-aware, rational, autonomous, have a sense of the future, the past, and so on. While science tells us that other species also have these but not to the same degree, there is in this argument an implicit recognition that some lives are more valuable than others based on qualitative distinctions. This has it backwards; it is the qualities that provide sanctity, not the life itself. The life of a grossly defective infant must lack sanctity; we have no qualms about letting it die when it lacks those qualities we define as the essence of being human.
The ethicist Helga Kuhse provides an analogy: Suppose we encounter people from another planet, people who do not look like us but are obviously self-aware, rational, etc. Could we justify the wanton killing of them on the grounds that they are not of our species? Or would we say that the possession of certain qualities, the kind of life a being has, its capacities, all argue against the legitimacy of such killing. Again, it is the qualities that give value to a life, not its `mere' humanness.
The philosopher Michael Tooley has provided detailed, rigorous arguments as to the foundation of a `right to life.' For him, the ability to see oneself as existing over time is a necessary condition for the possession of this right or for the direct wrongness of killing. Tooley argues that the wrongness of an action is related to the extent the action prevents some interests, desires, or preferences from being fulfilled. That is why it is wrong to inflict pain and to wantonly kill a person who desires to go on living. He suggests that the word `person' be reserved for those beings capable of understanding that they are continuing selves. In this analysis, neither fetuses nor infants nor humans with severe brain damage are persons, so it is not wrong to take their life per se. There may well be, on sometimes rare, sometimes frequent occasions, other reasons for not doing so of course. On the other hand, chimps and perhaps other non-humans as well may qualify for personhood. I would argue as Tooley and Kuhse do that `the direct wrongness of killing lies not in the taking of life, but rather in overriding in a most profound way the interests, desires, and preferences of a person who does not want to die.
I think there is not much there that Singer would disagree with; he even used Kuhse's analogy in his talk. Yet, at the time I wrote it I did not know the views of Singer, other than that he was somehow identified with the animal rights movement.
I brought this up with my friend, Gordon Haist, who is chairman of the philosophy department at USC Beaufort. He thought that Singer was not really presenting a new theory of life and death. Rather, he has a gift for publicizing, in a confrontational way, a set of controversial values that he happens to believe in. This is not a bad thing, but neither is it original thinking, which is what I expected to hear.
The question and answer session was interesting, being in large part a dialogue between Singer and Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disabled person who is well known around town as a political activist, attorney, and champion of the rights of the disabled. She gave, as you will recall, a very eloquent talk to SHL in September of '99 on the latter subject which included her opposition to euthanasia and the killing of infants born with severe disabilities such as spina bifida, her condition, and Down Syndrome.
While she makes a very good case for better treatment of the disabled, her stand on euthanasia and the killing of disabled infants is logically flawed. This results from generalizing her own personal experience to include everyone. For example, she puts herself forth as an example of why an infant born with spina bifida should be allowed to live: she is having the time of her life, her experiences are rich and full, and she would have missed that if she had been killed at birth. Well, yes. But if her parents had let her die, she would not have known what she had missed. Johnson is an atheist, so the idea of an afterlife in which she contemplates her former life is not a consideration. She also does not consider the plight of the disabled person who would rather be dead, no matter how loving and supportive the people around him might be. Any theory needs to address the hard cases, the exceptions that need to be explained. I asked Johnson back in '99 what you do about the small percentage of people with chronic pain who are not helped by medication and who want to die. She answered by saying that she did not know of any cases where you could not opiate the patient sufficiently to relieve the pain. She had no answer to the observation that this treatment only turned people into drugged vegetables, a condition some of us would not consider a life worth living.
I have since learned, from an excellent article in the March-April 2001 issue of American Scientist by Jay Yang and Christopher L. Wu -- two researchers into pain and its relief, that there are three kinds of pain: Nociceptive -- resulting from damage to tissue or organs from injury or disease; Neuropathic -- resulting from direct damage to the nervous system or spinal cord; and Psychogenic -- having no discernible physical cause and assumed to be psychological in origin. Opiates and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories are reasonably effective against nociceptive pain but not against neuropathic pain.
Tricyclic anti-depressants and anti-convulsants are effective against neuropathic pain. Unfortunately, they are slow to work and their side effects -- a decrease in the number of white blood cells, sedation, anemia, and liver dysfunction -- can be severe. For many people, neuropathic chronic pain is a never ending nightmare that in one form or the other will not go away. The same can be said, I'm sure, for some sufferers from psychopathic pain although Yang and Wu do not specifically address that issue.
Given this, I fail to see how one can argue from any point of view other
than a religious one -- not playing God, it will be all right in the
hereafter, etc. -- that in each and every case it is wrong to end a
life. And this is what I think Singer is saying, though he seemingly did
not want to pick a fight with Johnson, sitting there in her wheelchair.
Upon leaving the hall, an elderly women handed me a flier comparing
Singer to Hitler. Aside from the bad taste and faulty reasoning, the
flier struck me as irresponsible for being anonymous. Are these zealots
ashamed of having their names associated with such calumny? Whether
Singer is right or wrong, he presents serious viewpoints that deserve a
serious rebuttal if such is available. Ugly personal attacks only
reflect upon the assailant.
WITNESSING THE DRUG WAR IN COLOMBIA...
By Sharon Fratepietro
On March 23 I returned from an eleven day trip to Colombia, South America. I went with a human rights delegation of 100 U.S. citizens sponsored by the politically independent organization, Witness for Peace. We wanted to see how the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package called Plan Colombia is affecting the Colombian people.
Most money in Plan Colombia is for military aid: 60 attack helicopters, and up to 500 U.S. military advisors and 300 civilian personnel to train three new anti-narcotics battalions in the Colombian army. The stated goal of Plan Colombia is to help the Colombian police spray Roundup herbicide (glyphosate) from crop-dusting planes on the country's many coca and poppy farms. The coca and poppies provide the base ingredients for 90% of the cocaine and most of the heroin used illegally in the United States.
For 40 years insurgent guerrillas and the Colombian military have been at war. The guerrillas terrorize, kidnap for ransom, and murder both civilians and security forces. They extort protection money from coca and poppy growers. The Colombian military, in which soldiers who have graduated from high school do not serve in combat, has one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. Furthermore, many in the military actively or tacitly collaborate with vicious paramilitary death squads. Estimates credit at least 75% of the atrocities in Colombia to paramilitaries, who also traffic in drugs, as do some in the military. But the Colombian people have even more to deal with. An estimated 56% of them earn less than $500 per year, and just one out of four has found a full time job. About two million people are internally displaced by violence and poverty.
Our Witness for Peace delegation talked with U.S. Embassy officials and with Colombians from across the social and political spectrum. We divided into four subgroups and went to four different areas of the country. We slept in hotels, squatters' settlements and farm villages. We learned that up to 75% of the coca and poppies are grown by desperately poor farmers on as little as half an acre, with the average family farm just 2.2 acres. Alternative crops bring little or no return, and few roads exist to take legal crops to market. One group of our delegates went to the province of Putumayo, where thousands of acres of coca were fumigated earlier this year. Our companions heard first-hand testimony that besides coca, legal crops and farm animals had been killed by the Roundup herbicide. They heard from people who suffered medical problems after the spraying, and they saw children whose bodies were still covered with sores attributed by doctors to exposure to Roundup.
Later a U.S. Embassy official told us that Roundup is perfectly safe. He did not mention a Swedish medical study in 1999 linking Roundup to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, or that the Roundup used in Colombia contains additional ingredients, never tested for safety. On March 13, four Colombian governors, including the governor of Putumayo, visited Washington, DC to protest Plan Colombia. They said Plan Colombia had not been discussed with the Colombian people, and that the fumigation of coca since 1996 has caused economic and environmental destruction, and illnesses that include birth defects.
In the Cajibio area of Cauca, we heard a common story. A young farm worker came to my group of delegates pleading for help for his village, invaded two days earlier by paramilitaries. His village was just 18 miles from where we were staying in the homes of farm workers. Soon we learned that paramilitaries had invaded and sealed off seven villages in the area, killing at least two people, and that the Colombian military had abandoned Cajibio. We visited Gov. Floro Tunubala of Cauca, who shared our concern but had no authority over the military. That night a high government official, whose name and office I cannot reveal because his life is in such danger, begged our group to do what we could, as Americans, to convince the military to rescue the people of Cajibio. The next day Lt. Colonel Ricardo Velandia, battalion commander of the army near Cajibio, confirmed to us that his soldiers had left the area because no one would identify the occupying paramilitaries. He said his few resources were severely limited by a priority to protect the Pan American Highway, but that he would send some troops back to Cajibio. Urgent phone calls to his commanding general from the governor of Cauca, Amnesty International, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the International Red Cross, and our Witness for Peace leaders apparently had been persuasive. I don't know how the matter ended, since we had to leave Colombia a few days later.
I heard many opinions in Colombia about Plan Colombia. Everyone said that the government of Colombia is corrupt. Everyone said the guerrillas and coca will never be stopped by military force, but only through massive financial aid to address social and economic inequities. Many people believed that the U.S. condones the paramilitaries who serve as the illegal vanguard of the Colombian military.
And almost everyone asked the same question: Why does the United States blame Colombia for its drug problems, rather than seriously address the drug demand at home?
ENTROPY NO ARGUMENT AGAINST ATHEISM
By Stuart Rue