Some scenes from my latest book: She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013)
Some scenes from my latest book: She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013)
8th Grade Commencement Speech
Francine Delaney New School for Children
June 4, 2013
by Cecil Bothwell
You are about to step out of your childhood, a step that will take the next four years of your life.
High school is where you will learn the basics about being an adult, about taking charge of your own life, about taking responsibility for your own finances and about steering your own education for the rest of your life.
Really learning how to learn is the most important lesson you’ll gain from these next few years, if you pay attention and take advantage of the opportunities high school offers.And the most important lessons may come when you least expect them.
In terms of earning a living, the two most important experiences in my entire education came when I was about your age. In geometry class I learned the Pythagoran Theorem which involves the relationship between the three sides of a right triangle – that is, a three-sided figure where one corner is 90 degrees.
At the same time, in Boy Scouts, I earned Home Repairs merit badge—that’s a badge you earn for learning how to use screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, saws, drills and other basic tools to fix things around your house.
Most of my adult life I have used those tools and the Pythagorean Thereom to build and remodel houses. If your house is square and level you can thank some carpenter’s geometry teacher.
My most important teacher, not counting Miss Nanette who taught me how to read in First Grade, was a man named Dr. Harold B. Bender. He was my 11th and 12th grade chemistry teacher, and he taught me everything I needed to know to continue my education for the rest of my life. Was it chemistry? No.
He taught me how to use a library to conduct research, how to track down essential information, how to sort facts from fiction, and how to use multiple sources so that I arrived at the best possible understanding of a problem and its solutions. If he were alive today, he’d be teaching students how to optimize internet search engine results.
How did that help me? Well, in my first career, as a builder, I knew how to use geometry and tools, but there was a whole lot I didn’t know about specific building skills. I had started out as a mason – that’s a person who builds with bricks and blocks and stone. In 1980 I traveled to Alaska because I wanted to see the big northern wilderness – and I did see glaciers and grizzly bears and moose and lynx and big horned sheep and Mt. McKinley and all the rest. And I figured I’d find work as a mason to pay my way.
Wrong. They have so many small earthquakes up there that nobody builds anything with bricks and blocks – they just shake apart. But because I had learned to read blueprints in an eighth grade shop class, I got a job as a foreman on a carpentry crew. Unfortunately I had never built a wooden house – so I went to the library and checked out some books. Each night I’d read about what we had to do the next day, and suddenly I was an expert! (At the same time, I asked the carpenters working for me a lot of questions.) When I came back south I became a general contractor, and built homes and did remodeling for another twenty years.
Along the way, I began my second career, as a writer. Here my chemistry teacher’s lessons really paid off. I became a newspaper reporter and editor, I won awards for investigative reporting and have written nine books. Along the way the library grew to include the whole world, when the internet was invented and computers extended research around the globe.
When I was in 8th grade, I thought I would grow up to be a herpetologist. That’s a scientist who studies amphibians and reptiles. I was fascinated with snakes and turtles. In my high school years I had 16 pet snakes and did presentations for Scout troops and school clubs. I was a summer camp counselor when I was 17, and taught all of the nature related merit badges to other scouts. I was certain my future was in science.
What I learned along the way was that my future was actually in learning how to do whatever I needed to do in order to do the things I wanted to do. Learning how to learn was the most important lesson of all. Oh, I still think snakes are fascinating, and I’m always available to catch rattlesnakes and copperheads if my neighbors find them in the garden. I take them way out in the national forest and let them go. But I’ve never made a nickel on herpetology.
Now here’s the thing I really want to tell you today, as you take your next big steps toward adulthood. You won’t really believe me for about eight or ten more years, but if I tell you this now, I think you’ll have a lot higher likelihood of being alive eight or ten years from now, and maybe then you’ll think back to this day and think: Hmm, that old geezer wasn’t as much of a fool as I thought back then.
Your bodies and your emotions are growing up fast right now, and your brain is right behind. What scientists have proven in recent years is that the part of a human brain where good judgment comes from isn’t developed and fully formed until you are 20-22 years old. That’s not a criticism, that’s a physical fact. Right now, inside your head, you do not have the wiring to easily know better.
Your parents might say to you, “You should know better than to go out in freezing rain without a coat!” but actually, you don’t. A teacher might say, “You should know better than to turn in a term paper with doodled cartoons in the margins!” But, actually, you don’t .
There will be a whole lot of experiences over the next few years when you’ll do something pretty stupid, and then argue, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
That’s why so many young adults take stupid chances. They climb on slippery rocks at the top of waterfalls. They drive too fast, or drive while texting, or sometimes even get hold of some beer and drive while drunk. They hang out with the wrong crowd and get tempted into doing things they might not have thought of on their own, or get into bad situations where someone gets sexually assaulted or into a fight or gets bullied. Trust me, you won’t avoid it all. But with a little bit of smarts you can navigate through these next several years with minimal damage to yourself and the people around you.
Even though, as I said, you currently lack the part of your brain that will make that much easier ten years from now.
To help you out, I’ll now pass along the most important life lesson I learned in school. This was from a Commuinty College professor named Dave Ehlert. It was in a Humanities Class, which is a class where you study how the arts and literature and theater and sports and history and science all come together to create the world we live in.
Dave told us this: If you want to live in world where people drive the speed limit, the first step is to drive the speed limit.
Now that seems pretty simplistic, doesn’t it. But it is actually pretty deep.
At the most basic level, most people want other people who drive throught their neigborhoods to drive the speed limit, to drive carefully, because their children and their pets and their friends and their neighbors are all less likely to get hurt or killed if people obey the speed limit. The reason we have speed limits is because we have agreed as a community that there need to be some rules so we can all live together happily. We’re all better off if we all play by the rules.
In a way, that’s no different from sports. Basketball and baseball and football and tennis and volleyball and ping pong and horseshoes … all of it, would make no sense at all if everyone made up their own rules.
So if you want your neighborhood to be safe from speeding cars, the first step is not to speed yourself. And if you apply that everywhere, then you’ll be encouraging everyone to do the same, and make everyone’s neighborhood safer. And every driver safer too, since mistakes at high rates of speed are more likely to cause accidents than mistakes at slower speeds.
But if you apply that rule throughout your life you’ll find that it helps over and over again.
Do you want to be in a school where people don’t cheat on tests? Then don’t cheat on tests.
Do you want to live in a town where your money is safe in the bank? Then don’t rob banks.
Do you want to be part of a world in which everyone is treated fairly? Then treat everyone fairly.
Do you want to drive a car safe from drunk drivers who do really stupid things? Then don’t drive drunk.
Do you feel better when people don’t make fun of you? Then don’t make fun of other people.
You see, it goes on and on. And many of you have probably noticed that it is nothing more than a special case of the Golden Rule. Do on to others as you would have them to onto you.
From my perspective though, the specific rule is often more useful. The Golden Rule? Well, sure, we should always do that.
Drive the speed limit? Oh, right. More times than I can possibly report, over these many years, I have been in a hurry, and tempted to speed through a neighborhood and abruptly recall Dave’s lesson. And I slow down.
And the lesson doesn’t just have to be negative.
Do you want to experience a community where people express their love and affection for others? Then tell the people you care about how much you care.
Do you want to live in a world where who you are counts more than how much money you have? Then choose friends and heroes for who they are regardless of how rich they might be.
Do you want to be allowed to express your creativity? Then express it, and congratulate your friends who paint or write poetry or dye their hair six different colors or play guitar or draw cartoons.
Do you want to live in a world of happy people? Then do what makes you happy.
We make the world around us every day, by being who we are, by doing what we do, by sharing what we share. The most important lesson you will learn in the next few years is how to learn to be who you are, and to be who you are to the very best of your ability. No matter what someone else tells you you ought to do. No matter what someone else thinks is impossible for you to do.
We old folks are more excitied than you can imagine, waiting to see what kind of world you create for yourselves. I certainly hope you have fun.
I’ll be delivering something like the following (draft) lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin (NC) this morning. Happy Earthday everyone!
Water, water everywhere?
by Cecil Bothwell
Depending on your age, and depending a great deal on my voice, you may recognize that as the Ballad of Easy Rider by the Byrds. It struck me as appropriate to my topic today.
Our lovely planet, dubbed the blue planet because oceans cover 71 percent of the planet’s surface, is facing what we ought to consider a permanent drought.
How can that be? What’s causing the problem? What can we do about it?
The first piece of that puzzle derives from the same fact I just stated. That 71 percent of the earth’s surface contains 95 percent of the water. All of the rivers, lakes, glaciers, plants, animals and clouds share the other 5 percent. That 5 percent is what we call fresh water. The salty stuff is okay for swimming, for cooling power plants, and for all of the animals and plants that are adapted to exist in the sea – but it is of very limited use to human beings and other terrestrial life forms. If you drink it, it makes you dehydrated because it takes more water to get the salt out of your body than the amount you drink.
When you frame it in the old question about whether the glass is half full or half empty, you’d say that a glass full of sea water actually makes the next glassful half empty.
Presently we divert more than half of the liquid fresh water on earth to human uses, leaving less than half for the rest of our companions on big blue. Of course, those figures like all statistics, can be read in different ways. And an important thing about water is that it is constantly shared. No one keeps it for long, in any form other than inside a wine bottle, and even that is likely to be poured out sooner than later.
But, the other side of that argument is that we change the water we use: not so much in our own bodies, but when we filter it, add chlorine and fluoride, heat it, use it for washing our clothes and our industrial machinery, or drain it through fertilizer and pesticide laden fields.
As another aside, one of the coolest things you can tell a child is that we’ve had the same water on this planet since water first puddled up when the planet cooled enough for it to exist in liquid form. The glass of water you drink today was drunk in the past by dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers, and Aristotle and Vincent VanGogh, and queens and princes and aboriginal Australians and Ghengis Khan’s Mongol horde. The first fish that crawled up on land to evolve into amphibians and lizards and mammals and birds came out of that glass, and the hippopotamus cousins that went back to the sea to evolve into dolphins and whales dove into that glass. If the youngster is still listening, you can add that a baby is about 75 percent water, an average adult is about 50 percent water, and we continue drying out all our lives until we finally die and give back all of that water to the planet. So, when you were born, 75 percent of your new self was once a dinosaur.
Salt water can be desalinated, but that’s a very energy-intensive process. Under traditional methods the water is heated and the steam is collected and condensed. It uses so much energy that the only countries that have done it at a large scale are oil rich water poor countries in the mid-east.
A newer and cheaper method uses membranes to filter out the salt – but even that requires the water to be forced through the membrane and that requires substantial energy to accomplish. Energy is a big factor for another reason as well, and I’ll come back to that in just a bit.
The reason life forms that we know and love evolved on this planet—from bunny rabbits to broccoli, to warblers, to human beings—though not in that order—is because our planet’s atmosphere is constantly desalinating ocean water for us, powered by the incredible energy of the sun. And on much of the planet that fresh water is delivered free as rain and snow and hail and sleet and slizzle and fog.
That free delivery system is part of a central conundrum about water, which is this: How do you price water? Or to ask that another way, what is fresh water worth? If you were dying of thirst, you would literally pay whatever price was asked for a sip, even everything you owned. If you were clinging to a tree in the midst of the rising water of a flood, about to be swept away, you would literally pay whatever price was asked to get rid of the water—or, more realistically—for a helicopter to swoop in and save you.
The price we pay for water in this lovely, lush, green, mountainous, thinly populated place we inhabit is for delivery. If you have a well, you pay an electric bill or have a windmill. If you have a spring above your home, you pay for piping and a reservoir. If you’re on City water, you pay for building and operating the system that gets water to your faucet. But the water is free.
In eastern North America, water has been essentially free forever. And that’s the second reason we ought to begin to consider ourselves facing a permanent state of drought. Our homes, our facilities, our industry, our habits, our aesthetics, have been well watered, and we waste an awful lot of the stuff. Moreover, because of the systems we have invented which are based on free water, we have an infrastructure that won’t work very well with less.
Our love affair with lawns can change, though there are plenty of suburban homeowners who are unlikely to give up their riding mowers until their cold dead fingers are pried from the steering wheel. But our sewer system is a lot less flexible. Toilet design has been pushed to the lower limit of how much water is required to flush. Our plumbing consigns all waste water to the same pipes, despite the fact that wash water from your bath and sinks and laundry could be reused before it heads for the treatment plant. We’ve installed millions of garbage disposals that wash down food scraps that have fertilizer value as compost, and that clog up our sewers, but whose convenience is seductive. And there are waterless urinals now, but they require storage tanks that must later be pumped—so again we’re talking energy.
Now, to get back to the natural desalinization, as you know, the evaporation of water from the sea along with transpiration of plants, puts fresh water in the air as clouds. Both of these processes are speeded up by warmth. Our planet is getting warmer. Whether or not you agree with most scientists who study our atmosphere that much of that warming has been caused by human activities, there can be no disputing the fact that the world is heating up.
So, hmm, if warmer temperatures evaporate more sea water, that should be good, right? More fresh water for all of us landlubbers.
The fly in that ointment is that a warmer atmosphere is also more volatile. Storms are more likely to be superstorms, rain is more likely to be torrential. And the core problem there is that when huge amounts of rain fall in a short time, more of it runs off, instead of being absorbed into the soil. Wells, springs, creeks, branches, streams and rivers depend on fresh water that is absorbed into the soil and only slowly leaked out over the hottest months of the year.
At the same time, in warmer weather between rain storms, more of the soil moisture evaporates, and the trees continue to suck it up and transpire it into the clouds. So wet times are wetter and dry times are drier. That’s the third reason why we seem to be headed into permanently droughty times.
The fourth reason is one that most people are quite surprised to learn, and again it involves energy. The biggest use of fresh water in a modern economy is for power plants. Thermoelectric plants, that is those systems that use heat and steam and cooling towers, coal, oil, and nuclear plants, use 49 percent of the water humans divert for their purposes. Some of it is sea water, but 45 percent of the fresh water we use goes into those plants. If you have heard about the energy/water connection it probably came from a news story about water shortages or extreme heat causing a plant to shut down. The first time that happened in the U.S. was in 1988, in Illinois. But it is becoming more common, with plants in North Carolina and Georgia facing possible shutdowns during recent summer droughts.
Another wrinkle showed up in 2012, when the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it. A heat wave last summer raised the temperature of Long Island Sound, the first time in the plant’s 37 year history that the intake water was insufficiently cool.
At the other end of the pipes, energy is made more expensive because the waste water from a thermoelectric plant is hot, and therefore requires massive cooling systems in order to protect the environment at the outflow. Sometimes, if a large enough cooling pond can be constructed, water can be reused, but as a matter of dollars and cents, it is much cheaper to intake fresh cool water, then cool the outflow just enough to prevent fish kills and other side effects, and send it back to nature.
This brings us to the fifth reason we need to prepare ourselves for permanent drought. Water use has been growing twice as fast as population growth, causing more and more communities to suffer water shortages. As regions of the world develop, electric power comes into high demand. With the massive populations of China and India moving into modern manufacturing, the industrial demand for power and water ratchets up. Then as more workers achieve some level of wealth, the personal demand for modern sanitation and cleanliness rises as well, together with a diet that shifts toward more meat.
Meat production consumes the majority of grain crops grown in the world, and by some accounts, growing that grain uses 70 percent of the non-energy fresh water used by humans.
The sixth reason drought is going to figure very strongly in our future is the biggie, and its the one that drives all the rest. There are more than 7 billion of us on board spaceship earth. Barring a monumental natural disaster or disease epidemic, we are likely headed toward 10 billion by about 2050.
Different experts offer differing guesses, of course, depending on what is factored into their equations, and some believe we won’t exceed 7.5 billion. That’s still a lot of people.
Population growth is slowing as education and wealth liberate more women from multiple pregnancies, and the benefits of smaller families begin to outweigh traditional beliefs and practices. But population increase is a huge force, and with the majority of the population in developing nations only now reaching child-bearing age, the surge will continue.
So even if we take the best case scenario and reach a high point at 7.5 or 8 billion, as wealth and education increase, water demand rises sharply. Here we come back to the question of what water is worth.
In a rich country like ours, most of us would be willing to pay a little more, and certainly be willing to use a little less. Simply due to a growing evironmental ethic, residents in WNC are using less water per capita than they did a decade ago—at least in their homes. But we sometimes forget that we are using Chinese manufacturing water as well when we purchase a cell phone, and Chilean agricultural water when we eat a fresh apple in April, and taking a virtual sip of water in Mumbai when we phone customer service and reach a call center in India.
As I noted early on, a thirsty person can be driven to extremes to get a drink. And a thirsty country is no different. Why did China conquer Tibet in
the 1990s? Possibly partly to find room for an expanding population, partly for the meat —and truckloads of wild animals have been slaughtered and shipped to market—but also to gain control of the headwaters of major Chinese rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. Headwaters which depend on the snowpack laid down during cold Tibetan winters, winters that aren’t so cold any more. Himalayan glaciers are in retreat.
At the same time, climate change is affecting the monsoon rains which are so imperative to the population of the Indian subcontinent.
So the two most populous nations on earth are facing growing water scarcity, and their people are thirsty for development and a better life.
A Pentagon report issued during the G.W. Bush presidency identified climate change and population growth as the two most destabilizing factors in our future. Resource wars could definitely be on the horizon.
A much less known report developed during the Nixon and Ford administrations was never released. Here I come to the religious part of my sermon, which I’m sure many of you have been wondering about.
“When is he going to start preaching?”
That report was called the National Security Study Memorandum 200, or NSSM 200 for short. It detailed the security threat to the United States posed by uncontrolled global population growth. It emphasized the need to educate women and make family planning options available to them. It emphasized that such a policy would not be successful unless abortion were included among those options.
The United States Catholic bishops got wind of the report and used every avenue they could find to block release of the report. They stalled it through the Carter administration and the Reagan administration finally scuttled it altogether. Catholic and fundamentalist Protestants continued to press against any such policy, and during the G.W. Bush administration, all funding for any organization that performed abortions was cut, along with a diversion of substantial resources from effective family planning to abstinence-only programs. Had the U.S. implemented the Nixon-Ford plan, the world today would be cleaner, healthier, wealthier on average, and facing far less dire resource scarcity.
The power of religious dogma to do real harm in the world has probably never enjoyed as explicit a demonstration as when the Bishops intervened.
Every manufacturing nation needs feedstock, and competition for what’s left is ramping up quickly. Easily mined minerals have been exhausted around the world. As Arctic ice retreats, all of the northern nations are exploring the seabed for potential exploitation. China and the U.S. are engaged in a bidding war for mineral wealth in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Rare earth minerals, which were rare to start with, are getting more scarce, with China controlling most of world production now. And those minerals are essential to modern technology, in your computer, cell phone, hybrid car and more.
Here in the Southern Appalachians the most valuable resource we have is our pure water. Mountains squeeze clouds as air is forced up to cooler altitudes and no matter how climate change affects big weather patterns, that effect of the mountains will only change over geologic time. It is the core reason why Asheville is fighting to retain control of its water system right now. Our pure mountain water was the reason why knitting and weaving factories emerged here in another century. It’s the reason our regional beers win national awards, and why major breweries are building new facilities here. If we lose control of our water, it may be sold down the mountain to South Carolina and Georgia, or voer the mountains to eastern Carolina for fracking operations. If it is going to be sold as a high value resource, the benefit needs to accrue to the people who have paid for the reservoirs, for the pipes, for protecting the watersheds, and not handed off to commercial interests.
No resource outside of air is more precious than fresh water. To compound our water problem, other resource extraction often impinges on the water that is available, as in the environmental disaster of tar-sands mining in Alberta, or hydraulic fracturing for gas drilling in Pennsylvania and possibly North Carolina, or in copper mine tailings in Chile, or gold mine residues in South Africa.
In sum, I think we need to stop thinking of water as free. We need to stop imagining that water will always be abundant. We need to change our minds, and change our infrastructure to prepare for what, during our prospective lifetimes, will be a permanent drought.
Like the experience of the characters in that movie, Easy Rider, I don’t expect it will be an easy ride.
“Flow river flow, past the shaded tree Go river, go, go to the sea, flow to the sea, Flow river flow”
Next Sunday I’ll be talking about the social impact of cheap fossil fuels at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hendersonville. (During renovation of their home, they are meeting at the Agudas Israel Synagogue, 54 Morris Kaplan Dr.)
Will post the text soon.
Here’s what I had to say in Lakeland over Labor Day weekend.
One of the most potent wrenches in the toolbox of many religions is guilt. If a person can be made to feel guilty, and particularly if that person is fearful of community approbation were the guilty secret to be exposed, there is an increased likelihood that the person will comply with prescribed behavior or avoid proscribed practices.
We’ve all got secrets. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of, be they small or large. Maybe it’s just screening your cell phone calls, later claiming to have been on another line, or busy, or had your ringer off? Maybe a little white lie to spare another’s feelings, or hide your own? Being creative on a tax return?Petty thievery as a child, with candy or other trifles? Maybe eating the last Dove bar without offering to share?
And on and on up to the profoundly serious evasions of adultery, unethical business practices, lieing under oath, leaving accident scenes, accepting bribes and all the rest of the bad acting familiar from front pages and evening news. Not to mention the most egregious crimes of rape, assault, armed robbery, and murder.
Some of the guilt is warranted for the small and large ways we have hurt or cheated others, other guilt is imposed—societal or familial expectations that we don’t share but feel constrained to obey. Mom would die if she knew I … fill in the blank.
I heard Darcy Burner, candidate for Congress in Washington state, tackle the issue of shame at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence on June 8. Darcy addressed the shame that has been heaped on the decision to abort a fetus.
She talked about cultural power and the stories people have in their heads about issues.
Darcy said, “It turns out that one in three American women will have an abortion at some time in her life, but it is an issue that is kept so much in the closet that most people have no idea that their sisters, mothers, daughter or their friends have had abortions.
Darcy went on, “The LGBT movement has done this amazing job of using the idea of coming out of the closet to change the stories in people’s heads about who it is that the right wing is demonizing when they condemn gay marriage. We’ve seen tremendous progress on that issue by helping people understand that these are their friends, neighbors and loved ones who are being talked about.”
She suggested that one thing we could do to go on offense would be for women to come out of the closet about having had abortions. She asked women who were comfortable standing up to do so — to indicate that they were one of the people who had an abortion. A large group, perhaps 150 women, stood up and then Darcy said, “Now all of you who are willing to stand with these women and every woman like them please join them.” Most all of the 2,000 people in the room stood with those women who had been courageous enough to stand up first.
Then came the applause for the courage of those women. Darcy talked later with some of the women who had stood, and they told her it was the first time in their lives they had felt like they weren’t completely isolated on the issue—that there was a community of people who loved them and who would support them. It made a great difference. The veil of silence had been lifted.
This is much the same tactic as is currently being adopted by many in the atheist, secular and humanist communities. Going public with our nonbelief gives the lie to those who paint nontheists as evil, satanic, heartless and self-absorbed. That is to say, we aren’t all like Ayn Rand.
When a person with a reputation for public spiritedness, for honesty, for rescuing stray pets, for kindness, for raising well-adjusted children, for feminism, for human rights advocacy, for reaching across racial and ethnic fences, for any of dozens of actions that commend one as a good citizen, a good person … when that person comes out as a nontheist, it triggers re-thinking on the part of the observers. The world shifts.
Religions have been quite successful in the use of shame to moderate people’s behavior. The Judeo-Christian origin story goes right to the heart of human behavior with Adam and Eve suddenly noticing their nakedness after they ate the forbidden fruit. Up until that point they were just blissful cherubs frolicking in the perfect garden and suddenly they couldn’t get their minds off sinful sex and their alluring nudity. Consequently, all their children were sex-obsessed as well, and original sin became the order of the day.
It doesn’t take much experience of the world to see through that argument. It had to be pretty clear to most people, even two millennia ago, or during the Council of Niceae, or during the Protestant reformation, how babies were made.
Given the unfortunate truth that we all die, there wouldn’t be much future for humanity absent sexual engagement. Even if you bought into the idea that Adam and Eve could have lived forever if they’d avoided the apple, it had to be a stretcher to accept the idea that the pain of childbirth was a punishment inflicted on women for Eve’s mistake.
Were all of those first-created animals and plants destined to live forever in the absence of sinful sex? Then what about the apple? The reason a plant invests great energy in creating fruit is to provide a fertile starter for the seeds inside the fruit, and collaterally to benefit from animals which ingest the seeds and distribute them at some distance from the parent plant. Why was there fruit on the tree if it wasn’t intended for procreation?
Then, given that most fruit pollination requires the activity of bees and other pollinators, were the bees sinning when they distributed pollen from one tree to the next?
What about cows and mares and ewes? Do their struggles with birthing have something to do with Eve as well? Did Elsie and Mr. Ed and Little Bo Peep’s sheep all follow Eve’s example and sample the forbidden fruit? What did animals in the Garden of Eden eat, anyway?
Because the Bible tells us that, at minimum, Adam and Eve ate. It says they were told they could eat everything else in the garden other than the fruit on one tree.
I know this is a digression, but I’d like to point out that food we ingest is broken down into constituent parts, some of which are absorbed by the body for use in powering and building cells, and a great deal of it passes through us because it is stuff we can’t use. If the fellows who wrote the Bible had walked around the neighborhood they probably could have met farmers who had a pretty keen understanding of the cycle of nutrients, in which animal waste feeds plants, and plants make seeds, which when planted become more plants, and that well-fed plants produce more seeds. They could also have explained that melons, which were a popular mid-east food, had male and female flowers, and that the female flowers produced fruit, but only if there were male flowers nearby. Sex is really central to farming.
It’s pretty clear that the writers of the Bible were blissfully ignorant of how life works.
Of course some religious philosophers would tell you that I’m missing the real import of the whole story and that the original sin was disobedience of God’s will and that the punishment inflicted was for that act of disobedience and not for eating the apple, per se.
Others would argue that the core of the disobedience was that Eve and Adam nibbled on the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that it was in seeking knowledge which ought to be reserved for God and maybe Angels, that those first humans sinned. To which I’d answer that any god that preferred beings created in His Own Image to remain stupid rather than to participate in knowing everything that could be known, had to be a compleat idiot. But, again I digress.
No matter whether it was simply eating the fruit, or disobedience or seeking knowledge, let’s cut to the chase. Suddenly Adam and Eve realized they were naked and grabbed for some fig leaves. This only made matters worse in the area of sexual arousal, since everyone knows that lingerie is sexier than straight out nudity.
In any event, and against all observable evidence, sexual urges were successfully vilified and religious leaders had their fingers on the guilt button. Sometimes this was used to keep a lid on potential community disruption—for example, the injunction against coveting your neighbor’s wife. And it has been argued that one positive effect of religion has always been to reign in the unfortunate tendency of many men to not only covet, but act on that inclination without permission of either the wife or the neighbor.
Herb Silverman, the atheist politician and notary public and Secular Coalition for America founder, tells a story along these lines. Some theist who was debating him asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from stealing and murdering and raping?” Herb answered, “If that’s all that keeps you from doing those things, I hope you continue to believe in God.”
Thou shall not steal was another rule with positive social benefits.
But converting innate desires to sins had the effect of making everyone feel guilty about something. Was a woman coveting when she thought the neighbor was a real hunk compared to her couch potato husband? What about thinking the neighbor’s horse or Ferrari was more desirable than one’s own mule or Ford Pinto? Was that the sin of envy poking up it’s head?
By the 14th Century the list had been expanded and established with a group of seven deadly sins. In addition to lust and envy we faced wrath, greed, sloth, pride and gluttony. We could then feel guilty if we were angry at a person who cheated us, wanted more than had been accorded our lot in the world, felt like we needed a break from endless toil, felt like we’d really done a pretty good job on that last project, or ate too much turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving. The clergy had a wide range of guilt buttons to push, and every one of them involved such extensive areas of grey that pretty much anyone could be made to feel guilty in one way or another.
Think of Jimmy Carter who was widely admired and scorned when he told a Playboy magazine interviewer that he had “lusted in his heart.” To most subscribers of that magazine it must have seemed a strange admission, coming a few pages before the centerfold. Lusting was more or less the whole point, wasn’t it? Then again, in the 1970s, the magazine arrived in a plain brown wrapper, so who was kidding whom concerning feelings of guilt?
Was a farmer who hoped to grow more grain next season guilty of greed? Or to grow as much grain per acre as his more successful neighbor a matter of envy?
Or was the neighbor being prideful when he reported his greater success? On and on and on, with variations and gradations in the category of sin.
It was a brilliant touch when weekly confession was thrown into the mix and it became a sin NOT to tell the priest all of the possible ways you had overstepped some imaginary line. Guilt could be lathered on, pennance exacted, and the stage set for the next failure to adhere to the rules.
The black plague helped a great deal in the selling of guilt. Not having a germ theory of disease, it was easy to believe that God was punishing sinners. Survivors believed that they had been spared by divine intervention, that their expiation of sins had been effective, and that, therefore, they must continue to confess and atone.
An interesting sidebar here is that the population collapse due to the black plague was very good for commoners. Food became more plentiful per capita, housing was cheaper and wages rose due to the labor shortage. All of this, of course, was proof of divine blessing upon the survivors.
Another nice touch was added by the Catholic church during the middle ages. As the power of the church expanded, so did its wealth. Churches were often the most substantial structures in a town, and the sale of dispensations began to add up. Churches began to acquire properties beyond the churchyard. Reasonably enough, priests wanted to pass along that wealth and power to their children. So the church invented celibacy and decided that its priests were married to Christ. The inheritance problem was solved, though that brilliant solution led to other problems which have only received much attention in the past couple of decades. Sexual urges seem to find an outlet no matter what rules the church or society might hope to impose.
Apropos priestly proclivities, a few months ago I heard comedian Bill Maher observe that the Mormon church spent millions of dollars on the Prop 8 ballot in California to ensure that the only gay people involved in California weddings are Catholic priests.
The rising power of the church ran side-by-side with the rising power of monarchs, and it was altogether rational for alliances to emerge. Where kings wielded armed power to demand obedience, priests wielded moral power to exhort obedience. The alliance offered military and police protection to the church, which, as an increasingly wealthy institution was subject to depradation. And it offered heavenly approval to the king whose wishes were no longer personal, but heaven-sent.
Both powers could claim entirely benign intent, offering to preserve the peace and protect your soul, as long as your obedience was complete. No argument was possible.
Of course, there were squabbles, as when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce and decided to divorce the Roman church along with his wife, but the basic plan remained.
And then came the American revolution. The immediate cause was economic. One of the earliest multi-national corporations, the British East India Company, was cheating colonists at every turn. The British government was imposing taxes on commodities, most particularly caffeine tea which, like coffee in the modern era, was the most widely used drug in North America. And many of those who had settled the colonies had come here to escape the strictures of European religion. They were indisposed to respect the rule of governors and overseers working for the English crown and the Church of England.
But the guiding lights of the American effort saw beyond immediate disgruntlements and understood something more profound. Freedom required more than the unfettered life available at the margins of civlization. It would need governance that answered to a majority while protecting the rights of the minority, and it would require the rule-making of government to be decoupled from the dictates of any religious authority.
No priesthood could be permitted to overrule the will of a free people. At the same time, no government could be permitted to dictate what any person must believe. Thus was born the separation of church and state which made American democracy the most revolutionary step in the history of the modern world. I’ll leave it to others to debate where it ranks compared to the control of fire, the invention of the wheel and plow, and the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But the change was profound.
As Thomas Jefferson noted in the years following our founding:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
However, despite the carefully crafted separation that is fundamental to our government, politicians are constantly tempted to use religion and its tools of guilt and fear, to sway public opinion. And when was the last time you heard a president end a speech without saying “God Bless America”?
They parade their personal piety, whether real or feigned. They decry a purported lack of faith in their opponents. They cast foreign enemies as godless or without morality and invent stories to make those others seem less than human. Recall the fabricated stories of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers pulling premature infants from incubators in Kuwait. Notice the continued effort to paint Barack Obama as a Muslim.
The obvious question here, to any rational citizen, is, “What difference would it make if Obama were a Muslim?” Would that be of any more importance than John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism? Or Jimmy Carter’s Baptism? Or John Adams’ Universalism? Well, okay, Adams was more rational. But the point is that people believe or profess a lot of weird things. Isn’t the real question for politicians whether or not their theory of governance rests on rationalism or superstition?
Theodore Roosevelt observed, “To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to some particular church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not avowed his allegience to any church, is an outrage against that liberty of conscience which is one of the foundations of American life.”
But look at the recent vote on Amendment One in North Carolina, an amendment to the state constitution which aimed to ban not just gay marriage, but any recognition of civil union between same sex partners. Ministers were preaching in favor of the amendment from pulpits across the state. Billy Graham weighed in and lent the power and wealth of his ministry to advertising efforts to support the bill. Pro-amendment politicians went on about the sinful lives of same-sex couples, and enjoined voters to protect their families and their communities from the looming threat of gay marriage. This in a state that already had a statutory ban on same sex marriage.
As it happens, my own bid for the Congressional nomination in my district was affected as well. We learned that fundamentalist preachers were telling parishioners to vote for Amendment One and against the atheist, Cecil Bothwell.
It is striking how far conservative politicians have travelled since the 1960s when Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency.
In 1981, Goldwater said:
“The great decisions of government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”
Sadly, Goldwater’s conservatism has given way to religious pandering, particularly within his Republican party.
Consider Rick Perry’s comment last week during an evangelical conference call put together by the Rev. Rick Scarborough.
“Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you and one of the untruths out there that is driven is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. Somehow or another there’s this, ya know, steel wall, this iron curtain or whatever you want to call it between the church and people of faith and this separation of church and state is just false on its face. We have a biblical responsibility to be involved in the public arena proclaiming God’s truth.”
Whew, Rick, don’t know exactly where to start. But I haven’t heard anyone say that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. All we are saying, is park your faith at the door. We need public policy based on science and democracy. And nobody is saying you can’t proclaim your myths in the public arena, we’re just telling you
that your imaginary friend doesn’t have a voter ID card.
If such pandering were only verbal, it would be simple enough to pass it off as opportunistic politicking. However, fundamentalist religious beliefs have increasingly found their way into American law, and they are eroding the wall of separation that has stood our democratic system in good stead for more than 235 years.
Look at the textbook industry in Rick Perry’s Texas, for example. Texas is one of the largest school systems in the U.S., therefore textbooks distributed nationwide are frequently tailored to fit Texan preferences. The Texas school authorities lately tried to exclude Thomas Jefferson from history lessons about the founding of America because of his non-theist view of the world.
Imagine that: the founding of our country without mentioning the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a major influence on Madison’s framing of the Constitution, the guiding light of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the leading advocate for the Louisiana Purchase! And like many Texan conservatives, Jefferson was a great advocate of states’ rights and argued against federal interference in local affairs. But he wrote that pesky Jefferson Bible that left out all the miracles! We can’t let the kids think Jefferson is part of OUR history!
Look at the George W. Bush administration programs supporting faith-based initiatives which have channeled tax money to churches and religious-based private schools. In most states such schools are subject to far fewer rules and regulations. Corporal punishment, for example, is commonly permitted. Should public money support practices that are deemed to be child abuse in the eyes of many taxpayers?
Faith-based day-care facilities are another beneficiary of such programs, and again are usually not subject to the same health and care rules we demand of for-profit or public day-care facilities. Furthermore, this embrace of religious priorities has permitted religious schools to fire employees who do not adhere to their religious tenets.
Bush’s faith-based regulations were extended to our health care efforts in Africa and elsewhere around the world, where, for those eight years, funding for any organization which offered abortion services was curtailed. Abstinence education took the place of birth control efforts including distribution of condoms, and AIDS prevention efforts were stymied.
How many more people are starving today thanks to the Bush administration’s moral strictures is hard to say. How many more people will suffer and die with AIDS is another impossible calculation. But the devastating results of faith-based public policy are very real.
Note the fuss that some Catholics have lately made about the requirement under Obamacare that insurance plans cover birth control pills. What the Catholic church fails to mention is that birth control pills will only be provided to women employees who want them. And as far as paying for those pills, they seem to miss the fact that insurance coverage for making a baby is FAR more expensive than the Pill. Fewer childbirths ought to make insurance rates lower.
It strikes me that the Catholic Church seems very intent on both having their cake and eating it, accepting Medicare and Medicaid payments, enrolling students with Federal loans, but not participating in the wider rule of law.
How would Catholic Bishops feel if Islamic institutions were allowed to impose Sharia Law on their employees? Or ignore aspects of secular law that contradicted their dictates? Separation works in both directions.
Some jurisdictions have imposed laws which permit pharmacists to deny medication to people if the pharmacist embraces a moral objection to family planning. Hence, if a woman is raped and receives a prescription for a morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy, in some places a pharmacist who doesn’t believe in abortion can refuse to sell her the pill. If this occurs in a region where pharmacies are few and far between, this can amount to the pharmacist being able to decide that the woman will become pregnant due to the rape. Is that just? Is it reasonable for a practitioner licensed by the state, who is making a good living thanks to that licensure, to be allowed to pick and choose who will receive the benefit of professional activities conducted under that license?
The influence of conservative religions on our government and society cannot be easily quantified, but it seems to be growing, even as our culture as a whole becomes more secular. Today young people are twice as likely to be non-religious as their grandparents, but since the 1960s conservative churches have become mega-churches and have come to wield enormous political power.
Those churches turned out the vote in North Carolina for the vote on Amendment One last May. A religious organization known as The Family has intruded into the inner circles of government around the world. My current congressman, Heath Shuler, lives in the C-Street House owned by The Family when he is in Washington—a building defined as a church and which therefore yields no property tax to the District of Columbia.
No wonder the rent is cheap!
Religionists have diverted our tax dollars to church schools and hospitals and community centers. And they are shaping the textbooks and curricula used in our public schools.
What can be done? My suggestion is that those of us who take a more humanist view of the world need to continue to speak out. We need to challenge those who would impose their mythologies on the rest of
society. And, if I had my way I would impose my own version of moral suasion on everyone in the movement. I would make you feel very, very guilty if you didn’t bother to vote.
We can make change, we can enable change, we can give permission to others to change. And we can do that by telling our stories and reminding others of the true story of the founding of our nation.
When I ran for City Council in Asheville, I didn’t think my nontheism was of any importance. I had only once made any public statement about my nonbelief. In the acknowledgments at the end of my political biography of Billy Graham, I observed that while the point of the book was to expose Graham’s political maneuvering, I anticipated that some critics would accuse me of attacking his religious beliefs. So just to get the cards on the table, I admitted that I did not believe in supernatural beings of any stripe.
I came in first among 10 candidates in an open primary race to fill three seats on Council, and some right-wingers were shocked into action. They mailed out two smear letters to thousands of likely voters. The first informed voters that I was an atheist, hell bent on destroying Asheville. The second said that I had written that Billy Graham was influenced by Adolph Hitler.
A man stepped up to my campaign manager in one precinct on election day. He said, “I’m not voting for Bothwell, he said Billy Graham was influenced by Hitler.”
Linda said, “Have you read the book?”
He said, “I don’t need to.”
Linda replied, “I did read the book and Cecil did write that. His source was Billy Graham’s autobiography.”
“Yeah, who wrote that?”
I came in third in the general election, winning one of the three open seats, but I don’t doubt that the smear tactic affected the outcome.
And here’s where the story turns very positive. The other two winners were a woman, Jewish attorney and a quietly secular humanist fellow.
Several years ago, the Asheville City Council routinely had a Christian minister deliver an invocation at every meeting. The City Attorney warned that other municipalities had faced legal challenges for the practice. Some of those challenges were from Dan and Annie Laurie at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Council decided to rotate the invocation among Council members. Of course it was still a Christian message. But following my election, I offer purely secular inspirational messages from various thinkers, the Jewish woman composes her invocations with her father, a retired professor. Her messages range widely, from poetry to natural history to the thinking of various philosophers. The quiet humanist refuses to deliver invocations.
Some still offer up Christian prayers, but they ask people to bow their heads if they wish to do so. Meanwhile I sit head up during the prayers and notice that more and more people sitting in the audience have quit pretending to pray. 15 to 20 percent of attendees now look around, or read text messages on their cell phones, and otherwise ignore the religious ritual.
The culture of Council meetings has changed.
We have just come through a decade with hightly visible atheist books from Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others. The literature has branched out in non-fiction, including David Niose and Darrel Ray who are speaking here this weekend. There are books for children and young adults, like Dawkins recent science text, “The Magic of Reality.”
I think the next phase needs to be fiction, film, video, music and poetry in which humanism is taken as a matter of fact. To that end, my current project is a novel in which two protagonists, one in Haiti following the earthquake, and one in Japan, following Fukushima, find that humanistic nontheism offers better moral answers than the religious alternatives they have been exposed to during their young lives. That isn’t the main story, it is simply a matter of fact piece of each of their lives. We can make humanism normative.
Or, again, as Herb Silverman wryly observes: “Why is it that reporters call us ‘self-described atheists’? Do they ever say “self-described Catholic?’ or ‘an admitted Baptist?”
By the way, I’m an admitted Floridian. I graduated from Winter Park High School in 1968. I realize that I received a better foundation in science education here than I would have in many other states, and I am really proud that this state mandated the teaching of evolution in 2008. I have been honored to be included in this conference.
The theme of my scheduled talks this summer will revolve around how hate-wing politicians use guilt, shame, mockery, fear, sexuality and “family values” to steer the electorate.
July 15: Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin, Franklin, NC
Sept. 1: Atheist Alliance of America, “Ascent of Atheism” conference, Denver, CO
Sept. 28: Humanists of Florida, Humanism vs. Theocracy, Lakeland, FL
Will be back at regular postings here, now that the Congressional race is over. It’s been an amazing year. Now taking a few deep breaths and a few quick naps before beginning the next phase.
As most of you are likely aware, we’ve been running a Congressional campaign since last April. So my updates here have been few and very far between. I’ll be back at it after May 8. I swear.
Tonight’s invocation was written by Nick Annis, though I first heard it repeated by musician Chuck Brodsky.
“In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth,
and the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon
the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”
It’s an oral history, passed down, word of mouth, from father to son.
From Adam to Seth, from Seth to Enos, from Enos to Caanan, for 40 generations
a growing, changing story, passed down, word of mouth, father to son.
Till Moses finally gets it down on lambskin.
But lambskins wear out, need to be copied.
So you have a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy
of an oral history passed down through 40 generations.
From Hebrew it’s translated into Arabic. From Arabic into Greek.
From Greek into Latin. From Latin into Russian, from Russian into German,
from German into an Olde form of English that you could not read.
Through 400 years of evolution of the English language to the book we have today.
A translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation
of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy
of an oral history passed down through 40 generations.
You can’t put a grocery list through that many copies, translations and re-tellings
and not get some big changes in the dinner menu when the kids make it back from Ingles.
And yet people are killing each other over this written word.
Here’s a tip.
If you’re killing someone in the name of God…
you might be missing the message.