Letters To The Editor: A Must

Letters To The Editor: A Must
by Ron Steelman


Barry Klassel – Humanist Chaplain, Rutgers University

Barry Klassel, a longtime member of Red Bank Humanists and the New Jersey Humanist Network, become the Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University several years ago (with the help of Dr. Gary Brill, a Humanist and the Campus Coordinator for the Chaplaincy). Yes, many think “Humanist Chaplain” is an oxymoron. However, since Harvard and Columbia have Humanist Chaplains, why not Rutgers?

Point being, there needs to be someone at colleges and universities to whom non-believing students can go for information and advice. University students are forming many new ideas and have personal questions about ethics and morality. Many want to know how to be good without God. For example, Pew Research Center says one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation (January 13, 2013).

If it will make you happier, let’s just change the word Chaplain to “adviser.”


Targum: an Aramaic translation or paraphrase
of a portion of the Old Testament

Now to the point. Barry read an editorial in the Rutgers newspaper called the “Daily Targum.” Yes, Targum is a biblical word, but let’s “pass over” that for now.

The title of the editorial says it all: “Successful Society Requires Religion.” What!? And this was in an editorial to boot! When silliness like this gets printed, reasonable, rational people must respond. We all have to write more letters to the editor like this one:

“To the Editor of the Daily Targum:
Humanism Can Form The Basis For A Successful Society

The Targum editorial entitled “Successful society requires religion” is unconvincing.  Non-theistic humanism can provide the philosophical and inspirational underpinnings of a just and forward-looking society. The fact that many countries including the United States are seeing a decline in religiosity does not mean the people are losing their morals or their sense of purpose in life. Rather, they are seeing the world in a way that is more honest and more useful to them.


Distant Galaxies

As a humanist my focus is on this one lifetime, on this world and the people in it. My family is all of humanity. My history is told in the stars, in the fossil record and in the DNA of all living creatures. I am inspired by human efforts to explore every corner of our universe and our own natures. I am moved by photos of distant galaxies, by freedom fighters around the world and by the touch of a child’s hand. I find beauty in the struggle of each human being to build a meaningful and fulfilling life. My purpose is to help them succeed.

One of the pillars of the humanist philosophy is a concern with morality. In fact, the day your editorial came out coincided with a meeting of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers on the topic of moral issues we all face. We discussed the areas of ecology, family relationships and world events. Moral questions pervade our lives and humanist principles take that into account.

A statement by the American Humanist Association expresses some of their values regarding a just society:

“Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.”

This is certainly a good start if we wish to have the basis for a successful society.

– Barry Klassel, Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers”
Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers


Barry was very rational, reasonable, even polite. That’s how you get letters to the editor printed. I, on the other hand, would have blown it. I’m sure my letter would have been rejected because I wanted to point out all the sophomoric logical fallacies in the editorial.

The Targum editorial is here.
It is filled with logical fallacies, some of which include:

argument from omniscience
argumentum ad baculum
argumentum ad populum
bandwagon fallacy
confirmation bias
red herring

Definitions of Logical Fallacies here.

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“Aren’t ya gonna read some words over him, Bret?”

(or, a real “Good Book”)

You’ve seen the classic western film where one of the good guys gets shot by one of the bad guys. They’re out in the middle of “nowhere big sky country.” There’s no way they can get their dead sidekick (the cowpoke who weighed 300 pounds yet they called him Slim) back to town to the undertaker (a twitchy little guy named Aloysius P. McCreepy,
who sported a glass eye). They’re stuck.

They must follow the rules of the Olde West and bury their stiff compatriot right there where their horses stopped. The movie screeches to a halt while they supposedly dig a grave and plunk him “six feet under.” They must bury him right away for two reasons: the beautiful heroine with the ripped skirt really likes Slim’s horse, plus they’d hate
to see Slim devoured by the buzzards lurking overhead. Since the director of the film realizes that cowboys never carried shovels, making the audience watch the gang dig a six foot hole with their bare hands would not win him an Oscar. He wisely skips that scene and jumps to the scene where they are about to plant a rough‐hewn cross in the rocks they piled on top of good old Slim. At this point they start to saddle up, but the chick who’s showing too much leg (for this period in history) turns to our hero and says, “Aren’t ya gonna read some words over him, Bret?”

Bret turns to Cookie, a smiley and smelly old geezer with a limp, with the brim of his grungy cowboy hat turned up in front. Bret says, “Cookie’ll say’em betterin’ me.”

The camera cuts to Cookie, the chef who ritually burns the beans and biscuits. Cookie gives Bret a dirty look. But when Cookie eyes the gal’s legs and she gives him a big smile, he caves. He says, “Well, I ain’t got no Good Book, so I’ll just say what I always say at times like these.”

As Cookie looks to heaven and opens his mouth to say his favorite “few words,” an arrow zings through the top of his rumpled hat, sending it flying.

Cookie yells, “Dang nabbit,” grabs an enormous black skillet to shield his head, as another arrow ricochets off with a clang. . .

‐ Fade to black ‐

The Main Part – About the New Bible
Speaking of the “Good Book,” aka, the Bible, the world now has a new one. This tome is not for religious people, though. It’s called The Good Book – A Humanist Bible, by A.C. Grayling, the noted British philosopher. It’s important to note that there’s no mention of God or other supernatural phenomena in this book. The following description from Amazon.com provides a
concise overview of the book.

“Few, if any, thinkers and writers today would have the imagination, the breadth of knowledge, the literary skill, and yes‐the audacity to conceive of a powerful, secular alternative to the Bible. But that is exactly what A.C. Grayling has done by creating a non‐religious Bible, drawn from the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions, using the same techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judaeo‐Christian and Islamic religions. The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its
beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non‐religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections‐‐‐‐Genesis, Histories, Wisdom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good‐‐‐‐The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and so many others, The Good Book will fulfill its audacious purpose in every way.”

As Stephen Colbert said in his goofy, faux‐far‐right interview of A.C. Grayling, “How can this be a Bible if there’s no God in it? Is this book against God and religion?”

A.C. Grayling answered, “There’s nothing in this book against religion. It’s just a different take on how we live the good life and about ethics, really. The point is we have to take responsibility to think carefully for ourselves about what kind of values we pursue in life and how we form really good relationships with other people.”

Without exploring the premise that the traditional Bible itself is not actually a “good” book, I must say that Grayling’s The Good Book seems to truly be a good book. I also discovered that you can read it from cover to cover, or pick it up and consider one page at a time. Throughout, it is a “good book,” filled with wisdom and advice on how to be good and how to live the good life. . .without a deity.

(An Excerpt)
Here is the last chapter of the last book in Grayling’s The Good Book – A Humanist Bible:
“1. Seek always for the good that abides. There can be none except as the mind finds it within itself;
2. Wisdom alone affords everlasting and peace‐giving joy, for then, even if some obstacle arises,
3. It is only like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.
4. When will you attain this joy? It will begin when you think for yourself,
5. When you truly take responsibility for your own life,
6. When you join the fellowship of all who have stood up as free individuals and said,
7. ‘We are of the company of those who seek the true and the right, and live accordingly;
8. ‘In our human world, in the short time we each have,
9. ‘We see our duty to make and find something good for ourselves and our companions in the human predicament.’
10. Let us help one another, therefore; let us build the city together,
11. Where the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realized at last.”

Pretty good, huh?

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Calvin Was A Humanist

Calvin Was A Humanist (No, not that Calvin.)
By Ron Steelman

John CalvinMy ten year old son walked up to me and quoted a line from a large book of Calvin & Hobbes comic strips by Bill Watterson — all three volumes are in our home library because my wife loves that rotten little kid Calvin. My son’s selection had Calvin talking to Hobbes about Santa and God and Calvin said, “If he’s real, why doesn’t he show himself to prove it?” I guess I hadn’t been paying attention to the full scope of Watterson’s work. I was curious to find out what other quotes might be of interest to me as a Humanist. I snatched the book out of my son’s hands and told him I needed to borrow it to do some research. As he walked away, he grumbled, “OK, fine. I’ll go read my copy of ‘On the Origin of Species’.” But I want the ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ back in an hour.”

In the introduction of the book it said, “When Watterson was coming up with names for the characters of his comic strip, he decided upon Calvin (after the Protestant reformer John Calvin) and Hobbes (after the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes) as a “tip of the hat” to the political science department at Kenyon” [College where he went to school ].

I won’t digress here into an analysis of the five points of Calvinism (you should thank me for this).  However, I think it’s important to say that although Calvin (Watterson’s Calvin) often commented on and questioned various religious and philosophical concepts in the comic strip, he did not attempt to inflict upon us any of John Calvin’s five goofy theological points. When he occasionally sidled up close to any of that flimflam, it was purely a sideways glace through his bent lens of reality. The result: humor.

Here follow just a few selected Watterson quotes from my search for lines related to Humanism:

>>> “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

>>> “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.”

 >>>  “We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.”

>>> “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change, but pretty soon…everything’s different.”

>>> “The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.”
(once quoted by Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University Professor of Astrophysics)

The strip ran in newspapers for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995. There are thousands of great Calvin & Hobbes lines and I discovered that many of my friends seem to have different favorites. . .usually based on their sensibilities.  My friend Bruce likes: “Why waste time on education when ignorance is instantaneous?” While I like: “You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocketship underpants don’t help.”

Watterson is brilliant. If you buy any or all of the books of his collected Calvin & Hobbes strips, you will be happy you did. When my son came back for the book, he said, “Watterson’s right up there with Darwin, he’s just funnier.”
While Googling “Bill Watterson atheist” I discovered a variety of objections to his comics from religious folk. What sound and fury! However, I don’t think anyone knows what his beliefs really are. One blog entry told a story by a guy who was visiting with relatives when he was a kid. He had taken along his big book of Calvin & Hobbes. When his extended family saw what he was reading, they were so upset that they took the C&H book away from him. It’s just another example of how religious people hate it when you ask questions like Calvin does. Also on their ‘bad book list’ is a collection of The Far Side comics by Gary Larson. We own the two-volume set. I’d better abscond with them so I can re-read them before my 10-year-old finds them. Then maybe I’ll be able to keep up with him during a critique of Larson’s work.  He’s almost 11, you know.

The Calvin & Hobbes in question:
Click here for larger size
Calvin & Hobbes

Unconditional Election

Unconditional Election was one of John Calvin’s five points of Calvinism. Unconditional election is the Calvinist teaching that before God created the world, he chose to save some people according to his own purposes and apart from any conditions related to those persons. What about those not on his list? Oh, well. This is how “Predestination” crept in to our minds. I didn’t realize that God played favorites like this. I want to speak to my attorney!

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