The Brights' Bulletin

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Issue #202

(Note that links in archived Bulletin issues may no longer be valid.)



A Sharp Focus on Science

Brights who wonder about the contemporary status of scientific enterprise may find much to interest them in the latest Trend Magazine, a publication of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The periodical analyzes the “facts, numbers, and trends shaping the world,” and its recent issue has given almost sole attention to Science and carries a distinctive overall thrust: Science really matters!

Observing how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed fragility in many societies, the current issue’s data charts and essays explore public attitudes about science and how science can inform public policy. They also report on the weakened public confidence in scientific enterprise.

Taken as a whole, the content of this particular issue stands both as a tribute to science and as an earnest consideration of the pivotal role of science as a tool in modern life.

Authors include leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Academy of Science, as well as The Pew Charitable Trust’s own director of science and research.

Why We Must Rebuild Trust in Science” by Sudip Parikh (AAAS)

 “Delivering Science in a Crisis” by Marcia McNutt (NAS)

How Data Leads to Better Decisions” by Molly Irwin (TPCT)

Any Brights who detect and are troubled by a diminishing of public trust in science in recent years will find much of interest in the work. Most know that it takes more than a foundation of rigorous science to solve the difficult challenges of epidemiology as well as so many other trials that contemporary life presents us. Data-driven policy also takes public trust.


Evidence Is Not Enough: Trust Is a Must

  • What have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis?
  • Will we go back to the old way of doing things when the crisis is over, or will we shape a stronger and better-prepared society?

These two queries are central to the aforementioned periodical, and among the key nuggets a reader can take away from the overall volume are these:

  • A scientific endeavor that is not trusted by the public cannot adequately contribute to society.
  • “The time to build trust is before you need it.”
  • “Many of the policy choices that legislators and officials make today will determine the quality of life for future generations.”
  • “Good public policy depends on data and evidence, and on the willingness of decision-makers to follow them wherever they lead.”
  • “Although much focus early in a crisis is by necessity on actionable science, it is also important to plan for the longer term.”
  • “We must make sure that when historians look back at our time, they see how trust between science and society was actively strengthened and led to lasting benefits for the public good.”

Drawing a parallel to lessons of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, the Pew’s director introduces and elaborates on three categories of science: the actionable, the strategic, and the irreplaceable. The essay argues for enterprise that will better position humankind for the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Creating a more resilient humanity is going to require working in cohesion and collaboration across the world. It will entail a teaming up of science with public policy.  The pandemic problem is an example of the type of quandary that “we will not solve anywhere until we solve it everywhere.”

Image illustration by Cara Bahniuk (The Pew Charitable Trusts)


Free Will (Your Chance to Weigh In)

Is it true that free will is the most discussed philosophical problem ever? 

Perhaps! Over time, it has captivated the minds of many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and it looks as if matters are not settled yet. Yes, they are still “at it”!

According to Chris Evatt, who became enamored of the subject and wrote a book for everyday folks addressing the topic, this “problem of free will” isn’t one that should be left to the philosophers and neurologists because it enmeshes issues of morality, wisdom and the meaning of life, issues of concerns to all of us. But is free will even real? Or is it, as her book proclaims in its title, merely a myth? (Evatt draws her content from a wide array of contemporary scholars who have done their own thinking on the matter.)

If you want to engage in your own thinking about this topic, a brand-new book by two leading philosophers offers fresh material to draw your attention and perhaps animate your reaching personal conclusions about free will. Both authors, Daniel C. Dennett and Gregg D. Caruso, are registered Brights, and in Just Deserts: Debating Free Will they promise to contest their respective philosophies via a “sharp, entertaining, and accessible” deliberation.

After absorbing and pondering their two-man debate regarding “free will, responsibility, punishment, morality, and choice,” you can then leave them your own comments as to which of these two Brights you agree with more!  

Will one of the authors end up a winning a beer? (Their plan for making use of incoming feedback is unclear.) Still, it’s your opportunity! They’ve made provision for you to share both your preference and rationale, so if you acquire the book, do follow up with your opinions at this website!


Are You Secular? – Consider Participating in a Study

UC-SB’s “Secular Communities Survey” (USA)

Researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara, having studied secular and non-theistic people for several years, are conducting a new study and soliciting participation from members of secular communities in the United States. They want to capture a broad array of their values, identifications, and modes of belonging.

American Brights who are secular are invited and may be interested in participating, which involves but 15-20 minutes of self-reporting to the structured survey.

Investigators will be interested in participants’ community life as well as in such factors as their political views and degree of civic engagement. While the results will be of interest to scholars of community life in the U.S., researcher Joe Blankholm states his hopes that it’ll also “help members of secular and non-theistic communities gain a broader and deeper understanding of themselves.”

The investigation period runs through April 11, so if you want to participate, do not set the task aside.  This link provides further details about the study and leads to access to the survey.

Researching “Values Transmission” by Communities

Attention to how secular values are conveyed from one generation to another is rather a latecomer to serious academic research. Far more research attention has been given to transmission of religious values.

For example, note that the UCSB survey project is a small “sister study” of a more comprehensive contemporary undertaking, their “Meaning of Religion” project. (Both projects are housed in the university’s Department of Religious Studies.)

The larger research endeavor is looking at transmission of values across generations and involves interviews with grandparents, parents, and adult children. It is the latest iteration of a 50-year longitudinal study assisted by funding from the still-controversial John Templeton Foundation, long-criticized (most frequently by scientists or philosophers) for its muddling of science and religion.

When Religious Communities Convey Values

The larger longitudinal research’s stated purpose is to examine how faith and values are passed down across generations. Note that it’s not just values; it’s also faith.

About that study, the researchers assert: “we want to understand how deeply held beliefs and worldviews influence what people value.” In explaining their current effort, they acknowledge that recent times have brought about more secularization and diversification as well as strengthened prosocial (humanitarian and collectivist) values in the younger generation. So, their interview sample “emphasizes diversity and includes those who are religious, spiritual, or secular.” 

Promoting faith is a common component of religious communities, but an attribute lacking in their secular counterparts. For the smaller survey with the narrower focus, researchers at UCSB say they’ve identified over 1400 secular communities.

 If the research interest has any correspondence to the larger study (i.e., in learning how secular values are passed along across generations), the resulting smaller study’s self-report data may not give them much to go on. (See next segment.)


Conveying “Secular Values” across Generations

What role do secular communities play in passing along secular values? How are they [like / not alike] religious communities in giving youth understanding and commitment to shared ideals or tenets? Although conclusions lie to the future, it would appear that there may not be a strong parallel to religious communities, where a cultural promulgation of faith is an essential element. It is more likely that communication across generations of secular values takes place within households and secular schools, and not so much via secular communities.

In contemporary Western society, secular communities and religious communities appear to emerge for different reasons. The “non-believer” groups (e.g., humanists, atheists) more often form and are sustained as a respite or leave-taking from religiously-prevalent environs. That is, they exist as means for secular citizens to forge similar-thinking alliances and promote civic activism, such as protecting the wall of separation between religion and government or getting a “seat at the table” where governance decisions are made. These groups’ philosophical intensity and generally adult memberships do not lend themselves well to community transmission of secular values to youngsters.

Secular parents generally look to strong science programs to impart and build up in children’s minds a religion-free “reality-based” outlook. Within the secular household, parents and elders also look to existing books and media to augment their own personal actions.

The “Grandmother Fish” item pictured here is one such example (it is to help youngsters understand and value evolutionary change). When BC asked Brights’ Bulletin subscribers to nominate the best book likely to “constructively keep open a child’s pathway to a naturalistic understanding of the world,” that crowd-funded book that came out tops! The book still rates highly even today as among the “Best Atheism Books for Kids,” even as many more have come on the scene.

More publishers today are now providing such supplemental resources for those who wish to engage youngsters in neutral pondering of beliefs or to provide a better understanding the world as seen through secular lens. Even books initially intended for children and teens, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, are helpful to non-science parents who need or appreciate a bit of a boost to their own abilities to convey to youngsters “how the world works.” Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World is another resource for getting across secular ideals while urging religions to adapt to scientific ways of knowing.

It is doubtful that such resources as these are implemented in communal settings within secular communities. Neither would they be treated “as scripture” comparable to Bible study sessions or rituals for garnering messages from holy books in ways more common in religious communities.


Ensconcing “Secular Virtues” in Youngsters

Virtues, values. What’s the difference? There’s kinship and sometimes overlap. Still, from Aristotle to the modern day, a virtue tends to carry along with it a marked degree of moral approbation. What’s right and good, so to speak; a characteristic held to be of admirable ethical value.

An ordinary value might be held up as worthy or worthwhile, important or useful, but it could be for the benefit of some nefarious purpose. Not so, virtues. Virtues would shed such association. Virtues are qualities one would esteem in another person and would likely want to personally attain. A person would want to encourage fellow humans to do likewise in order that the world would be better for all concerned.

Religions have their identified virtues. The Bible, for example, identifies several of note, the number in the listing depending on location in the text and challenged by the “deadly sins”.

What virtues of laudable ethical worth would secular parents want to transmit to their progeny?  

One listing of notice was introduced several years ago in the book, Parenting beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion. Upon its publication, the book on instilling values was given prominence in a Brights’ bulletin. The author, Dale McGowan, identified seven secular virtues and provided his reasoning and recommendations with respect to each one. The attributes he chose are these: humility, empathy, courage, honesty, openness, generosity, and gratitude.

With his permission at the time, the “Seven Secular Virtues” segment of the book was placed on the Brights’ website and remains there to this day. The section is still available for download from the website, and the book is now in second edition.

Sadly, in this time of pandemic, examples of leaders and fellow citizens abound who appear lacking in these virtues (however many and wherever they are listed). In fact, in many instances, there are leaders who seemingly illustrate the reverse! It’s time to bring the concept back to the forefront. So, we are glad to do so and hope that today’s parents take notice.


Perilous Times as Religious Liberty Reinterpreted (USA)

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is an American nontheist organization that focuses efforts on “the cherished principle” of separation of state and church. The membership group has recently issued a Special Report entitled, “Religious Liberty Under Threat” that may be of interest to many Brights.

The new report is pointing to the organization's concerns regarding the rise of Christian Nationalism and the stacking of federal courts with ultraconservative judges. According to the transformations cited in the report, recent changes have led to a federal judiciary that is now willing to codify religious privilege and strip the rights of minorities.


Biz Cards at the Ready

Certain queries have been frequently asked of late: What will happen to the handshake, post-pandemic? Will other common methods of greeting go by the wayside? How will humans hail one another in the future?

There will be many changes in how people interact as memories of the pandemic and its consequences are not to be easily set aside. Much has been learned about the importance of physical distancing and the value of facial barriers to reducing viral transmission. Consequently, where possible, a goodly portion of humankind is adapting and already adopting new means of salutation and engagement one another.

Will the trustworthy business card/membership card/etc. remain as part of early introductions?  It remains to be seen, but Brights Central holds a cache of cards to divvy up among Brights interested in obtaining a handful for whatever personal uses they foresee!

Folks in the U.S. need only send a self-addressed stamped (one “forever” stamp) envelope to BC at: The Brights’ Net, P O Box 163418, Sacramento CA 95816. We will enclose a bit of bonus swag for your efforts. Non-US Brights may email to provide their current postal address while pointing in the email to their having recently used PayPal to send a $1.50 donation to cover the U.S. Postal Service “international postage” rate and fulfillment; swag will be enclosed for them, as well.


Leading Humanist Stepping Down (USA)

The long-time executive director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhart, has announced his intention to leave his position, making room for a new person at the helm and noting that the humanist movement has gone too long without adequate diversity in its leadership.

Speckhart is clearly hoping the organization will remediate that deficit in its new hire.

Across the fifteen years of Roy’s direction, the AHA has undergone impressive growth in membership, outreach and influence. Formerly a small organization mostly chewing endlessly on humanist philosophy and identity, it is now a significant advocate for social change, housed centrally in the nation’s capital with access and pull in government. That outstanding evolution of the AHA can clearly be credited to Roy’s leadership.


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