Archived Issue of the Separationist

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ISSUE: January 2003

Edited by Sharon Fratepietro and Sharon Strong


Contents:

Reproductive Rights Is Subject of January Meeting

"The Rise and Fall of Reproductive Rights in South Carolina" will be the topic discussed at the next meeting of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Dr. Renee Y. Carter will be the guest speaker on Sunday, January 19, starting at 3:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and will take place at Gage Hall, 4 Archdale St., next to the Unitarian Church in downtown Charleston.

Dr. Carter acted as Chair of Planned Parenthood of South Carolina (PPSC) from 2001-2002. Her talk will address state and national issues pertaining to family planning, including contraception and abortion.

Currently practicing medicine as a general internist in Charleston, Dr. Carter graduated from Furman University in Greenville, S.C, with a B.S. degree in Biology. After doing a year in research and as a pharmacological lab assistant, she attended the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia. From 1991-1994, she was in the Greenville Hospital System Internal Medicine residency program. Dr. Carter is a member of the S.C. Medical Society, the National Medical Association, Charleston NOW, and the Charleston NAACP. She is also on the Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society-Southeast Division, and the TriCounty Project Care.

NOTE: Unlike typical meetings, this one will start a half hour earlier (at 3:30) with refreshments, followed by Dr. Carter's talk and audience discussion, so we can vacate Gage Hall by 5:30.

An Interesting Correspondence

Editor's note: The following correspondence took place recently between Herb Silverman and nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. The occasion was Herb's objection to a statement in a column by Pitts printed on Nov. 29 in the Charleston Post and Courier. Herb emailed his dissatisfaction to both the newspaper, which printed it on Dec. 4 in the "Letters to the Editor" section, and to Mr. Pitts, who graciously emailed back a clarification.

To the Editor:

Leonard Pitts in his Nov 29 op-ed wrote, "There are days I think religion is the best advertisement for atheism." After pointing to several recent atrocities committed by Muslims, he mentioned that Christianity has also "authored acts of wanton cruelty." Pitts placed the blame not on religion, but on intolerant extremists within any creed—on those who quote their holy books to justify cruelty, while ignoring compassionate passages in those same holy books.

Unfortunately, Pitts displayed his own brand of intolerance when he wrote: "It's a good thing the rioters are so religious. Can you imagine the atrocities they'd commit if they were not?" As an atheist and secular humanist, I am offended by this question.

With one broad brush, Pitts attempts to categorize all nontheists as barbarians. To understand how I feel, just imagine the outrage had Pitts implied that Christians or Jews would have committed even worse atrocities than Muslims.

Secular humanists have no holy book from which to choose guiding passages, as do Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Nevertheless, our self-determined values and ethical codes do not include the right to commit atrocities. We believe people can develop morally through reason and experience, without deferring to supernatural beings whose very existence is unprovable. Our morality is based on how our actions affect others.

Locally, over 100 nontheists are members of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. To my knowledge, none of them has ever committed a violent act.

Permit me to close by adding a phrase to Martin Luther King's wonderful dream: that people will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin or by their professed religious beliefs, but by the content of their character.

Herb Silverman

President, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

 

(Pitts' emailed reply to Herb on Dec. 24)

Actually, the last line of that column wasn't about atheism, good, bad or indifferent. Rather, it was intended as a sarcastic shot at religious hypocrites; i.e., if these atrocities reflect the sort of "moral" behavior your faith induces in you, I'd hate to think what you would otherwise be like. In my original text, the word "religious" was bracketed by quotation marks to make the meaning clear. I'm told that one or more editors who used the column for their papers removed the marks, muddying the meaning.

Blessings of the season to you and yours.

Yours Truly,

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

 

Dear Mr. Pitts,

Thank you for your explanation. The Charleston Post and Courier did omit your quotation marks on the word "religious." I now understand your point to be that people who do bad things in the name of religion are religious hypocrites, not truly religious.

I think many of the atrocities you mentioned were committed by very sincere believers, however misguided we both think they were. Your suggestion that they might have been even worse had they not been religious implies that those of us with no religious beliefs would become better people if we became religious. You said, "From where I sit the problem is not religion. It is extremism and intolerance."

Well, from where I sit, people are sometimes intolerant "because" they are religious. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg expressed this view when he said: "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." My own position is that some become better and some worse because of religion. That is why I hope we will all learn to measure people more by their deeds than by their creeds.

May you and yours also have a happy holiday season.

Sincerely,

Herb Silverman

Humanist Book Discussion Group

By Sharon Strong

 

Our first meeting of the new year will take place on Sunday, January 26th, in the Barnes and Noble bookstore at 1812 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., 3:00-5:00 p.m. We will be discussing Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man, which deals with the sordid, racist history of intelligence testing and, in the updated edition we’ll be reading, includes a critique of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve. I will lead the discussion.

Looking ahead, on the fourth Sunday in February we will be reading another classic, Bertrand Russell’s influential book titled Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. All our books are available at the West Ashley Barnes and Noble. Join us at our next meeting and help us select more good books to read in the coming months!

In the White House

Following is an excerpt from a recent commentary by Bill Moyers on his weekly series called "Now," broadcast Friday and Sunday nights on PBS.

"And if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture. These folks don't even mind you referring to the GOP as the party of God. Why else would the House Majority Leader say that the Almighty is using him to promote a 'Biblical worldview' in American politics?

"So it is a heady time in Washington—a heady time for piety, profits and military power, all joined at the hip by ideology and money."

The House Majority Leader, of course, is Representative Tom DeLay of Texas.

Indian Rationalists Question Mother Teresa's Ovarian Miracle

By Sanal Edamaruku, President, Rationalists International

(Abridged from Rationalist International Bulletin #103)

Was Monica Besra's ovarian tumor really cured by the supernatural powers of Mother Teresa's picture placed on her abdomen? The Missionaries of Charity insist it was. The Vatican has approved the story officially as a first-class miracle. The Indian Rationalist Association says: Such absurd and dangerous claims call for legal action! The rationalists, who have kicked off the controversy about Mother Teresa's after-death-miracle, demand that the government of West Bengal take the Missionaries of Charity to court for their false claims.

The the miracle agents of the Vatican, under the leadership of chief investigator Brian Kolodiejchuk, have identified several hundred examples of Mother Teresa's supernatural capacities. Neatly filed, classified and elaborately documented in a dossier of more than 34,000 pages, they are getting ready to be sent by air freight to the Vatican now. On this basis, they hope, her canonization will become a mere formality. In December, the Pope is expected to check in the heavy luggage, and maybe in spring the Albanian born nun could enter the annals of saints as the speediest one in the history of the Catholic Church.

The most important of those bundled paranormal claims is the miracle, which Teresa has allegedly done on her first death anniversary. At least one proven after-death miracle is a must for any saint. Teresa's managers have offered the Healing of Monica Besra for this purpose and the Vatican has officially accepted it as a suitable ticket to sainthood. But unexpectedly the miracle has met with a tough challenge. Stripped of the veil of holiness, it looks like a rough-cut fake.

Dr. Manju Murshed, superintendent of the government hospital in Balurghat, said that Monica Besra was admitted in the hospital with severe pain. She suffered from tubercular meningitis and from an ovarian tumor, which was discovered during an ultra-sound investigation. She was subsequently treated by Dr.Tarun Kumar Biwas and the gynecologist Dr. Ranjan Mustafi. After she left the hospital, the treatment was continued in the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital and ended successfully in March 1999. A final ultra-sound investigation showed that the tumor had disappeared.

Heartpiece of the Vatican's proof is a statement of crown witness Monica Besra. It leaked, despite utmost secrecy, to the press. In this statement, Besra describes that she was suffering from terrible pain from a giant tumor in her stomach and nearly lost all hope. She left her family to seek help with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. On 5 October,1998, Mother TeresaÌs first death anniversary, she prayed to her ardently. Two nuns, sister Bartholomea and sister Ann Sevika, took a silver medallion with MotherÌs picture from the wall and tied it on Monica's body with a black thread, right on the tumor. The pain vanished the same night and never came back. Her stomach became smaller and smaller and in the morning she felt that the tumor had vanished. She was miraculously healed!

Monica Besra is a 30-year-old tribal woman from Dulidnapur village. She is illiterate and speaks her tribal mother tongue only, laced with a few words of broken Bengali. Until recently she has not been a Christian. The statement is written in fluent English and shows familiarity with details of Catholic belief. It is obvious that the text has not been written or dictated by her. But Monica Besra is not available to bring light into the murky story: she has vanished. She must be under the protection of the church, suspect those close to her. She was not seen, since her name, despite all efforts of secrecy, became public. And the nuns involved in the miracle keep their lips sealed.

To visit the archive of the past issues of Rationalist International Bulletin, please click here.

The Agnosticism of Herman Melville

By Carole Cohen

Herman Melville is generally regarded as the greatest American writer of the 19th century and by some as the greatest American writer of any period. He is known by just a few of his works—Moby Dick, Billy Budd, and "Bartleby the Scrivener"—and is generally assumed to be a writer about the sea, albeit in a deep philosophical vein. What is not well known at all is that Melville was a doubter, an agnostic, a critic of religion, and that his livelihood as a writer was seriously compromised by his heterodox views.

Melville had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, his mother’s religion, but the premature death of his father and the poverty that followed forced Melville out into a world that taught him very different lessons. His first books, Typee and Omoo, fictionalized accounts of his whaling voyages and rovings around the South Pacific, were enormously popular. However, their critical comments on the work of missionaries among the Polynesians outraged the missionary societies, and he was accused of impiety and immorality.

Melville’s greatest work, Moby Dick, received some thoughtful and perceptive reviews when it appeared in 1851, but many critics were baffled by it, and the influential church-related organs found it profane and indecent. One went so far as to maintain that Melville and his publishers were in danger of eternal damnation for the evil influence the book would have upon readers. What would these religious critics have thought had they seen the letter Melville had written to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne? In it Melville announced that he had written "a wicked book" and "baptized" it in the name of the devil.

In his next work, the little-read Pierre, Melville created a protagonist who tries to act strictly according to Christian tenets of duty and self-sacrifice. Filled with these mystic imperatives, Pierre pursues a course of action that ultimately destroys four lives, including his own. The Confidence Man, Melville’s last full-length prose work, is a satire on human gullibility. In a series of sketches, the devil assumes various disguises to deceive in the name of trust. Both of these books suffered an even worse fate than Moby Dick.

Although Melville continued to write for the remainder of his life, he could no longer earn a living by his pen. He worked for 19 years as a customs inspector in New York, and by the time of his death in 1891, he had been largely forgotten. Like his character Bartleby, he "preferred not to" write the kind of books that would have sold, and the books he did write were reviled or ignored for their heterodox religious views and their ambiguities. When Melville dedicated The Confidence Man to "victims of auto-da-fe," he was including himself among them.

In 1856, after an extended conversation with Melville, Hawthorne made the following entry in his journal: "Melville…began to reason of Providence and futurity, and everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’….He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief, and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other…."

Heterodoxy of all kinds was inherent in America from its very beginnings. It took root in the freedom that the wilderness conferred upon settlers and adventurers; it became manifest in the quest for religious freedom; and it was the natural outcome of the Enlightenment spirit of the Founders. It is not surprising that Herman Melville, our greatest writer, should have been an iconoclast.

SHL Calendar

Sunday, January 19 Dr. Renée Y. Carter, past Chair of Planned Parenthood of South Carolina, speaks at the SHL monthly meeting. At Gage Hall, 4 Archdale St., downtown Charleston, 3:30 p.m. (Note the change in starting time this month!) Followed by optional dinner at Vickery’s.

Sunday, January 26: Humanist Book Discussion Group, Barnes & Noble, 1812 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. (West Ashley), 3-5 p.m.


For more information, please visit our Homepage at LOWCOUNTRY.HUMANISTS.NET.