Archive for November, 2009

Boxes of Freethought Books

Monday, November 30th, marked the Freethought Books Project’s second mailing of the semester.  The first mailing saw nineteen boxes of books distributed to atheist, humanistic, and freethinking prisoners.  While not as large, this effort led to more prisoners getting access to such literature.

The following is a statistical run-down of what was donated and to whom it was sent:

Prisoners: 10

Mental patients: 1

Literature:   55 books

22 different works

TitlesThe Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, American Infidel:  Robert G. Ingersoll, Humanist Manifesto 2000, Forbidden Fruit:  The Ethics of Humanism, Atheism:  A Reader, Imagine No Superstition, Keepers:  Voices of Secular Recovery, One Woman’s Fight, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe:  The Search for God in an Age of Science, Science & Religion:  Are They Compatible?, Rhymes for the IrreverentPhilosophers Without Gods, Sense and Goodness Without God, God:  The Failed Hypothesis, The Fifth Miracle, Secular Wholeness, Like Rolling Uphill, The Portable Atheist, Why Atheism, Atheism:  The Case Against God, Affirmations:  Joyful and Creative Exuberance.

For more information on the Freethought Books Project, check out http://www.freethoughtbooks.org.

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Freethought Books for Prisooners

Freethought Books for Prisoners

On Friday, Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog featured the Freethought Books Project.  The November 27th article showcases Michael L’s letter to the Reed Secular Alliance, thanking the group for the books, especially the biography of Robert G. Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic.

The Freethought Books Project, started by RSA President, Leslie Zukor, has been around since 2005.  The Book Project gives atheist, humanist, and freethinking literature to prisoners, mental patients, and others in need.  For more about our efforts, go to http://www.freethoughtbooks.org.

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Michael L's Letter - Part One

Michael L's Letter - Part One

Last week, the Freethought Books Project received a letter from an Illinois atheist prisoner.  In it, he talks about growing up under the backdrop of a statue of Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic.

Michael L's Letter - Part Two

The prisoner, Michael L., reflects about sledding on the statue in the snow, doing marijuana by Ingersoll’s likeness, and even making out – all unaware of the historical significance of Robert G. Ingersoll.

However, only later did he learn about The Great Agnostic, nineteenth century orator and prominent humanist.  As a result, he was thrilled that the Freethought Books Project donated a copy of American Infidel to him behind bars.

Read his story by clicking the following PDF or perusing the images above: ML-Letter-1.

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Greg Epstein gestures to the heavens

On his Good Without God book tour, Greg Epstein spoke to a standing room only crowd at Reed College on Thursday night.  The event, which was cosponsored by the Reed Secular Alliance, Kol Shalom Humanistic Jews of Portland, and the Portland Coalition of Reason, drew a crowd of 170.  All involved were pleased with the turnout.

A large crowd listens attentively to Greg Epstein

The crowd looks on at Greg Epstein's talk

During his lecture, Epstein outlined his personal journey from a secular Jewish boy to Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain.  The son of a Cuban refugee mother and a father of Eastern European Jewish descent, Epstein’s spiritual journey led him to Buddhism.  However, after spending time in the East, Epstein realized that no religion had a special access to “Truth”.

Greg Epstein expresses his opinion of humanism

Greg Epstein expresses humanist values

Throughout his presentation, Epstein stressed the importance of finding freethinking fellowship.  Like those of faith, Epstein explained, the billion people who are non-religious need to have communities too.  Asked what his role was as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein explained that he served as a “coach”, not preaching about god but guiding his fellow humanists.

Audience members look on at Thursday's lecture

Audience members ponder Epstein's various points

While Epstein emphasized community inside the lecture hall, the secular organizations tabling outside offered a home for non-theists.  Among those tabling included Kol Shalom, the Center For Inquiry Community of Portland, and the Humanists of Greater Portland.  Epstein’s book tour was part of a greater effort to attract the religiously unaffiliated to various secular organizations.

Portland's Atheist Bus Ads

Starting  Monday, ten Portland-area buses have featured signs that say “Are you good without god?  Millions are.”  The ads, which are set to run for one month, have sparked quite a conversation around Portland.  Responses varied from indignation to excitement, but most of the responses have been positive.  Area freethought groups eagerly await the impact of this campaign.

A larger version of the atheist bus ads

At his lecture, Greg Epstein emphasized the importance of having conversations.  And it was just such a dialogue that the Good Without God tour hoped to spark.  Whatever the campaign’s long-term results, stressing positive humanism can only have a good impact upon the Portland community.  And Epstein has done a great job of starting a dialogue about humanism.

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Greg Epstein's new book

Recently, the Reed Secular Alliance had the opportunity to interview Greg Epstein, who will be speaking about his book, Good Without God at Reed on November 19th.  The talk will take place this Thursday in the Psychology Auditorium at 7:30 pm.  There will be plenty of free food.  We hope to see you there.

RSA:  What is your contribution to the discussions about religion and society in the beginning of the 21st century?

Epstein:  I wrote the book to introduce Americans—particularly a younger generation of Americans—to Humanism. I like the formal American Humanist Association definition of Humanism that you’d find in the back of my book, from the document “Humanism and its Aspirations,” but a short definition of Humanism is “good, without god.” Humanism is about doing good for our own sake, for the sake of our loved ones, for the sake of all human beings, and for the sake of the natural world that surrounds us and sustains us and is in grave danger. It’s about making this world better in the here and now, before we die, not for the sake of reward in heaven but because Humanists believe in life before death. We are imperiled right now by multiple wars, by continued nuclear proliferation, by global climate change, and by completely unstable economy, to name a few. We need massive solutions to these sorts of massive problems. Most people think the only way to motivate us to find such massive solutions is a narrow religious frame of reference. We need to show the world that there are secular alternatives that can work and need to be given a chance.

That said, I didn’t write the book as an answer to the question, “can you be good without God?” Of course you can be good without God. But that’s not what the book is about. Because if you think we can’t be good without God, that’s not just your opinion. That’s not just some brainstorm that crossed your mind. It’s prejudice. It might even be discrimination. I mean, no one in his or her right mind would ever say, “Oh, you’re a Catholic. How nice—is it possible for you to be a decent human being, too?” We wouldn’t ask whether it’s possible to be a good person and Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist. We don’t ask whether you can be good and a Democrat, or a Republican (at least, usually we don’t). So since we know that there are now millions and millions of people living without belief in a god, it’s time to reject the question of whether we can be good without God.

However, the question why we can be good without God is much very much worth asking. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. Those are the questions I’m addressing in this book. They are the essential questions of Humanism.

RSA:  What are your criticisms of the New Atheists, and why do you believe that Humanism offers a better solution to the problems of the 21st century?

Epstein:  I respect a lot of what Harris, Dawkins, and others are trying to do. But Harris has said, “Science must destroy religion.” Dawkins has likened religious education to child abuse. Hitchens has said we need to prepare for war with religion. And recently Bill Maher upped the rhetorical ante, if that’s possible, by saying that “for humanity to live, religion must die.” Such statements aren’t helpful. Humanism isn’t trying to erase religion. It’s an embracing philosophy. We’re not saying we’re any better, even any more reasonable, than religious people.

Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious, and we’re happy to admit you can also be good with God. We just want to be considered as equals in politics, in culture, in society. We believe in pluralism, in interfaith cooperation, in religious literacy, but it’s not okay to talk about those things anymore without talking about Humanism. President Obama has been very good at this—including Humanists in the public conversation. He’s one of the most Humanist presidents we’ve had in generations.

RSA:  How does your position as Humanist Chaplain give you unique insight as to what young people are searching for philosophically and spiritually?

Epstein:  I don’t think that my position gives me any unique insight. Humanists like me (and you, I’m betting) don’t believe in such things as special positions that make certain people wiser or better than others. Being pope of Humanists at Harvard or elsewhere, or being able to provide all the answers to anyone’s questions of life and death are not in my job description.

I would say, however, that because I am in my position I get to talk all the time with young people who would never accept the revealed dogma of any religion, yet are still searching for some sense in which they can genuinely feel their lives have a meaning, a worthwhile purpose. I frequently meet young people who would rather walk on broken glass than walk into a Church or house of worship that purported to tell them how to live, yet are still looking for a community they can be part of that goes beyond what a sports team or political movement would have to offer. Humanism, as a philosophy of life and as a community, helped me to find answers to these sorts of questions and I think it can be an important resource for others.

RSA:  The subtitle of your book is What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.  Do you feel that Humanism can accurately represent what those billion people do believe?  Do you see Humanism as a meaningful life-stance that can appeal to the one billion people who are not religious?

Epstein:  All the major recent studies of world religious beliefs, despite using different methodologies, will tell you that there are approximately one billion people who define themselves as nonreligious or secular. In America, there are approximately forty to fifty million nonreligious people, with the percentage of the nonreligious having gone up in every single state in the past twenty years. And there are even higher numbers among young people–one in every four or five Americans aged 18 to 25 is nonreligious today. This is beyond a trend. It’s a revolution.

Now, we all know what these people don’t believe in. But for the longest time, there have been no books, no major works that examine and explain what these billion nonreligious people do believe in. If you look closely, most of us are believers in Humanism. We believe that this one world, the natural world, is the only world we will ever know, and this life is the only life we’ll ever have, so we have to make it as good as we can.

Some people complain that there are actually a lot of nonreligious people who say they believe in some form of a god. True. But “Do you believe in God?” is actually a totally meaningless question. Because in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to mean. If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if saying you believe in God means you believe in nature, or the universe, or love, well, of course Humanists believe in those things, but we don’t feel the need to call them God. We believe God is the most influential literary character ever created. But the real point is that there is no magical, supernatural force that is going to help us love one another or take care of one another or save the planet from war or climate change. We have to do those things for each other

RSA:  What part of Secular Humanism would you believe is the most valuable for Reed students to take away from this interview and from your talk?

Epstein:  I hope Reed students will get increasingly involved in building a positive, life-affirming Humanist movement on campus and beyond. I understand you’re a senior, Leslie, so in many ways the greatest gift you can give your campus this year is to turn your own group over to talented, passionate, if less experienced young leaders as you move on to the next, non-college stage of being a Humanist leader. And those new leaders continue your good work with the Secular Student Alliance, perhaps looking out for ways to rally Humanists to take the lead in community service projects from cleaning up parks and homeless shelters to doing microloans to the developing world on Kiva; they should also be taking the lead in organizing interfaith projects with religious groups who support Church-state separation and protecting the environment—and who have to understand that they have to no right to exclude Humanists and atheists from their work in this day and age. I look forward to seeing what they can do!

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Jerry Donnelly's Letter to the Killeen Daily Herald

When Freethought Books Project webmaster, Jerry Donnelly, read about a religious prison program in his newspaper, he felt compelled to speak out.   “I would like to let readers know there is another way to reach inmates,” he said.  Donnelly went on to extol the virtues of the Freethought Books Project, which gives secular, freethinking, and humanist literature to inmates across the US.

“The Freethought Book[s] Project…does not involve indoctrination in the supernatural, but rather the simple opening of the human mind, with its incredible powers of reason and logic, to the amazing natural world that we live in through reading freethought, secular and science-oriented books.”

In short, Donnelly’s letter to the Killeen Daily Herald recommended alternatives to preaching a religious message in prison.  “Through this program…prisoners will learn to rely on their own logic, reason and inner strength to become successful, productive members of society.”  Keep up the good work, Jerry!

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