Re: ”It’s a Figure of Speech, for God’s Sake!” (FI, June/July 2023). I’ve noticed, in recent years, increasingly strong efforts by intellectual secularists to encourage us nonbelievers to erase the words spirit and spiritual from our vocabulary. They explain that those words have a supernatural connotation and are therefore contaminated with superstition.
Let us consider, however, the word demons, which is also associated with the supernatural. Yet down through the centuries, certain gifted artists and composers have been described as “battling their demons.”
Are we to assume, then, that intelligent readers will interpret those “demons” literally—as ugly red creatures with horns, cloven feet, and long tails?
Of course not! They understand those “demons” are metaphors that describe the emotional anguish of temperamental artists as they struggle to satisfy their creative hunger.
In my opinion, if we are to breathe life into our description of deep emotions and experiences, we need to use some form of allegory or symbolism. To freethinkers, spirit and spiritual are words used as vehicles to transport deep emotions that common language cannot convey. Thus, nonbelievers shouldn’t frown if, for example, one of their peers says, “I am deeply in love, and my spirit soars like an eagle!”
In such context, spirit merely describes the most refined consciousness—the delicate expansion within our brains that evolved not to do arithmetic or to weigh or measure but which makes us charitable, compassionate and romantic.
Certain ecstasies (such as falling in love) create an unbridgeable gap between what we experience and what we can portray. How could anyone describe romantic love in cold, common, or scientific language and find it satisfying?
None of the world’s most eloquent mortals, I’m sure, have been able to fully describe their intense emotions. I can imagine that even the incomparable William Shakespeare often lamented the lack of words he could call upon to help him portray the impenetrable mysteries of his raptures.
Let’s also not forget that the openly atheist poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, opened one of his most loved poems, “To a Skylark,” with the words ”Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”
Does that imply that perhaps Shelley wasn’t an atheist after all? Or that he had doubts about his nonbelief? Again, of course not! The poet was merely describing, with imaginative language, a beautiful singing bird.
Whatever we do, fellow humanists, let’s not abandon those faculties that make us metaphorically soar above the earth! Sure, we need to think clearly and explain ourselves accurately. But we should also treasure the ability to express our heartfelt sentiments—not like passionless computers but as people endowed with human tenderness.
Paul Fidalgo’s “It’s a Figure of Speech, for God’s Sake!” (FI June/July 2023) was a great editorial, by Jove! As to his omitting “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school, I went him one better. I merely pretended to say it, in reality just nonsensically mumbling. In those days of McCarthyism and segregation, I knew that the United States didn’t have “liberty and justice for all” and wasn’t going to be hypocritical. However, had I refused to say it, I might have been expelled from school and/or given a knuckle sandwich by one of the football players.
As a retired professor of linguistics, I remember an interesting article from decades ago in which a fellow professor of linguistics tried to explain constructions such as “eff you!” when insulting someone. I suspect the professor was an atheist, but despite that, he asked “Who is the subject of a construction such as ‘eff you!’” He said that God was. The speaker is actually saying, “I hope God effs you!”
Language is fascinating. Thanks, Paul, for a great editorial!
Charles Wukasch, PhD
Re: “It’s a Figure of Speech, for God’s Sake!” (FI, June/July 2023). In Paul Fidalgo’s short time as editor, I’ve become attracted to the author’s articles. We long-time subscribers are not all professional philosophers, and his style includes us among those who can appreciate and understand the message. His predictable use of humor stands in pleasant contrast to the solemn profundities of many other contributors.
His editorial describes a dilemma no doubt experienced by a large majority of us secular folks. Resolutions are limited, and this is my choice. I’ve opted for verse as the best way to economize my 300 words.
IS ‘GOOD GOLLY’ FOLLY?
All religions take pride in the scat they provide for the malleable mind.
Young minds turn adult and some sort it out, leaving spirits behind.
So, what do we do ’bout that scat residue that shapes our civility?
I really don’t know, but the old status quo provides continuity.
If I have nothing new, I’ll bless you, address you or bid you adieu
with fossilized memes of a spiritual view.
No need to surmise that I’m being surprised,
Or my ire’s on fire by causes quite dire.
My OMG knee jerk is only a quirk, language at work,
a smirk for that world where spirits still lurk.
Secular brothers will know my true druthers.
If one is not, words trump the thought.
Our exception’s GESUNDHEIT, a godless delight.
The plea it’s addressing is never a blessing.
It’s a wish for good health uttered in German,
and it’s never a part of anyone’s sermon.
It’s surely at home with a toast or a sneeze,
and often it’s heard “just shooting the breeze.”
Uber-devouts are born again souls, who never take god’s name in vain,
sounding quite lame while keeping with speech that’s never profane.
They’ll bandy about “Jolly Good Golly” and “Jiminy Cricket.”
They’re on the wrong bus, but they punched the same ticket.
Don’t be conflated, related, or mated with the uber-devout.
Godly old saws that don’t harm our cause are the surest way out.
I’m down on my knees and asking you, please.
Reflexive theology doesn’t merit apology.
You’re on the right track, so don’t take it back.
Don’t even consider an awkward retract.
Saying you’re sorry won’t bring you relief,
and use of the hackneyed is never belief.
Fernandina Beach, Florida
Having read Paul Fidalgo’s editorial “It’s a Figure of Speech, for God’s Sake!” in the June/July issue I’ll comment that no atheist or agnostic need be concerned about his/her usage of “god” and related things in speech.
I don’t know what percentage of words we speak are spoken unconsciously, possibly without literal meaning, but there is a percentage. We’re not thinking as we eat breakfast that we’re “breaking a fast,” that when we get a clean handkerchief that it’s a “hand kerchief,” or that “goodbye” is “god be with ye.” We say “back and forth” when it would make better sense to say “forth and back,” but we don’t give such things conscious thought. When we sustain a minor injury such as a pin prick, we might not resort to cursing but might be content to say “ow” or “ouch,” meaningless words but spoken when appropriate. I suggest that due to the influential foothold that Christianity has had on our culture, such things as “oh my god” or “god only knows” are now so common they can be considered “public domain.” We absorb such things into our speech subconsciously, and we need not have to now mean them literally.
A Code to Live By
As the basis for a secular moral code, Jennifer Michael Hecht’s article “On Choosing a Code to Live By” (FI, June/July 2023) promotes the poem that begins “To everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 1:3–15). Regrettably, Hecht is mistaken about the origin and the meaning of this section of the Hebrew Bible.
Hecht describes Koheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, as a “preacher” who lived “between 450 and 200 BCE.” Actually, Koheleth’s identity is unmistakable, as the work begins: “The words of Koheleth, son of David, King in Jerusalem.” This is King Solomon, who wrote the Song of Songs and many other profound works. Solomon’s reign was around 1000–900 BCE, not “between 450 and 200 BCE.”
The name Koheleth is derived from the same root as the Hebrew word Kehillah in the name of many synagogues, where it means congregation. Applied to a person, it means one who assembles or congregates. In a literary context, it is best translated as an anthologizer who assembles ideas and writings, not “preacher.”
Hecht interprets the poem as a guide to behavior, in which the author tells us that we are “not supposed to always be laughing, always be harvesting,” etc., that “life’s extremes come for all.” In reality, the poem is a description of God’s control of our lives. After the end of the poem, Koheleth tells us that “He (God) brings everything to pass precisely at its time … that whenever a man may eat and drink and get enjoyment out of his wealth, it is a gift from God. … God will doom both righteous and wicked for there is a time for every experience and for every happening.” (These quotes are from the 1985 Bible of the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.)
Ironically, a secular moral code can be found in Hebrew writings. About 100 BCE, the sage Hillel was asked to teach the entire Bible to a provocateur while the latter stood on one leg. Hillel said: “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you. That is the essence; the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
Lawrence I. Bonchek, MD
Re: “The Rise of White Christian Nationalism: Why Now?” by Jeffrey Victor, June/July 2023. I believe Victor missed the main reason for “Why Now?” During the 1950s, up to about ten years ago, I recognized how Black people were mostly absent in our TV programs and movies (both mainstays of our culture). I also understand the position that reparations are to compensate for the cumulative damages over slavery in this country. The African Americans in this country have risen and spoken to these issues, along with many White Americans. However, I was raised with the belief that two wrongs do not make a right.
African Americans make up approximately 12 percent of our population. That should mean for every twenty-five people we see in movies or TV programs, three should be black. The overcompensation we are experiencing adds to the White anger, just as it did in the African American community.
My ancestors were enslaved by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. Some of them were put into arenas then devoured by wild animals and forced to kill each other or be killed for the entertainment of the crowd. I guess that would mean my cumulative damages should add up to me owning Greece and Italy today. I haven’t even touched on the butchering of the English language by some—not all. Those are some of the reasons White Americans feel the culture is being attacked and threatened.
I am reminded of the words of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Edward King, MA
Abortion … Again
Re: “Abortion: The History of the Value of a Fetus,” FI, June/July 2023. Stephen Baird provides a valuable historical perspective about fetal life and abortion, but much history beyond the delusions of biblical exegesis remains unsaid in his essay, particularly as illogical origins and grotesque ill effects are entangled in today’s application and enforcement of the catechistic dictates its political supporters impose on the populace. Current U.S. law has been promulgated by a cabal of Vatican-centered papists and born-again Protestants whose worship of the profligate deviant Donald Trump belies any true religiousness in them, whose lives are ruled—so they say, though often they merely insist that everyone else’s be so limited—by fealty to commandments emanating from a supposedly ablaze bush atop a mountain ancient trekkers were unlikely to have had the ability to ascend on foot.
It is important, critical even, that we make ourselves aware of the level of disconnect that misinforms the promulgators and supporters of the current misguided forces of our nation’s government. The abject ignorance, the voluntary psychosis (1) of many of these misogynist politicians would be laughable, were it not so often so tragic for the women whose lives are curtailed or made miserable by the impositions of these laws: some believe rape cannot produce a pregnancy (2); others believe that the uterus and the bowel are contiguous (3); still others express belief in the impossible: that an ectopic pregnancy might be transplanted, rather like a beanstalk or an onion (4). Other current political operatives remain ignorant not only of the most basic facts of biology but are entirely devoid of knowledge of the basic civics taught in classes most of us were required to pass prior to graduation from grade school; one failed to recognize his apparently current favorite branch, the Judicial (5). Anyone aware of the current foibles within the Legislative branch can only be shocked at the level of ignorance expressed in the halls of Congress daily, illiterates spouting biological nonsense, schoolyard bullies grown gray in continued immaturity, now hiding behind collars, ties, and dirty money.
The Vatican was from the beginning confused about the fetus, holding the belief that the “soul” inhabits the fetus at forty days for a male and eighty days for a female, this dogma apparently based on ruminations among aged White men in fancy gowns in fancier rooms within the Vatican’s booty-lined confines (6). That same amalgamation of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes blessed same-sex unions throughout the Middle Ages (7). History, sadly, is writ by the victors and the liars, rewritten and revised according to more current political desires.
The idea that some mysterious tingler-like parasitic creature feature called the “soul” infects/infests the body of a fetus at some arbitrarily—but dogmatically—declared time is as much pure-cloth mythology as is the very idea of such a “soul.” Life was always thought to have begun, according to a plethora of sad engravings on infants’ tombstones in any cemetery with or near a centennial: “Came Into This Life on dd/mm/yyyy … Died on dd/mm/yyyy,” Came into this life … became a person, became human. This is the secular and general belief. The life-begins-at-conception slogan is but another myth the post-Medieval (date-wise, not wisdom-wise) churches need and abuse to bolster their claim to universal knowledge about the unknown.
The apparently invisible elephant in the room is the Bill of Rights’ Separation Clause, which forbids any and all laws respecting religion, whereupon all anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation find their fundaments. America has become in essence and is becoming in reality a theocracy, where freedom of religion is interpreted by the current hate-driven and bigoted king-of-the-hill cabal as their freedom to force the citizenry into adherence to their supposedly moral behavior code, a set of baseless strictures guaranteeing the deaths of many women and the misery to suicide of a non-trivial percentage of our nation’s youth.
The America of our Founding Fathers’ thoughts and prayers is over—Benjamin Franklin’s caveat ignored—and its murderers stand blithely proud of their vicious victorious stand, blindly marching toward the abyss.
Stephen Baird writes (FI, June/July 2023), “Intentional abortion is not … mentioned in the Bible.” That is incorrect. Numbers 5 prescribes a ceremony for the purpose of inducing abortion in the case that a woman is pregnant and her husband suspects he is not the father. Here is an excerpt, in the New International Version translation:
24 [The priest] shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28 If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
I don’t know why this is so widely overlooked. Obviously, this isn’t a moral exemplar for contemporary advocates for abortion rights, because the woman has no agency, but it is certainly not the case that the Bible condemns intentional abortion. On the contrary, it requires it in this particular circumstance. I would certainly challenge Christian and Jewish opponents of abortion rights to explain this.
M. Barton Laws, PhD
Providence, Rhode Island
Stephen Baird (FI, June/July 2023) was very perspicacious. I would like to add: What does the bible say about abortion? Absolutely nothing. However, the bible does provide a Biblical basis for the real motivation behind the anti-abortion religious crusade: hatred of women. The Bible is anti-woman and not only blames women for sin but also for demanding subservience, mandating a slave/master relationship to men, and demonstrating contempt and lack of compassion. Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” What self-respecting woman today would submit willingly to such tyranny? Christian Nationalists? The Bible orders the death penalty for the murder of a human being but not for the expulsion of a fetus. The Bible is not pro-child. There are many threats to kill children: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones” (Numbers 31:17). “Slay both man … and woman, infant and suckling” (1 Samuel 15:3). “Dash their children, and rip up their women with child” (2 Kings 8:12). “They shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children” (Isaiah 13:18). A poster on a bulletin board outside of a political science office: “If you cut off my reproductive choice can I cut off yours?” Appropriately stated indeed.
The Future of Free Inquiry
I fully agree with Ben Mullaney’s article, “The Potential of Free Inquiry,” in the June/July 2023 issue. The antireligious pieces are not very insightful. Of course, religions are based on zero evidence and therefore not really relevant to our worldview. That they are relevant in politics is unfortunate, but continued free inquiry with the right emphasis is the best path to change this.
In addition to the eight topics that Mullaney recommended, here are a few more ideas, in no particular order:
How to make ethical decisions in medicine and other fields;
How to raise your children;
What secular humanists and atheists can do to provide an intergenerational, church-like experience with community, singing, and readings;
The fallacy of a belief in a just world;
Free will (very limited) and responsibility (not connected to free will);
How the belief in just deserts destroys our humanity, sense of justice, and social fabric.
There are many more. I have studied a few of them. I am a medical doctor and scientist (immunology) and may be able to contribute in my area of expertise.
Ben Mullaney’s ideas about the future of Free Inquiry are very appealing to me. I am one of those baby boomers he refers to who had a difficult struggle with finding peace after being raised by a family and community of religious fanatics who were evangelical protestants. I have enjoyed the “anti-religious” articles in Free Inquiry over the years; however, I have also enjoyed the articles that were about what secular humanism is. I like Mullaney’s bullet point list of the kind of articles he would like to see. It seems to me that some recent issues of Free Inquiry have checked some of his boxes. And I also agree a few anti-religious articles are still needed as we continue to see today’s religious extremists exerting power that I feel threatens our democracy in the United States. The anti-religious articles that I would appreciate would be relevant to today’s world so I would be better informed about how religion is still impacting my world and possibly include ways I might effectively promote humanism.
Atheist Phrases Re: ”It’s a Figure of Speech, for God’s Sake!” (FI, June/July 2023). I’ve noticed, in recent years, increasingly strong efforts by intellectual secularists to encourage us nonbelievers to erase the words spirit and spiritual from our vocabulary. They explain that those words have a supernatural connotation and are therefore contaminated with superstition. Let us consider, …