CHICAGO – At what point did God start judging us to go to Heaven or Hell?
This year’s 75th anniversary conference of the American Humanist Association (AHA) took place in Chicago May 26-29, attended by 460 people from around the country and abroad. Six honorees – including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, who asked that impertinent question about God – gave intelligent, funny, and in many cases emotionally riveting remarks in their acceptance speeches.
The four-day conference featured panels, film screenings, lectures, luncheons and dinners, and informational talks. Working in a humanist vein within the Black and Latinx communities, as well as the LGBTQ community, was a major theme.
Maverick Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers won the AHA Lifetime Achievement Award. He grew up in north Omaha and early on as an African American felt the sting of racism. Beginning in 1976, Chambers led a crusade to get the death penalty abolished in Nebraska. He finally achieved this in 2015, by getting enough votes in the legislature to override the governor’s veto. “I have no fear,” he explains. “It took no courage on my part because I have no fear of anybody or anything. The ones who voted to override were fearful of the consequences. They were courageous.”
First elected to the state legislature in 1970, he served for almost four decades until Nebraskans imposed term limits, then after a term away got reelected again. Mother Jones has described him as “left of San Francisco” and credited him, among other things, with legislation that abolished corporal punishment in schools, gave women equal status in the state pension systems, and created district elections in some local governments. For years he cut hair at the Spencer Street Barber Shop, but lists his occupation as “defender of the downtrodden.”
Chambers doesn’t campaign, not even authorizing yard signs for his reelection. “If you don’t like what I’ve done,” he says, “don’t vote for me.” Something else he has no fear of: “Heaven or hell.” Normally, Chambers said, he rejects awards, but did agree to accept this one “because I believe in much of what AHA does.”
Medea Benjamin, who received the Humanist Heroine award, is the founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange, and a longtime advocate for social justice and human rights. Known for her opposition to militarism, she says, “I’m not at all against people in the military. I’m against killing” – and going abroad seeking monsters to kill and creating more enemies. She accurately named Saudi Arabia as “the #1 purchaser of U.S. weapons,” a country where atheism is punished by death, beheadings are common, women may not drive, no other religion besides Islam is permitted, and which bombs its neighbor Yemen frequently with U.S. materiel.
President Obama, Benjamin says, has ordered the bombing of seven countries. Drones are employed not to capture but to kill, creating more blowback and hatred, and are used so people at home won’t know what we are doing. “These deaths will come back to haunt us,” she warns. Our country must apologize and make compensation.
At 16, Benjamin worked on an Israeli kibbutz. Only much later in life, she said, after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, did she really see what Israel had done in Gaza. She allied herself with the nonviolent BDS movement “out of love for Israel.” When a woman saw her demonstrating as a Jew against the Occupation and doubted she could be Jewish, Benjamin responded in the most convincing manner she could think of. She told her, “Gey kakn afn yam!” (a colorful Yiddish expression meaning literally “Go shit in the ocean,” or “Go screw yourself”).
“We need nonviolent tactics,” Benjamin affirms, “because the violent ones don’t work.”
In the Q&A following her talk, a questioner challenged Benjamin’s and other protesters’ “rude” penchant for interrupting speakers. She mentioned that once when the audience tried to shut her up at an appearance by Barack Obama, it was the president himself who said from the podium, “That woman’s voice is worth listening to.” The sad fact is that the U.S. media do not adequately cover protest; even mass demonstrations go unmentioned. Only the foreign media pay attention. So “the only way to get attention is to go to where the media are. Drones are rude. Iraq is rude. They can’t be compared to interrupting a speech.”
Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of five bestselling books, including Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, Why Is Sex Fun, The Third Chimpanzee, and The World Until Yesterday, was the AHA’s 63rd Humanist of the Year. He follows in the footsteps of such recent awardees as Stephen Jay Gould, Sherwin T. Wine, Joyce Carol Oates, Rep. Pete Stark, Gloria Steinem, Dan Savage, and Barney Frank.
About 7 million years ago, Diamond says, humans began separating from their ape relatives, but there never has been a sharp break in time between humans and animals. Only in the last 32,000 years has there been what we could call one human species, and we still carry 3 percent Neanderthal genes. Earlier there were contemporary populations more like us today and less like us. Religions have yet to incorporate these facts. At what point along these “presumed sharp distinctions” did God start judging us to go to heaven or hell?
With all the galaxies out there besides our own, it is improbable, Diamond suggests, that we are the only planet with life forms. There are many planets of other stars which could be capable of supporting life. Yet he completely dismisses the notion that we on Earth could be visited from outer space. There’s the distance issue: It would take several light years to reach us, and it’s “implausible that there would be flying saucers.” And anyway, why aim for Earth? Ours is just one of an enormous number of possible targets.
In the Q&A Diamond was asked why he doesn’t give the same talk to religious audiences, and cited death threats. “I’m cautious about what I say to whom.” Another questioner asked about climate change: Diamond is “a cautious optimist” over the risk we’re causing ourselves. But so far, he points out, we lack the political will to solve our problems.
John de Lancie, actor and writer perhaps most famous for his portrayal of the role of Q in Star Trek, won the Humanist Arts Award. De Lancie dates his secular identity back to the age of eight, when as a Cub Scout he was told, “No praying, no donut.” He was kicked out of Sunday school in the 1950s because he found the Bible stories they were teaching not only untrue but threatening. It was the era of outer space “invader” movies, and he felt God “invading” him. He discovered the fulfilling career of acting, but only in recent years has he “come out” as an openly secular person.
“This is a wacky and dangerous time,” de Lancie said, alluding to the current electoral season.
Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of psychology and social behavior as well as criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, spoke as the recipient of the AHA’s Isaac Asimov Science Award. She is a specialist in eyewitness testimony and “recovered memory.” Most people are probably aware that eyewitnesses to an event can vary widely in their recollections of what they saw. Eyewitness testimony in crime cases has to be carefully corroborated so as not to corrupt the justice system.
Another problem in the criminal field is false confessions. Under the pressure of such circumstances as sleep deprivation or torture – hardly unknown in the American justice system – a suspect is four times as likely to confess to something they haven’t done.
In a less familiar area that has concerned her for years, Loftus cited experiments designed to test whether or not psychotherapists could “plant” false memories in their clients, even “memories” of bizarre crimes, sexual abuse, and animal sacrifice. Those studies produced a success rate of 70 percent. False memory, based on hypnosis, dream interpretation and other misinformation can lead to false accusations, false convictions, and jail time for the accused. For exposing this therapeutic abuse, Loftus has been subjected to threatening letters, violence, attempts to get her fired, and lawsuits. Conscientious scientists can face dire consequences if their conclusions contradict currently accepted wisdom.
Loftus is quick to affirm that eyewitness testimony, as well as confessions and recovered memory do have their place. But before anyone is convicted on the strength of such charges, she is compelled to ask, “What’s your evidence?”
John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, author of numerous books about contemporary religion, and one of the world’s leading spokespeople for liberal Christianity, captured this year’s Religious Liberty Award. Clearly well-schooled in the art of the sermon, Spong entranced his audience with his personal story and oft-rehearsed quips. On a talk show with Bill O’Reilly he once famously told the conservative pundit, “You’re nothing but Rush Limbaugh with perfume.”
Spong became best known for his early embrace of gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. In 1989, before it became commonplace, he ordained an openly gay priest and came before a church tribunal, a case which he lost narrowly. He criticizes church dogmatists who call homosexuality a “lifestyle.” “I didn’t choose to be heterosexual,” the bishop says. So “why do we assume that gay and lesbian people choose their sexuality?”
“In the light of the church,” Spong recalls of his early religious education, “a woman was considered defective,” so couldn’t serve as a pastor. The only essential difference between men and women is the penis, so apparently “that’s the image of God!”
Because of his progressive outlook and his naming literal interpretation nothing short of “heresy,” he has received to date some 16 death threats. “But never by an atheist,” he says. “All by Christians.” Spong was raised in Charlotte, N.C. “Most of my prejudices I learned in church,” and he lists a few: hating other religions, racism, male supremacy, and homophobia. He reminds his listeners that apart from the “sin” of homosexuality that so many preachers love to harp on, there are hundreds of “abominations” for which you could be stoned to death. Were you aware of the death penalty for sex with your mother-in-law? “Be careful quoting the Bible to justify all of your prejudices!”
Photo: Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong