Revolution #181, November 1, 2009

October 20, 2009

To the Program Committee, Members, & Friends of EHSC from Sunsara Taylor

Last July I was extended an invitation by the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago to speak on the topic of "Morality Without Gods." I accepted this invitation in good faith, arranged my schedule to be in Chicago on November 1st, and I plan to honor my commitment to speak on November 1, 2009, 10:30 am at the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago, 7574 N. Lincoln Ave., Skokie, IL.

Sunday night, October 18, less than two weeks before the program, I received an email letter from Anil Kashyap notifying me that some in the program committee are trying to cancel my talk.

I am appalled at the discourtesy of this, especially from a society centered around ethics. Never in my years of public speaking has anyone canceled a scheduled talk.

I have spoken on these same issues—of morality without gods and morality to change the world—to very diverse audiences in many different venues and forums. My talks have been sponsored by university departments such as the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, the Humanities Department at Columbia College [Chicago], the African American Studies Department at Cleveland State; by secular student groups at schools such as New York University, Stanford, and Georgia State; by bookstores, high school assemblies, conferences such as the Atheist Alliance International Conference. I have spoken on my own as well as on panels with scientists, priests, Buddhists, Ayn Rand Objectivists, Black liberation theologists, and more. Many of my audiences include biblical literalists and because I posit a morality that speaks to their concerns and I have strategic confidence in their ability to change, if presented with the truth, we can have a positive engagement.

Again, the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago is the first to have some individuals try to cancel a speaking engagement.

This attempt to cancel my talk has clearly been driven by political and ideological disagreements with me by some on the EHSC program committee. This is shameful for any organization, but coming from an organization that prides itself on ethical action and promoting intellectual, philosophical and artistic freedom it is all the more disturbing.

The letter from Anil Kashyap that justifies his decision to attempt to cancel contains gross mischaracterizations of my views. If for no other reason, this alone would be reason enough why people in EHSC should have the opportunity to hear my views and analysis without a distorting lens. It certainly makes me wonder, did any of these individuals even listen to any parts of my talks or writings which are available on line before trying to cancel this presentation?

In any case, I feel it necessary to set the record straight. Kashyap wrote:

"On the first point, we are an inclusive humanist group. A talk that dwells on 'Christian fascists' and characterizes the leading moral problems facing the U.S. as depending critically on "an influx of immigrants from around the world, [and] the entering of women into the workforce in the last generation" is not what we were expecting."

In fact, the description of my presentation clearly says we live in a time of moral crisis because "the stability and way of life of millions of people are being disrupted by the effects of imperialist globalization." I give examples of these huge fast-paced changes and instability in people's lives here and around the world as part of what is giving impetus to a resurgence of reactionary fundamentalist religion as people seek something solid, familiar and absolute in a time of such upheaval and change. Kashyap has pulled a snippet of my talk description out of context to imply that I blame society's moral crisis on immigrants and women joining the work force when my actual meaning was clearly just the opposite, including to counter the scapegoating and backlash that a narrow and hateful brand of Christian fundamentalism engenders against these sections of our population.

Kashyap then objects to my use of the term "Christian fascism" as if this reflects some kind of blind rejection of all religious people on my part. Quite the contrary, using those two words together is precisely a way of specifying that I am NOT referring to all Christians. My use of the words "Christian fascism" is well considered, though it hardly seems that remarkable when describing far right-wing Christian dominionists who murder abortion providers and impede women's access to birth control, apply biblical literalist interpretations to their excoriation of gay people, speak of illegal wars of aggression as god-ordained crusades, deny the solid scientific fact of evolution, and wish to impose Old Testament Mosaic rule as the law of the land. Further, I am hardly alone in describing this phenomenon this way.

If anyone in the Society has sincere doubts as to whether this description fits, please attend my talk as I have reported live from some of the hottest flashpoints of the Christian fascist offensives in this country for years—from Terri Schiavo's hospice to stadiums filled with Christian youth being trained as shock troops by Bush appointees and Navy SEALS to Dr. George Tiller's besieged clinic and funeral and beyond.

The description of my talk clearly states that I will explore countering this with a secular morality. My views on this are informed by my experience and study of how society could be organized differently, by a vision of a world without oppression, mass ignorance, or exploitation, and by a communist morality "rooted in and serving to get to a world without men oppressing women, without a handful accumulating vast wealth at the expense of the many, without white people lording it over people of color, without one country trying to run the whole globe, and a world where critical thought and the scientific pursuit of truth, as well as artistic and intellectual ferment and the flourishing of individuality, are fostered."

This is the farthest thing from the bigoted anti-immigrant, anti-woman picture Prof. Kashyap implies as a reason for prohibiting this talk.

As a second reason to try and cancel my talk, Prof. Kashyap writes

"Second, instead we had been hoping that you could help us think about how moral, ethical behavior need not depend on a theistic outlook. We did not anticipate that a discussion of this question would look anything like the description you sent. I understand that you have thought further about the talk and not seen any obvious way to adjust it while staying true to your beliefs."

In fact, the title and focus of my presentation is "Morality Without Gods." Clearly this is about morality that does not depend on a theistic outlook.

Prof. Kashyap is not correct in saying that I was unwilling or unable to adjust what my talk was about.

In exchanges with other members of the program committee over my talk we discussed whether the focus of my presentation could be shifted to "human nature" but then agreed to stick with the original title on Morality without Gods. In the course of this we clarified that this was not a talk on the topic of Revolution and Communism. As I wrote committee members:

"Obviously, while focusing on morality without gods, human nature will come up, it would be wrong to bill something as covering BOTH with real substance. So, I went back to what we had originally arranged—and this title 'Morality Without Gods' is exactly that, a talk about morality without gods (not about communist revolution)."

"The only reference to communism in the description is in regards to my orientation—not in terms of what I am explicating in this discussion."

At the very last minute, on the basis of these and quite a few other mischaracterizations of the facts, on the basis of fear that was whipped up on an unprincipled basis about my presentation and the supposed harm it would cause EHSC, some people have tried to cancel the speaking engagement. This is not an ethical way to handle disagreements.

This leads me to conclude that what this is really about is that some people don't want aired certain views with which they disagree, and they are doing everything they can to suppress those views.

In my experience, and exactly because we live in a time of moral crisis where religious fundamentalism is on the rise, people do hunger for discussions of morality that explore both broader themes as well as how they apply in this particularly acute historical juncture and how we shall live morally in it.

I find it hard to believe that the majority membership of the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago finds this "uninteresting" or finds the suppression of this conversation tolerable. And I certainly doubt they care for contributing to the broader chill in society, the atmosphere where critical thinking, dissent, and thinking outside the dominant narrative is marginalized and suppressed.

Prof. Kashyap's letter states:

"In light of all this, our committee does not want to proceed with this presentation. I understand you have many groups who wish to hear you speak. It makes no sense to bring you to speak to an audience who will not be interested or enthusiastic. (I gather that others in the society were trying to set up a workshop but, as far as I can tell, no one had signed up for that either.)"

In fact, there are people at EHSC and others from the broader community who have expressed interest in this program on Morality Without Gods and are enthusiastic about it, once they have seen the description of what it will be. Based on my experience with such a wide range of other audiences, I expect it will be lively and invigorating, with lots of different views, disagreements and depth to the engagement. Those who are truly not interested can stay home, sleep through that part of the Sunday platform, read a book, or plug their ears if they wish. Those who vehemently disagree can come and say why. But it is not right to keep others from being part of this—and not right to treat a speaker with such disrespect, either. I hope everyone, including Professor Kashyap, will come and raise their toughest questions. That I welcome and look forward to.

The Saturday workshop on "The Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of Humanity" is going forward as planned (2 pm to 4 pm, at the Ethical Humanist Society, 7574 N. Lincoln Ave, Skokie). The letter is correct in stating that this is being organized by others (outside the program committee); it is not correct in implying there is no interest. I encourage everyone to join me.

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