Archive for March, 2012

March 31, 2012

Scientific Awakening

Below are some links to a really great series of videos from Sunday’s episode of UP, a show on MSNBC hosted by Chris Hayes. This is one of the most thoughtful discussions about the role of atheism in politics and public life that I have ever heard.  There are some very intelligent and thoughtful people on the discussion panel including Steven Pinker and Robert Wright.  I encourage you to watch as much of it as you can.

Richard Dawkins also joins in for a few of the segments.  I have a real problem with his overall attitude and it was interesting to hear some of the reactions to his attitude from the panel.  Some disagreeing strongly, others identifying with his more strident take on atheism.  I’ve seen the damage that his attitude and incendiary comments have done and the ammunition it gives to conservative religious people, like my parents, so…

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March 31, 2012

Vardis Fisher: Idaho Writer and American Atheist


A book review by Richard Andrews

In the Depression years of the thirties, Vardis Fisher was hailed as one of the most promising authors of the American West. He was compared to his good friend, Thomas Wolfe, or to Faulkner or Hemingway. Before Fisher died in 1968, he was the author of 36 published books, had won the Harper Prize, his work THE CHILDREN OF GOD was published in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Danish, and he had written 50 short stories and essays for magazines, and had a regular column in the Idaho Statesman from 1943 to 1950. Fisher had written historical novels about the Donner Party, the Comstock load, the Mormons, the Lewis and Clark expedition, mountain man Jerimiah Johnson (which inspired a movie), and a twelve volume set on the evolution of man and religion.

Vardis’s books are no longer in print. Few know his name or work, although antiquarian book dealers fetch $50 to $100 for his books. Libraries and Universities have special collections of his books. His current obscurity has its roots in both his atheism and the economics of book publishing. Of course, people who cannot find a book in print cannot buy it, and if you have nothing to sell, there is no one to promote your work. Such is the case with Fisher’s books, but the reason his books did not find major publishers to begin with and were not promoted was because of his atheistic 12 volume Testament of Man series.

In Tim Woodward’s biography of Fisher, TIGER ON THE ROAD, he wrote: ” No one who read it was luke warm about the TESTAMENT OF MAN. The series evoked reactions from worshipful praise to sneering contempt. It divided critics and scholars — and anyone else who took the sixty or seventy hours needed to read it – into those who deeply admired Fisher and those who washed their hands of him for good. This was not surprising, as the series questioned some of the most fundamental beliefs in western society.”

“For its author, the TESTAMENT’s toll was beyond calculating. It would cost him twenty of his most productive years, a close friend and publisher, and any hope of maintaining the reputation he briefly enjoyed as one of the nation’s up and coming novelists. People told him he was wasting his time on scholarly books that delved deeply into the past when he could have been writing novels that would have secured his reputation as an artist. Few who knew him doubted his ability to write `successful’ books, but he wasn’t writing the Testament for the best-seller lists. He was convinced he was writing it for the ages.”[ Tim Woodward, TIGER ON THE ROAD, Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho, 1989, p. 160]

Fisher was ridiculed by reviewers and vilified in the nations most influential magazines. In order to write the Testament series he had to read over 2000 books on history, anthropology, psychology, theology and comparative religion.[ Ibid p. 162] The series was unique among literary endeavors. The only books I have read that comes close to the kind of books in the Testament are Gore Vidal’s CREATION and JULIAN.

The twelve Testament books were as follows:

1. DARKNESS AND THE DEEP about the evolution of the ancestors of man.

2. THE GOLDEN ROOMS about man’s life in caves and the use of fire.

3. INTIMATIONS OF EVE about the prehistory matriarchy and moon worship.

4. ADAM AND THE SERPENT about the patriarchy replacing the matriarchy, and male dominance.

5. THE DIVINE PASSION about worship of the sun god, and women’s lot in a male dominated world.

6. VALLEY OF VISION about the embellishment of King Solomon and his conflict with “prophets”.

7. ISLAND OF THE INNOCENT about the contrast between the superior Greek culture and Judaism. It asks the question of what the world would be like if Greek values had triumphed over Judaism and Christianity. The religious rebellion of the Maccabees is it’s setting. (In my opinion this is the second best book of the series.)

8. JESUS CAME AGAIN was the most controversial book of the Testament, because it rejected the divinity of Jesus. This book is about what Jesus would have been like if he were a real person.

9. GOAT FOR AZAZEL is about the pagan origins of Christianity. The concept of a scapegoat is an old Jewish idea of a sin offering of a goat driven into the desert to die. (This, in my opinion is the best book in the Testament series.)

10. PEACE LIKE A RIVER about female subjugation and extreme Christian asceticism (self denial).
(Women’s Libbers will get a kick out of this one.)

11. MY HOLY SATAN about the horrors of the Inquisition. (My number three pick of the series.)

12. ORPHANS ON GETHSEMANE set in this century. This is a book about what has led us to be the way we are, and makes sense of our male dominated, Judeo-Christian, western society, its families, its values, and its wars. The book is semi-autobiographical.

When Fisher brought JESUS CAME AGAIN to his publisher, Caxton Press, they refused to publish it unless it was rewritten with a divine Jesus. They explained to him that America was in a cold war with the Soviet Union, and Christianity was the best defense against communism, and that they would do nothing to undermine the Christian ideological hold on American culture.[ Told to me by Opal Fisher. Also recounted by Vardis Fisher in fictional form in ORPHANS IN GETHSEMANE, Allen Swallow, Denver 1960, p. 917-919]

When Valley of Vision was published, Time magazine led the attack with this review:


“Vardis Fisher’s latest volume, the sixth in his fictostenographic history of civilization, is less a novel than a pedantic, prurient diatribe against one of the best-publicized kings Israel ever had. Solomon (10th Century BC) is portrayed as a sort of Old Testament Sammy Glick with chin whiskers, a tough little opportunist who elbows his way into the big money, marries a glamour girl (Khate, an Egyptian princess), and hires a frustrated poet to ghost his copy – even, it would seem, such copy as the Book of Proverbs.

“Furthermore, says Fisher in effect, Solomon’s wisdom was not even his own; it

was just a lot of words put in his mouth by his ghostwriter and his Egyptian wife. The real Solomon, according to Fisher, was a phony liberal with a father complex and a massive sexual overcompensation; his quarrel with the prophet Ahijah was an exchange of irrelevancies between an dilettante and a fanatic.

“Author Fisher shows some sympathy for the hot-eyed Ahijah. It is almost as

though there were some burning affinity between the old eater of stones and howler in the waste places and the seer of Hagerman, Idaho, crying his confused and passionate evangel of history in the wilderness of American letters.”{ Vardis Fisher, GOD OR CAESAR, p. 256-257 [Time magazine article is quoted in the book.]}

Joseph M. Flora in his University of North Carolina book VARDIS FISHER wrote:

“… Having been denied a Guggenheim fellowship on four occasions, a Newberry fellowship, and a Ford Foundation Grant, he has become accustomed to making his own way, though, midway through the TESTAMENT, he experienced agonizing struggles with publishers. Three publishers eventually found the series a poor financial risk and dropped Fisher, and others were wary of taking over in the middle of a financially unsound series which was potentially explosive in its subject matter. Ironically, Fisher expected the controversy to make these volumes best-sellers. Fisher thought of himself as a writer for the “long pull” who would ultimately pay the publisher who stood by him. JESUS CAME AGAIN and the subsequent TESTAMENT volumes Fisher wrote seemed destined to be unpublished novels.”

“Fisher himself was at a loss about what to do, and he was sustained only by his vision of the work and by his wife’s confidence. The future of the TESTAMENT brightened only when Alan Swallow, who is especially interested in belles letters of the United States West, approached Fisher about letting his small firm bring out the novels – at a considerable gamble for Swallow, who was, however, absolutely convinced of Fisher’s literary merit.”[ Joseph M. Flora, VARDIS FISHER, Twanyne Publishers, New York, 1965, p. 23]

Also in Flora’s Final Judgment chapter he wrote:

“The novels (testament) increasingly lead the reader to the conviction that Fisher has not revealed the whole of Western religious heritage: the ring of history – a convincing picture of an area and satisfactory devices for presenting factual background – is not present in later volumes in the same force as in the American historicals, though as partial defense of Fisher one must say that the TESTAMENT becomes increasingly symbolic. This is not to question that the novels are carefully researched, but to assert that (Fisher) never grasped the dynamism of Christianity, which is also a part of history. Fisher has never seen that, though Christianity has been a religion of the desert, it has also been a religion of the valley of vision. Nowhere does he give a convincing portrait of a George Herbert, who lived in the beauty of holiness, nor a Jonathan Edward in all of his complexity and stature. These people are beyond Fisher – who might have recalled Cabell and the dynamic illusion. There is a poetic mysticism and beauty Fisher failed to see.”

“Nevertheless, one should grant that much of the TESTAMENT is imagined as experience. Even a novel like A GOAT FOR AZAZEL one feels Fisher knows people. And because Fisher frequently presents basic human hunger so convincingly, the art of the TESTAMENT sometimes run very high. It is no small tribute to Fisher that the most elemental characters come to life. Indeed, DARKNESS AND THE DEEP and THE GOLDEN ROOMS are the best novels of their kind. Fishers excellence in showing action and violence as well as compassion mark the TESTAMENT as well as the Antelope novels and the Americana. And nowhere will the historical novelist find the challenge to penetrating study greater than in the TESTAMENT nor will its readers find a greater spur to thought.”[ Ibid, p. 142]

The TESTAMENT series is not the only writing of Fisher that the atheist will find of interest. His CHILDREN OF GOD demystifies the Mormon story of Joseph Smith. Also of interest are Fisher’s newspaper columns in the IDAHO STATESMAN and IDAHO STATEWIDE (became the Intermountain Observer). Tim Woodward in his biography of Fisher states:

“Around Christmas time , he always wrote a column saying that there was no Christ. We’d get a bunch of cancellations, but the STATEWIDE was the kind of paper that published things regardless of what people thought. We never censored anybody’s writing.”[ Tim Woodward, TIGER ON THE ROAD, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1989, p. 237]

Vardis Fisher was an extremely important American author who never failed to talk and write about atheism. Never failed to say he was an atheist and was proud of his atheism. He did this in one of the most conservative states of the Union between 1930 and 1968 when he died. That type of courage is heroic and much needed in our country today.

After his death, the Mormon historians Davis Bitton and Leonard Arrington tried to claim Vardis as one of their own because of his stature. In 1976 Arrington presented a paper to the Association of Mormon Letters entitled “The Mormon Heritage of Vardis Fisher.” In 1983 Mick McAllister presented to the same group a paper called “Vardis Fisher’s Mormon Heritage.” This so infuriated his widow Opal Fisher that she sent out press releases about Vardis’s atheism.[ Opal Fisher, Press Release, circa 1980] The controversy over Fisher was so great that in late 1996 The Daily Herald newspaper in Provo, Utah, published an article about the conflict and conceded he should not in any way be considered a Mormon. One wonders why they tried this in the first place, but now that they tried and failed, Hartt Wixom in his article “Mormons can’t claim Idaho author” seems bitter and out to cast stones at Fisher’s reputation. [Hartt Wixom, “Mormons can’t claim Idahoan author”, The Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 12/2/96, p. C6] Opal Fisher spoke at the American Atheist Convention in 1981 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Opal Fisher was a member of American Atheists and a regular contributor to the Utah Chapter until her death in 1995.

Upon Opal Fisher’s death she willed $237,000 from her estate to the University of Idaho for the creation of a humanities professorship.[ Rich Boesler, “Record number donate to UI”, The Spokesman-Review, Moscow, Idaho, Thursday, 9/12/96 obtained from 1996/sep/12/s127018.htm] She also left Albertson College of Idaho a first edition set of all of Fisher’s work and additional copies of his works which the college will sell to create a scholarship fund. Albertson College also received an enormous amount of books from Fisher’s private collection.[ Associated Press, “Woman leaves scholarship fund, set of books to Albertson College”, Caldwell, Idaho, 10/17/96]

Now that both Vardis and Opal are dead, and unable to defend their writing or see how their donations have been used, Albertson college slights Fisher’s TESTAMENT work in this section of the Vardis Fisher biography on the college’s web site:


“Fisher’s work divides, not very neatly, into four categories. The excellent regional work with which he began his career was compared favorably with that of William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and Fisher’s friend Thomas Wolfe. The sources he drew upon for these novels soon would take him down two divergent paths. One led to the frontier Americana for which Fisher is now remembered: definitive novels on the Mormons, the Donner Party (THE MOTHERS), and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (TALE OF VALOR). A novel on the fur trade (MOUNTAIN MAN) was the primary source for the film Jeremiah Johnson. These novels, with their naturalistic insistence on the sordid details and commonplace violence of frontier life, set a standard for verisimilitude now commonplace among historians and novelists of the West.

“His other path nearly destroyed Fisher’s career. In 1939, unsatisfied by the tetralogy, Fisher determined to find the human character in the history of the species and began a series of novels that would culminate in a revision of the tetralogy. The twelve-volume TESTAMENT OF MAN which began with some promise, soon degenerated into didactic polemics. The early novels on prehistoric man, DARKNESS AND THE DEEP and THE GOLDEN ROOMS, compare favorably to other attempts in the genre. Others, such as three on the evolution of Judaism, are less successful. A superb retelling of the death of Jesus (JESUS CAME AGAIN) is the literary high-point of the remaining books.

“By the time the “Testament” had reached the early Christian era, Fisher was established in his fourth literary role, as state curmudgeon, through weekly columns in various Idaho papers. He had found a kindred spirit in J.H. Gipson of the Caxton Press, but even Gipson refused to publish books with the Testament’s negative view of Christianity. Fisher and Gipson shared vehement atheism and vehement anticommunism; ironically, as Fisher’s biographer Tim Woodward points out, Gipson’s objection came not from a desire to promote religion but from the belief that books so destructive of Christian values would promote communism.

“Through the patronage of publisher Alan Swallow, Fisher was able to complete the Testament in 1960 with a single-volume revision of the tetralogy that brought Hunter’s story up to the late 1950s. Eight years later, a few days before his death, he told a Salt Lake City reporter that he had begun his autobiography. Had he completed that book, it is possible that the relationship between the fictional Hunter’s life and the life Vardis Fisher would have been further confused, though it might also have been clarified.

“The continuing theme throughout Fisher’s work is an obsessive dedication to learning and promulgating the truth, the Socratic need to know thyself. His historical fiction is notable for its foundation in meticulous research and its rigorous objectivity. Despite his vehement and unwavering dislike for Mormonism, his novel on the beginnings of the church is admired by believer and non-believer alike. The Testament’s greatest power is its ability to describe sympathetically the visionary element of the Judeo-Christian world-view to which Fisher traces most of the cultural neuroses of modern America.

“The voice of the novelist is an essentially tragic voice, in that his rationalist philosophy aligned him with the reductionism of the sociobiologist who is convinced that behavior can be explained by the accumulation of detail, but his emotional upbringing promoted a nearly pathological mysticism. The hero of THE GOLDEN ROOMS is haunted by the imagined ghosts of the Neanderthals he has killed. The last happy figure in Fisher’s work, mad Kate Bowden of MOUNTAIN MAN, lives in the wilderness of northern Wyoming where she tends the graves of her massacred children and sings lullabies to their envisioned spirits in the empty dark.”[ Mick McAllister, “Vardis Alvero Fisher”

By any standard, Vardis Fisher led an extraordinary and exemplary life. Fisher was born in the Western frontier in Annis, Idaho, in 1895 to Joe and Temperance Fisher. Vardis Fisher’s father Joe and one of his brothers were sent by Brigham Young to start a colony in the Upper Snake River Valley. Accordingly when Vardis was six years old, his father loaded the family onto a dead axle wagon and headed up the South Forks of the Snake River thirty-six miles. The nearest neighbor was ten miles from the Fishers when they stopped, and that was just the way Vardis’ father wanted it to be. (Vardis’ mother would be in her fifties before she had a house with running water. [TIGER ON THE ROAD, p. 22] )

With no schools nearby Vardis was taught by his mother until he was twelve.[ Milton, John K., THREE WEST: CONVERSATIONS WITH VARDIS FISHER, MAY EVANS, MICHAEL STRAIGHT 1970, Dakota Press, University of South Dakota, Vermilion, South Dakota] Then the family decided Vardis and his brother were old enough to go to school in Annis, and the two boys spent a year living there with their Aunt Phoebe. By the time Vardis was thirteen and his brother Vivian was ten, the family had decided the boys could manage on their own and found a vacant house near Annis for them. The parents stocked the house with fruits, dried meat, bread and goose grease butter, blankets and clothing. For half a year the boys were alone in a land where it could be dangerous to take out the garbage.[ TIGER ON THE ROAD, pp. 44-45] For most children a fourth grade education was considered enough for Antelope country, but the Fisher children would go on to college.

It was in Annis that Fisher met his childhood sweetheart, Leona McMurtrey, a woman he married in 1917.[ Ibid, p. 46] After Fisher had graduated from high school, he went to Salt Lake City to the University of Utah. Idaho had only one college, in Moscow, and that was further away than Salt Lake. After Fisher received his BA, a professor he liked encouraged him to go to graduate school at the University of Chicago. In Chicago Fisher first experienced how the non-Mormon world lived. After receiving his MA he went back to the University of Utah to teach, but did not feel academically secure in this position, and returned to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D.

Fisher again returned to Utah to teach, but this time he began to have trouble with the Mormon Church and knew after three years that he could not reach tenure before the Church hierarchy would have him fired or force him to resign. He applied and was accepted for a position at New York University in Washington Square.[ THREE WEST, pp. 5-7] When Fisher left New York University he had a wife and two children. He returned to Idaho in 1931 to write novels, and was hired by the Work Progress Administration (WPA federal writers project) as the state director in 1935.[ Ibid, p. 8] Fisher wrote THE GUIDE TO IDAHO for the WPA, and his office was the first among state offices to publish.

Fisher’s first wife Leona died in 1924. In 1928 he married Margaret Trusler and had one child with her. In 1940 he married Opal Laurel Holmes and lived with her in Haggerman Idaho until his death in 1968.[ Nielsen, Judith,, “Manuscript Group 218, Vardis Fisher, 1895-1968”, August 1990] While married to Opal he co-authored a book with her on gold mines of the old west, GOLD RUSHES AND MINING CAMPS OF THE EARLY AMERICAN WEST (Caxton press, 1968).

Vardis Fisher had risen from a life of poverty, ignorance, and superstition to one of some affluence, a Ph.D., and freedom from the Mormon religion of his family, to become an intellectual atheist.

Vardis Fisher’s TESTAMENT OF MAN books were a bold attempt by a lone atheist to popularize his atheism. Though his attempt to do this was not a complete success, his books are still with us and could still be used as a tool for the advancement of atheist philosophy. One can only hope that Fisher’s TESTAMENT will find it’s way back into print so that another generation of hungry minds will not be denied access to one of the greatest historical fiction series ever written. The impact of fiction can be great. No one would deny that Rushdie’s SATANIC VERSES will make a lasting impression on Islam. If Atheists could find a way to use the TESTAMENT and make it as available as the VERSES, it could have a major impact on religion in general.


1895 Vardis Fisher born
1915 Graduated Rigby High School
1917 Married Leona McMurtrey
1920 Bachelor of Arts, University of Utah
1922 Master of Arts, University of Chicago
1924 Death of Leona McMurtrey
1925 Ph.D. University of Chicago (magna cum laude)
1925-28 Assistant Professor of English, University of Utah
1928 TOILERS OF THE HILLS published
Fisher marries Margaret Trusler
1928-31 Asst. Professor of English, Washington Square College, New York University
1931 DARK BRIDWELL published
1932 IN TRAGIC LIFE published
1932-33 Summer Professor, Montana State University
1935 WE ARE BETRAYED published
1935-39 Director of Idaho Writers’ project of WPA
1936 NO VILLAIN NEED BE published
1939 Wins Harper Prize for CHILDREN OF GOD
1940 Married Opal Laurel Holmes
1941 CITY OF ILLUSION published
1943 THE MOTHERS published
1944 THE GOLDEN ROOMS published (Vol. II)
1946 INTIMATIONS OF EVE published (Vol. III)
1947 ADAM AND THE SERPENT published (Vol. IV)
1948 THE DIVINE PASSION published (Vol. V)
1951 THE VALLEY OF VISION published (Vol. VI)
1952 THE ISLAND OF THE INNOCENT published (Vol. VII)
1956 JESUS CAME AGAIN published (Vol. VIII)
A GOAD FOR AZAZEL published (Vol. IX)
PEMMICAN published
1957 PEACE LIKE A RIVER published (Vol. X)
1958 MY HOLY SATAN published (Vol. XI)
TALE OF VALOR published
1959 LOVE AND DEATH published
1960 ORPHANS IN GETHSEMANE published (Vol. XII)
1962 SUICIDE OR MURDER? Published
1968 Death

1 Tim Woodward, TIGER ON THE ROAD, Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho, 1989, p. 160

2 Ibid p. 162

3 Told to me by Opal Fisher. Also recounted by Vardis Fisher in fictional form in ORPHANS IN GETHSEMANE, Allen Swallow, Denver 1960, p. 917-919

5 Joseph M. Flora, VARDIS FISHER, Twanyne Publishers, New York, 1965, p. 23

7 Tim Woodward, TIGER ON THE ROAD, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1989, p. 237

8 Opal Fisher, Press Release, circa 1980

9 Rich Boesler, “Record number donate to UI”, The Spokesman-Review, Moscow, Idaho, Thursday, 9/12/96 obtained from

10 Associated Press, “Woman leaves scholarship fund, set of books to Albertson College”, Caldwell, Idaho.

11 Mick McAllister, “Vardis Alvero Fisher”,,


13 Milton, John K., THREE WEST: CONVERSATIONS WITH VARDIS FISHER, MAY EVANS, MICHAEL STRAIGHT 1970, Dakota Press, University of South Dakota, Vermilion, South Dakota

14 TIGER ON THE ROAD, pp. 44-45

15 Ibid, p. 46

16 THREE WEST, pp. 5-7

17 Ibid, p. 8

18 Nielsen, Judith,


(short version)

Richard Andrews founded the Utah Chapter of American Atheists in 1979 and served as its director or co-director until the chapter closed in 1993. In this capacity he led successful battles against increased church tax exemption, prayer in government meetings, and religious domination of the media. He was a friend of Opal Fisher, and exchanged mail and phone calls with her for many years. In 1988 he researched and wrote an article on media monopoly in Utah that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. He also produced a Dial-An-Atheist service and advertised it on 400 UTA buses. American Atheists recognized him as Chapter Director of the Year in 1980 and as Atheist of the year in 1993. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Society of Separationists, AAGHQ, and USA, Inc. RICHARD M. ANDREWS

(long version)

Richard Andrews founded the Utah Chapter of American Atheists in March of 1979. He was the Chapter Director until 1982, and then served as Co-director with Chris Allen until the chapter closed in November of 1993.

Mr. Andrews has been actively involved in Utah’s tax exemption issues since 1979. In 1980 he was voted the Chapter Director of the Year for successfully opposing a proposition on the Utah ballot that would have radically broadened state religious tax exemptions. In 1983 he monitored Salt Lake County Board of Equalization meetings and reported exemption results in the American Atheists Newsletter. That same year he worked with Chris Allen on a project that put 400 advertisement poster for Dial-an-Atheist in UTA buses.

In 1986 Mr. Andrews, working with Mr. Dan Favatella, stopped an attempt by religious hospitals to gain constitutional exemption from property taxes. In 1988 he researched and wrote an article on media monopoly in Utah that was printed in the Salt Lake Tribune. Also in 1988 he received jointly with Chris Allen the Most Hated Atheist Award from American Atheist Board member Arnold Via.

In 1991 he was the principal plaintiff in a lawsuit by the Society of Separationists, the legal arm of American Atheists, against members of the Salt Lake City Council challenging its practice of opening meetings with a prayer. In march of 1992 he won that case in district court, and an injunction was issued

against opening prayers at the Salt Lake City Council. The following year he received jointly with Chris Allen the Atheist of the Year Award for this accomplishment, but the case was subsequently reversed by the Utah Supreme Court that November.

Richard Andrews met Opal Fisher in 1981 at the American Atheist convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the two exchanged phone calls until 1993 when he could no longer contact her. In the Summer of 1996 Richard made a trip to Boise for a family reunion and tried to find his friend Opal, but her house had been sold and her mail returned marked deceased. Richard also visited the Haggerman Museum and found a copy of Vardis’ biography.

Books by Vardis Fisher ~~ available ~~

  Vardis Fisher Lives

March 31, 2012

Fundies and Extremists

There are these:

and then there are these.


The second one is from The Oatmeal. I’m not sure about the first one.

March 31, 2012

The Top 10 Reasons I Don’t Believe in God

Does God exist?” is a valid and relevant question. Here are my top reasons why the answer is a resounding, “No.”
March 30, 2012  |

The following is an excerpt from Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina. The book is available electronically on Kindle, Nook, and  soon in print.

“But just because religion has done some harm — that doesn’t mean it’s mistaken! Sure, people have done terrible things in God’s name. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist!”

Yup. If you’re arguing that — you’re absolutely right. And the question of whether religion is true or not is important. It’s not the main point of this book: if you want more thorough arguments for why God doesn’t exist, by me or other writers, check out the Resource Guide at the end of this book. But “Does God exist?” is a valid and relevant question. Here are my Top Ten reasons why the answer is a resounding, “No.”

1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

All these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the explanations based on religion were replaced by ones based on physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?

Exactly zero.

Sure, people come up with new supernatural “explanations” for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources? Again — exactly zero.

Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the Universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?

Given this pattern, it’s clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never once been shown to be correct.

If I see any solid evidence to support God, or any supernatural explanation of any phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.

(Oh — for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” in this chapter when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance.” I don’t feel like getting into discussions about, “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.

2: The inconsistency of world religions.

If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do these perceptions differ so wildly?

When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary scheme, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.

This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement about what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or doesn’t act on the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful people don’t even think God exists.

And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way?

The explanation, of course, is that God does not exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brain that’s wired to see pattern and intention, even when none exists, is inclined to see and believe.

3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.

I have seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God. And they all boil down to one or more of the following: The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”) The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”) The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”) Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle… so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)

And all these arguments are ridiculously weak.

Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, to give just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part in human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject. I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and I offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?

Some people do try to prove God’s existence by pointing to evidence in the world. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance… when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the fine-tuning of the Universe for life… even though this supposedly perfect fine-tuning is actually pretty crappy, and the conditions that allow for life on Earth have only existed for the tiniest fragment of the Universe’s existence and are going to be boiled away by the Sun in about a billion years. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what seems, at first glance, like design.

As to the argument that “We don’t have to show you any reason or evidence, it’s unreasonable and intolerant for you to even expect that”… that’s conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s like saying, “I know I can’t make my case — therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, so they try to get the case thrown out on a technicality.

Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being or substance that has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be an interesting one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.

Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ‘500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?

4: The increasing diminishment of God.

This is closely related to #1 (the consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones). But it’s different enough to deserve its own section.

When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God has been diminishing. As our understanding of the physical world has increased — and as our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles and interventions, or other supposed supernatural phenomena, has consistently shrunk.

Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods… but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what?

Or, as writer and blogger Adam Lee so eloquently put it in his Ebon Musings website, “Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”

This is what atheists call the “god of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is supposedly responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.

But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never turned out to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we’ve had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?

5: The fact that religion runs in families.

The single strongest factor in determining what religion a person is? It’s what religion they were brought up with. By far. Very few people carefully examine all the available religious beliefs — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.

Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the Universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, our understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)

Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each new generation. Political beliefs learned from youth can, and do, break down in the face of the reality that people see every day. And scientific theories do this, all the time, on a regular basis.

This is emphatically not the case with religion.

Which leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religion they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of a real phenomenon. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.

6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.

The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are in their infancy. But they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding — consistently, thoroughly, across the board — is that, whatever consciousness is, it is inextricably linked to the brain.

Everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness… sometimes so drastically, they make a personality unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, with magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. Illness, injury, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the supposed “soul,” both subtle and dramatic. And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.

So the obvious conclusion is that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are products of the brain and the body. They’re biological processes, governed by laws of physical cause and effect. With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the “soul” be any different?

What’s more, the evidence supporting this conclusion comes from rigorously-gathered, carefully-tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. The evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of scientific evidence: methods specifically designed to filter out biases and cognitive errors as much as humanly possible. And it’s not just a little research. It’s an enormous mountain of research… a mountain that’s growing more mountainous every day.

The hypothesis of the soul, on the other hand, has not once in all of human history been supported by good, solid scientific evidence. That’s pretty surprising when you think about it. For decades, and indeed centuries, most scientists had some sort of religious beliefs, and most of them believed in the soul. So a great deal of early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence, and discovering and exploring its nature. It wasn’t until after decades upon decades of fruitless research in this area that scientists finally gave it up as a bad job, and concluded, almost unanimously, that the reason they hadn’t found a soul was that there was no such thing.

Are there unanswered questions about consciousness? Absolutely. Tons of them. No reputable neurologist or neuropsychologist would say otherwise. But think again about how the history of human knowledge is the history of supernatural explanations being replaced by natural ones… with relentless consistency, again, and again, and again. There hasn’t been a single exception to this pattern. Why would we assume that the soul is going to be that exception? Why would we assume that this gap in our knowledge, alone among all the others, is eventually going to be filled with a supernatural explanation? The historical pattern doesn’t support it. And the evidence doesn’t support it. The increasingly clear conclusion of the science is that consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.

7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.

Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. But some of them do. And in the face of actual testing, every one of those claims falls apart like Kleenex in a hurricane.

Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo-controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart. Occasionally a scientific study has appeared that claimed to support something supernatural… but more thorough studies have always refuted them. Every time.

I’m not going to cite each one of these tests, or even most of them. This chapter is already long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods used in research to screen out bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve. (And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)

And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It’s designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.

And I want to repeat an important point about the supposed anti-religion bias in science. In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. It was only after decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and very reluctantly — to give up on the idea.

Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by wishful thinking, and confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and to discard evidence that contradicts it), and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of cognitive bias and weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully, under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, the claims vanish like the insubstantial imaginings they are.

8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.

Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. No matter what happens, it can be twisted to prove that the belief is right.

That is a sure sign of a bad argument.

Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is useless. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or to predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that those things won’t happen; if they do, the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it’s a useless theory, with no power to predict or explain anything.

What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical or scientific errors, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)

And progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery about what they do and don’t believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they even believe in God, or do they just choose to act as if they believe because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they’re slippery, and they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.

Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad argument. If you can’t make your case and then stick by it, or modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell, or any of the other classic arguments intended to quash debate rather than address it — that’s a sure sign that your argument is in the toilet.)

9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.

Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the Universe that we couldn’t have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape with astonishment just to think about.

And the reason for this is that we came up with an incredibly good method for sorting out good ideas from bad ones. We came up with the scientific method, a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world: a method which — over time, and with the many fits and starts that accompany any human endeavor — has done an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we couldn’t have imagined in decades and centuries past. And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the natural world improved dramatically: our method for understanding it is improving as well.

Our understanding of the supernatural world? Not so much.

Our understanding of the supernatural world is in the same place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred texts and spiritual intuitions are the right ones. We haven’t come to any consensus about which religion best understands the supernatural world. We haven’t even come up with a method for making that decision. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.

All of which points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We’d have better prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to back up their belief.

10: The complete lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.

This is probably the best argument I have against God’s existence: There’s no evidence for it. No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about. No evidence that doesn’t fall apart upon close examination.

And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend a month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.

In a comment on my blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how believers get upset at atheists when we reject religion after hearing 876,363 bad arguments for it, and how believers react to this by saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,364! How can you be so close-minded?” And arensb said:

“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”

Why, indeed?

If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority, tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?

Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that Simon’s Cat video within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon cat video?

If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?

And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious?

It is not up to atheists to prove that God does not exist. It is up to believers to prove that he does. And in the absence of any good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of solid arguments against it — I will continue to be an atheist. God almost certainly does not exist, and it’s completely reasonable to act as if he doesn’t.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
March 30, 2012

Crash Test Vegetarian

Have you ever had a head of lettuce that you didn’t exactly get around to using right away?  You take it out of the crisper and find that it’s anything but crisp?  It’s wilted, limp and sad.

Prior to learning this trick, I tossed my share of lettuce (and celery – the principle is the same but you can leave the celery in the water).  In these pictures I’m using green leaf lettuce (isn’t all lettuce green leaf??), which I’m really not a fan of but the produce stand was out of romaine.  It doesn’t hold up as well as romaine does (which, when using this method can last a week or more).  It also seems to die faster, it’s just not as hearty. I’ve refreshed 1 week old romaine lettuce and had it taste great – green leaf is dead slime by then.  After using this method, the green…

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March 30, 2012

Secular Public Education

March 28, 2012

Fantastic piece. Thoughtful and should be read thoughtfully by any married or divorced male. Or anyone else for that matter.

This Ruthless World

A few days ago, I was at a business lunch where one of the participants was a freshly divorced man in his forties. So it’s not a surprise that the conversation inevitably, and irretrievably, turned to the subject of marriage and what a soul-crushing burden it is. Not the divorce, mind you — that was a liberation — but marriage. The man had no specific grievances against his wife, whom he described as a normal enough human being and a good mother, nor against his kids, whom he professed to love — he just wished he hadn’t married her or had them. Instead, he disparaged marriage in very general and metaphoric terms, pretty much as Bill Maher once had, when he described a married man as a broken horse “shitting in a bucket”.

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March 28, 2012

Voting Republican

March 28, 2012

Great, positive idea worth supporting

March 28, 2012

A Secularist You Should Know

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Freedom From Religion Foundation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

reblogged from nonplussedbyreligion
Secularists You Should Know: Ishmael Jaffree


On this date in 1944, Ishmael Jaffree was born. Jaffree brought and won the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Calling him “an authentic American hero,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation inaugurated the “Freethinker of the Year” award at its 1985 convention to recognize his contributions. An agnostic, a father of six children and an attorney in Mobile, Jaffree discovered in 1981 that his children were being fed daily doses of the Lord’s prayer and grace at lunch, with an occasional bible-reading. Jaffree bravely filed a lawsuit in May 1982, challenging a 1978 law authorizing a one-minute period of silence, a 1981 statute authorizing a period of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer,” and a 1982 law authorizing teachers to lead “willing students” in a prescribed prayer to “Almighty God … the Creator and Supreme Judge of the world.”

During the 1982 trial, the infamous Judge Hand permitted 600 Christians to intervene; school officials led children in prayer in front of the media. Jaffree’s children were ostracized, laughed at, talked about, subjected to racial epithets and physically harassed. Judge Hand issued a ruling in 1983 against Jaffree, claiming the Supreme Court was wrong about the separation of state and church, and that the First Amendment does not bar states from establishing a religion. The case proceeded by way of the Eleventh Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 4, 1985, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Jaffree’s favor, declaring unconstitutional a period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” in public schools.

I brought the case because I wanted to encourage toleration among my children. I certainly did not want teachers who have control over my children for at least eight hours over the day to … program them into any religious philosophy.”

— Ishmael Jaffree, acceptance speech for “Freethinker of the Year 1985,” awarded by the Freedom From Religion Foundation