Words of wisdom for 2017

FFRF honorary board members speak out

With the start of a new year and a new presidential administration, FFRF asked its honorary board members to briefly answer this question:

“Given all the changes politically in the United States (and around the world), how can we freethinkers best deal with these challenges in 2017?”

Here are the answers (edited) from those who responded.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Some people are energized by anger and confrontation, others drained. I belong to the second category, which makes me a delightful companion but a wimpy activist. In the present circumstances, I’ve vowed to battle my even-temperedness and keep my outrage stoked and focused on resistance. I’m afraid that, with time, this will prove hard even for those more inclined to ferocity than I.

The tactics of the new presidential administration were laid clear in the campaign and have continued, fast and furious, since Election Day. They consist in so overwhelming us with outrages — sometimes as many as six impossible things before breakfast, as the White Queen said to Alice — that we can’t fully give any single one of them their due before our attention is swept away by yet another. The result is that the individual items in the onslaught become blurred in memory, and we end up feeling much less than we would if only one or two of them had occurred. Soon, the whole limbic system just shuts down in exhaustion. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists ought to study, as they have “compassion fatigue.” It could be called “outrage fatigue,” and I expect the next few years will give us ample opportunities for observing it.

Newberger Goldstein is author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department.

Robin Morgan

Never forget that the reason for this worldwide anti-progressive backlash — in this country whitelash and malelash — is in fact because we have made such progress. The ferocity of the response to everything we stand for tells us just how terrified the patriarchal systems are of losing their power. Which they will, they will. As Susan B. Anthony told us, “Failure is impossible.”

My New Year’s resolution I plan to take to heart is from the great quote from former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder: “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.”

Morgan is a feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking Sisterhood is Powerful and more than 20 books. Check out her blog at robinmorgan.net/blog.

Daniel C. Dennett

The greatest danger, I think, is letting the truth slide into oblivion. I hope we can carefully, scrupulously record and annotate the current state of the nation at the close of Obama’s presidency, the promises and assertions made by Trump (together with the evidence of lying and promise breaking, the evidence for illegal arrangements and activities and the time and effort devoted to pushback on preposterous proposals and schemes).

The nation shouldn’t have to be constantly correcting, rebutting, chastising, deploring or demanding apologies from a naughty-little-boy president. If he would just behave like a grown-up, we could all get a lot more done.

When the nation gets tired enough of this, we want to have more than enough undeniable grounds for impeachment so that it will sail through Congress with bipartisan support.
Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell.

Sean B. Carroll

The surprising 180-degree turn has many of us working in science and education wondering how best to respond to the shift in climate (pun intended).

I find myself looking back to other eras when cultures slammed into reverse, and how people responded. I wrote a book a few years ago about Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, who were more clear-eyed than many in anticipating the misery that was about to befall France upon occupation in 1940, a country that was very much divided before and during their long ordeal.

Like them, I think we have to summon hope and courage, resist paralysis, and get on with our work — convinced that in time, the tide will turn back in favor of reason.

Carroll is scientist, author and educator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and University of Wisconsin.

Robert Sapolsky

I assume that like everyone reading this, I’ve been horrified by all that has happened politically since long before Election day — horrified, angry, scared, amazed at how little I apparently understand what this country is about, wondering if this is how Berlin felt in 1931, etc.

Critical thinking, counter-arguments, even facts will not make a dent with the new administration. Nor will empathy, compassion and decency.

All that’s keeping me from despair is the fact that the young overwhelmingly rejected Trump (and the young overwhelmingly rejected Brexit and its underlying xenophobia in the UK). If they organize to fight back, we may be OK.

Sapolsky is a neurologist, Stanford professor and author who has a new book coming out in May called Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Steven Pinker

FFRF honorary president

First, we mustn’t overinterpret Trump’s electoral victory as suggesting that history is on the side of Trumpism, but should remember that far more people voted for Clinton than for Trump, that President Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time high, and that Trump’s support was concentrated among older voters, who will die someday and be replaced by more liberal cohorts.

Also, we should remember that a functioning democracy does not consist of electing a ruler, but depends on an enormous distributed infrastructure: legislators who have to respond to constituents and lobbyists, judges with reputations to uphold, bureaucrats who are responsible for the missions of their departments, and the tens of millions of people who have to carry out their jobs in order that the government and society function. These are pressure points at which citizens can continue to exert an influence, even when the election is a distant memory.

Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard and is author of The Blank Slate. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Jerry Coyne

With respect to the U.S., the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president has made freethinkers think freely about how we might respond to the challenges that are sure to come. There is of course a need for the usual letter-writing and donations to worthy organizations (including FFRF!), but I’ve also pondered whether I might have to reassume my ’60s mentality and get involved in public demonstrations, including acts of civil disobedience. The Supreme Court is a worry, but I see nothing we can do about that.

However, if Trump tries to cut back our civil liberties, or build his odious wall between Mexico and the U.S., then it may be time to take to the streets.

Coyne is professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, and is author of the book, Why Evolution is True.

Edward Sorel

Concerning the Trump years ahead, I suspect they will bear some some resemblance to the Vietnam years of protest in the 1960s. There will be one or two religious leaders who protest against the unconstitutional tactics of Trump, but the heads of most of the Christian sects will stay silent, or strongly support his actions as long as public money continues to be diverted into their schools and they continue to enjoy their special tax privileges. I remember Cardinal Terence Cooke telling American troops in Vietnam, “You are friends of Christ because you are here.” I think we’ll hear a variation on that theme when Trump gets us into another holy war.

Good luck to us all in the New Year.

Sorel is a satiric cartoonist who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. His newest book is the critically acclaimed Mary Astor’s Purple Diary.

Susan Jacoby

I think that the advances made by secular Americans in recent years are under grave threat from the administration of President Donald J. Trump — an irony-laden situation, since Trump never displayed any particular interest in religion until he began running for the nation’s highest office. Trump may not be any more interested in religion now, but Vice President Mike Pence and many members of the cabinet are about as far right as it gets in American religious discourse and public policy. From these government leaders — especially if, as I suspect, Trump is basically indifferent and has delegated all religious matters to Pastor-manqué Pence — we can expect nothing but attacks on women’s reproductive rights, attempts to funnel tax money to religious charter schools, science-denying initiatives on everything from climate change to evolution, and every other imaginable attempt to erode the barrier between church and state. We must fight these initiatives at the local, state and national level with every dollar and every iota of reason we possess.

My contribution to this fight this year is going to be a rewrite of my 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, to take into account the explosion of irrationality that elected Trump. Eight years ago, I could not possibly have imagined the depths of unreason that would claim our country in the 2016 election. I consider it my duty to try to make some historical sense of this phenomenon. I believe that all freethinkers have a duty — to our country and our world — to use our talents and experience to fight a movement that disdains knowledge, ridicules those who think before they speak, and regards 140 characters as a suitable form of communication between an elected leader and the public.

These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls.

Jacoby is author of several books, most recently Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. She earned many grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.

Freedom From Religion Foundation