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Sadly, another magnitude-6.1 aftershock has struck, after a devastating quake shook Haiti last week. Humanist charities have joined the many other organizations, churches, governments, and faith-based non-profit organizations scrambling to bring direly needed relief to suffering Haitians.
A recent AP article reports the European Union Commission estimates the original magnitude-7.0 quake killed about 200,000 people, injured another 250,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. Heartbreaking stories of people literally dying in the streets have emerged from the region over the past week and while aid is coming fast in terms of logistics, the definition of “fast” for large-scale organizations and governments can be all too different from the definition of “fast” for a starving person in need of medical treatment.
Humanist Charities, a division of the American Humanist Association (AHA), quickly established a Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund and began working with Sebastian Velez. Velez is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who has been working to protect the rights and expand access to medical care and education for Haitian immigrants, with whom the AHA has worked before.
Mr. Velez went to Haiti to assess the situation and establish avenues through which support could be received. Donations from Humanists have so far provided food, medicine, water, and other supplies to Haitians in need. Humanist Charities is currently operating in the port city of Jacmel, which was also devastated by the quake, but which has received little media attention. The Miami Herald referred to the city as “shattered and forgotten“. The shipments from Humanist Charities were the first supplies to arrive there by land or sea. Beyond merely delivering supplies, Mr. Velez is currently playing a major role in assessment and logistics, providing reliable information that is being used by other charities in the area. Mr. Velez wrote a letter reporting on the situation and said:
“I want to stress the importance of the AHA’s membership response. Our shipment justified the first trip from the Dominican Navy. Now many more shipments coming from Santo Domingo, since logistics are solved. Our tools and medical supplies were the first to arrive (as per UN bluecaps) and put to use immediately. We were the only ones from that dock that went into the city and got first-hand information for those here at the DR/Haiti border. These International organizations are using our list of medicines starting at the top of the list we provided.”
While Humanist organizations may not be of the size or have the history of some religious organizations, it seems Humanists are doing their part to use what funds they can in ways that have the biggest impact possible.
If you would like to help make a difference for people in need, please consider giving to the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund now. Click here to help others in need.
Did you know you can buy many college textbooks through Amazon? Flowers? Chocolates? Power tools?
I know I appreciate a good table saw.
If you buy your Amazon purchases via the link, JREF gets a commission, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.
To participate, go to the James Randi Educational Foundation home page and look for the JREF Amazon link, on the lower left hand side of the page. It will bring you up into the selection of skeptically-themed books; however it you do not wish to purchase any book listed here, click on the “powered by Amazon” icon in the upper left corner. Although it won’t show a JREF link or any mention of James Randi, anything you put into your cart at this point will earn the JREF a commission, with very few exceptions.
Privacy: Amazon does not report any identifiable information in its earnings reports to the JREF, so your purchases are private.
HOUSTON, December 7, 2009 – Many may have heard of the various Godless signs appearing on billboard and buses around the country. Starting today, they’ve come to Houston…
The Houston Freethought Alliance (www.HoustonFreethoughtAlliance.org) is an alliance of local secular organizations. These organizations include the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, the Humanist Association of Montgomery County, the Atheists Meetup, and the Secular Center. Together, with funding from the national organization United Coalition of Reason, the billboard appears prominently at I-45 and 1960, near Ella Blvd.
The sign features a blue sky with clouds, and the words “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” and includes the contact information for the Alliance.
This project is part of an active campaign to spread awareness of these organizations. Rather than criticizing others, the message here merely lets those who don’t believe in a God know that there are others like them, and gives them a way to make contact with like-minded people if they choose. In a world where the majority are theists, there are many people who feel rather alone in their atheism or agnosticism.
I personally don’t find the God/no-God question all that important. I prefer Humanism not because of what I don’t believe, but rather because it is about what I do believe. Humanist values are what’s important to me, and that has to do with how we treat one another, being compassionate, and how we live our lives. I think we have a lot in common with our theist friends on those grounds. Having said that, it at least seems like the phrase “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” is not a bad one.
The groups mentioned exist here in Houston for several purposes. Among them:
- Providing a fellowship of like-minded people
- Providing social get-togethers and fun events
- Hosting intellectually stimulating speaking events and presentations on a number of issues from a naturalistic or nontheistic point of view
- Helping to give a community support system to those who may not find churches something to which they can relate
- Helping to connect people with secular celebrants who can conduct weddings, funerals, and other secular ceremonies
- Doing charitable work in the community
- Working to further education about naturalism, science, and reason
- Working to support church/state separation and the rights of non-believers
Of course, there are many theists who find even the billboards as worded offensive or confrontational. In some other cities, similar billboards have already been vandalized more than once. It seems nontheists, merely by making themselves known, are seen as evil or beligerent by some, which is unfortunate. Some of the billboards around the country say things like, “Good without God” or “Good for Goodness’ Sake”. The general message of all of them has simply been (a) to nontheists: that you are not alone and please contact us, and (b) to everyone else: people who don’t believe in God can still be good people.
Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason said, “The point of our national billboard campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States… Nontheists sometimes don’t realize there’s a community out there for them because they’re inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren’t alone.”
But reaching out to nontheists isn’t the only goal of the campaign. “Our message is also to let people know that we are part of the larger community,” added Noelle George, coordinator of the Houston Freethought Alliance. “We’re your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members. We’re just like you except that we don’t believe in a supreme being. Now we’d like the same opportunity as everyone else to be open about our views.”
The United Coalition of Reason has launched a dozen advertising campaigns previously this year. Each involved billboards or public transit ads. They appeared in Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Morgantown, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon.
According to a news article by AP, the Swiss seem to have just voted to affirm a policy of banning Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. The move comes as a right wing initiative in response to fears over the growing Muslim population in the area, and what is seen as possible unwanted cultural shifts in their society. The initiative’s co-president Ulrich Schlueer said, “Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure — we don’t have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it.”
This reminds me of France’s move to ban the Hijab head scarves in their public schools a few years ago. In both cases, I find these kinds of moves unfortunate and the result of fear – ironically, likely to only produce more fear, aggression, and isolation in the future.
Europe has a strong secular streak in its governmental system, and the United States, religious though it is, was remarkable specifically because of its secular constitution. Yet, there is definitely something different between the philosophies of American secularism and European secularism.
In Europe, the idea seems to be that the government is going to enforce secularism on the citizens to some extent. There are much more intrusive laws regarding so-called “cult” activities, laws against various symbols or forms of expression, and so on. Now, they’re telling people not only what styles of buildings they can build on their own property, but what they can wear on their bodies. Secularists in Europe would be wise to keep in mind that it is not religion that is a threat, but rather certain elements found in fundamentalist religion, such as: intolerance, dogmatism, domination, ideology, unfounded beliefs, fear, paranoia, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand these traits can find their way into any human institution, including government. There have been several instances where ‘political religions’ have arisen in Europe and beyond, and when wielded with the vigor of a religious movement, the ‘enforced secular state’ is just as much a threat as any traditional religion.
In the United States, a secular government is as equally valued and important as in Europe. The wall of separation between church and state has been a foundational principle of our government since its inception. But, here, the perspective has some important differences. With American secularism, the emphasis is on the state being restricted – rather than the state doing the restricting. In other words, American secularism is about reigning in the power of the government. It’s about telling the government that it cannot interfere in religious matters. Individuals are free to practice their religions, wear what they want, build the kinds of churches they want, and so on. This is all, provided they are not harming others. It is also provided assuming that religion does not try to infiltrate government, and thus use its power base as a way to extend the interests of any one faith. We have these sorts of legal issues come up all the time, where people will try to get their religious views mounted on court houses and so on. So, the wall is important, but my primary point here is that the main emphasis is on restricting the state.
For example, everyone knows the phrase “they took prayer out of schools” but what isn’t often appreciated is this: they didn’t tell students they couldn’t pray. What they did was tell their own employees (the teachers – agents of the government) they they were not allowed to lead other people’s children in prayer, because it was inappropriate for government employees to be doing that to free citizens. The same applied to the use of government property for the sake of evangelizing. The entire matter is about restricting the government from telling your children what religious practices they’re going to follow. Children themselves are perfectly free to pray, and many student prayer groups meet on school grounds in appropriate times (with the same facilities made available for other interests as well).
In another example, when I was President of the Humanists of Houston, I was interviewed over the matter of several gigantic white crosses that have been placed around various entry highways into the city of Houston. These crosses have been placed on church properties around the city, with the intent being to give the impression that one is entering a ‘Christian city’ as they enter.
I told the interviewer that we certainly don’t agree with the notion that this is exclusively a Christian city or that Christians should have some privileged position. We also didn’t find the suggestive nature of the large icons to be tasteful or respectful. But then I said – however, the crosses are placed on private church property, and were paid for privately. As far as was known, no other building code violations or signage regulations had been violated. No one is obligated to be tasteful or respectful, and I have no right not to be offended. Therefore, the crosses are perfectly within the rights of those putting them up. The interviewer kept trying to goad me into saying something like, “they need to be banned” or that we were going to try and get the government to force them down or something. But I stood my ground that (a) we didn’t care for the statement personally, but (b) it was within their rights.
There are a lot of places where I think the U.S. needs improvement, but when it comes to our take on secularism vs the European approach, I’m happy we seem to be on a better track. Europe is facing a lot of inter-cultural conflicts, fears, and other issues right now, and their reaction against religion will only stoke more. I hope instead they look more toward inclusion, but with a firm handle on foundational principles of religious freedom. There are some principles of individual liberty that should override raw numbers in a vote. If one maintains that, then one needn’t fear Islamic law making its way into the system. Let people wear, say, and build what they want, and that same stance on individual human rights will be there to hold the gate when the pressure swings the other way. But without that foundation of individual liberty, no one is safe. If the Swiss have the numbers to pass such laws today, simply on the basis of mob rule – then I fear for them when the demographic proportions have turned around.
Last night (11/25/09) a few of us came together at Borders Books & Music on Kirby, to discuss the contemplative life, the overlapping lessons and practices available from many different ancient philosophies, and make plans for a program of topics in the next year.
The program for the Humanist Contemplative Houston Meetup will begin at the ground level and build up from there. This means our first focus will be on the nature of reality. In this we will begin with a look at modern complex systems theory. Moving on from there, we will explore both the Taoist views of Nature and those expressed by Heraclitus. In this, we will look for the common threads to see what profound insights they can tell us about how the universe unfolds and how we can build productive perspectives around that reality, which will be conducive to a life of happiness.
The next step in our program will then be to move on to the connection between “what is”, and how we approach life, or how best to live in the light of those realities. This will begin with exploring the mindsets, priorities, and perspectives of the Buddhists, the Stoics, and others. We’ll look at how these perspectives, once deeply understood and intuitively grasped (beyond mere intellectual knowledge) can have a profound impact on our attitudes and approaches. Lastly, we’ll look at the lifestyle implications of those approaches, namely ethics and practices.
This is a long-term plan for us, but it will give us a skeletal structure of concepts. What we want to do is bring everything to the table that humanity has to offer. So, rather than planning to study a specific philosophy, our skeleton is an outline of certain concepts (on the natural universe, its implications to value, how that effects lifestyle, and the pursuit of the flourishing life). It will then be open to us and all who attend to bring whatever philosophic takes on those concepts they can for comparison and contrast. One of us will be bringing in Native American views at some point for example.
We then looked at format and decided that the best structure for our monthly meetup (our “discourse”) would be in three parts. The first part would be teaching-based, or the intellectual. Here we will share concepts from whatever sources we like. We don’t want there to be ‘homework’ or required reading for this group, but we will have a heads-up on what will be discussed, some suggested reading, and so on. The idea is that we’ll all have things to say and questions to offer from our own experiences of things we’re already reading or have read, or that we hope to learn more about. In other words, this exploration is to be done at the event itself, with others. The second part of our discourse, will leave the academic and focus on the practical. In other words, we’ll look each time at solid practices and behaviors which can either help us to instill these lessons on a deeper level, build habits, or have direct effects on our happiness and wellbeing. The third and last part of our discourses will be more personal in nature. Here we will move beyond hypothetical talk of either teachings or practices and speak with one another about our own personal lives. We’ll share our challenges and plans in our path, giving and receiving encouragement or advice as needed.
For now, our entire program outline is very basic, but here is a flavor of the kinds of things we’ll be looking at:
Humanist Contemplatives Discourse Schedule
An layman’s conceptual overview of complex systems theory. Traits of complex systems such as self-emergence, bifurcation, autopoeisis, emergent properties, and more will be covered. The application and relevance of complexity to the many aspects of our world will also be examined.
II. Taoism & Heraclitus (East & West on Nature)
The writings of Heraclitus as he observed the changing flux of Nature are compared with Taoist conceptions of Nature, which recalls what we know about complex systems.
III. Chuang-Tzu & Stoic Ethics (Living with Complexity)
With an integrated modern-ancient conception of a complexity-based Nature in mind, we look at what implications that has for how we live our lives. In doing so, we compare the Taoist Chuang-Tsu’s understanding of the implications, with the Stoic’s understanding of ‘living in accordance with Nature’.
IV. Stoic Physics
Moving beyond Heraclitus to full Stoicism. A more focused look at the universe as it exists in the traditional Stoic model. The nature of the passive and active, the Logos (Divine Fire), Stoic determinism and materialism, and more will be examined.
V. Buddhist Physics
We will look at what is really meant by the descriptions of reality given by core Buddhism in a naturalistic context. Some comparison will be made with Taoist descriptions.
VI. Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, & the Natural Universe
Bringing together the Stoic, Buddhist, and modern complexity-based physics – we will attempt to reach an understanding of the overlap and consistency between them.
VII. Value & Ethics, the Stoic/Buddhist good life
How different modes of description are possible, important, and equally valid depending on the communicative function needed. Overlap and contrast in the approach to life between different traditions is examined.
VIII. Humanism & ancient philosophy
With a grasp of ancient/modern physics/ethics as a whole, we will tie this back into Humanism, and explore its place in the Humanist worldview.
IX. Synthophy – the synthesis of global wisdom, modern science, and humanistic concern
The Five Synthophic Realms and the 20 Synthophic Precepts will be presented as a complete basis of natural spirituality, will be presented and discussed.
After planning these things, we also did a great deal of sharing and discussion of these ideas themselves. As such the evening was not merely planning but we seemed to get a lot out of it. The value of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT, heavily influenced by Stoicism) was shared, and we talked about anger issues, self judgment, and more. All in all, a very satisfying discourse.
Right now our group is very small in terms of actual attendance, and it will likely always be so, but if you would like to join us – you are certainly welcome. Our normal discourses will take place on the second Wednesday of each month, so that puts the next one on December 9, 2009 at 7:00pm. For location, details, and to sign up to receive ongoing information on this group, please visit www.meetup.com/humanistcontemplative sign up, and RSVP today!
It’s that time of year again! Humanists, like those in many other traditions, do indeed celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. Why? Well, for one it’s fun – but it’s also important to have a special time of year where we call attention to fellowship, sharing, and the value of giving. Why not do it at a time of year when the weather is bad and people tend to be affected by that? Furthermore, attaching celebrations to natural events like solstices makes perfect sense for a people who have a naturalistic worldview, and a sense of awe at the natural universe (Humanists also celebrate World Humanist Day on or around the summer solstice).
In more logistical terms, it makes good sense to celebrate when the rest of our community is celebrating in similar ways, which of course affects work and business schedules and the like. This way, we can also join with non-Humanist friends and family in the celebration of those values of our various holidays which overlap and are compatible. These must have been similar concerns when early Christians decided that the pagan celebration of the solstice was a good time of year to celebrate the birth of their savior.
There are other names for the Humanist celebration around this time of year. One is called HumanLight, a fairly new term adopted by the American Humanist Association and some others. It’s basically another name for the same concept, taking place technically on December 23rd. Many of these terms are still gelling together, but the celebration itself has been pretty broad and constant among Humanists. Here in Houston, the Humanists of Houston has been holding a Winter Solstice Celebration for many, many years. Over the years it has grown and has lately become an event shared with, and sponsored by, the family of organizations known as the Houston Freethought Alliance. So, without further ado, let me announce this year’s 2009 Winter Solstice Party!
The Houston Freethought Alliance presents…
2009 Winter Solstice Party
Date & Time: December 12th, 2009 from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM
Theme: Celestial Splendor
Location: Memorial Park Golf Club (click here for an online map)
1001 E Memorial Loop; Houston TX 77007
Food/Drink: Beck’s Prime Steakhouse will provide a rib eye steak, chicken, hamburger, hot dog, or veggie burger; plus unlimited sides, soda, and water for $18 per adult. Burgers and dogs for kids under 12 yrs old for $8/child. For menu details, check out ‘The Blowout’. Adult beverages will be available for purchase!
Please note –outside food and drink is not allowed!
Entertainment: We will have games for kids and our own Santa Claus! Please let us know the ages of kids attending when you RSVP. We will also be having a raffle/silent auction to raise funds for Camp Quest Texas! Check out the SECULAR Center website for a list of prizes!
RSVP: Please RSVP online at www.secularcenterusa.org no later than December 7th, 2009. Click on our ‘Events & Volunteering’ page and then click on ‘RSVP for the HFA Solstice Party’.
Enter username: hfasolsticeparty and password: solstice2009.
Questions? E-mail email@example.com or call 832 295-0188.
Although the main purpose of this post is to announce the Winter Solstice Party, I would be silly not to acknowledge this as the day right before Thanksgiving. For those who are wondering, there isn’t an official version of Thanksgiving for Humanists of which I’m aware. However, I think you’ll find most Humanists celebrate it in some fashion, if for no other reason than that most of their surrounding culture, friends, and family do. But I’d like to take this paragraph to suggest to my Humanist friends that we should approach tomorrow with more than the love of Turkey. While we are non-theistic, it is also a good idea to have at least one time a year where we focus on gratitude. Not only is it a good opportunity to thank others in our lives for what they have done for us and what they mean to us, but it is a psychologically healthy practice to recall those things which are good in our lives, and for which we can have an appreciation. In that spirit, I’d like to wish everyone out there a happy Thanksgiving, and offer my sincere thanks to all those who take the time to read my babbling, and especially who have offered their comments and input!
A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of ‘absolute truth’. By the term ‘absolute truth’ I’m assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, “is there absolute truth?” I’d begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer “no” as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way – not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn’t get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence.
Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any ‘truth’ we establish changes from moment to moment. While it’s true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics ‘evolved’ in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.
So, it’s really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam’s Razor. Therefore, I’d have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist – they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.
How do you define what is meant by ‘absolute truth’? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It’s quite simple: there is one reality that is ‘just so’. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.
But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:
People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines “knowledge”. He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls ‘facts’. Eller imagines that if we use correct ‘reason’ and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at ‘facts’ which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs’.
In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. ‘Knowledge’ is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true – but this doesn’t get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don’t know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.
So… there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making – both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one’s work, the aforementioned Occam’s Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.
What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but “atoms and the void”, I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.
Thanks for reading!