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Nothing to Kill or Die For

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On Saturday, June 5, I took part in an event organized by Jeff Nall of Humanists for Peace, together with Nall, Armineh Noravian, and Debra Sweet. Nall had organized a panel at the national conference of the American Humanist Association to talk about the need to work for peace. And the room was packed.

The audio of all four of us speaking and then taking questions is here. Jeff opens it up with a fiery speech that you really should listen to, but the first half of his first sentence is missing from the recording. It was: "What do Alice Walker, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Corliss Lamont have in common?" The point of the question and of Nall's following remarks is that as long as there has been something called humanism it has striven for peace. The various humanist "manifestos" support peace activism. The AHA has itself passed resolutions against wars in decades past. Jeff appeals to humanists to place ending war as high in their list of priorities as the separation of church and state.

Armineh spoke next, beautifully and powerfully about war and the Middle East. I went third, and Debra last. I hope to post the other speakers' written remarks soon, but in the meantime here are mine:

If there were no religion, would there be no wars? It's not a simple question to answer. Certainly without religion, strictly understood as Christianity, Islam, and so forth, many wars would need new justifications and might end. But without habits of thought closely tied up with religion and heavily promoted by religion, no new justifications for war could be found. Without deference to authority, without blind obedience, without fear-based actions and willful self-delusion, without the notion that what's so outrageously called "this" life (as if there were another) can be devalued, without the concepts of unredeemable evil and infallible goodness, without the ultimate self-contempt and despair against which humanism stands, war could not continue.

Of course, ending religion or the undesirable habits of thought that come with it is not a small task, and we must pursue both the end of religion and the curtailing of such thinking habits separately and simultaneously. And we must, without delay, offer whatever understanding we have to those who are struggling to end war and those who should be. It is not enough to sit back and remark that if everyone were an atheist there would be no wars. And it isn't even true. Wars would be driven by power lust, greed, sadism, overcrowding, and resource depletion, and sold as heroic self-defense regardless of religion. Americans fly half way around the world to attack and occupy powerless nations, antagonizing great masses of people and endangering our own country, all in self-defense. That can only be ended through clarity of thought accompanied by action and sacrifice.

While I think humanists are intellectually well placed to show others how war myths are debunked, I see Catholics disproportionately represented among those making the greatest sacrifices for peace. Where are the humanists? What is it they value more than human life that keeps them otherwise occupied? I certainly hope it's not proselytization of theists, because -- while that is needed -- I think actions speak more loudly than words (as exemplified by the work in Haiti we just heard about in the other room). I think that offering theists the alternative of peace, justice, brotherhood, sisterhood, sustainability, and prosperity is a more appealing trade than just offering them the absence of their theism. There are conferences of groups called things like Spiritual Progressives that work for peace, and I don't oppose or support them. I don't oppose them because they are working for the right short-term goals. I don't support them because they are furthering damaging habits of thought. But where are the coalitions of deniers of the lies of both war makers and god makers? Where are the organizations that would allow me to advance the immediate political goals I find most needed and the long-term cultural goals that I think will help most? Maybe we can start to answer that here.

So, what do I think that organized humanists for peace could offer the peace movement?

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First, a model of how to live, including how to give your life the passion and commitment of a missionary without the stupidity of trying to convert people from one religion to a different one.

Second, I think humanists can offer lessons in resisting the manufacture of consent. We're used to refusing popular myths. If we're told the goal is "victory" we ask what that would look like. We don't buy into the practice of asking why someone had to die in a war, as if the inscrutable answer, which is beyond our so-called human understanding, would show their death to be a good thing. Unless they died defending people, they died attacking people for the profits of others. Which is not to say that one should not die for an idea, but rather that one should not kill for an idea, and should not do anything for an idea one does not understand and has not thought through.

Those activists who died on a ship bound for Gaza opened the Egyptian border and may have begun the end of the siege. They did not die in vain. And when we read in the paper that providing aid to Gaza is a threat to Israel, we humanists should be able to explain to others that when aid to your victims has become a danger you can claim to fear, something has gone terribly wrong.

When I was told that Iraq had to be attacked because it had weapons, I saw no evidence that it had weapons and no justification for attacking it even if it did. A humanist favors the rule of laws, not the authority of rulers who do as they please.

There is an institution that promotes obedience even more severely than does religion: the military. But obedience to immoral and illegal orders, whether from church or state, should be a mark of shame, not a badge of honor.

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Another institution that demands intellectual obedience is the political party. We currently suffer the rule of a president who has claimed greater war powers than his predecessor, who asserted the power of aggressive war in a peace prize acceptance speech, who threw out habeas corpus standing in front of the US Constitution in the National Archives, who has claimed the powers to spy without warrant, imprison without charge, torture, murder, assassinate, occupy, and operate in unprecedented secrecy, and we think we've improved things because this president is from the other political party. If our top loyalty is to the greatest good for the greatest number of people, then our political organizing should be independent of parties.

Third, I think humanists can help others see beyond all forms of sectarian prejudice -- religious, racial, cultural -- in order to experience the common humanity of all of us without expecting others to resemble us too closely.

Fourth, humanists can teach resistance to obedience and support the growing GI resistance within the US military -- a concept that should not shock or scare people willing to mock and dismiss God and the Devil.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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David, you're starting to get a little kooky here,... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 7:22:53 AM
Your liberatarian arguments about blaming "the sta... by Don Smith on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 10:57:11 AM
Some men you just can't reach. :)... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 12:26:34 PM
Your description of humanism sounds quite a bit li... by Doc "Old Codger" McCoy on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 9:53:26 AM
In place of religion, people discover rules.Then t... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 12:32:42 PM
I disagree with the old codger,nothing new there.W... by liberalsrock on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 10:11:23 AM
Until the end of the Vietnam war every male had to... by Roger on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 10:43:37 AM
Aren't most wars fought over resources and land an... by Don Smith on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 10:52:13 AM
Religion may not have been the CAUSE of all our wa... by Donald on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 5:58:27 PM
Religion may not have been the CAUSE of all our wa... by Donald on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 6:08:00 PM
The real motivation for most wars is that crime pa... by Richard Pietrasz on Sunday, Jun 6, 2010 at 8:30:41 PM