Friday, November 23, 2007


Local Humanists Debate Morality at S.D. Library

National Director Speckhardt Lays Out Three Dilemmas

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

It began as a rather professorial lecture, but as soon as Roy Speckhardt, national director of the American Humanist Association (AHA), gave his overflow audience of over 70 people at the San Diego Public Library November 19 a chance to weigh in on three moral dilemmas, the meeting took on life as it became interactive. Ironically, though Speckhardt was speaking as the national director of a free-thought organization in a predominantly Christian nation, all the issues he raised involved Islam. They were the French government’s ban on female students wearing head scarves or other Islamic headgear in schools; the proposal at a Michigan public university to build foot baths into the restrooms so Muslim students can wash their feet before praying, as their religion requires them to do five times a day; and the recent controversy over the publication of 12 cartoon images ridiculing Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“Our board is about to address issues like these,” Speckhardt said. “The first situation where both sides seem negative is the French ban on religious attire, as a reaction to the increasing population of Muslims. At the time [the law was passed], AHS rebuked France for attacking religious liberty. I’m not sure how I feel about this now that I’ve heard Steven Pinker [Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University] say religious attire creates in-groups, and others explaining the sexist oppression of head scarves. Then again, I’m still young enough to remember how high school is a cliquey place anyway, so maybe the harm is overrated.”

Complicating the issue, Speckhardt explained, is not only the way the ban has been enforced differently in different schools — “Where concerns about the Muslim minority are hight, they’re rigidly enforcing the policy,” he explained — but the French government’s attempt to make the ban at least appear religion-neutral. “The ban covered head scarves, yarmulkes and large Christian crosses,” Speckhardt said — but everyone knew which group it was really targeting and, “To my knowledge, it was only enforced on the head scarves,” he explained.

Speckhardt’s next moral dilemma — the proposal to install foot baths at University of Michigan restrooms — is so controversial that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, usually allies on church-state issues, took different positions. “ACLU is defending it and Americans United is opposing it,” he said. “There’s also a safety issue that may have a religious root, in that a student hurt herself washing her feet in a bathroom sink, and so many people are using the sinks for this they’re pulling the sinks off the floor.”

The next issue Speckhardt raised was the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten, which followed the attempt of the paper’s editor to commission an artist to draw an illustration of Muhammad for a children’s book. Three artists he offered the job to turned it down flat, and a fourth agreed to do it but only if his name was kept secret. What they were afraid of was the Muslim rule that any visual representation of Muhammad is regarded as a “graven image” and strictly forbidden, and the fear that if they were publicly identified with a drawing of Muhammad they would be threatened with attack and possibly killed by a vengeful Muslim.

“We followed the controversy closely,” Speckhardt said. “At first, most people think of this as a free speech issue, but how do humanists and others connect it to free speech? The French saw it that way at first [a French editor reprinted the cartoons in his own paper]. Confusing this was a law in the United Kingdom that would have banned religious hate speech, and it only narrowly failed. Nobody seemed to be considering punishing the Danish newspapers. The Danish government said they could not interfere with free speech.”

Speckhardt acknowledged that “the reason it became such a moral issue” wasn’t the content of the cartoons themselves but “the violence that resulted,” as Muslims both in majority-Muslim countries and in western Europe rioted and people were killed over the cartoons and the controversy surrounding them. According to Speckhardt, the controversy over the cartoons didn’t start until several months after Jyllands-Posten published them, and it had more to do with the internal politics of Egypt than any matters of religious principle. “Islamists in Egypt thought this owuld help them elect fundamentalist candidates against moderate ones,” Speckhardt said. “It worked. It was used as a political tool — and we were the people used as the tool.”

One person cited Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that had avoided involvement in divisive issues like this. Speckhardt noted that, during the dictatorship of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Turkey instituted a draconian level of separation of church and state that would make even many progressive Americans blush, “but those changes are under threat” from the current Islam-oriented ruling party.

“The AHA board is looking at a humanist position on Islam,” Speckhardt said. “There are extreme views on different sides. There are people that believe we are in a war against Islam and we have to defend ourselves and our values, including [feminist, activist and apostate Muslim] Ayman Hirsi Ali and [free-thought author and Iraq War defender] Christopher Hitchens. On the other hand, there are people who believe we need to find a middle ground. This will really be a challenging position.”

Speckhardt raised the issues involving Islam in the course of an elaborate presentation aimed at answering the objection frequently made against atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers and humanists by religious believers: the alleged impossibility of establishing a moral system of right and wrong without reference to religious principles. “Ethical questions are more difficult for a humanist than for a religious conservative like President Bush,” Speckhardt conceded. “In many circumstances, unethical behavior is warranted, from Jean Valjean [the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Mis√®rables] stealing to support his family to Oskar Schindler lying to the Nazis to save Jews.”

Where it gets complicated, Speckhardt said, is in considering the long-term implications of acting unethically not only on society but on the people who commit unethical acts. “If you respond to the annoying neighbor next door by shooting him, it would end the wild parties but you would end up in prison and lose your moral identity,” he said. “In launching a war, many things will result besides the positive ones you want.” Almost inevitably, Speckhardt cited the U.S. war on Iraq as his example. “Many people are still outraged that George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq based on lies,” he said. “Though the real reasons may have been money and power, the official reason was to ‘spread democracy’” — a belief, Speckhardt, that led many war supporters to ignore the warnings from opponents that attacking Iraq might increase, not decrease, instability in the region.

“Unethical actions may degrade the character of those who engage in them.” Speckhardt said. “An action as extreme as killing can permanently crush the character of the killer. Self-defense can provide an ethical and legal defense. Other justifications like faith and patriotism may protect the person, but continuing unethical behavior may break the person down. Lies beget lies, and the moral fiber of the person will break down. If we accept unethical means for ethical ends, this will degrade the character, and eventually the person may adopt unethical ends as well.”

So how do you define ethical behavior if you’re a humanist and don’t have an inflexible rule book supposedly written by God to do it for you? The answer Speckhardt came up with sounded an awful lot like the classic Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “Humanists can and must develop values that maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering,” he explained. “We don’t have to consult ancient books. We can rely on our principles, among which the first is unflagging allegiance to the scientific method. Humanists tend to reject dogmas and arbitrary ideas about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ We don’t disbelieve religious explanations, but we are skeptical of all unfounded claims.”

According to Speckhardt, the second core principle of a humanist morality “is a deep-seated respect for humanity at large. The purpose of the scientific method is to use science towards the end of benefiting humanity. We must create our own hopes. Humanists recognize altruism because it works, and embrace social policies that widely distribute wealth and political power. [We believe in] a commitment to compassion and an egalitarian sense of human worth. Acceptance of significant group inequality is incompatible with humanist aims. … Unlike the majority of today’s conservatives, humanists recognize the need to treat people equally.”

Speckhardt then discussed emotions, which he said were “where morality is felt.” He cited experiments in which it was documented that people who suffered damage to certain parts of their brains became “morally deficient” as well. “The foundation is permanent, the goal is critical and the process for developing human morality is literally child’s play,” Speckhardt said, citing an experiment by pioneering French education researcher Jean Piaget that showed children playing with marbles spontaneously developed rules and instituted them as they got older.

“We’re open to change, to finding new ideas and solutions,” Speckhardt summed up. “Our morality is not a regulated form and style, but a moral landscape that transforms our world and ourselves. … We must examine our own maxims and work out ways to apply our principles in our daily lives, enact justice and build meaning, then and now.”