Harrisy

Here was the Publishers Weekly review of Sam Harris’s 2005 book, The End of Faith:

In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. But Harris overstates his case by misunderstanding religious faith, as when he makes the audaciously naïve statement that “mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not.” As William James ably demonstrated, mysticism is far from a rational enterprise, while religion might often require rationality in order to function properly. On balance, Harris’s book generalizes so much about both religion and reason that it is ineffectual.

Despite this pretty awful review, Harris went on to minor rock star status as the darling of the New Atheists, a klatch-mate of Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett, the world’s most famous graduate student (he received his PhD last year), and the author of another prickly fantasy called Letter to a Christian Nation (which had to have been complied from the editorial scraps left on the floor after the first book was published.)

I am happy to report that the inexhaustibly repetitious Mr Harris will reveal his thoughts on “how science can determine human values” in a new book due out in October: The Moral Landscape Patience is always advised in approaching new offerings, but the following blurb says a lot about what we can expect: “Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of ‘morality’; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.”

Cheering, yes? I do look forward to checking into my neighborhood Center for Scientific Moral Improvement to collect my monthly Betterment Plan.

The Harris Heresy is not a heresy against religion but against reason, against common sense, and against reality. First, our eyes and noses tell us that not all religions are the same. Catholics are not igniting themselves on the streets of Beirut (nor, just now, are Lebanese Muslims). Episcopalians just like to sing. Baptists prefer to pray and fry fish and call each other “Hon.” Hindus, as a fantastic new book (Nine Lives) by William Darymple suggests, are so confused by the permutations of their own religious history that it is almost farcical to call them a religion at all. And so on.

But it isn’t just that religions are “different.” Harris can slide past that little detail by arguing that the extremities of religion don’t emerge from their doctrines or rituals as much as from their common demand for faith. If, in the Bible, faith is what moves mountains, for Harris it is what causes people to bump into them: the recourse of scoundrels and imbeciles, people who are gullible enough to believe in God and murder those who don’t share their superstition. Fortunately, we now have science to explain this infantile idea to us and for a few dollars more will also arrange for things that religion used to do, inefficiently, like worry about our moral development. That’s what faith is. That’s what it does.

What? A serious Reformation was fought over the word in Europe and Christianity was split down the middle (and might have been split into nine parts) because no one could agree on what it meant.

As far as I can tell, Islam defines faith merely as “adherence,” which is the most efficient as well as the most problematical definition there is. إيمان‎ or iman implies faith in the “unseen”, but the meaning can get quite complex, since religion, over time, tends to. Still, even in the turgid formulations of later periods, iman is a distinctly non-violent idea.

As for Judaism, faith, אמונה (emunah) means something entirely different–something “supported” (not something believed). It often is associated with doing or acting in accordance with what God wants–in conservative Judaism, a huge debate between scholars who felt that this information was contained in the Law and those who felt it was “written on the heart”–people like St Paul and Jesus, to drop names. If there is a connotative meaning, it’s that emunah means “right action” and isn’t altogether different from Greek ideas of perfecting behavior–ethical craftsmanship. (The word enum, which is the noun form, actually means “craftsman.”)

When Christians sneak into the hellenistic world they use the Greek term pistis from pistuein as the preferred word for faith. It was a slippery word and altogether unlike its Hebrew ancestor. It could mean to “believe a thing to be true,” or to place trust (or confide) in someone or something, or to entrust a thing to a person. You pays your money… The ambiguity of the term throughout the New Testament shows the lexical nature of the Reformation: Who, or what do you trust? The Church, as a way of getting to God: then you’re a Catholic. –Or God, as the sole being worthy of trust and Lord over the Church? Then welcome to the First Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City.

I won’t even mention the fact that outside these “abrahamic” traditions where no definition of faith can be decided, we have all those other traditions in which faith plays no role at all, or at least not much. Buddhism, Jain, Sikhism, Shinto, the multiple strands of “Hindu” religion obviously have ideas about what you need to accept in order to be a card-carrying member. And, yes, historically the differences in these traditions led to violence, death and destruction. But a little social history will reveal that the reasons for conflict were the natural social, linguistic and cultural tensions that arose (especially in South Asia and China) over migratory patterns that dominated the face of the globe in the first millennium before and the first millennium after the common era. That “religion” played a role in the violence came with the disputed territory, which would still have been violently contested if, by some freak and unimaginable accident of history, all of these tribes had been atheists.

Harris will know that it was the acceptance of the principle of ahimsa (“Do no harm”) that led to the conversion of Ashoka to Buddhism in the third century BCE. There are legendary elements to the story, but the bones of it are contained in a passage describing his review of the battlefield, following his triumph over the recalcitrant population of Kalinga:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

We do have an atheist war hero to compare Ashoka to, fortunately:Josef Stalin, lamenting the fact that Ivan the Terrible had not gone far enough in purging Russia of corruption.

Portrait of the Atheist (Stalin) as a Young Man

One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to overlook the five great feudal families. If he had annihilated those five families, there would definitely have been no Time of Troubles. But Ivan the Terrible would execute someone and then spend a long time repenting and praying. God got in his way in this matter. He ought to have been still more decisive! (The same Stalin who said, as a student himself), “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just… I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see.

I know, I know: it seems a cheap trick to compare the most humane of history’s leaders to one of the real curs when so many other comparisons could be made. After all, Ashoka did destroy Kalinga when still a “Hindu” and Stalin did give orders to deliver Jews from the concentration camps as a committed atheist.

But that’s not the point. If I were trying to create a General Theory of Disastrous Consequences on the back of the belief systems of the world’s religions, I would want to know something about what individual religions held to be true. Because nothing is clearer from the standpoint of the history of civilization than that religions believe wildly different things to be true. Some believe that God is another word for self. Some believe that god exists but that nothing can be said about (it). Some that god does not exist and some that gods exist in an infinite variety that is only a symbol of the complexity of the universe (and hence can also be expressed simply, elementally, and as a unit).

At some point, it must be merely irrational to claim that this fundamental feature of the religious experience of humankind can be boiled down to a single gaping hole in human reason: faith.

By definition, atheism can get away with murder in blaming “Religion” because it approaches religion as a unitary system, a single “problem,” the single, simple solution to which is to get rid of it (or tax churches, or arrest the pope, or insult religion as often as legally possible).

Harris and his colleagues are certainly and multiply guilty of the fallacy of composition–in this case the belief that a category can be created by generalizing from what may true of a part. But simply to call his work fallacious seems weak to me. It is also superficial and in many ways historically ignorant. Its over-generalized conclusions exhibit the confidence we often find in the under-informed or immature. But I would like to think that Sam Harris is neither, so his errors must be deliberate and heretical. After all, no one was ever roasted as a heretic for being stupid. They were burned for being willfully wrong.

Why not write about “The End of Politics” since violence is often political, at some level–or “The End of Economics,” “The End of Culture,” even “The End of Humanity”? Imagine the global chaos and violence that would ensue if the forces of darkness in Washington or Beijing elected to hold lotteries to decide internet access on a month to month basis. It would be like no terror the Inquisition could manufacture–and it would be technology and politics, not a pope, that caused it.

In the long run, there is nothing specific to religion that justifies seeing it as a total explanation for human stupidity, personal or social violence, or errors of judgment.

And I doubt that an MRI of my neural state when I wrote that last sentence will do much to persuade me otherwise.

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Religionless Morality? On the Folly of Global Ethics

“And God spake unto Moses saying: This will you say unto the children of Israel: Be Good! And Moses went down from Sinai, and the children of Israel said: What hath the Lord said unto you? What is his plan and purpose? And Moses lifted up the tablet of the law, whereon was writ: Be Good! And they laughed and said unto Moses. What is this ‘good’? We need more.” (Exodus, The New Last Chapter)

I’ve touched this topic before, but it may be time for a summertime lite version of my comments. Especially as Scipio has just read a monstrously bad piece on the subject.

In a previous post, I argued the familiar theme that not only is religion not necessary for morality but that dogmatic religions are antithetical to the development of an ethical program. They interfere with two things that make a genuine morality–a program that results in the cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of injury–possible: conscience and choice. Before ethicists became classifiers, taxonomists, and quantifiers, in fact, these two ingredients were linked to the idea of practice. Following Mill and his wretched spawn, the do-gooding ethics of utilitarians, consequentialists, pragmatists, situationalists and others tended to obscure the fact that ethics has more to do with the examined life than with mathematics.

Mill

A moral life in the modern world has to be lived without religion. It does not need to be anti-religion. It has to be lived without religion because the idea of a law-giving god has become preposterous to most people, even to people who cannot acknowledge that the world we inhabit is post-Christian (and by extension, post- every other religion). By that I simply mean that the world we live in would be incomprehensible if we adopted the cosmology of the ancient world, the world of the Bible and its literary cousins. And to the extent we don’t or cannot, it’s foolish for us to imagine that it has intellectual or moral authority over us and over the decisions we face.

It has been a long time since Bultmann, the titanic biblical scholar of his generation, reminded his profession that the biblical world is based on a myth that has ceased to have a purchase not only on the mind but on the imagination of the modern world. And while it is possible to wish otherwise and therefore to think otherwise, “wishful ethics,” in my view, does not have much of a future.

So there is no reason to consider the God of the Bible as a source of virtue or standard of right conduct in the twenty-first century, and in fact, a little study of biblical history would show that he was not so regarded by the shapers of Jewish tradition either: it’s only when Christianity (and elements of Judaism) become saturated with Greek ideas that biblical precepts and customary law acquire the force of “ethics” and get themselves philosophized into religion.

As part-time philosophers, it was part of a theologian’s job description to make room for “ethics,” but whether we are glancing back at Augustine, or (later) Aquinas or Abelard, we are looking at men who were making the recipes up as they went along: One stick Plato, melted, three parts commandments, a dash of Epicurus, and a cup of Aristotle; cover and let simmer for one thousand years; remove from heat and sprinkle with beatitudes.

Abelard teaching: The first Naturalist?

“Jesus,” as a former archbishop of Canterbury once said to me, “was a very nice man, but he wasn’t an ethicist.” We can be grateful for that. Neither was Moses, and neither was Job. So to continue to think of the suzrerainal Yahweh as anything more than a heavenly king enforcing tribal customs on a wayward people (the tougher the better, lest Israel go astray), or Jesus as much more than the condensed version of what many Jews wanted to hear in the graeco-Judaism of first century Palestine, would really be to miss the point. It is important to let the Bible be a book of its own time. That’s not how it loses but how it acquires relevance.

You can’t get to ethics, however, simply by (a) tossing religious ethics out the window and (b) keeping the good bits–using slogans like “being good without God,” perhaps the most irksome, historically challenged and simplistic phrase ever coined in the name of secular morality.

You certainly cannot get there if you assume that there are universal and trans-historical norms that were as true in ancient civilization as today. For example, there was no prohibition against lying in Hebrew law (“bearing false witness” is a juridical sanction). If there had been, the Abraham who tries to pass his wife off as his sister and the God who commands Abraham to use his son as a sacrificial goat would not have speaking parts in Genesis. But just as significant, a thousand things we regard as repugnant–blood-hunters, infanticide, the execution of disobedient sons and the selling of family members into slavery–were widely practiced in ancient society. A little history and anthropology teaches us that religion, law, and morality were not three strands but a knot, the ends of which are sometimes difficult to untangle.

Being good was not the goal for Aristotle, was it? Habituating yourself to virtue through the practice of reason was. You can habituate yourself to other things of course, but you will always fall short of the “defining virtue,” which can only be the exercise of the one essential thing that makes you human. Some of us share with garden slugs a love for lettuce. But we can’t stop there. Some of us are good with wood. So are termites and beavers. I think my point is clear: the right use of reason, which is always painfully hard work and always requires judgment about things like the relationship between action and reflection (the classical mode assigns this to the “soul”) is the only source of ethics. And to be ethical is never therefore to be good. It is to be the sort of person who does the right sort of thing.

A little meditation will convince us that this excludes the possibility of God–not as a philosophical postulate but as a practical matter. God the father wants what is best for his children; but the biblical god at least leaves them in no doubt about what that is and what the consequences are for not acquiring it. He is the worst father ever: the kind who would let his own son die for crimes he caused to happen himself.

Thy will be done.

This concept, which most people would identify as the heart of religious ethics, is personally and morally insidious. It is fine for the eternally stupid Adam, whom God endows with the reasoning powers of a three year old, and fine for other heroes who beat their chests and whack their heads trying to figure out God’s justice. Of course, the moral thing to do would be to run away from home, away from the abusive father who makes unreasonable demands for unreasoning obedience to his arbitrary dictates.

Curse God and die.

Ethical responsibility requires at least that–to be, as H. R. Niebuhr strikingly phrased it a “responsible self.”

But there comes a time when the ethical framework invites the incorporation of lessons learned through religion as the story of our moral background, our infancy.

If letting go of God is part of that story, in the same way that coming to adulthood requires us to understand the pains and tremors of infancy, we should be prepared to answer to other tribunals, identify other sources of value, specify the norms we regard as relevant for leading a good life.

Is moral life always culturally specific? If we cannot identify trans-historical and universal norms from the past, why do we suppose we will be able to construct a global ethic for the future–or is the desire to do so simply another case of the totalizing conceit that we thought we abandoned when we left religion behind us?

These are the sorts of questions we need to be asking about an ethical program for the future, and I suggest that religion has a lot to teach us about where to look for answers.

Secular Humanists Anonymous: Addiction Recovery

SECULAR HUMANISTS ANONYMOUS
An Addiction Recovery Program

Statistical Definition of the Problem

Like all addictions, secular humanism in its most general form is the overwhelming feeling that you cannot get through the day without a “fix.”

Studies have shown that as many as 65% of adult males who read the New York Times and up to 85% of those who read Rolling Stone call themselves “secular humanists” or refuse to identify themselves as members of any religious group.

97% of evangelicals surveyed called New York Times and Rolling Stone readers “really messed up.”

By contrast, 87% of women who read Prevention and 90% of men who read NASCAR Magazineidentify themselves as “very” or “damned” religious. When internet information sources are included, subscribers to Salon.com, Slate, BBC, Daily Kos and Raw Story fall squarely in the humanist camp, while subscribers to Drudge, Fox News, Wall Street Journal and WorldNet Daily show a robust religious attitude toward world political and economic events.

Similar discrepancies were observed for viewers of Seinfeld re-runs (secular humanist) and Everybody Loves Raymond (religious, pro-life). A surprising result is that 75% of respondents who self-identified as humanists did not like PBS’s Woodwright’s Workshop while a roughly equivalent number (80%) of religious persons “thought they would like it” but had never heard of PBS.

Food habits are also important indicators: secular humanists and atheists* are likelier by a 10 to 1 margin to like curries, by a 7 to 1 margin to prefer whole grain bread to Holsum Country White, and by an 8 to 1 margin to ask a bartender for a real martini instead of “that blue stuff in a crooked stem glass.”

A random survey (Glitch, 2002) of 500 mall-walkers in Sarasota determined that only 1 in 7 persons who identified themselves as secular humanists considered sangria an alcoholic beverage while 6 out of seven considered it “a crappy fruit punch with floaties drunk by Texans.”

By contrast, only 3 out of 7 males who self-identified as born again Christians could correctly spell the word “samosa” or identify its ingredients. More than 60% of humanist-trending respondents claimed to like cucumbers, while 75% of religion-trending respondents stated that “cucumbers are what celery eats.” A significant minority of Jewish secularists surveyed called cucumbers “pickle fetuses.”

Recovery

The growth, popularity and availability of humanist resources without government intervention amounts to a legalization of anti-religion in the United States.

The time is long overdue for an organization designed to help individuals addicted to humanism, secularism, and atheism. We believe that Secular Humanists Anonymous is that organization.

Founded in 2004 at the highpoint of the New Atheist resurgence, and now a 501c(3) not-for-profit educational entity, SHA began modestly enough in the recreation hall of New Life Temple Kingdom Church in Sandusky, Ohio, when Zelma Bickerston, got the idea of a secular humanist self-help and recovery program from her daughter Marlene, a self-identifying obese secular humanist with nowhere to turn.

We have now spread to three locations, two of them outside Sandusky in the “Research Triangle”: (Sandusky, Little Sandusky and Lower Sandusky Falls). The Research Triangle after seventy five years as a leader in paper machete innovation “is looking forward to new ways to improve the aesthetics of holiday centerpieces, birthday memorabilia and above all floats” (CofC Flier, 2001).

Our meetings are designed to minimize the pressure and stress one often feels by self-identifying as a secular humanist (atheist) or in similar drug and alcohol recovery situations.

Procedure for Induction

Normally, chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, the lights dimmed, and Jim Croce recordings are played in the background as a bonding mechanism. Random studies have found that “You Are So Beautiful” is preferred by a two-to-one margin of recoverers.

Members are asked to state their name, confess their addiction, and the duration and the severity of their affliction. A typical profession might go something like this:

“Hello, everybody. My name is Sam Siraznikov. I am a native of Sandusky, Ohio and my family lives on Oak near the old Witke house. I am a secular humanist. I have been a secular humanist for about five years. That’s when I started subscribing to Free Inquiry and National Geographic. Actually my wife let me keep my NG subscription but she says if I don’t quit reading atheist pornography I can just get out of the house.”

(Preceding used with permission of Sam Silverstein whose name has been changed here to protect his identity).

The members of the group then voice their appreciation of Sam’s courage in “coming out.” Different methods are used in the Lower Sandusky group, where they whoop, but here in the capital we say in unison, “Atta-boy Sam. Keep up the good work.” The inductee will then respond “You Betcha,” or “You got it,” or words to that effect.

Following the profession, the inductee is given a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and becomes our guest at the three-meat buffet supper. No vegetarian option.

Five Steps to Recovery

Many addiction programs have twenty or twelve point plans to guide the addict to total recovery. These programs tend to be confusing and cannot be memorized without a lot of trouble. For that reason, SHA has adopted the following five point program which we refer to as our “creed”:**

1. I really do believe in God, heaven, and hell even though I had my doubts to start with.

2. People who don’t believe in God cannot be my neighbors, but I can feel sorry for them.

3. Going to church [synagogue] is a privilege, not a right.

4. Atheism and humanism are like any other disease, but we can cure this one.

5. It is not true that “many, many great people have been atheists and humanists” because if they were they weren’t so great, were they?.

If you are suffering from the signs of addiction and want a sure-fire recovery program that is fun, easy and nutritious give to SHA and join us in Sandusky!


*What a secular humanist really is.
**A statement of things you believe.

Movement Humanism

What makes “organized humanism” different from the humanism that evolved philosophically out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment era is that it didn’t evolve out of the Renaissance or Enlightenment era. Not really.

Anyone who has travelled through the liberal arts curriculum of a European or American university in the last century has experienced the benefits of a benign, docile, unangry form of humanism: a curriculum free from church dogma and supervision, a reverence for scientific inquiry, systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society and an emphasis on critical thinking.

Once upon a time, theology was called queen of the sciences. That was once upon a time. If you really want to know how the liberal arts (a slightly misleading name in our historically impoverished culture since “liberal arts”–the studies that “set your free”– include mathematics and sciences), fought and dethroned theology for the title, you really only have to look at the history of the American university—not counting, of course, those private and parochial ones that are paid for and managed by religious institutions of various stripes. In general, the modern university is built from the bricks humanism provided. It’s a product of intellectual evolution and learning and constructed to focus on the things that, as humans, we can know about rather than on the things that, as humans, we can’t possibly know.

Sometimes secular humanists want to claim that their brand of humanism shares a common pedigree with the humanism of the university. But that’s not true. Its origins, while respectable are not intellectually apostolic: French salon discussion, satire and tractarianism, German political movements, especially the Left Hegelians (like Marx in economics and Baur in philosophy and theology), anti-clericalism, frontier pragmatism in America, and above all a village atheism and hardheadedness that can be traced back to Tom Paine, Darrow, Ingersoll, and a dozen lesser lights. Many, though by no means all of these bargain basement illuminati never saw the inside of an ivory tower–though it’s a credit to Oxford that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to the cantankerous Midwestern skeptic, Samuel Clemens, in 1907.

As in Britain and Europe, freethought went hand in hand with politics: in England, spinning off the free-churches movement that was allied with Unitarianism and the “chapels,” it was tied to disestablishment— the end of the prerogatives and protections given the Church of England. In the United States, it was tied to First Amendment principles, civil liberties, a certain naive belief in “democratic values” (that did not take into account that the democratic values of the masses were dominantly intermixed with and confused with the Bible), and an occasional envy of the more robust socialism and communist tremors of an evolving secular Europe.

Clarence Darrow

I have never thought of myself as a secular humanist, or a big H life-stance British Humanist Association sort of Humanist. The minute you start qualifying humanism you are no longer talking about humanism but the conditions under which you can think of yourself as a humanist. Humanism is humanism. Movement humanism can be a variety of things–like ice cream or Christian denominations.

The danger in my view is that movement humanism is not innocuous. George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.

I have no trouble with anyone calling himself a humanist of this or that colour. But for the word to retain its “denotative” sense, it’s important to distinguish between “movement-humanism” and humanism.

Movement or “organized” humanism, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of certain currents that came together in a strand in the mid twentieth century, especially driven by the frenzy of intellectual change after two world wars. The movement was never fully coherent and for that reason appealed to political liberals, people who sincerely believed that religion (equated with superstition, supernaturalism and dogmatism) was responsible for the world’s ills and others who had been injured by religion and needed catharsis and (perhaps) non-violent revenge. Some of these people were intellectuals. Some were nurses and folksingers and ex-seminarians. All were a little angry.

In terms of its constituency and mood, secular humanism was entirely compatible with atheism; in fact, many recognized that the phrase was simply a circumlocution for atheism or agnosticism, in the same way some Evangelicals equate their doctrinal stance with being “Christian.” The percentage of secular humanists in America or Humanists in Britain or India harboring any “religious” sentiments must be painfully, infinitesimally small.

Other additives of American-style movement humanism included a belief that ethics were man-made and not dictated by a supreme being or mediated by dogma. Secular humanism became wedded to this fairly obvious proposition just when the best theology in Europe and America was teaching much the same thing. The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word, but could not be acknowledged by movement humanism with its constricted view of human reality and facile equation of religion and supernaturalism. Indeed, the greatest error of the movement was the simple association of religion with superstition, and the the working assumption that, like superstition and magic, religion could simply be debunked as a system of ritualized hoaxes.

Whitehead

The commitment to “godless” and anti-religious ethics made good sense for an atheist program of action as a kind of self-help course for unbelievers, but could never achieve the intellectual benchmark of an ethics based on the totality of human experience and reflection.

That’s not to say that one needs to believe in God to be moral. It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus, it is no more relevant to say that an action is moral because it is human than it is to say that an action is moral because it is something Jesus would have endorsed.

I drink no more than a sponge...

In the realm of ethics, especially, movement humanism became habituated to oversimplification. To make religion more depraved than it seemed to most sensible people, the movement humanists stressed that religion was the sum total of its worst parts. Christianity, a religion of Bible-believing nitwits who meddled in politics, aspired to mind-control and hated Darwin. Islam, a religion of twisted fanatics who loved violence and hated progress and the proponents, mainly western, of progress. There was no equivalent narrative for Jews or Buddhists—not really—or the irrational components of secular movements: democratic socialism, communism, and (within limits) civil libertarianism could be forgiven their excesses precisely because they had their theodicy right if sometimes they got their tactics or outcomes wrong.

While often claiming the protective cloak of science and reason as their aegis for intellectual rectitude, movement humanism was really all about creating straw-men, stereotypes and bogeymen and unfortunately came to believe in its own anti-religion discourse.

To have capitulated, at any point, to the most humane, uplifting or learned elements in religion would have been seen as surrender to the forces of ignorance and superstition. For that reason, by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic church, will do.

God is Not Great

Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

Unfortunately, the tactics are all wrong because they demonstrate the movement’s almost complete lack of understanding of the “total passion for the total height” that validates religion for most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—a huge slice of the earth’s population. To read Sam Harris’s extended fallacy, The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ screed, The God Delusion, or any of the clones that have appeared since 2006 is to enter a world of misapprehension and illogic that can only be compared to a child trying to fit the contents of an overstuffed toy chest into a shoebox on the premise that both are boxes that can hold toys. But the logic did not originate with the new atheists; it originated with movement humanism.

What organized humanism lacked from the beginning of its career, as a circumlocution for robust unbelief in God, is a sense of the dignity of wo/man combined with an indulgence and appreciation of human frailty, including the limits of reason. In renaissance humanism, the thought belongs to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How Noble in
Reason? How infinite in faculty? In form and moving
how express and admirable? In Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a god? The beauty of the
world, the Paragon of Animals.

At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation). He gives this speech to God as an imaginary dialogue after the creation of Adam:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Innocent VIII

Innocent VIII was no fool. This was not the Genesis story. It was a re-writing of the whole creation myth. It makes Adam’s choice of the earth over his own “divine” potential all the more tragic, a squandered opportunity. But it also makes the choice free, unfettered, fully human and the consequences–which lead after all to smart people like Pico writing smart books–all the more impressive. Divine is as human does well: that was the message

An authentic humanism to be inclusive of all people has to be inclusive of all possible human outcomes, including the possibility of failure. The story of the first human being, in the religious context, is the story of a bad choice. I suspect that that is why the story of Adam has staying power and instructional weight.

Maybe the failure of movement humanism really goes back to how we read Adam’s saga. It has always struck me that the word simpleton can be used to describe both the atheist rant against the creation account in Genesis and the fundamentalist’s preposterous attempts to defend it. Beyond the Scylla and Charybdis of that divide are millions of people who think the story is really elsewhere, that it really doesn’t begin with sticking the sun and the moon in the primordial darkness but with Adam, and more particularly with the curse of reason that Pico describes in his Oration.

Curse? Yes, I think so. The “gift” of reason (no, I do not really believe that we are endowed with reason by a divine being) is both the gift to be curious and the ability to make choices, to act. The tension we experience, like Adam, is that natural curiosity sometimes outdistances a third element—reflection.

The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error. Religion had such a faculty once: it was called faith and it got you saved from sin.

To be blunt, movement humanism with its straw men and reductive techniques, its stereotyping and bogeymen, is not just stuck in the past but stuck in a religious past of its own making. It is a past that an authentic and fully inclusive humanism would want to reject. It is a past that many religious thinkers have already rejected.

See also: http://open.salon.com/blog/r_joseph_hoffmann/2010/02/02/beyond_the_creeds