Atheist Nation Celebrates the Holidays

The Intellectual Highground

Nothing puts atheists in a worse mood than the holiday season. All these dimly-lit people and brightly-lit window displays, making merry over things that never happened, spreading lies, propagating falsehood, singing their rancid carols, and worst of all teaching impressionable, if rather preposterous, children to believe in intellectual crap when they could be playing Megaman 11 or Worms Reloaded–which they got last Christmas. How obscene, how humiliating: Behold, little Buddy praying by his bedside for Megaman, versions, 12-16 (“conveniently boxed as one item” from Amazon.com) to a non-existent deity, having just lodged the same request with the sex-offender in the Santa suit at the mall. No wonder America is going to the red dogs and blue dogs. “Isn’t anybody listening to the Voice of Reason?”

God to a six-year old

Help is on the way.

To combat the forces of Darkness and Superstition, the American Humanist Association and some allies have launched a new ad campaign to put the Grinch back into Christmas. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times charts the new ecumenical spirit of the quest, spearheaded by the same blithe folk who brought us the “Good without God” bus-o-rama and the “Just be Good for Goodness Sake” billboard extravaganza. The campaigns are financed by “a few rich atheists” with money to throw to the wind, and buoyed by research being done by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life (Trinity College), headed by the eminently reasonable Mark Silk and based on Barry Kosmin’s American Religious Identification Survey, showing that as many as 15% of Americans are “Nones,” i.e., have no religious identification or association.

It is pretty obvious and at the same time hopelessly obscure how Nones relate to atheism (atheists hope they do: this is largely, sad to say, a recruitment push for membership and dues), but as Goodstein points out in her article, the combined membership of the sponsoring organizations numbers only in the thousands. The best course might be to see whether Nones can be divided into groups: Certainly Nones, Possibly Nones, and None Just Now, Thanks–but I mix my politics and religion, which is never a good thing.

Possibly None

I will be blunt: This whole business is idiotic. It is hard to imagine that people like Todd Stiefel, one of those well-endowed atheists with cash to burn, are really on a rampage because of passages like the one he cites from the Bible:

“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (from Hosea 13:16, New International Version).

Reassuringly if a little obtusely Stiefel says that “It [our democracy] has not been based on [verses like these] and should never be. Our founding fathers created a secular democracy….We must denounce politicians that contend U.S. law should be based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” I agree. Anyone who wants Hosea 13 added to our Bill of Rights should be tied to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, and made to listen to Diane Rehm read slowly through the whole Book of Leviticus. Presumably (or is it implicitly?) he is willing to throw serous money at billboards so that America does not become a country that kills babies. He will find many friends among Catholics and Evangelicals on that score.

Diane Rehm

If you think ripping open pregnant women is bad, read the story of the wandering Levite in the Book of Judges (ch. 19) where a consummately self-absorbed kidnapper–a Hebrew–offers his concubine to some Village- of- the- Damned- crazed youth who want to have sex with him, gang rape her, leaving her for dead–whereupon the Levite butchers her semi-conscious person into twelve pieces and forwards a limb to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Please: Don’t quote Hosea to me when there are passages that would make Tarantino wince.

The Levite's Discovery

But to be serious: Do the sponsoring organizations (which include besides AHA the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) think that these stories are read to Christian (or Jewish) children at bedtime? Is it bloody likely that a craven priest in Spokane is going to substitute the Legend of the Lethiferous Levite for St Luke’s Nativity story on Christmas Eve? I know that atheists feel they know a great deal about the mindset of the religious principles they reject, but one has to wonder why this isn’t reflected in their anti-Christian strategies?

Or are the campaigns only a reflection of the sponsors’ shocking ignorance of ancient myth and legend, whereof the Bible is a treasure hoard. I get the sense that the sponsors need to begin with the Brothers Grimm and then read backward in literary time to get a sense of how the grotesque has been used in history for both entertainment and moral instruction. Most “reasonable” people who are slightly sophisticated about the contours of culture know this. Many very nice religious people know this. They know that scaring people to death has been used by religion and nasty aunties for a long time to get people to change their wicked ways, clean up their act, and lead a better life. The question is, why don’t atheists know it? The shock of discovery seems entirely their own; it will not surprise the educated or awaken the irreligious passions of a Certainly None.

We don’t do that any more–scare people to death to make them good. Even very religious people don’t do that any more. The last really good sermon on hell was preached in 1917 by the torture-obsessed priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And I can’t name the last time I heard a robust sermon on Hosea 13.16. Given that real life lascivious priests are frightening enough, it seems unnecessary to reach back to the first millennium BCE for material.

Hell as you like it...

The intellectual isolation of the atheist from wider cultural movements and shifts in perception is one of the great stories of our time. Almost no one is covering it. If the question they are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind. Put it under the heading “Things Atheists Missed in College,” along with a good course in comparative religion, ancient history, mythology, and anthropology. It’s only people who have never studied myth who can write in such a yawningly banal way about religion being one.

I find myself constantly challenged on panels with atheists to lecture them on their understanding of words like “superstition,” the “supernatural” and above all “myth.” They in turn find me niggling and pedantic. But really, does the average atheist, village or city style, assume that the toxic texts of scripture are “in” the Bible for moral edification or because they reflect a time and culture different from lunchtime in Chicago?

Richard Dawkins lectures me, London 2007

Which brings us to the question, Who are these ads for? We’re told that a key reason for the aggressively confident style of the campaign (not to mention the unusual spirit of ecumenism that currently reigns in the atheist camp), is owing to their determination to get their “market share [of the Nones].” Leaving the most grievous puns aside, they are also inspired by the need to resist the Myth of the Not Lying Down Dead Horse, that America is a Christian Nation. And as we all know, there is nothing like a Billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel that announces, “You know it’s a Myth. Believe in Reason.” to get uncommitted people thinking and committed people scrambling for the nearest AHA meeting. Add a Hosanna to that and you’ve got something. (Tip for vandals: Spray paint “I’m Lucifer, and I approve this message” on the sign.)

In a particularly poignant way, weary commuters will also be treated to the cheery salvo of The United Community of Reason (not to be confused with Christians United to Oppose Rationality), a group in Washington. Their idea of decorating for the holidays includes spreading the good news of Reason on billboards and ads on bus shelters in about 15 cities: “Don’t Believe In God? Join the Club.” Fortunately, number-wise, the club can actually meet in the bus shelter. Add a few Nones and they can meet at a subway stop, except in cities where there are subway stops no one gives a rat’s whisker about organized atheism.

Far be it from me to lecture atheists. But please accept, along with an eggnog salute, the following advice. Grow up. Learn a little about what Being Clever means. I know we live in a world defined by short attention spans, coffee mugs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it’s completely unclear to me whether your ad campaigns will change a single mind, or even whose single mind your campaign is designed to change.

This is not a “struggle.” The upward march of unbelief is not the forces of liberation against the sources of slavery and oppression. I’m afraid religion beat you to that metaphor. It’s called Exodus. No one is paying attention because no one except your club members actually cares about the private conclusions of people who want to turn being disagreeable into a civil rights event.

Launch of Consider Atheism Campaign: Attended by Several

The slogans are insipid and can only have been vetted by very small committees of Like-minded People–and that’s a real problem, The modern atheist seems to get off on being distaff, minority, contrary, and ornery–the legate of a long free-thought heritage. Would your heart beat faster if you could persuade society that overturning a Salvation Army worker’s collection pot is an act of charity–extra points for snatching the bell? Would you praise a convert who defaced a nativity scene at Christmas, or saved a turkey’s life at Thanksgiving. Don’t be ridiculous, you say: that’s not what this is about. Don’t be ridiculous, I say: this is what you have made it.

Two last things in this little lecture:

Give up using the name humanism. You’re ruining it for people like me who don’t mean by it what you want it to mean. Equating atheism with humanism is a cheap trick, a cop behind the billboard (maybe one of yours?) kind of trick. Be proud of being an atheist. I know I’m not. You are not the American Humanist Association. You are full- frontally and outwardly the American Atheist Association.

And stop this ridiculous invocation of secular saints from Socrates to Einstein. Virtually none of the people you pray to became famous for being atheists and you know it. Not even Darwin. Certainly not Socrates. And Einstein: who knows?

“Yes, you can call it that,” Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (Quoted by Isaacson in Einstein, 2007)

1933, on a deserted beach in Santa Barbara, California

But the point is, you cannot claim the intellectual upper hand in arguing against “God and religion” and then resort to the authority-argument to win your case. Even if you were joined by all the Nones in America, yours is a lonely lot. Especially at Christmas. Accept it. Live with it. And take down those absurd posters.

Of Atheist Tribes

First of all, I refrain from mentioning any names or organizations that can properly be called atheistically thick-headed. They know who they are. I’ve named them before, without salvific effect. They are proud of who they are. They like their atheism short, sweet, rude, and raw. If they get on people’s nerves, that’s okay because religion gets on their nerves.

Who can disagree? The standard cable network service, before they cut you off entirely when you haven’t paid the bill, leaves you with what for your viewing pleasure? At the mercy of 24-7 infomercial stations and Mother Angelica, in a loop with her Ninety Nasal Nuns, saying the rosary. You have a choice between a guy who wants to sell you a pulverizer for fruits and veg for $19.98 with six special blades not available in stores order now!, and Jimmy Swaggart (still here after all these years) offering his four-volume study series on the Cross of Christ usually $40 a volume but purchase today for only $60 for all four order now! Tell me the truth, if you can’t pay to see movies on HBO, are you really going to make yourself feel better by buying a pulverizer from an aging fitness freak or a set of books from a self-ordained, perpetually repentant Louisiana preacherman?

No, clearly, the Time Warners and Road Runners of this great nation keep these things on to punish us. They know that nothing will get you to fork over that extra $75 bucks or run your new low-limit credit card right up to the brink like having to listen to that 100th Hail Mary or hear the guy selling the snake oil for osteoarthritis mispronouncing the word osteoarthritis.

I don’t blame the atheist tribe for hating this stuff. I hate it. Everyone I know hates it. My European friends when they visit cannot believe that America is not a suburb of the Philippines, so pure is our devotion to crap products and crappy religion.

But therein lies the problem. Too many atheists assume two false things. First, that their sense of outrage is unique, a more refined version of contempt than a “religious” believer is likely to have when they look at the obnoxious underbelly of American religion. Second, they assume that the best way to deal with the problem is to harpoon all religion, because religion is a ROBOT: Really One Big Offensive Thing.

Stereotyping is a part of being human, of course. A Canadian friend of mine (who meant well) once said, over a third pint at a Cowley pub, “I really hate Americans, but you’re ok.” We were sitting among British friends, and they nodded in agreement. I was pleased, kind of, with the verdict on my amiability, but I was obliged to say, “Well, you might be surprised to know that I’m not really fond of Americans either–but there are one or two others besides me you might like.” An Australian law student sitting across the table, on his fourth said, “You’re all fuckin’ septics as far as I can tell.” (For any readers not familiar with this patois, it’s short for septic tank.) Short, sweet, rude, and raw.

I think the atheist dickhead phenomenon is about at this level of discussion right now. It’s no longer about God, it’s about “others.” It’s about the purity of your unbelief, measured not against any philosophical standard or line of argument but about finding religious believers septic and converting polite unbelievers to the more radical view that religion runs from noxious to poisonous, not from good to bad. It’s also about your solidarity with others who share your radical unbelief and how you measure the attitudes and intentions of other members of the tribe.

Religion (the custom of the group provides) is the first resort of dimwits and moral weaklings, helped along its mossy path by bad science, superstition, and useless doctrines, practices, and social customs.

I suggested a few months ago that this level of full-frontal atheism needs to be assessed by an empirical standard–by how many things you don’tbelieve about God. Jewish atheists and ex-Muslims would come out relatively badly, as not believing anything about only one God; ex-Catholics slightly better as not believing anything ever taught about the Trinity; and Hindus would be way out in front with their rejection of 330 million gods and avatars.

What some people, even me, occasionally, are calling “atheist fundamentalists” really ought to be called atheist tribalists. And just like people from small countries find it irresistible to think that all citizens of big countries are obnoxious, atheists being a small clutch of people sharing a common intellectual position, more or less, find the sheer size of the world’s religious population an argument against it. It springs from a natural sense (by the way, one I don’t entirely reject) that this many people can’t be right. –The flipside of a standard argument that would be persuasive if the world’s faiths used one number for all beliefs: that so many right-headed people can’t be wrong.

But it ignores the fact that many of the groups and subgroups that constitute this highly artificial category called religion don’t agree with each other, and are just as miserable as atheists when they see religions behaving badly.

Anyone who has ever lived in a “foreign” country and tried to seem a “little less foreign” will know what I mean about the semiotics of embarrassment: Nothing embarrasses a British-educated Pakistani more than his cousin who wasn’t. Nothing embarrassed the third generation of acculturated Americans more than their first-generation Slovak grandparents. Nothing embarrasses a clever, well-spoken, moderately-religious woman more than the excesses of her own faith. Atheists have the luxury of using hasty generalization as a mode of analysis rather than calling it out as a fallacy. Smart religious people are forced to be discriminate in their approach to religion. Perhaps that’s why atheists can afford to be irresponsible and so rude to believers: they don’t have to pick up after themselves.

Having God is really like having a lot of money and a grating accent. When American soldiers first arrived in great numbers in England in 1942, the famous quip about them was that they were “Over-paid, oversexed and over here.” They could “afford” things, had better teeth, but talked too loud and laughed too easily. The idea that there were millions and millions more just like them across the wide sea was not cheering to sober people in villages like Upper Heyford and Mildenhall, who had never seen an example of the species before.

In fact, most of the atheist tribalists are reacting to religion at the same, village level, as something that is “foreign,” unacceptable, and so big that it has to be bad. The beliefs they know about (and reject) are not derived from studying anything about the history and doctrine of particular religions, but from a whole range of indirect encounters: with their tv set, with news stories about creation science and prayer in school, with tales of disorderly Mormon elders and their six wives and thirty children, violent Muslims declaring jihad against members of their own faith as well as on the “West,” with reports of (yet another) pedophile priest being arrested or another bishop covering up priestly crimes, or with another know-nothing politician who thinks America was founded as a Christian nation. Who can disagree that these encounters are typical of what more and more people are beginning to see as what “being religious” means–as the whole of religion? Is there a difference between Big and Big and Ugly

But prevalence is not totality. Religion doesn’t only consist of externalization, and there are plenty of believing critics out there who would consider every one of these externals unacceptable, or ignorant, or attributable to causes that aren’t necessarily religious at all. It strikes me as curious that their criticism might need to be discounted because it comes from the wrong quarter. If radical unbelief becomes the license for informed critique, does simple belief disqualify someone as a critic?

To be an atheist tribalist means that you answered Yes to that question: But to be honest, if the laundry list above is what the atheist sees as the entirety of religious experience or religious ideology, he is really no better off than my friend in the pub who, out of pious ignorance I came to realize, sees America as a great cesspool where annoying, nasal, uncynical nabobs swim around in the muck of mental gloom. Of course, anyone who knows a little history, a little geography, a little anything about anything, knows that this is a caricature designed to make Europeans feel less bad about the eighteenth century cesspools from which American immigrants escaped and evolved, and that we have no monopoly on loud, nasal, or annoying. Atheists in rejecting religion–most anyhow–have a similar evolution to recount.

The philosophy that the tribe is better than the nation persisted in human civilization for a long time, and then reemerged as paternalism and petty nationalism in the colonial period. Colonies, in turn, began to feel better than their masters. It’s especially troubling to see atheists, who claim the intellectual upper hand in debates about God and his people, behaving in a way that simply mimics the self-protective instincts of threatened minorities through insult, provocation, and belligerence. It’s all part of the dance, the same old story.

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

Cartoon Cavalcade! CFI Protects Free Expression

[I read somewhere that the Center for Inquiry Blasphemy Contest, since redubbed the Blasphemy Rights Contest, has come round again as part of its super-popular “Campaign for Free Expression.” “It made me nostalgic for this 2010 piece, so i woke it up.  rjh]

Ladies and Germs. No, Really. Heh, heh.

It is not often that we have an opportunity to salute the defenders of free speech. Why should tonight be any different.

Badda bing.

And who says free expression can’t be funny?

The Center for Inquiry, that’s who.

“As part of its contribution to the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, the Council for Secular Humanism invited professional and amateur artists to submit their sharpest, cleverest, and most ingenious creations touching on that most sensitive subject: religion.”

Can it only be yesterday that the Center was awarding prizes for slogans like “Faith is no reason.” Yes it could.

I have taken some heat on this site for claiming that atheists qua atheists are not especially funny. Now I have proof.

I’d rather have pudding. Badda bing.

When atheism goes on the attack it usually doesn’t know where to aim.

Whaddya do when you don’t know where to aim.

That’s right, Sally: Aim low.

Whaddya call an army of freethinkers? Nothing, they won’t come when you call.

So, in keeping with the noble tradition of failed stand-up comedy of a genre that would not even place in a college newspaper competition:

Number One:

Comment from prizegivers: “A stinging indictment of the Catholic Church’s pedophilic priest scandal that allows absolutely no room for the predictable apologetic defense. Left me laughing and wincing at the same time!” Not sure how an organization that prides itself on truth, justice and The American way (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane. Naw, it’s only Father Flaherty committing suicide.”) can get by with stinging pre-trial cartoon indictments. But boy, could I be wrong!

Number Two:

Prizegiver: “Dramatic art of the empty-eyed victim who has fallen prey to what Richard Dawkins calls religion’s ‘virus of the mind.’ Employs the over-the-top hype of a B movie advertising billboard to make its point. Good use of contrast and color. Scary!” Masterfully objective. CFI uses “science and reason,” and as we all know has discovered both the God gene and the Religion virus, so this is scary indeed. Unless…

And three:

CFI Judge: “A sweeping commentary on the negative effects of religion on society- from law, to science, to war, to culture.” This shows how little I know about cartoons. I thought this was incredibly stupid and confused, kind of the opposite of sweeping and stinging.

There was also an amateurs section for the “free expression” cartoons, the most incisive of which is this:

The prize-giver said he “laughed out loud at this one.”

I have to admit, I didn’t, mainly because John’s arm is on backwards and he’s going to throw the rock on the ground.

Hilarious, and worth every penny in prize money.

NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals?

I have happily signed Paul Kurtz’s statement on the principles of Neohumanism and hope to review the document on this site in a week or so.

It’s enough to say, read it and understand that it comes at a critical moment in the history of the humanist movement. It calls upon freethinkers to do something they almost never have to do–except with respect to the totally inconsequential question of the existence of God: Make up their minds.

For those of us whose humanism is not limited to the Big Question, or whether the First Amendment is inspired writ, or whether civilization commenced with Darwin, there is plenty in the statement to think about.

A warning: it is a very long piece of work so bring a sandwich and a glass of Pinot Grigio with you to the read.

Readers should also have a look at the response of the Kurtz-founded Center for Inquiry, penned by lawyer turned guru Ronald Lindsay (a status he seems to think came with the parking space) and the Huffington Post‘s comments on the statement.

Writing on the CFI website Lindsay recorded that he could not “in good conscience,” sign the statement, though he was pained by having to refuse. (Flash: Jiminy Cricket is dead.) The reason for CFI’s demurer probably has as much to do with New Directions and with the growing rift between Kurtz and the New Regime, which is really not so much a “new” crew as a raft of rudderless old sailors from Buffalo trying to reinvent themselves as first-class seamen on the backs of Celebs like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Prediction: It will never work.

Which brings me to the two things we already know about freethought–a quaint and sometime polite word that can mean everything from muscular disbelief and cantankerous opposition to God, incense and apple pie to quiet disapproval of dogma, (religious) holidays and divine inspiration.

One is that freethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

For all their principled reliance on evidence and fact, in ordinary discourse atheists ( at least the cranky ones) are more prone than almost any other single group to denounce the views of others as mere opinion. So, as happened in the case of the Neohumanist Statement, Write a manifesto, get a zucchini for a thank you.

When CFI ran its Blasphemy Day competition, awarding prizes for the most obtuse display of tasteless rhetoric against religion, I suggested that prizes should be given on the basis of how many things an avowed atheist doesn’t believe about God–and no fair saying “any of it, or Him.” It’s ok not to believe in talking snakes, but you still have to believe in gardens, Babylon and human predecessors. My premise was that anybody who doesn’t believe in God should at least know something about the subject. Otherwise, not believing in time or in the molar mass of an element–both bloody difficult to see–may as well be next on your list.

The second thing you can count on among freethinkers is that they can’t laugh at their own positions. My theory is that this is because there are so many of them that if they started laughing they could never stop. They take their belief with the same seriousness a Pentecostal takes the surety that Jesus loves him and his Christian comic book collection.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, any call for humanists to recognize that humility and humor are at least as important as being bright and right is a welcome change from the arrogant, carping, smirking, puerile atheism that is becoming the face of the base.

It’s hard to imagine that the attention-getting strategies of a CFI will ever add up to a coherent vision or a systematic approach to problem solving. Saying you’re for science and reason is a bit like saying you’re for peace. Who isn’t?

But how do you get there? And at the end of the trip, do you get the good life or just the T-shirt?