To the editor: Michael Shermer is wrong to say that "the abolitionist movement was primarily inspired by such secular documents as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man." ("The influence of science and reason on moral progress," Op-Ed, Jan. 26)
English Quakers began speaking out against the slave trade in the early 1700s, and Granville Sharp, a lay theologian working with a group of Quakers and Anglicans, was instrumental in the first legal ruling that freed a slave in 1772.
It was, in fact, Christian activists who initiated and drove the abolitionist movement, and it was two ordained ministers, Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King Jr., whom Shermer uses to articulate the truth he illustrates: that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.
Religion should be criticized when it seeks to inhibit human progress, as is the case with those who oppose marriage equality. But where religion advances human rights, credit should be given where it is due.
The Rev. V.R. Marianne Zahn, Pasadena
To the editor: Shermer's paean to rationality as the basis for morality is refreshing but incomplete.
It moves beyond the usual (and justified) bashing of religion's discredited claim to exclusive jurisdiction to raise a hymn in praise of rationality, a stirring song of hope: As we become better informed and capable of applying the scientific method to more of life, the dream of the long arc of history bending toward morality will be realized.
The problem with this admirable faith statement is that it ignores human behavior — the adolescent irrationality that drives what Ernest Becker in "The Denial of Death" describes as our worship of power in search of heroic victory over the meaningless death that awaits us.
To address morality rationally is to confront the source of our childish irrationality and offer new mythic paths to growing out of it.
John Phillips, Camarillo
To the editor: Just how does science and rational thinking explain why an individual will sacrifice one's own self-interest, even to the point of imperiling one's own existence, to make life better for others?
I suppose one could invoke evolution to support altruism and morality as a herd instinct that contributes to the betterment of the group. But in that case the "smart" individual would see past that impulse and act selfishly.
By all means, expand knowledge and interaction, but recognize there must be something else as well.
Hyman J. Milstein, Studio City