Susan Jacoby – The History of American Secularism

December 30, 2005

Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, now in its tenth hardcover printing and recently published in paperback. Freethinkers was hailed in the New York Times as an “ardent and insightful work” that “seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity.” Named a notable nonfiction book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, Freethinkers was cited in England as one of the outstanding international books of 2004 by the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.

Since the publication of Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby has been interviewed on NOW with Bill Moyers, The O’Reilly Factor, and the Dennis Miller Show. She has been a guest on numerous National Public Radio programs, including the Diane Rehm and Tavis Smiley shows, as well as regional NPR programs broadcast from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, and Madison, WIS.

In this passionate and insightful interview, she discusses America’s freethought heritage and the Dover intelligent design ruling.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn presents a new segment called simply, Did You Know? detailing punchy facts about Campus Crusade for Christ, Jimmy Carter and UFO’s, and the growth of superstition on American campuses; contributer Lauren Becker shares her personal reflections on her experiences working at a state park in the Bible belt. Also, Ben Radford, in his regular segment, Media Mythmakers, casts a critical eye on President Bush and his war on terror, and Paul Kurtz examines the secular humanist pursuit of excellence.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 30th, 2005. 

Hello, I’m DJ Grothe. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Point of Inquiry seeks to draw on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. And to bring you each week interviews and commentary focusing on the three research areas here at CFI. First, Science and the paranormal. Second, we focus on the growing alternative medicine movement. Third, on point of inquiry, we focus on religion, secularism and nonbelief. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we will be joined by Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers A History of American Secularism. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Paul Kurtz, founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry, about his editorial in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine. The Pursuit of Excellence and Benjamin Radford will share his regular commentary, Media Mythmakers. But first, Tom Flynn with the occasional segment we simply call. Did you know? 

Did you know that over the last 20 years, the number of students involved with Campus Crusade for Christ has increased? One hundred sixty three percent at Brown. More than 500 percent at Harvard. And more than 700 percent at Yale. Other groups like the Navigator’s and Intervarsity have experienced similar growth. Did you know that Campus Crusade for Christ raised three hundred and eighty million dollars last year? That’s more than PBS. The Boy Scouts and Easter SEALs combined. Did you know that President Jimmy Carter believes he saw a UFO quoting, I’ve never believed that it came from Mars. But I saw an object one night when I was preparing to give a speech to a Lions Club. Carter says there was a bright light in the sky. It got closer and closer to us. And then it stopped. I don’t know how far away, but it stopped beyond the pine trees. And all of a sudden it changed color to blue. And then it changed to red. Then back to white. And we were trying to figure out what in the world it could be. And then it receded into the distance and of, quote, sounds like an airplane to me. Did you know that evangelical leader James Dobson’s organization Focus on the Family gave two point two million dollars in Toonami aid? But this included one million copies of Dr. Dobson’s book When God Doesn’t Make Sense. Did you know that FEMA’s Web site listed Operation Blessing, Pat Robertson’s faith based organization, second on its list of charities that would speed relief to Katrina victims. But last year, Operation Blessing gave half of all its donations. Eight hundred and eighty five thousand dollars. To Pat Robertson’s own Christian Broadcasting Network. Did you know that Americans spend eight billion dollars on Christmas decorations almost four times what they give to protect animals and the environment? 

Now, point of inquiry contributor Lauren Becker with a lesson she’s learned as a park ranger in the Bible Belt. 

The summer before my senior year of college, I worked as a park ranger, guiding hikes in one of the most beautiful state parks in the country. Its central feature was a 256 foot waterfall that plunged down through a gorgeous natural amphitheater, cutting through bands of limestone and sandstone and collecting in a deep pool the perfect hangout for summer swimming. My favorite program was the hike to the base of the falls. Layers of rock are like chapters in a history book. And this canyon carved so deeply, told an ancient story standing at the bottom, calling out over the roar of the falls. I got to teach the exciting conclusion the layers of slate in shale beneath our feet tell us that 300 million years ago this deciduous forest was a tropical jungle. What book to get that out of? Came the reply one day, and thus it began, for this waterfall was not only located in ancient rock, it was also in the heart of the Bible Belt. I had heard there were people who believed the Earth was only 6000 years old, but I never thought I would actually meet any. That summer and every other summer, I worked teaching science to the public. I met a lot of them. They’ll most objectors would just walk away from the program. Some others would cover their children’s ears to protect them from the blasphemous park ranger. One man, after I patiently explained how we know the age of rocks, finally just threw up his hands. Exclaimed The devil made that rock look that old to turn you away from God and led his family back up the trail. At the time to a college kid with a summer job. These responses seemed bizarre, but relatively harmless. They were local. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs. No skin off my back, whatever. But now, 15 years later, I understand these taunts to be the threat. They truly are dangerous beliefs made more dangerous because more and more people believe them. How does believing a 300 million year old rock is only 6000 years old become dangerous? Is it a reflection of where and how we find answers? A 300 million year old rock is the answer resulting from decades of observation, research, field study, laboratory testing, comparative studies and critical thinking. A six thousand year old rock is the answer because God said so. Is the accurate age of Iraq really important? Interesting. Yes, but important, maybe not. But what if the question is about polio? Should we seek an answer from decades of observation, research and field study, discover a vaccine and destroy a worldwide plague? Or does the answer lie in God’s plan? What if the question is about food? Decades of observation, research and field study have shown us there is only so much arable land that can produce only so many calories of food energy. Currently, we burn 10 calories of oil energy to make one calorie of food energy. Our world population of six billion people is barely sustainable, let alone the 12 billion projected. And another 40 years. Should we answer with conservation or with prayer? What about your right to vote or just your rights in general? Eons of history, research, comparative studies and critical thinking have brought us to the advantages of a representative democracy based on individual rights and the checks and balances of limited governmental power. Is government of, by and for the people the answer for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Or would we prefer one nation under God defined by his will and authority? Let’s think about this. If as many people are demanding today, we want our government to be based on God’s authority. The first problem is to decide exactly which God we want to follow. There are many God is a very ambiguous, schizophrenic deity. This is why, as Carl Sagan explained, when you ask, do you believe in God? If I say yes or if I say no, you have learned absolutely nothing. So we have to be more specific. How do we get 300 million people to agree to a specific definition of God’s identity and will? We can’t. Of course, a democratic populace with the freedom to think for itself never will. OK. So forget individual freedoms. The answer is a theocratic dictatorship that can force the people to live according to its particular interpretation of God’s will. And that’s how a six thousand year old rock becomes dangerous. But it was just a little rock. Yes, but it’s a big metaphor. The man who claimed that the devil had made the rock look that old to turn me away from God was trying to warn me that I shouldn’t believe everything I see. He believes the devil works through deception. So anything learned from observation can’t be trusted. The church tells him Satan sends demons to trick his senses and his mind. Consequently, according to him and the millions of Americans who agree with him, we can be saved only through faith. Of course, there’s no denying that our minds can be easily fooled. After all, it’s the basic premise underlying all marketing, entertainment and campaign policies. But the idea that we must turn to faith for our salvation is fundamentally flawed. Credulity is a disastrous reaction to deception if we wish to succeed in life. We need a more skeptical way to react to the world around us. How can we possibly work through the deceits of the world and the whims of our minds and come to a true understanding of reality? That answer is the scientific method. It is a process of constant questioning, testing, verifying and questioning again until the smoke and mirrors are removed and reality is revealed. Then you do it all over again. It’s an adaptive mechanism, a hybrid of contemplation and observation. And the best technique we’ve invented to help us figure stuff out. Constant questions, constant testing. If an idea doesn’t hold up, we throw it out. It’s ruthless, but it works. There is no argument from authority because authorities make mistakes. And as Sagan reminds us, intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong. Nothing is sacred. And that is how lots of very diligent people figured out that a six thousand year old rock was really 300 million years old. Cherished ideas often must fall by the wayside. But at its best, the method keeps us honest. Honesty is difficult. It requires heroic efforts of introspection and self-awareness. This honest portrayal of reality is at the heart of the conflict between science and religion. While science is a natural response to reality, religion demands that we distrust our senses and our intellect, instead relying on a supernatural explanation. In this way, faith robs us of the best tool we have for learning about our world and understanding our true position within it. Religions, especially fundamentalist religions, get stuck because they are based on an immovable, unchangeable, unquestionable authority. But without doubt and questioning, there is no way to acknowledge, much less correct, for errors. That is how a six thousand year old rock becomes dangerous. It also explains the hostility on the hike that day because the danger goes both ways. If we want to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, almost every scientific discovery of the past 400 years has been a real downer. First, we find out that the universe literally does not revolve around us. Next, we discover that our sun is really a quite average star. And not only that, we live out in the boondocks of an average spiral galaxy that is just one of 20 other galaxies given the appropriately known superlative name. The local group zipping through space outward from the center of the cosmos, which did we mention is very far away from us. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this planet that was supposedly created for us was hanging out for almost five billion years before we even showed up. And by the way, we didn’t look like this when we first got here. If your sense of self-worth, your purpose in life is based on the belief that you and the universe were created specially for one another. Science is truly a harbinger of doom. You can shoot the messenger, but ignoring reality is no guarantee that it will go away like a talk show celebrity. The significance you desire is sadly based on unmerited importance. Truth be told, though, that performance was entertaining. Your show is just a dot among six billion dots on a bigger dot flying around a brighter dot lost amid a billion billion more dots separated by vacuous space. But here’s the cool thing. At least you are a dot. I am a dot, too. This means that though we are insignificant to the cosmos, we are incredibly significant to each other. We and our fellow dots. What should we do? Don’t be afraid. The lack of ADT is not an opening for chaos. It is a call for responsibility. Besides, there are some really smart dots over there that have figured out how to learn and they can teach us how to survive. It’s all really quite amazing. Did you know this rock is over 300 million years old? Our species has continuously found meaning, purpose and comfort in the idea of God or gods. Unfortunately, if we want to know what is actually going on and our survival depends on understanding reality. Religion is utterly bereft of explanatory power. A belief in God’s existence is a useful and powerful illumination of our own desires for life. But it is not a reflection of what life is. The discovery that Iraq is 300 million years old is the result of lots of questions by lots of people who devised lots of different ways to ask the Earth about itself. Much to our delight, she is talking. Science is how we listen, and the scientific method is how we understand what she says. To deny that Iraq is 300 million years old is to deny the process that got us to that understanding. Since this process of inquiry is our best tool for succeeding in the world, its denial is a grave threat to our future prosperity. Far from making a stronger faith cripples us because it takes away our greatest advantage, our ability to question, to learn, to adapt and therefore to live. 

Science and reason are increasingly under assault in our society, even that our leading colleges and universities, if you are a student, faculty or staff member, we invite you to join center for inquiry on campus. It’s free to join. And you’ll receive educational and promotional materials in the mail. At no cost to you so that you can work with us to promote science and reason at your school. Visit w w w dot. Campus Inquirer. 

Dawg. You are listening to point of inquiry. Visit us online at point of inquiry, dot org. 

It is my pleasure to welcome Susan Jacoby to a point of inquiry. She’s the author of Freethinkers A History of American Secularism, which is now in its 10th hardcover printing and just out in paperback. Let me remind everyone, you can get a copy of that book by going to our Web site. Freethinkers was hailed in The New York Times as an ardent and insightful work that seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity. Named a notable nonfiction book of 2004 by The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, Freethinkers was cited in England as one of the outstanding international books of 2004 by the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. The novelist Philip Roth has spoken of the book Freethinkers. He said that it that in the best of all possible, America’s every college freshman would be required to take a course called the history of American secularism, and that the text would be Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers. Welcome to the show, Susan. 

It’s a real pleasure to be on the show. I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and I think it’s so important to have a forum to disseminate these thoughts about free thought to a wider audience, hopefully an audience that hasn’t heard about us and that doesn’t necessarily already agree with many of the listeners to point of inquiry or new to the kinds of subjects that we explore. 

So why don’t we begin by having you tell us exactly what a free thinker is? 

Well, freethinker is a word that’s kind of been out of fashion, although I pride myself on bringing it back a bit into fashion with this book. It’s a term that originated in the 17th century. And what it originally meant was simply a free thinker with somebody who is opposed to clerical ecclesiastical authority. In other words, a free thinker wasn’t necessarily someone who didn’t believe in God with somebody who if they did believe in God. We’re not going to let some minister or pope tell him what sort of God they ought to believe in. In the 18th century, the term became more associated with people, with ideas, with people who believed in a God who maybe set the universe in motion, but then then left everything else up to chance, the sort of guy. But people who believe in both evolution and God sometimes say they believe in so free thinking in America was really at its height in the night, at the end of the 19th century. And basically free thinkers come covered a broad gamut from from people who genuinely didn’t believe in God at all. Atheists or agnostics, to those who believe in some form of unconventional personal God were really united. All freethinkers were two things. One, hatred of church authority, whatever church it was, and belief in absolute separation of church and state. 

So you could be a liberal religionist or some kind of religionist and still be a free thinker and still believe in separation of church and state. 

Yeah, in the 19th century, Quakers and various kinds of Unitarians, for example, began to be very closely associated with the Freethought movement. They were really kissing cousins. 

The subtitle to your book, which I found incredibly rewarding to read. And let me remind our listeners again, you can get a discounted copy of the book by going to our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. The subtitle of that book is History of American Secularism. Susan, what is secularism and where does it fit into American religious history? I mean, isn’t America a Christian nation? You hear that bandied about all quite extensively. 

Yes, yes, yes. Well, well, well. First of all, secularism isn’t a form of religion, but how it fits into the history of American religion is a really good question in a million histories of all kinds of American religion written. What sort of gotten lost is that America also has a strong secular tradition, and it’s a tradition which actually is linked to religion in one way in the secular government was thought by the people who wrote the Constitution to be the only guarantor of religious liberty. So there is a close relationship between the idea of secular government and religious liberty. But the actual word secularism doesn’t even appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until the eighteen fifties. And the philosophy of secularism as opposed from the idea of secular government. It’s a little bit different. It’s basically an ethical system based on what’s good in this life without without reference to future rewards or punishments so that they’re there. In other words, that there can be, let’s say, a secular approach to racial justice as well as a religious approach. The religious approach says slavery is a sin against God. The secular approach says slavery is a sin against your fellow man. 

But what you just described secularism as sounds an awful lot like what some people talk about when they use the phrase secular humanism. So evangelical Christians are railing against this foe called secular humanism. How is secularism related to the movement if there is one of secular humanism? 

Secular humanism, like secularism itself, is simply an ethical system of treatment of other people based on what’s right now, what’s right, because of what we owe each other as human beings, not because of what we owe God or what God is going to do to us if we don’t behave well. So I don’t think for practical purposes, I don’t think secularism and secular humanism are all that different except for one thing. Secularism, like religion, in fact, can be anything. In other words, there are all kinds of secularist philosophies. Marxism was one of them that don’t necessarily have anything to do with humanism, which is based on an idea of the dignity of human being. I see that secularism is a little is a little broader secularism like religion. It’s kind of a neutral term. It’s neither it’s really neither good nor bad. Secular humanism implies a concern for your fellow human being. 

So secularism is just non-religious government or it’s just working out what you do in this life based not on the idea of heaven and hell. 

I see. We began discussing about where secularism fits in to American religious history, even though it’s not a religion. And you mentioned our founders and our heritage in America that we have a secular heritage, not just a religious heritage. You hear a lot of people talk about America being a Christian nation. Is it a Christian nation? 

Americans are were at that at the dawn of the United States. And, in fact, still are predominantly Christian people. Here is where all of these all of these right wing Christians go wrong. There is no question. America is the majority of Americans. The vast majority of Americans at the time of the founding of this nation were Christians of various kinds. And America is still a predominantly Christian country today, even though it’s a lot more diverse. It is not a Christian nation. However, in the sense that if a government is not founded on Christianity and it’s not centered on Christianity or any religion, in spite of what you hear today because the Constitution deliberately admitted any mention to God, the Constitution is completely secular. The Constitution has nothing to say about religion except in an exclusionary sense. One thing being that the Constitution mandates that there be no religious test for public office. And then, of course, there is the First Amendment and its familiar establishment clause preventing Congress from respecting or prohibiting an establishment of religion. All the Constitution says about religion is if the government can’t do anything about it. 

You mentioned the debate over meeting God in the Constitution. How fierce was that debate and why did you tell us who the players were? 

Well, that debate. I mean, the Constitution was written basically by people who, you know, they were very close to the worst horrors of union, of church and state, which is just why the left got out and instead gave supreme governmental power to we the people. There was, however, there was a big debate over the absence of God from the Constitution. When all of the various state legislatures, you know, met to debate on whether to ratify the Constitution. And a lot of the ministers who were then members of state legislatures predicted that the United States was going to crumble right away if they didn’t acknowledge that all governmental power comes from God. And they were in most of the state conventions. There were amendments proposed to Christianize the Constitution. They all failed. Now, I mean, what’s happened today is the religious right lost that first battle in the 18th century, the religious right of its day. It’s never gotten over it. And a lot of what we’re seeing now in attempts to bring religion and government closer is an attempt to undo what the Constitution did. 

So you’ve just explained what you explain in detail in your book that America wasn’t founded as a Christian nation, Susan, and that the crafters of the Constitution deliberately omitted God from it. So where’s the fuel for the fire for all the evangelicals and other Christian activists who say that this is a Christian nation and we must go back to our roots? 

Well, first of all, I’m going to I’m going to correct you, if you don’t mind. You talk about evangelicals as though that’s identical with the Christian right. That’s not true. They’re all kinds of evangelicals. The evangelicals who talks the loudest are people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Right. Who are the Christian right. But evangelical Christianity has a strong tradition of separation of church and state, too. The Northern Baptists. 

Yeah. And you have evangelicals like like Frist. Former President Carter, who spoke out against attempts to strike evolution from the Georgia state biology curriculum, are a good example of that. It’s important for people listening to this to know that the Bible’s constitution was ratified by a combination of evangelicals of their day and freethinkers. They had different motives. The free thinkers were concerned about protecting government from religion. The evangelicals of the 18th century were very concerned about protecting religion from government because they were religious minority. So those two got together and gave us the constitution we have today. Now, today’s Christian right doesn’t like that bargain, right. 

And do you see a growth in their movement or do you think they were stopped in their tracks with, say, the recent decision in Dover, Pennsylvania, where the Republican judge, Joan, wrote that 139 page decision criticizing intelligent design? 

Well, first of all, clearly the Christian fundamentalist Protestant right is never going to be stopped in its tracks in this country. It’s always going to be a powerful force. And and the fact that one federal judge wrote a brilliant and sensible decision. If that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to continue to try to get one version or another of their religion into science classes. 

You don’t think it is slow the movement down. 

It may have slowed the intelligent design movement down a little bit. But but this is going to continue to crop up. I mean, believe me, these people are like these. Push me, pull you. 

I used to have when they were kids, you know, you smack them down in one place and they pop up in another. But I think that decision in the Dover case on intelligent design is very important because for the first time, you had a very smart judge who listened to the evidence and he listened to scientific evidence. And by the way, I believe one of the most important things in that case was there was an actual scientist to testify. I believe that I believe that scientists are right in terms of not engaging the intelligent design people debate, because really it’s like debating the existence of God. Nobody ever nobody ever win. 

Yeah. People don’t leave one of those debates having changed their minds. 

Exactly. But I think it was very important for scientists to testify at this trial because they were speaking not to not to a mob of people who’d already made up their minds, but to a judge who hadn’t and who is qualified to listen to the evidence and actually understood something about science. So I think it was very important because when the intelligent design people went into court, they didn’t have a leg to stand on because because they simply couldn’t couldn’t prove that. But what is essentially a religious theory had anything to do with science. Moreover, there’s something else that judge did here in the testimony, various various school board members. It really showed that intelligent design is just a cover up for creationism, which the Supreme Court has outlawed because because creationism is based on the explicit seven day story of Genesis. They were looking for another religious idea that called creationism. 

Right. Judge Jones, in fact, scolded them for he e called them liars for free love, seeing a judicial decision which has the word lie. 

And then it’s very refreshing. Usually usually there’s a lot of euphemisms. But do I think do I think that this is a great big blow to the Christian right? No, I think it’s I. It’s a great a great blow in favor of keeping science classes and school science classes, but the Christian right is going to be back. 

You’ve talked about science just now, and you spend a lot of time in your book talking about the importance of secularists defending science in our society. In that recent book by Chris Mooney, who’s also associated with the Center for Inquiry. We learn of the Republican war on science. Susan, is it necessary that religion will always undermine science? Is secularism science’s only hope? 

Well, you know, this is interesting. And maybe you’re going to be interviewing my friend Sam Harris at a later date on this. 

Indeed we are. I’m glad you said that. 

I have slightly different views on this question. First of all, liberal, intelligent, sensible religion is not at war with science, science at all. The fact is, is intellectually, the more you know about science, I think, you know, the Christian right is right. The more you know about science, the more it tends to undermine, for instance, anything like a belief in the literal truth is the Bible. But as far as religion, which is a more flexible form of religion, which doesn’t, you know, which doesn’t insist that the earth was created in seven days. Right. And that and that that God turned in the man who was crucified and rose from the dead and was born of a virgin. All at things which liberal religious people began rejecting in the 18th century is quite possible to accommodate both science and a liberal form of religion in your mind. This is this is not to say that science and religion are necessarily compatible. It’s to say the human brain is very skilled at believing things that contrary to what we all do it, we all do it and in every way. I’ll give you I give you an example of why it’s plausible for liberal religion and science to coexist. Look, we all know that that eternal love is very difficult to obtain. And in general, you love more than one person in your lifetime and love is fragile and it doesn’t necessarily left yet. That doesn’t necessarily left yet. All of us run around also simultaneously. That’s the knowledge that life and evidence show us that the love generally doesn’t last forever. 

But we also go around with all sorts of beliefs and the possibility to write a love because we’re human. 

And I think in that same way, liberal religion and science can coexist also because there’s certain kinds of human emotional needs which which won’t be denied. This is not to say that rationally, science doesn’t undermine religion. It does. 

I want to talk to you about your expertize, about some of these culture war issues. We’ve been talking about science and secularists defending science in our society. We mentioned briefly and discussed the intelligent design movement. But there are a whole host of other issues that in the history of American secularism, there’s been a battle between, let’s say, the secular left or let’s just say secularists and and religionists, fundamentalists, stripe. 

There is not a single cultural issue that we have today that doesn’t go back a long way except maybe stem cells. 

Adult stem cells. Yeah, yeah. Yes. You can say that stem cells go bad because stem cells is part of the larger issue of science versus religion. 

Exactly. And and come out of the abortion wars, you know, abortion. 

Abortion is simply another aspect of it, actually. It involves both women’s rights and science. Right. 

But, for example, you know, the right to contraception is something that goes back to the last quarter of the 19th century. And these are these are all related to the status of women, goes back even farther in the 19th century. And the secular and the religious view on women, whether women were entitled to equal rights as human beings is very different. All kinds of things involving sex, such as censorship, also go back to the last quarter of the 19th century. 

There is scarcely an issue today except as it takes a new technological right, such as stem cell research that really doesn’t go back. And, you know, at the heart of all these cultural issues is, is do people have the right to control their own lives or don’t they? This is if you want to talk about another one, the whole issues surrounding the Terri Schiavo case and the right to die. Right. 

It also goes back to something which is that which is that in the age of religion, suicide was considered a sin as well as a crime because only God has the right to take human life as a human being, take that power unto themselves. They are violating God’s law. So all of these issues are often framed in terms of things like, you know, would doctors abused their power if they have the right to assist suicide? And I’m not saying that’s not important, but at heart, these are all issues about religion. 

They’re all issues about religion. And given your historical understanding, I’ll ask you one last. Question before we finish up. Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? 

No. You know, I think that. Not just in the United States, although the United States is the only country in the developed world which is like this. Right. 

But, you know, the power of fundamentalist religion is astonishing. I don’t think anybody like Robert Ingersoll at the end of the 19th century would in a million years have thought we would still be fighting over evolution in the 21st century. 

Right at the turn of the 20th century, the intellectuals were predicting the demise of religion. But religion persists. 

Well, and but not just again, not just religion, but religion, extremely fundamentalist, retrograde form. 

I want to remind our listeners that you can get a copy of Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers A History of American Secularism at our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Before I say goodbye, Susan, let me just ask you, what can our listeners do if they don’t like the answer you just gave, which is that no, there’s not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. What can they do to get involved to to react against the situation? 

The main thing that people should do is really be active about what’s going on in their public schools, because after all, education is really at the heart of everything. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion about intelligent design. If if if science was decently taught in American schools, I think one of the things ordinary people need to do is really monitor what’s going on in their classrooms. 

Thank you very much for being on the show, Susan. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiry contributor and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Ben Radford brings us a segment entitled Media Mythmakers, offering criticism and insight into how the media and others sometimes deceive the public. This week he talks to us about George W. Bush. 

Let me preface this speech by stating that I don’t dislike President Bush. I dislike lies, manipulation and misinformation. Whatever the source this week, it’s Bush’s turn. Since Bush has fashioned himself, the wartime president, and claims the terrorism is his top priority. I want to focus on statements made by Bush about three important issues American torture, paying ransom to terrorists and biological weapons. Bush likes to use simple declarative statements, perhaps because they seem true, even if they’re not. Let’s begin with torture. On October 7th, 2005, President Bush said, quote, We do not torture. This statement could be true. Had Bush qualified it, as in, we don’t always torture. But the flat statement that America does not torture is self evidently false. The evidence isn’t just from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In fact, a dozen reports from Bush’s own Defense Department concluded that prisoners in American custody have been tortured. Do Bush somehow missed the photos from Abu Ghraib prison? People have been beaten, abused, electrocuted, waterboarded, attacked by dogs and so on. At times, America has even exported torture. In a CIA operation called rendition, prisoners would be flown secretly to places like Morocco, Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan to be tortured. Let’s move on to ransoming hostages. President Bush has made his position on negotiating with terrorists. Crystal clear. On April 4th, 2002, he said, quote, No nation can negotiate with terrorists. Earlier this month, on December 6th, Bush said that the United States will work for the return of recently captured Americans in Iraq, but, quote, we, of course, don’t pay ransom for any hostages. Well, see, now, that’s interesting because in March of 2002, the Bush White House was involved in arranging ransom payments for a radical Islamic group, Abu Sayyaf, in the Philippines. ABC News and The Washington Times reported that the U.S. government helped to pay three hundred thousand dollars to the group known to be part of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. The ransom was arranged to secure the release of two American missionaries, Martin and Grassie Burnham, taken hostage at a resort on May 27, 2001. Let me be very clear about this. Even after September 11th, the Bush administration intentionally helped to fund the same terrorists that attacked America. Let’s move on to anthrax. On November 3rd, 2001, Bush stated, quote, Anyone who had tried to infect other people with anthrax is guilty of an act of terror. A month later, the Bush administration admitted that its scientists had been developing weaponized anthrax for years. This despite signing an international treaty banning biological weapons. Published reports in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun confirmed the researchers had in recent years produced dry anthrax powder, the same strain, in fact, that was used to terrorize America. The Bush administration not only continued, but expanded the germ warfare program. If Bush believes that anyone who would try to infect other people with anthrax is guilty of an act of terror, then why did he expand research into anthrax? I mean, there’s no reason to develop a weapon unless you’re going to use it. So the Bush administration has, in fact, used torture, has, in fact, top ransom hostages and find al-Qaeda and has, in fact, worked to develop anthrax and germ warfare in all of these cases. There are two ways to understand Bush’s statements. Either he knows that he’s lying to the American people or are you so detached from reality and current events that he can’t tell truth from myth? I’m not sure which is more disturbing. Think about it. 

If you listen to point of inquiry regularly, you know that each week we bring you a segment called From the Pages of This Week. It’s from the pages of Free Inquiry magazine. You can receive a free copy of Free Inquiry magazine, which is a magazine for science and humanity, by calling eight hundred four five eight 13 sixty six. Free Inquiry Magazine is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, North America’s leading Organization for Ethical, Non-religious People. Paul Kurtz is now joining me to discuss his editorial in this issue of free inquiry, The Pursuit of Excellence. Welcome, Paul. 

Glad to be here for this important radio series that you are running. 

Paul, something our critics often levy against us. And by us, I mean secular humanist skeptics, non-religious people, rationalists. 

They say that we have no standards, that if we don’t believe in an absolute God, then we have no standards. 

Of course, I think that claim is mistaken and that the point is that we believe in the right of privacy because we believe in the free, open, democratic society. 

And some critics who’d want to derive ethics from theology or God think that the right of privacy ought to be curtailed and that it may be dangerous to that we would condone anything excesses of in taste and bad behavior. And that’s not true. So in this editorial that appeared in the Free Inquiry magazine, I say that among our items on our agenda is to raise the level of taste and appreciation. It’s one thing to believe in the right of privacy as I do in a democratic society. It’s another thing to say that everything and anything that any individual wants goes no back clearly is false. We have laws against people breaking the law and harming others. 

But in addition to the right of privacy, I think we need to recognize the need to raise taste appreciation, to educate for excellence. And some people have said, oh, my gosh, you’re against civil liberties. No, I’m not. But I think liberty requires responsibility and we have an obligation to do that. 

As Victor Frankl, that existentialist, the humanist psychologists said, you Americans, you have a Statue of Liberty. That’s great, but you need a statue of responsibility as well. 

Yes. And I think that Liberty and responsibly go hand-in-hand because you say the individual is free to make his or her own choices and and you’re responsible for your future. But this has reached a kind of crisis level in the United States because there is certain aspects of American culture that I deplore that I think we need cultural critics. No, I’m not saying that we should legislate morality. No, we should not. We should allow the individual to make his own choices in terms of his or her own life insofar as he or she does not harm others. On the other hand, I think there are certain moral principles or esthetic principles or cultural principles that need to need to be enunciated and defend. What are some of those principles? Well, I think education is essential. I mean, for example, let us say you have a child who says, no, I don’t want to learn how to read and write. I mean, been would you two in that situation or. No. I’m not interested in the arts or appreciating music. I mean, we would think that that person is uncivilized. And so there’s such a thing as vulgarity in behavior and a kind of limitation of our potentiality for growth. 

So you’re calling for an appreciation of the humanities, the arts, not just the sciences to cultivate the human spirit? 

Well, especially the sciences today, because there’s such scientific literacy. But D.J., you’ve properly stated. Yes, the art of living, the cultivation of intelligence, but the cultivation of appreciation. That’s why I think moral education is important in the schools and throughout life. I mean, you’re going to have moral illiterates who didn’t do not appreciate the needs of others. But from the standpoint of the person now, for example, if a person became an alcoholic and lived morning, noon and night only to drink. And unfortunately, many people do, we would say, oh, my gosh, why don’t you control your your tastes? If a person was a glutton and became obese, we would say, oh, my gosh, it’s unhealthy. So there are standards of criticism. But more now, for example, in American life today, there are certain kinds of behavior that almost never criticized. And when I do so, people say, oh, you sound like a right wing tyrant wanting to impose. No. For example, I think financial speculation is reached all bounds of propriety. I’m disturbed, for example, by the fact that almost every city in the United States today wants to build a casino to promote the economy. What’s wrong with that? Paul, why not a casino? When I resigned to go to Las Vegas and I’ve gone or Atlantic City or where I go, Naggie reforms and gamble occasionally could be fun to do so. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the intemperate, excessive addiction to gambling. And a certain percentage of the population suffers from that, like a certain percentage are addicted to alcohol or let us say, to hard drugs and. Ruined their lives as a result. So but no one today seems to be criticizing addiction to gambling. Is it spread not only from casinos or the lotteries? I mean, the fact that state lotteries are now encouraged everywhere or even more apparently is gambling online, which is a huge business. Yeah, poker online. Poker online. And I like to play poker and occasionally to gamble, but it’s it is the excessive emphasis on this kind of behavior that I think needs some kind of public criticism, because I’ve seen lives lost, families broken up, homes destroyed because of excessive gambling, and we never hear anything. There are no public campaigns against excessive gambling. That’s what I’m complaining about. 

It sounds like you’re complaining not just about gambling, but about excess and all. It’s all right. Yeah. Talking about excess religiosity. You call it religious extremism, other forms of addiction. 

Well, yes. And yeah, it’s. I think temperance is important. Virtue, route self-restraint. I mean, another illustration would be credit card madness. Now, you know, we hear a lot from the religious right. The only thing they’re opposed to is abortion and same sex marriage, certain sexual improprieties. Okay. But they never talk about these of these other things in the in the culture today. 

So you’re really talking about social ills that you think have to do with unreason Assoc.. 

Yes. Social ills and individual ills at the same time. And so credit card madness has overtaking the country and it has cultivated and encouraged by the most powerful banks. In fact, I think that they can be criticized for being immoral. I receive weekly invitations to open up a new credit card account. And my daughter, who was a college graduate and students and friends who can hardly afford it, received one solicitation after the other. And even people who’ve been bankrupt receive them. Now, these provide big profits for the banks. And when I say we need to raise the level of taste and appreciation, one way is to restrain excessive spending, consumer gluttony. When you can’t afford something, don’t buy it. I’ve seen tragic cases of people gone bankrupt because of credit cards. Now you can blame the young person or any person for having having too many credit cards and not be being able ever to pay them off. But I think we have to win. Dite the banks advertising. This is a problem of veis threat, the whole culture. 

What are other examples, other examples that you. 

Well, the other example is greed. Really surprising to me, not just at the corporate level. You mentioned banks, not just that kind of well. And greed of many people. I mean, of the cultural right raises objections to certain excesses in our society, which I agree with some of these objections. On the other hand, they never talk about speculative manipulation, gambling in the stock market, in casinos and so on. As I’ve indicated, or credit card misuse, but also greed. And you see this on television when the person who was extolled as a self-made person of great success, who has amassed a fortune, who has many sumptuous homes and cars and can travel everywhere. And apparently the most this is the bestest. Say I say that we need some criticism of US consumer culture gone wrong. Now, another illustration. And this is what really bothers me is the focus upon violence. For example, I went to see this movie, The Devil’s Rejects. Just by chance. And I was shocked to here. These people kill without any with no compunction, no compunction. All right. What I’m saying. We are a violent, bloody culture. We excessively tend to herald and to be fixated on violence. So I do enjoy the movies and I do go to see violent movies. And I do think that there is some appeal that violence has. But the other hand has become overly stated, overly excessive. 

One of the other excesses of popular culture you mention in your editorial is the breakdown of families. Well, I think what way does the breakdown of families have to do with excesses of popular culture? 

Well, I think the families are very important and that we should do what we can to to encourage family values. I believe in family values. I came from an extended family where my father had seven sisters and brothers. My mother six, and I had about 50 to 75 cousins. And we knew each other, loved each other. Eventually they moved and their children’s children moved and out of touch with each other. And so you had the nuclear family, which ends up in divorce and anger, and now you have nontraditional families. And I, I surely support nontraditional families, any kind of family unit where people live together. I mean, I would include gay families or extended families, but so that is important for people to live together, to get to know each other. Family values. Yes. 

And you said something in your editorial that really struck me. You said, and I quote, Many who claim to believe in family values are indifferent to what you’re calling family values. 

Well, divorce is very widespread in the United States today. And I think the highest rates are divorce are in the Bible states and the highest rate of violence as well. So that to be accused to be against family values, as they accuse secular humanist, is a great mistake. I believe deeply in family values, and I think we ought to cultivate them. In any case, my point is the right of privacy should be defended. But at the same time, we should raise our standard of values. We try to lead responsible lives and with some level of excellence prevails. And we want to be critical of certain forms of behavior and educate taste so that you can appreciate other. I would not legislate this. I don’t want to oppose it. But I think we see we need some models of development of quality, a qualitative full life in which there is growth and development. There are intellectual, moral, esthetic values and cultivated tastes. 

I want to invite our listeners to sample a copy of Free Inquiry magazine, and you can have a free copy of Free Inquiry magazine by calling 800 four five eight, 13, 66. Paul, thanks for joining us for this little segment. From the pages of Free Inquiry. 

Thank you very much, DJ Grothe. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. Judge Roberts record shows long crusade against church state separation. 

These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with the noted scholar and infamous Islamic dissident Ibn Warwick about his book, Why I Am Not a Muslim. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dawg, or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed by Michael Whalan. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Warren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Sara Jordan and Nathan Bupp. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.