Monday, February 28, 2011

Profiles in Humanism: A. Philip Randolph

Profiles in Humanism: A. Philip Randolph by Bill Daehler, for the Humanist Network News.

Randolph, a black freethinker as well as a major figure in the history of labor organizing and the civil rights movement, is here honored. Randolph was selected 1970 Humanist of the Year.

The sleeping car porters that Randolph unionized played a key role in black history, in leveraging access to education and the middle class. See Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anthony B. Pinn: Remembering African American Humanism

From the Humanist Network News:

Remembering African American Humanism

A noteworthy statement by Anthony B. Pinn. I am puzzled though by his final statement, whose meaning I find unclear:
"That is to say, rather than simply acknowledging the diversity of our movement, we might take the next step and make diversity—difference—the hallmark of our movement . . . "
I think the words "diversity" and "difference" miss the mark, that they actually reinforce what Pinn apparently seeks to transcend, i.e. mere diversity. There's actually a stronger argument to be made.

I can't read Pinn's mind, but my reasoning goes like this: if there is an argument to be made about what goes beyond the mere acknowledgment of difference, it's the centrality of the black experience to the understanding of American history, but even this is too bloodless a way of stating it. Various black thinkers and writers have stated that the black experience crystallizes all the tendencies and social forces of the modern world. The implication is that no one's historical experience can be understood without the black experience being addressed. In one way or another, this has been stated by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, and C.L.R. James. This way of looking at things, which may have dropped out of popular consciousness for a few decades, was resuscitated in Paul Gilroy's 1993 book The Black Atlantic.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Playwright & Labor Organizer Manny Fried dies at 97

There are countless people who could be counted in the ranks of secular humanism, but one must recognize that while most of them were or are simply unorganized, and among those many who have not explicitly taken on such an identity, there was, especially in the first half of the 20th century, a large contingent who functioned not within a secularist, humanist, or freethought movement, but within the labor movement. Radical labor organizer, actor, and playwright Emanuel ("Manny") Fried (March 1, 1913 - February 25, 2011) was the son of Jewish immigrants, but like so many, Manny abandoned religious belief. This is not his claim to fame, but it is a fact. To be Jewish in the old days was to be subject to discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to be Jewish means more to be a member of an ethnic group than it does necessarily to be religious. Manny recounted in one of our talks the horrible antisemitism that prevailed in American society and which was part of his experience, also documented here and there in his work. He told me that he grew up in an area of Buffalo populated by Jews and blacks. In addition to his devotion to the cause of labor, he also opposed an attempt to segregate Hutchinson high school in Buffalo, and there are other comparable anecdotes to be related which I don't think can be found in his autobiography.

As Manny died yesterday, just a few days short of his 98th birthday, I am still collecting my thoughts. When I volunteered to create a web presence for him in 2003, there was practically nothing to be found on the Internet. He was a local hero, but largely unknown outside of Western New York. You are invited to familiarize yourself with Manny's life and work:

The Emanuel Fried Center

. . . and on the links page, here are the obituaries.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Religion & Hate (2)

Regarding the group discussion of Feb. 22 mentioned in the previous post: To the extent that there were different schools of thought or aspects of the question represented in this discussion, here is how the various opinions expressed cluster:

(1) Whatever there is to be said about ‘human nature’ or tendencies with or without religion towards hostility and dominance, religion specifically exacerbates this tendency or adds ingredients all its own.
  • All religions make competing truth-claims.
  • Religious truth claims are exclusive.
  • Other belief systems are not only wrong, but constitute a threat.
  • All orthodox (specifically Abrahamic) religions foster hatred of outgroups: there is a demonstrable correlation.
  • In the distant past, there were local deities. Modern theism makes matters worse.
  • Religion does not permit for testability of truth claims.
  • Religion lends an absolute authority to prejudices.
  • Religion is a map that bends reality to fit the map.
(2) Defense of religion or specific religions, and disputes over same occurred.
  • Hate is only felt by individuals, not religions.
  • Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are counter-examples of religion’s hatefulness.
  • Buddhism is nonviolent. Various claims & counter-claims:
    • Buddhism is philosophy not religion.
    • Japanese Buddhism fed into Japanese nationalism.
    • There is definitive documentation of Buddhist atrocities.
    • Tibetan Buddhism is not what the fans of the Dalai Lama make it out to be.
    • The American version of Buddhism is not the same as Buddhism in Asia.
  • The Axial Age saw the birth of more humane belief systems.
  • St. Paul instituted a major shift to cosmopolitanism.
  • Stalinism was a secular religion.
  • There is a universal attraction to religion: religion tells people how to live.
(3) Claims about human nature were rampant, and questions over the uniqueness of religion as a causal factor.
  • The fundamental question is one of in-groups vs. out-groups.
  • Religion is not more hate-inducing than other things.
  • There are various pretexts & rationalizations. (In the case of religion, there’s an appeal to an absolute authority—an argument used by some against religion.)
  • Religion is mixed in with cultural & other rivalries.
  • Group conflict may be a perennial phenomenon, preceding religion.
  • Experiments show that any differentiating factor can serve as a catalyst for the delineation of in and out groups.
  • There are other ideologies of contention, especially nationalism.
  • Someone asserted that gender is primary.
  • Someone introduced the observation that “America” is a god.
  • Do all groups inspire hate? Are aggression and violence universals?
  • Several factors were put forward as stimulating aggressive tendencies:
    • Population density.
    • Pecking order: leaders start wars.
    • Testosterone: young males are the main culprits.
    • Males & females engage in difference types of conflict.
    • Unattached males are most likely to be prone to warfare.
(4) What is the basis of morality? Is or can there be a science of morality?
  • Religion is not necessary to morality.
  • Relativism should be opposed.
  • There is a difference between subjective & objective reasoning.
  • There is the issue of the testability of claims.
  • There is a scientific basis to morality.
  • Morality is not a science yet, but there is progress. More study is needed to render morality scientific.
(5) Miscellaneous points:
  • The inconsistencies in religion are exploited to different ends.
  • An example of twisted reasoning is gratitude toward God for ‘sparing’ selected individuals from disasters in which many others perish.
  • Missionaries have by and large been awful people.
  • How does one weigh the good and bad aspects associated with religion?
  • Something was said about Freud or psychoanalysis, but I couldn’t make out what it was.
(6) Definitional & methodological questions:
  • What is meant by hatred? Does hatred = violence = war?
  • Is preference hatred?
  • Who gets to define what a religion is?
  • Can one factor out religion from everything else?
  • Someone oriented toward social science is not satisfied with exclusively biological explanations for socially/historically determinant phenomena.

Religion & Hate (1)

In preparation for a discussion this evening (22 Feb) on religion and hate, I sketched the following bulletin points. In a subsequent post I will list the bullet points of what was actually discussed.

(1) I always have a problem with the question of religion & causality, since religion itself is an expression of social (& psychological) forces.

(2) I think we have to go behind religion & begin with its origins in magical thinking, and thus the connection with dependency, fear & violence, beginning with the experience of violence in nature.

(3) As much as I dislike René Girard as a Christian apologist, his views adumbrated in  Violence and the Sacred should be examined, particularly the notion of ritual sacrifice as a substitute for unregulated violence.

(4) I think religion has to be historically divided at least into 3 stages: (1) primitive magic & tribal religion; (5) religion in pre-modern class societies, wherein all the "great" religions took shape; (6) religion in the modern world, & the inability to digest modernity, in which magical thinking proliferates in both religious & secular ideologies.

(5) Without understanding the cultural reinforcements of hate, violence, oppression & paranoia, I don't see how we could understand religion's connection to hate, or in some cases, religion's rebellion against hate. There is even one religion or two which is mostly benign, the Bahai's, for example.

(6) And then there's the question of self-hate. Why do the victimized think they have done something wrong?  Richard Wright addressed this question symbolically in his brilliant 1942 story, "The Man Who Lived Underground."

(7) References given here address different historical stages of superstitious / magical / paranoiac thinking. Girard addresses primitive religion. Edmund D. Cohen's The Mind of the Bible-Believer addresses the genesis and psychological mechanisms of thought control behind Christianity.  Consult the LABELS on this blog for more on both of these authors. For an example of modern paranoiac thinking, consult reviews of Stephen Eric Bronner's A Rumor about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion.

Monday, February 14, 2011

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion (6): Race & Biblical Metaphor?

Terrance Macmullan, University of Oregon
Treasure Hidden in the Field: The Significance of Biblical Metaphor within W.E.B. Du Bois's Conception of Race 
(March 8, 2002, session on "Du Bois and Dewey")
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, 29th Annual Meeting, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, March 7-9, 2002.

This is a rather pathetic, self-contradictory, and ultimately ambiguous attempt to highlight the alleged religious dimension of Du Bois. If it were simply a matter of highlighting Du Bois' use of Biblical metaphor as rhetorical strategy, and even to suggest the symbolic reference of Du Bois' rhetoric has been overlooked, there would be nothing controversial here. But Macmullan is apparently after more. In the first paragraph Macmullan claims that Du Bois' religious rhetoric is both prophetic and pragmatic, which of course brings to mind the philosophical empty suit of Cornel West's prophetic pragmatism, or preaching with footnotes. While there may be some use to interpreting properly the notion that "that each race bears a gift", it is a mystical notion left over from the 19th century that is best left to the past.

For emphasizing Du Bois' secularism and downplaying the spiritual dimension, Macmullan criticizes Shamoon Zamir, Adolph Reed Jr., Anthony K. Appiah, Lucius Outlaw, and even Cornel West. All this while admitting time and time again that Du Bois was a freethinker. Had Macmullan stuck to statements like the following, there would be no need to object:
His use of religious language stemmed from a recognition of the fact that the idea of race in America emerged largely from a religious discourse, and that this same discourse must be instrumental in its reform.
However, Macmullan implies more with formulations such as the following:
Where Christians at the time succored Africans in America with the image of the Lamb (the chosen child of God that humbly bears suffering for the sake of universal salvation), Du Bois calls on his fellow African Americans to read their plight as the trial of a prophetic people who must boldly speak out against their oppression that others might learn the consequences of cruelty and the need for love.  

He further explicates the Biblical references, and continues:
If we take Du Bois’ biblical orientation to heart, we see that the race-specific ideals of life are prophetic gifts that are of unsurpassable value to those outside the race, yet are also potentially dangerous for the gift-bearing race. 
 The phrase "Du Bois’ biblical orientation" is misleading. Macmullan commences his conclusion:
When we attend to his use of religious language, we better see how and why the racial gift is a bridge across the racial divide made possible by the divide itself. 
 . . . and concludes:
Du Bois developed a perspective on race that is still a vital tool in ongoing efforts to heal the invidious racism of the last four centuries. However, in order to fully understand his idea of race, and in order to fully reach into the lived experiences of most people, we need to not only study the religious language at the heart of his concept but also engage the religious discourses that perpetuate outdated ideas of race.

This position is ideologically bankrupt.  There is no vital tool here, but an obsolete metaphorical framework that may have been justified for its time, but can serve no constructive purpose now. The only proper way to engage religious discourses now is to obliterate them. Furthermore, the spiritualistic concept of race is not an advance over the later and more invidious biological concept, but is rather a retreat to German Romanticism, an absolutely reactionary move in light of two essential considerations: (1) it is essentially anti-scientific; (2) it could not be more at variance with the contemporary reality of American society, in which the meaning of culture, let alone of race, is so radically mediated and altered from the past, that the very idea of a mission or a coherent social entity that could be the bearer of a mission, is utter nonsense.

How rotten is this marriage of multiculturalism and the academic retooling of classic American pragmatism? How high the moon?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Joel Augustus Rogers & the Universal Races Congress of 1911

Joel Augustus Rogers (September 6, 1880 — March 26, 1966) carried on a tireless war of ideas against the pervasive white supremacist ideology of his time. Here's another sample from his landmark 1917 book From “Superman” to Man, to which I've given a title . . .

Race, Equality of Intellect, & the History of Civilization by J. A. Rogers

Here you find a distillation of the style and content of Rogers' argumentation, which also serves as a window into the time in which he lived. There are several facets of this extract that could be annotated at length. Aside from the marshaling of facts and figures available to Rogers, note the refined and even-tempered tone of the protagonist Dixon contrasted to the frothing hysteria of his white racist antagonist. Note Rogers' insistence on a scientific perspective, to the point of pushing religion aside, for example in Dixon's argument:
“Finot, whose findings ought to be regarded as more valuable than the expressions of chose who base their arguments on sentiment or on Hebrew mythology, says,— ‘All peoples may attain this distant frontier which the brains of the whites have reached.’”
Also of historical interest is Rogers' citation here (and elsewhere in the book) of the First Universal Races Congress of 1911. The centennial of this landmark ideological intervention has so far gone virtually unnoticed, a situation which I am now endeavoring to rectify:

First Universal Races Congress, London, July 26-29, 1911: Selected Bibliography

Thursday, February 10, 2011

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion (5): "A Hymn to the Peoples"

At the very least, Du Bois was an agnostic. He was also influenced by German thought. His negative attitude towards religion was registered for example in his Autobiography, published late in life. Here is an extract:

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion

However, Du Bois did express himself in edifying language with a quasi-religious valence. Case in point, this poem inspired by the Universal Races Congress of 1911:

"A Hymn to the Peoples" by W. E. B. Du Bois

Note the peculiarities in Du Bois' use of religious language. Two questions immediately come to mind:

(1) What is meant by "God" in this poem?
(2) Does "World-Spirit" refer to Hegel's notion?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Black freethought groups proliferate

The good news is, it's difficult to keep up with all the black freethought activity in cyberspace. Here are a few sites/groups I've recently discovered.

Black Atheists (blog)
"We are a minority within a minority."

Black FreeThinkers 
Self-contained social network in ning format.

Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta
A local group with a presence on Facebook & elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, these all have the flavor of youth. All seem to be freshly experiencing the vigor and the militancy of self-assertion. Intellectual maturity will take much longer, but clearly there is a tidal wave of nonbelief among young black people in the USA (and elsewhere) that is making its presence felt, weak though in may be in the vast ocean of black religiosity.

Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966)

Joel Augustus Rogers (September 6, 1880 — March 26, 1966) was an autodidactic historian and pioneer in combating racial supremacist ideology, beginning with his classic 1917 anti-racist tract in dialogue form, From “Superman” to Man.

The fifth edition, which I consulted, has an index which you can find on my web site.

I have also digitized the section designated in the index as "Religion and the Negro".

See also my Esperanto blog for information on Rogers' use of the First (and only) Universal Races Congress of 1911:

J. A. Rogers, L. L. Zamenhof, and the Universal Races Congress of 1911

To learn more about Rogers, you can read the following article in its entirety when you associate yourself with a public library:

"Joel Augustus Rogers: Negro Historian in History, Time, and Space" by Malik Simba

Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator

Note that this 1895 book (first edition, 1891) by an admirer of Douglass includes Douglass' harshest remarks on religion:

Holland, Frederic May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator, revised edition. New York; London; Toronto: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1895. (American Reformers, edited by Carlos Martyn) See Chapter XIII: Marshal and Recorder.

I don't have any further information about Frederic May Holland (1836-1908), except that he also authored books on Robert Browning, the Stoics, the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1688 and 1776, and the history of freedom and liberty.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Frederick Douglass & Darwinism

"I do not know that I am an evolutionist, but to this extent I am one. I certainly have more patience with those who trace mankind upward from a low condition, even from the lower animals, than with those that start him at a high point of perfection and conduct him to the level with the brutes. I have no sympathy with a theory that starts man in heaven and stops him in hell."

   — Frederick Douglass, "'It Moves': or the Philosophy of Reform", address delivered in Washington, DC, 20 November 1883; in The Frederick Douglass Papers, series 1, vol. 5; ed. John W. Blassingame et al (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 124-145.

Note that the title of this speech is inspired by Galileo's reaction to the suppression of his work: "Eppur si mouve"— "nevertheless, it moves" (the Earth round the sun). Interestingly, this formulation of Douglass reminds me of Bakunin's antitheist argument in God and the State.

Douglass' Women, Douglass' secular humanism, Douglass' politics

My discovery of this novel this morning perked up what otherwise started out as a rotten day:

Douglass' Women: A Novel
by Jewell Parker

There was a real-life intellectual and romantic liaison between Frederick Douglass and German-Jewish emigré Ottilie Assing. She even lived with the Douglass family on Cedar Hill, something you won't learn when you visit the Douglass house today. Naturally, Douglass' wife was not thrilled at this arrangement, but there you go.

Assing claimed in a letter to Ludwig Feuerbach that Douglass was an atheist, but she was likely exaggerating. You can read the letter for yourself on my web site:

Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing about Frederick Douglass

We shall see how Parker handles the freethought aspect of their relationship.

This liaison is actually in the news, connected to the question of Douglass as freethinker. Here is a recent news story:

Douglass a Secular Humanist? by Hector Avalos, Ames Tribune, Saturday, February 5, 2011.

The Douglass-Assing relationship is the linchpin of Avalos' article. Avalos puts Douglass in the company of Dawkins and Hitchens. It's hardly a stretch to identify Douglass with secular humanism; this does not prove Douglass to be an atheist, Avalos admits such as assertion to be an exaggeration, but it would still be more accurate to specify what is knowable about the degree of overlap between Douglass' undeniable secularism and humanism, and the hardcore atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens.

This rather insufferable Christian rebuttal is ridiculous in rendering Douglass' 1883 "It Moves" speech consistent with Christianity, but the blogger is correct that Douglass' statements in themselves do not prove a disavowal of theism per se.

Deeper historical contextualization is mandated, if not in an occasional newspaper piece, then in further investigation of the subject.

I have always had doubts as to where Wilson Moses is coming from, but he has authored several books engaged in in-depth historical analysis of 19th century black nationalism. Note his treatment of Douglass here:

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Moses addresses the tensions within Douglass' politics, principally between his advocacy of the black cause and his integrationism. "His hostility to the traditionalism and institutional structure of organized religion was part and parcel of the extreme progressive liberalism that he embraced." Moses analyzes Douglass' moral perfectionism and aversion to relativism, a joint product of Enlightenment thought, liberalism, Victorian rationalism, and Christian perfectionism.

Here is another take by Moses on Douglass and other iconic black political intellectuals:

Creative Conflict in African American Thought by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Here you can read an excerpt:

I. Introduction. Reality and Contradiction

Among other things you will find here an analysis of the ideological differences between Douglass and Alexander Crummell, the uneasy relationship between moralism and power politics, and the tension in Douglass between individualism and racial loyalty.

Finally, note the quotation from Douglass in Evolutionary Writings by Charles Darwin, edited by James A. Secord (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).