Remarks to Phoenix Humanist Society, January 24, 2021
Whether humanism means atheism, or a commitment to questioning all accepted beliefs, or an identification with all of humanity rather than a small sub-group, or a celebration and promotion of all the richness of human culture, I’m in favor of it, and it has a great deal to do with the project I work on called anti-militarism. I work for an organization called World BEYOND War — a name that is basically a positive way of stating the negative position of anti-militarism, while implying something more than that, much as the name humanism is a positive way of stating the position of atheism, while implying more than just that.
I sometimes gently nudge anti-militarists toward humanism, even while working with many terrific religious peace activists, including some of our very best peace activists who are explicitly motivated by religion, and working for organizations that take no position on theism. I say “gently,” because for some people urging them away from religion is highly offensive. It’s certainly also true that for some people urging them away from militarism or imperialism or patriotism is highly offensive. Nonetheless I’m going to be fairly straightforward and not especially gentle in what follows, as I try to suggest that every humanist on earth ought to be committed to ending all war.
I hope it will help to make clear from the outset my awareness of the fact that, just like every other person who has ever lived, I have myself believed ridiculous things, done regrettable things, tolerated horrendous things, and failed to think various things through to all their implications. I’ll probably even demonstrate much of that in what follows — even to myself if I read this 10 years from now. Our understanding of things is and should be constantly changing, usually — I hope — improving. The comical idea that one can pin down eternal truths in a single book or speech that will never get outdated is not, I think, a humanist idea.
A column in the New York Times on December 18, 2020, began with these words: “This year has awakened us to the fact that we die.” I find two things remarkable about this. One is the notion that up through 2019 nobody had yet heard about dying. The other is that this column, despite beginning in this way, went on to repeatedly inform us that there is simply no way to know whether anyone dies.
Now, perhaps the author didn’t really mean that nobody prior to 2020 knew they were going to die, but rather that few people had lived with the anxious thought that death might very well arrive at any moment. But did the author imagine homeless people never think? What about people who live under the constant buzzing of armed drones that could obliterate them with a missile at any moment? Or people on the run as refugees from wars or violent governments or gangs? Or people in hospitals on life-support machines? Or people with no prospects for finding food? Or people with a century or more of living behind them? Of course, most people who have long lived with the possibility of swift death are among the other 96%, that marginalized percentage of humanity outside of the United States. By definition they aren’t part of the first person plural in the New York Times. But what does the idea of a general unawareness of death prior to 2020 say about elite awareness of people lacking health insurance, people lacking proper diets, people working extreme hours for low pay at dangerous jobs, people living in environmental disaster areas, or people living through the extended traumas of so-called natural disasters inadequately responded to? The same newspaper on its website homepage on December 21st claimed that $600 was going to save millions of people from a winter of poverty.
The column in the Times goes on to assure us that there is just no way to know whether death is followed by more life — or, in other words, isn’t death at all. Perhaps this is simply required nonsense mandated by the overriding need to avoid angry emails to the editor. But isn’t it rather odd in a media outlet and a media culture that trumpets the need for verified and documented facts, and the absolute importance of shunning and even censoring any unproven speculation — generally denounced as so-called conspiracy theories, whether or not any conspiracy is involved — to nonetheless declare that people may very well go on living after death? Are there multiple, authoritative, named sources for that claim? Of course not. How about unnamed government officials assessing that claim with medium-high confidence from the so-called intelligence so-called community? Nope, not even that. Instead, the Times cites an academic field as the basis for its claim. Of course, no newspaper would write that biology tells us unicorns aren’t real, yet they very well might be — nobody can tell — it’s a matter for literature. Yet the Times writes that science finds death to be death, yet we just can’t be sure — it’s a matter for religion.
Denying death doesn’t get you labeled a death denier, in the way that you might be labeled a climate denier or pandemic denier, and not for any reason related to knowledge of the matter — but rather as a cultural preference.
Now, I want to suggest that militarism gets the same cultural preference that the afterlife does.
Cartoonist Matt Wuerker drew a cartoon that shows a couple visiting a therapist. The man has a military uniform and a head made out of weaponry. The woman is the Statue of Liberty. She’s saying to the therapist, “I know, I know, he’s rough on my economic competitiveness, abusive of my environment, and this national security thing is a joke, but I can’t imagine life without him.” The cartoon has the title “Military Codependency Complex.”
A WORLD BEYOND WAR
The mission of World BEYOND War is to envision a world without the male half of that couple. Why is it so difficult? Well, just as millions of people are raised to believe in a virgin birth, millions of people are raised to believe in nuclear deterrence. Just as millions of people are raised to believe their dead loved ones are looking down on them, millions of people are raised to believe that violent activities that traumatize almost every participant are “natural” and “inevitable.” Just as people are told that loaves and fishes can multiply, so are they told that putting over a trillion dollars into future wars is done with a different sort of money than the money we just don’t have enough of to help people who lack work or healthcare. Just as we’re told that a beautiful child got cancer because God’s wonderful plan is beyond our understanding, we’re told that invading countries and kicking in doors and murdering families makes us safer — not because that makes sense or has been proven (quite the reverse), but because secret lawless government departments know better than we do, or because, as Jerry Falwell declared, “God Is Pro-War.”
And we’re not just told these things. We’re shown them in countless stories, children’s stories, TV shows, movies, history books, video games, pre-game ceremonies, and holiday celebrations. We’re saturated with the normalization of war. Armistice Day is now Veterans Day, and in various cities Veterans For Peace groups are barred from participation. Towns have been pulling down racist war monuments because they’re racist without anyone having identified what a non-racist war monument would be and without anyone even noticing that they’re war monuments, until a legal ban on removing war monuments gets in the way — as in Virginia, which has no ban on removing peace monuments and would have a hard time finding very many to remove anyway. In 2019, a third of people polled in the U.S. supported an aggressive nuclear attack on North Korea that would kill a million people, about the same as supported it if it killed fewer people (some polled were less supportive of war if it killed more people, but others more supportive).
Over the years, various talk show hosts have surveyed U.S. residents on sidewalks, no doubt editing out anyone intelligent, and not claiming any scientific results, but producing clips in which people solemnly explain that a certain fictional country invented by the questioner has to be bombed. Everything else has been tried already, they explain, despite literally nothing having been tried, and despite the country and any conflict with it not even existing.
Serious polling finds similar results. If you ask people if they support starting a particular war, ask a second group if they support the same thing while knowing that all peaceful possibilities have been tried already (as if exhausting such possibilities were actually possible), and ask a third group if they support the war while knowing that peaceful alternatives exist, the predictable result is that the third group shows less support for the war. But the second group, the one informed that everything else has been tried, shows no heightened support — in fact, it shows the exact same support for the war as the first group, the one asked the simple question with no added information. This is because the first group simply assumes that all possible alternatives have been tried. It’s a matter of faith. One need not actually know what’s been tried, or be capable of explaining how exactly it is that nothing else can be tried. One simply believes as a matter of faith, that — in stark contrast to every actual war that has ever actually happened — the U.S. government has, in this latest case, done everything possible to avoid starting a war.
So, just as evolution, and evil, and benevolent atheists, and the questions of who created God or where Cain’s wife came from are not the very most popular topics in church, the fact that Libya was not about to massacre people, or Afghanistan was willing to have bin Laden put on trial, or Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11, or the Gulf of Tonkin incident didn’t happen, or Mexico did not trespass or shoot first, or Spain wanted the matter of the USS Maine sent to neutral arbitration, are not the most popular topics on network or cable news. Actual wars are the result of tremendous efforts at avoiding peace. In contrast, mythical war is forced upon reluctant heroes who sacrifice themselves to save the world. Which one makes you feel better about your tax dollars? Which one is more comforting?
This is why Pearl Harbor is holy ground in the religion that holds kneeling during a national war anthem to be sacrilege. Unfortunately, it’s as mythical as Eden. The United States spent years maneuvering for war with Japan and avoiding all steps toward peace. The U.S. government made lists of steps that would provoke Japan and took them, and expected an attack — an attack that was not on U.S. soil, killed fewer people than are killed every day now by the U.S. government’s handling of Coronavirus, and damaged only two ships beyond repair.
WORLD WAR II
World War II is the Genesis myth of U.S. militarism, and no more real than Genesis. It is the topic of my book Leaving World War II Behind. With the obligatory, if silly, preface that nothing excuses Germans or Italians or Japanese or anyone else for evil things they do, it’s necessary to point out to people in the United States that WWII had nothing to do with saving people from genocide, in fact quite the reverse, that the U.S. and other governments refused to take the Jews out of Germany, that WWII could not have happened without WWI and the manner of ending it, that the bunk science of eugenics and a Nordic race was developed chiefly in the United States, that the Nazis came over to the United States to study its segregation laws, that the genocide of the Native Americans was a primary inspiration for Hitler who explicitly sought to emulate it, that U.S. corporations armed and supplied the Nazis right through the war, that the U.S. and western governments passed up numerous opportunities to oppose the rise of Nazism because they preferred it to communism, that the United States welcomed 1,600 Nazis into the U.S. military, that former Nazis were responsible for the U.S. government’s underground fortresses, for key Cold War lies about the Soviet Union, and for the weaponry that destroyed Vietnam, that the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prolonged the war rather than shortening it, and that nonviolent activism — in its infancy — showed enormous potential against Nazis and has shown incredible success in the 75 years since, generations full of wars that very few pundits even try to defend — wars that now happen in a world without colonialism and conquest in any way resembling the 1940s, a world in which fears of each new “Hitler” in our war propaganda are ridiculous but deep and powerful.
WHEN IS MURDER NOT MURDER?
“What do the scientists say?” is an over-used question. I don’t want to know whether scientists believe we should nuke Mars and then build suburbs on it. But it’s interesting that the one place that question does not get asked is religion.
“Murder is evil and illegal” is an even more common statement than “Ask the scientists.” Yet an exception is carved out for it as well. If something is war, it’s not murder. This is not simply a question of scale or of bigotry, though both play into it. If you kill large numbers of distant foreigners it’s obviously not murder. But law professor Rosa Brooks testified to Congress several years back that blowing up people (almost always unidentified people plus anyone near them) with missiles from drones might be murder and might not, depending on whether it was part of war, and because then-President Obama kept hidden a secret memo on his justifications for blowing people up with missiles, there was just no way to know whether that was part of war, and therefore no way to know whether it was murder. Now, somebody can tell me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe even the Pope any longer has the sort of power it takes to transform a distant killing into a possible non-murder by announcing that he has a secret memo in a Vatican drawer.
An atheist has a minor challenge, not nearly as difficult a challenge as choosing between food or medicine, or whether to immigrate, or whether to be a whistleblower, but a mental challenge worth noting. An atheist has to know and love and respect people, huge crowds of people and individuals, who all believe something or claim to believe something that the atheist thinks is as loony as a monkey on LSD. But everyone, if we think about it rightly, has that same challenge, whether or not they are an atheist, and not just because there are lots of different religions most of which have got to be sheer bonkers even if one of them is right, but because people’s worldviews differ dramatically on numerous topics.
If you believe that the best evidence thus far suggests that wearing a mask helps slow the spread of a deadly disease and is not particularly difficult to do, you have the challenge of being neighborly to many of your neighbors, who seem not to have heard about masks, for example.
There’s a guy named Denver Riggleman who has been my Misrepresentative in the U.S. House for the past two years. He wrote a book about Bigfoot, which seems to have made him some sort of authority on all things crazy. In recent months he’s denounced various rightwing theories about pandemics and elections, and advocated for a sort of sane conservatism. I’m 100% in favor. Good for him. But think for a minute about what he himself believes in, contrary to all available evidence: Trickledown economics, Denial of the severity of the environmental crisis, and of course the Benefits of extreme hyper-militarism.
Only those things are not crazy, and not because of anything related to what we know about them, but rather because of how many times our televisions have told us they are not crazy.
QUESTIONING ALL ACCEPTED BELIEFS
If you question right-wing economics, or climate denial, you may get some very angry responses, but you won’t typically be told that you’re violating a taboo. There are very few topics that will get you accused of rudeness for talking politely about them. One is of course religion. But there are others that come close, that will certainly end your appearances on major television programs. MSNBC got rid of its top host, Phil Donahue, for opposing war on Iraq, and kept Chris Hayes on only because he abjectly apologized for saying that calling war participants heroes was a technique used to justify wars. Polling has found that the top answer in many nations around the world to the question of what is the greatest threat to peace is the United States. Share that information with your extended family during a holiday zoom meal, and swear to me that nobody will be angry or upset or in denial. The number of international comparisons of freedoms and liberties, no matter now defined, that have ranked the United States at the top is a big fat zero, yet no other nation on earth spends even half — and very few even 10 percent, and most of those largely on U.S. weapons — what the United States does on its wars for freedom. How welcome would that news be in your local newspaper? Republican Senator Ron Paul was booed in a presidential debate some years back for quoting Jesus, suggesting that the Golden Rule should be used in international relations. Try refusing to pledge allegiance to a flag in a school or to participate by standing and putting your hand on your heart for flag and war hymn ceremonies before a big event, and see what happens.
Why is questioning religion or militarism offensive? That’s not normal.
When you question religion you’re told, not that you’re mistakenly questioning proven facts, but that you are insulting someone’s identity. When you question militarism, there’s a variation on that theme. Typically, you’re told, not that any of the post-WWII wars have been glorious or that Lockheed Martin really does need your money, but that you are insulting the people who take part in wars. However, when you point out that the top reason military recruits give for signing up is lack of alternatives, and when you ask whether war supporters love the troops enough to make college a free part of public education the way normal countries do, you’re told that you’d have no freedom to express such insanity if not for all the death and destruction visited on the earth by the heroic troops and that you should therefore shut up and not exercise the rights that they killed people for.
My chief complaint with religion is not the songs or the architecture or the books, much of which I love. It’s not the organization. I’ve always marveled at people opposing organized religion as if disorganized religion was better. It’s not the stupidity or irrationality. Everybody’s got those things. My chief complaint is with training people to believe that authorities must be blindly obeyed, that their mysterious ways are beyond our ken, that we must submit to their catastrophic courses of action because they know best. I mean, it’s nice not to be responsible for anything. It’s nice to imagine that the world isn’t being destroyed, that ecosystems aren’t crumbling, that humanity has no power to destroy humanity, and that nothing on earth really matters because eternal paradise awaits. I’ve always marveled at the notion that humanism makes nothing matter, when it’s reducing the world to merely “this world” in contrast to infinite existence somewhere else that seems to make nothing matter. I mean, it always seems to be the same politicians who bring a snowball into Congress to disprove global warming who also claim it doesn’t really much matter because it’s just “this world.” Well, not always. Let’s not forget the scientists who want us all to move to Mars. But those who tend to question accepted wisdom also tend to be the people who think everything matters quite a bit.
Authority is a long-established propaganda technique, one of many widely used in war propaganda. I don’t mean respect for someone who’s earned it. I mean blind obedience to someone set up as an authority. I mean what happens when the civilian public starts calling a president its “commander in chief.” And an authority doesn’t even have to be a person. It can be a colored piece of cloth.
If you do a web search for images of “Bellamy salute” you find countless black-and-white photographs of U.S. children and adults with their right arms raised stiffly out in front of them in what will strike most people as a Nazi salute. From the early 1890s through 1942 the United States used the Bellamy salute to accompany the words written by Francis Bellamy and known as the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1942, the U.S. Congress instructed Americans to instead place their hands over their hearts when swearing allegiance to a flag, so as not to be mistaken for Nazis.
The problem is not the arm position, but the pledging of allegiance. Once you’ve pledged your allegiance to a flag, what are you to do when someone waves that flag and screams that evil foreigners need to be killed? Rare is the U.S. government whistleblower or war veteran peace activist who won’t tell you how much time they spent trying to deprogram themselves of all the patriotism that was put into them as children.
Some people who visit the United States from other countries are shocked to see children standing, using the modified salute of hand-on-heart, and robotically reciting a loyalty oath to a “nation under God.” It seems that the modification of hand position has not completely succeeded in preventing them looking like Nazis.
Of course, millions of people will object to militarism but not patriotism. What they need, they’ll tell you, is the right kind of patriotism. There’s nothing wrong with loving a country, they’ll tell us. Loving one country doesn’t require hating other countries. That’s the bad kind of patriotism. Or that’s nationalism, not patriotism, or vice versa. The real dangers, according to some, are provincialism and globalism, not patriotism. States’ rights and international courts threaten our sacred sovereignty, but there’s nothing wrong with nations if handled properly.
Yet it’s only at the smaller level that democracy seems to work. And it’s only at the larger level that we seem to have a chance of addressing global crises. And it’s the national level that has the militaries and wages the wars. Why aren’t local and global flags holy objects? Maybe I’m biased because I live in a part of the world where localities and states get very little pomp and circumstance, and where the national government is a war machine masquerading as a normal country. Well over half of the money that the U.S. Congress decides what to do with every year — the discretionary budget — goes to war and war preparations. Dealing weapons to war zones, parts of the world that manufacture almost no weapons themselves, is a huge business dominated by the United States. Over 90 percent of foreign military bases are U.S. foreign military bases. When I watch the UVA basketball team beat yet another unfortunate opponent, I have to thank the troops for watching from 175 countries. Why? Do they ever thank the rest of us for watching? Would it hurt anything if they watched from 174 countries? Or 3 countries? Really, who would panic? But when I take my concerns to my local government, they listen and act. Even my state government is responsive to my desires. And globally I see efforts at disarmament and the rule of law and environmental protection stymied by a handful of rogue nations that includes my own. Why shouldn’t I criticize patriotism?
FAITH-BASED NEWS REPORTS
Religion and faith are part of what I cover in my book, War Is A Lie.
Faith is a very dangerous habit, including faith-based news consumption. When there’s reporting on a local crime or scandal, most of us like to be sure that the facts are well documented, but when Iran has supposedly been building a nuke, or Russia has supposedly been blackmailing a U.S. president with a video of somebody peeing on him — a U.S. president who mysteriously rips up treaties with Russia, sabotages Russian energy deals, arms Russia’s neighbors, builds bases on Russia’s border, bombs Russian troops in Syria, sanctions and expels Russian officials, etc., well, then, faith is enough. If we don’t put faith in the goodness of the CIA, we for some strange reason must therefore be pledging our whole souls to Russia. This is weird. We ought to be able to simply ask “May I please see the evidence that Russia did that thing, and then I’ll condemn it right after I see the evidence?”
Religion is a great tool for bigotry, and so is religious thinking. It’s much easier to bomb people who have the wrong religion. It’s also much easier to believe that super-smart precision bombs murdered only just the very most proper people and nobody else if we adopt a religious-like faith in the pronouncements of the Pentagon.
JUST UNJUST WARS
Religion is also a great tool for the pretense of morality in mass slaughter. I wrote a book about Just War Theory called War Is Never Just. I found all the criteria of Just War Theory to be either amoral or unmeasurable or impossible. I also found the whole thing to be an odd vestige of a Roman Imperial worldview that we mostly don’t share. The saints who invented just war theory to justify war did not, by the way, claim that war was self-defense. They opposed self-defense. They believed that killing you was doing you an enormous favor. It was sending you to a better place. If someone was willing to kill you, you should know enough to get out of their way. Yet today’s Western war culture, which focuses heavily on claims of defense, also uses the language of just war theorists to plaster a gloss of pseudo-morality over the pools of blood.
I concluded that for a war to meet all the criteria of Just War Theory would be impossible, unknowable, and meaningless, but that it was far worse than that. If a war did miraculously meet all the criteria and do more good than harm, it would still never do enough good to outweigh having kept the institution of war, the standing armies, the bases, the ships, the planes around waiting for the just war to arrive. This is so, both because military preparedness generates wars, most of which nobody tries to defend as just, and also because the institution of war kills more than the wars, through its environmental destruction, its promotion of bigotry, its erosion of the rule of law, its justification for secrecy in governance, and especially through its diversion of resources from human needs. Three percent of just U.S. military spending could end starvation on earth. Militarism is first and foremost a literally unfathomable spending of money, a fraction of which could transform any number of urgently needed projects on a global scale.
FDR’s PHONY DOCUMENTS
In October 1941, Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in which he falsely claimed that U.S. ships attacked by Germany had not been participating in the war, falsely claimed to have a map outlining Nazi plans to take over South America, and falsely claimed to have in his possession a Nazi plan to eliminate religion from the world. Those first claims have been debunked and detailed. We have a good idea which British staff person drafted the phony map of South America, and how it made its way into FDR’s speech. Reporters even asked to see the map right away but were denied. As far as I know, nobody asked for the plan to eradicate religion, not right away or ever since.
Needless to say, FDR’s claim was not based in reality; religion was openly practiced in Nazi-controlled nations, in some cases newly restored after Soviet-imposed atheism, and medals that the Nazis bestowed on their biggest supporters, including U.S. supporters, were shaped like crosses, which FDR claimed would be banned.
Why did nobody investigate the fictional Nazi plan to eliminate religion? It’s possible that people simply understood it not to be a literal claim at all, but rather a mythical defense of holy religion against evil — not something to be questioned with skepticism or seriousness. But all war propaganda should be so questioned.
IDENTIFICATION WITH ALL OF HUMANITY
If humanism means identification with humanity, I think it guarantees peace.
Look at this graphic. Crazy ideas like universal healthcare and public college and aiding people put out of work by a pandemic are not things to speculate and theorize about, but things we are already doing, if we is humanity.
I wrote a book called Curing Exceptionalism, in which I maintained that U.S. exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is superior to other nations, is no more fact-based and no less harmful than racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.
The first section of the book is a glorified list of statistics with minimal discussion. Its purpose is to examine as fairly and honestly as possible, with the most reliable data available, how the United States compares with other nations. Is what is often called the “greatest nation on earth” actually greatest in any measurable category? Is it, in fact, the least great in some ways? Is it, in many ways, just kind of average? I’ll save you the suspense: the United States ranks #1 in no significant desirable area, and is generally at or near the bottom among wealthy nations.
Having established some knowledge of how the United States actually compares with other countries, I move on in part two of the book to an examination of how exceptionalists think, relying heavily on their own words. Exceptionalist thinking turns out to have rather little to do with facts, and a great deal to do with an arrogant attitude.
In the third section of the book, I argue that this attitude is not harmless, that in fact it brings a great deal of suffering to both those who engage in it and those impacted by it. Given this understanding, I am compelled to attempt in the book’s fourth and final part to suggest what I see as the most promising steps for curing exceptionalism, for developing better ways of thinking and for taking the actions those new thoughts lead to.
These steps include reducing dependence on patriotism as a sense of identity, learning about and appreciating the world, imagining role reversals, and taking some care with language — including the use of the first person plural. There is a great deal to be gained, and enemies to be lost, by identifying with humanity.
CELEBRATION OF HUMAN CULTURE
If humanism means a celebration of human culture, I’m for that too: all human cultures; they all have good and bad in them.
I’m for celebrating the sacrifices of the nonviolent activists who have improved our world, and whose resistance to coups and occupations and tyranny are more successful than violence.
I’m for recognizing the heroism of healthcare and essential service workers during pandemics. Albert Camus’ The Plague has nothing on today’s reality. I think we should start thanking everyone for their service who performs an actual service.
We should even celebrate religious peace activism, and religious peace teachings, even when the very same religions have just as many adherents claiming with equal fervor that their religion justifies war. There are great sources of inspiration in religious peacemaking. Rev. Raphael Warnock, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, preached in a sermon you can watch on Youtube that nobody can serve God and the military. If God were to show up and inform everyone that that is in fact his/her/its view of the matter, I think it would make up for a great deal that he/she/it otherwise has to answer for. Erasmus had the same opinion, even supporting a ban on anyone who had participated in any war receiving a Christian burial.
That position sounds crazy in the United States of 2021, not because of its religion, but because of its opposition to war. We are in great need of peace culture. This is why World BEYOND War promotes peace holidays and peace music and peace literature and peace journalism, and envisions a world beyond war in a book called A Global Security System: An Alternative to War.
I of course imagine even more than that, even as much as John Lennon imagined, even more, even a world beyond war, beyond religion, beyond authority, beyond racism, beyond environmental exploitation, beyond tribalism, beyond capitalism, and beyond the lazy acceptance that there are systemic evils constructed by humans that humans can’t choose to leave behind.