Scipio Returns: An Allegory

I met Scipio at Mathilde’s yesterday.  He was late and huffing–and amazing for a March day in Marblehead–was actually breaking a sweat.

He was carrying a load of blue books he said he hadn’t had time to grade over the spring break.

“You know,” I said with just a hint of disapproval, “It’s harder to do when there’s no time than when there’s a little time.”

He ignored me and looked toward the barrista.  She was new: long blonde hair, a runner–you could tell from the way her underarmor outlined her legs–and took an instant dislike to Scipio as soon as she saw him.  I guess some men would find her attractive.  Scipio did.

“You’re too obvious,” I hissed.  “It’s getting embarrassing to come here with you.  I think the last waitress left because you wouldn’t stop staring–what was her name…”

“Maria,” he said without a pause.

“Maria, right. She’s working at the Salvation Army Store on Boylston because she thought you were stalking her.”

“These tables are really too small,” Scipio said. “There isn’t room for my bluebooks on the top.”

He tried to focus on me, but his eyes wandered toward the counter, and inevitably settled on the barrista’s bulging calves.

“I suppose you got all your marking done,” he said with a slight curl on his lips.

“Every bit.  I don’t want to mix break and work.”

“You make no sense,” he said. “If you’re grading during break you’re working. So you’re mixing.  Make up your mind.”

Scipio has always been good at trying to change the topic from his faults to mine.

“So, I guess having the work hanging over you during a vacation isn’t a little distracting, a little getting in the way of fun- time distracting. A little Oh gosh, what can I put off now that will cause me infinite pain in a week distracting. You make up your mind.”

The barrista had arrived.  I ordered my usual.

“I just started,” she said, “excuse me if I don’t know what your usual is.”

“I’ll have a double espresso.  My friend will have bubble tea.”

Bubble tea?” she shot back. “Did you say bubble tea.”

“Exactly.  Double espresso for me.  My friend doesn’t believe in coffee after noon.”

She stood fast.  She looked first at me and then at Scipio.

“You fucking don’t believe in coffee? That’s amazing.  I don’t believe in God!” She had used the line before.  She waited for a look of surprise–any reaction at all.  None.

Scipio looked plaintively at me as though begging for instructions.

“I didn’t say I didn’t believe in coffee, strictly speaking” he said. “He did. I’d say I don’t believe in coffee after lunch”

“So you do believe in coffee?”  Disappointment at not getting a gasp about the God comment had now turned into teasing.

Scipio was melting.  She had him fixed in her blue eyes.  I could almost feel his resolve leaking away.

“I mean, coffee is fine for morning but it’s almost three o’clock. So I prefer bubble tea.  It isn’t that I don’t believe in it.  In principle it’s fine” He coughed and laughed at the same time creating a thread of scum in the corner of his mouth. “It’s just not good for me.”

“Why is bubble tea good for three o clock.” She positioned herself near his elbow, her thigh against his stack of bluebooks that by now were in danger of spilling onto the floor.

Scipio frowned. “Look Miss,” he said, using a word I have avoided for almost ten years, “I didn’t ask you why you don’t believe in God or the tooth fairy. Please don’t inquire after my drinking habits.”

She moved away, feigning a pout, then pivoted and looked squarely at me.

“So you, you believe in coffee?”

“I do,” I said. “With all my heart.  Why would anyone want bubble tea at three o’clock when there’s espresso on earth?” I tried to smile.

“Bubble tea’s more like the tooth fairy. I don’t believe in that either,” she said.

I was feeling a strange excitement at this development. Ten years coming to Mathilde’s, no one had shown the slightest interest in my usual. It didn’t matter what Scipio didn’t believe in after noon.

All that mattered is that I believed in something dark, concentrated, thick, bitter, and expensive. And it came with lemon peel and a tiny brown sugar cube to make it nicer.

“Can I have your number,” she said.  She didn’t mean it of course.  At least I don’t think she did.

But it was worth it just to see the expression on Scipio’s face.

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The Orthodoxy of Just Not Believing in God

We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

The word ATHEOs (atheist) in Ephesians, 3rd century Papyrus 46

No one has come right out and said what this might imply:  that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction.  I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day,  just calls for batch.  Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo in Nullum Deum. And I have been scolded in response to my challenge for atheists to be better-read and less cute to the effect that “Many of us have read…Hitchens’s excellent The Portable Atheist.  But for Berlinerbrau [sic] that’s not nearly good enough.” An odd rejoinder since it is precisely Berlinerblau’s criticism that Hitchens’ anthology is not very good. And, much as I enjoyed reading its predecessor,  God is Not Great,  it isn’t.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed”  (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs.  He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Read our orthodox lips

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked.  Yes always, they replied.  Was God always a father?  Yes, always, they said: God does not change.  Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. Once a group rallies around a position, in other words, it becomes very difficult to ask questions or blow whistles.  Just like academic politics.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer.  Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?”  I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political.  But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence.  In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980’s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic.  When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details.  I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.”  I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy.  Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means.  It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right.  It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few days, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either.  So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.  It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. (The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible). Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others.  For example, the belief that God created the world.  In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically,  will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God.  In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Biblical Cosmos

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking,  thinking and arguing.  But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God, full stop.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being.  But that’s another story.  When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational grounds–an atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true.

Most atheists, of course,  do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally.  No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position.  It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus,  a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing? Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion.  The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago,  my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much,  or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this.  Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners.  At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent.  And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing.  That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher.  Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it.  It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be.  It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.

Alcibiades

An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures by significant thinkers is heady stuff.  Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube.  It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real.  And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents.  Two from recent Facebook posts will do.  In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy.  Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial.  A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage.  A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.”  That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.'” –I actually happen to agree with him.  But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers.   I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.  The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit.  But it won’t be.  For all the wrong reasons.  When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course.  Almost no one except a few humanists  saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory.  And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful.  And as I have said pretty often,  that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.  Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda.  They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded.  Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

Julian Huxley

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this.  I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists.  Then we could get somewhere.  We could say what we like, just the way we like it.  We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy:  I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.

Living Without Religion

The new atheists (aka EZs, News) to put it bluntly are taking heat.  Worse, they are taking it from some very smart,–dare we say– bright people. Florida State University philosophy Professor Michael Ruse writes.

“So my conclusion is that if someone argued that the New Atheists have a religion — or perhaps better, are religious (because of their atheism) — I don’t think I would want to say that they are completely wrong. The obsession with the topic, the nastiness, and other things like near mystical veneration of the leaders — look at the Dawkins website if you don’t believe me. But at the moment, I am not inclined to use the religion label. To me, New Atheism is more a philosophy than anything else. I don’t mean this as praise; but then, if I called the New Atheists religious, I wouldn’t be saying that as a term of criticism.”

Ruse, elsewhere, says this:  “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”

Jacques Berlinerblau

Close behind, but with more literary oomph, Jacques Berlinerblau who heads the Jewish Studies program at Georgetown University, summarizes his opposition to the News this way:

“American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel.  The News are not just a disaster to American life, they are “a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America.”

At some point (how about now) it must occur to the controversialists that key opposition to their agenda is not coming from religious zanies but from people, like Ruse, who are not believers at all and others, who if they are believers, have a lot of explaining to do before they get their baptismal certificates renewed.

On the other hand, it is not clear that the EZs are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud.

Berlinerblau hits the nail on the head when he observes that “what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.”  –It is almost as though they believe that to the extent atheism has a history (i.e., that it has been hanging on the bough for several hundred years, probably longer if you go back to classical adumbrations), it is too easy to explain away its radical, exciting, and mind-blowing newness.   (Jacques doesn’t actually say this last bit: I did, and thus want credit for completing the thought).

And then there is this:  “Atheism” may not be a good word to describe the EZs.  Their critique involves God, but it’s really not directed at belief, or the grounds for belief.  It’s directed at believers and at the disembodied essence they prefer to describe, oceanically, as “religion.”

Unbaptism

The mode of critique is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”). The message of the Four Horsemen, now conflated into one big message, is that religion has been nothing but retardant and deserves nothing but contempt.  The message of their EZ followers is as controlled as a post-car-smash pig-fest.

For all the activity, there isn’t much evidence that it means anything. While in olden days atheists (who preferred to call themselves philosophers and–even–theologians) started with postulates because they saw the postulates as errors in a reasoning process (Aquinas: “Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.” [ST, 1.Q2] –I know schools in Georgia where he could still be fired for saying that.)  EZs begin with the postulators, who are obnoxious and stupid. They are able to do this because (as Berlinerblau sees) without historical tribute to pay they  can throw slogans and mud around, hoping that at least some of it will coalesce into a rational critique or a policy agenda—except…“New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.”

Thomas

I would add to that two other projects: (1) ensuring that there is no such animal as a liberal religious position (Harris’s absurd ahistorical view) and (2) poaching statistics to make it seem as if their ranks are much larger than they are, vires in numeris. Berlinerblau mentions Dennett’s 2004 Brights Manifesto where statistics about people who might best be described as uninformed or intellectually hazy are turned into “27 million would-be Brights” who are poised for political action.  “That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more.”

My own naivete about the deliberate sensationalism of the EZ atheist movement was profound.  At the beginning, having seen Dawkins worthily opposed  in debates at Oxford in the 1980s, I thought the discussion was an earnest attempt to enlarge the atheist perspective, that books that were extended polemics about the evils and ignorance of religion would lead to better books and better discussion.  What we got instead was the debate script without the rebuttal.

But, as it soon became clear, the only people who the News wanted to debate, or wanted to debate them, were preposterous self-promoters like William Lane Craig and John Lennox; serious “theists” (and loads of skeptics and critics of religion) had better things to do, and it became a mark of dishonor in the Academy to take News too seriously.  There were exactly three topics in their pannier bag: the existence of God, the creation of the world (cosmology and evolution), and the resurrection of Jesus. The answer to all three by the way is No.  An early and surprising vote of no confidence in Dawkins’s approach to (or failure to engage with) theology came in a 2006 London Review of books article from former Oxford colleague Terry Eagleton: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”  It has always been a sore spot for the News that the charge of amateurism has stuck, even though they defended vigorously the right of scientists to pronounce on the existence of a being who doesn’t exist anyway.

The iconic status of the News made any criticism, after a while, blasphemy to their followers; critics could be written off as mean-spirited or simply envious of the success the writers enjoyed.

Instead of discussion we got books and more books by people who didn’t seem to recognize that Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus,  Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana,  Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood) had explored the ramifications of the post-God universe for the better part of a century, and even then were building on a crisis that was already fledgling in the nineteenth century.

Can you name one artistic movement, one literary school, or one serious poet, dramatist or musician of the past century who has not been affected by (or embraced) the death of God as angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos? Neither can the News.  Their skill was solely in making naive readers and listeners believe that they had discovered for the first time a situation that had been the status quo of western civilization for most of their lives.

Camus: Sisyphus or Prometheus? You choose

Instead of reflecting their superior knowledge of the artistic and literary contours of the twentieth century (the state of affairs Lippmann described in 1929 as the “acids of modernity”) the EZs wanted to locate society’s major cultural crisis in the backwater churches of Slicklizard, Alabama.  When you consider that three of the four basked in the glow of Oxford bona fides, the almost anthropological fascination with American backwardness is not surprising.  In America, unlike England, the atheist agenda could be approached with something like missionary zeal. Besides, that’s where the money was.

In the middle of it all the “Good without God” craze was born, copping a title from Paul Kurtz’s book originally titled Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion and then released in 1994 under the title Living without Religion.  In the book, Kurtz made no bones about the fact that atheism, even if implied in the secular humanist position, cannot be the end of the story.

“…I think that the term ‘humanism’ is crucial, because humanism is an effort to suggest that if we reject God and proclaim that ‘God is dead,’ we need to affirm human worth. The chief aim of humanism is to create the conditions for the good life here and now, and beyond that to build a global ethics for the world community. The purpose of humanism is to realize and fulfill all the things of which we are capable, and to advance human freedom. Accordingly, there is a positive agenda of humanism which is constructive, prescriptive, and ethical. Therefore, at the very least, we need to say that while we are atheists, we are also humanists. Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism. Again, the rationalist position is cerebral and intellectual–it is committed to the open mind, free inquiry and skepticism.”

For Kurtz, it is less that the individual “becomes” an atheist than that modern society operates on rational principles, principles which, if they are followed faithfully exclude the possibility of a traditional belief in God and absolutely exclude the possibility of dogmatism and supernaturalism as contrary to freedom.  No follower of the existentialists as such, Kurtz nevertheless believed that the role of humanism begins in the constructive work that “the modern situation” imposes on all of us. We are world-makers and the shapers of destiny on this planet.

This implied an educational task, outreach, a movement.  But it was not to be a movement that garnered support from people who had simply been trained to think religion was evil.  It was a movement based on the twin premises that “religion” and “atheism” do not automatically embody the rational principles of secularism and humanism, the great intellectual gifts of the Enlightenment.  It required fine tuning, this message–a high wire act.  For that reason it did not get the credit it deserved in a country addicted to one hit wonders. It was Nietzsche’s man on a rope, extended precariously between the good that God once represented and the evil that would ensue if courageous people did not act in his absence.

When Good without God and assorted bus and billboard campaigns (modeled on atheist awareness drives in Britain) started three years ago, the architecture of discussion changed dramatically.  It moved from what Kurtz would have called exuberance (a joyful response to the challenge of seeking wisdom and finding happiness, eudemonia from self-discovery—a tradition that takes us back to the Greeks) to self-defense.

The unstartling result was that atheists glommed onto the rhetoric of victimization that had been imported from various rights movements, on the most superficial of grounds:  As women, gays, blacks, and other marginalized groups had fought for recognition in spite of the social obstructions they faced, atheists could claim that religion offered no monopoly on virtue.  The case was easily “proved”:  Look at religious violence.  Look at the way religious people interfere in politics.  Look at the imbecility of the religious right.  Look at the anti-science campaigns of the fundamentalists.  That is, essentially, all the EZs looked at.

But unlike the groups which had legitimate claims to exclusion on the basis of unalterable conditions or status, atheists were asking to be judged by what they did not believe, not who or what they were. The whole pretext was absurd. And unlike the marginalized, their undeclinable position was such that they could not claim simple equality to the religious majority.

Their binary approach to reality admitted of only right or wrong–God (1) or No God (0).  For that reason, it was difficult for the EZs to admit that religions promote virtue, since their view of  belief was that religions were merely coercive and that all rely on a primitive command ethic that has never evolved and never been modified in two thousand years.

Afraid that they fatally wounded themselves with the frat-party atmosphere of Blasphemy Day 2009,  the living without religion branch of EZism, sponsored by a radically transformed Center for Inquiry adopted a more suppliant tone, while still insisting it had not been neutered.

One popular myth is that the nonreligious are immoral, or at least that they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs. If you know any nonreligious people (and almost everyone does…), you already know this is not true. Human decency does not depend on religious belief. There are good believers and good nonbelievers; there are wicked believers and wicked nonbelievers. You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.

Another prevalent myth is that the lives of the nonreligious are empty, meaningless, and dominated by despair. This, too, is false. The nonreligious experience the same range of emotions, sentiments, and sensations as the religious. They are joyful and sad; they feel sympathy and disgust; they experience pain and pleasure. They have aspirations; they are concerned about others. They love and are loved.

One reason this myth persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love. We don’t deny that the religious may find inspiration in their beliefs—but our religious friends should not presume that accepting their beliefs is necessary for a fulfilling life.

We who are nonreligious lead meaningful lives without reliance on the supernatural. Moreover, we believe anyone can find meaning in a life that is human-centered and focused on the here and now instead of the hereafter.  Some people have parted ways with traditional god beliefs intellectually but hesitate to give up their faith because they’re afraid of what life might be like without the beliefs and practices they have found so comforting. They’ve heard myths about the nonreligious, and they may think these myths are all they have to go on.

I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote this had never read the most prattlingly self-serving of all the speeches Shakespeare gave to any of his characters, Shylock in Merchant of Venice.  But it is the same genre:  Confronted with the evidence of his excesses Shylock immediately turns his personal vice into a discourse on antisemitism:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?” The Merchant of Venice,  Act III Scene I).

Confronted with the reality of excess (and fishing for a message that might appeal to the unchurched and the wavering Brights and “Nones”), the atheists at CFI now claim to care about your heart.  We care, we love, we hope, we bleed.  Just like you Christians.

Almshouse: the Church and Care of the Poor

I am happy that atheists care about caring, loving, hoping and the full range of  human emotions.  But is there really a general movement  afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives?  The subject they are changing is not whether they have the same basic feelings  as religious persons, but why in this latest plea for attention they have adopted Shylock’s position toward their adversaries.

This is not a real question by the way: it is an assertion.  I want to suggest that these campaigns are not about ideas but broadening a financial base–and an admission that the anti-religion volume was pumped up way too high to attract the attention of anyone.

But the campaign suffers not just from wooden prose, defensive tenor, and a lack of pizazz: it also reveals that distressing ignorance that Berlinerblau detects in the atheist movement.  “You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.” Sure you can: the “metaphysical” ideas of a terribly religious person who felt that he was receiving instructions from a god named Chaos and who wanted to advance his plan for liberation by killing people, and those of a terribly warped unbeliever who felt the same way, didn’t use the term god, but targeted people according to their religious views might be relevant in assessing moral character. That is not an extreme example: it is the metaphysics of most genocides since the Middle Ages.

Cambodia

Or this “One reason this myth [that the lives of the nonreligious are meaningless] persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love.” I frankly don’t know any religion that would put it quite that way, though I do know religions that make ample room for hope, caring and love as correlates of a loving God.

It grieves me of course to say that the most eloquent example of this sentiment comes from a religion. In the most famous discourse on the subject (1 Cor 13) St Paul doesn’t mention God at all, and makes faith a decidedly inferior virtue:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

St Paul

All of which brings me back to Berlinerblau’s central point: an atheism that moves from intellectual respectability to Mission Accomplished-pride (Dawkins: “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument”) and then to begging for status is a humiliating outcome for a once-proud tradition. It’s what Allister McGrath projected in 2004 when he said that under the new atheist regime, exciting possibilities have been rendered dull.  We only know what they don’t believe.

But it has only itself to blame. It has been disrespectful if not downright dumb about its history and origins and rude to its conversation partners. Skeptics who have their doubts about religion are also smart enough(like Sartre’s aunt) to be skeptical of atheism.  The recent upward trend in criticizing new atheism suggests only that it has boiled down to marketing strategies, and that people know it. People know that the shop window is empty.  The organizations, having not much to sell except the signs above the shop will try Commando-tactics one day, Victimization the next (I am trying to remember the date of the death of the last atheist martyr), and Misunderstood the day after.  The closest analogy are the versatile rain dances of the Quapaw Indians in Missouri. On the up side, overhead is low when you’re not actually making anything.

Empty windows, lots of signs?

Laïcité: The Radical Secular Imperative

You need to join us. Now. You need to take a stand against the deadening of the American brain. You need to do this whether you think America is already brain dead, or if you are an American worrying about just how much life is left in you.

The Europeans have long had a word for what radical secularity is, at its heart: it is based on challenging the prerogatives of religion in society–something Americans have long thought their First Amendment made it unnecessary for them to do. It is called laïcité in France, and sometimes gets translated into English as laicity: the rise of the common woman and man (the laity) who were not in clerical orders nor members of the aristocracy in cahoots with the Church. It goes back to the time of the Revolution (theirs, not ours) when the Catholic Church was greatly diminished in power and prestige among members of the third estate–ordinary people.

I’m happy to call it secularism, as long as we understand it in the most radical sense of that word. The term laïcité has the advantage of naming the thing after what it is: people. And when you get down to it, it is ordinary people (not bishops and theologians) who have suffered most at the hands of religion–and still do. It has the disadvantage of being French in a country where some states still serve Freedom Fries, though they have forgotten why.

It is amazing to me that the Catholic Church is still standing. We now know that the Church of Rome has used its prestige and its illegitimate claim to be the protector of conscience to tamp down the fires of outrage over the rape of children. Children were raped in Boston. In New York. In Brussels. In Dublin. In Frankfort. In Philadelphia. In Sydney and Toronto. We are just beginning [see note below] to get a sense of the scale, but on the basis of what we know–the number of priests and children involved and the inaction of the Church to stop the abuse–the crimes can only be compared to multiple serial killers being permited to go about their routine with the police watching and winking.

It is amazing to me that Islam has not petitioned the World Court in the Hague for forgiveness from the international community. There is no central authority to lodge such a petition, of course, and no desire to lodge one–which is part of the problem: The death in Pakistan last week by assassins who became national heroes overnight was conducted with the بركة of a dozen radical clerics, each claiming legitimate authority to issue licenses to kill in the name of God. I am not very interested in social explanations of why such killing occurs. I want to know why a liberal West is so willing to accept the rationale that it occurs because the liberal West created radical Islam. Or why the United Nations can pass a resolution declaring that the “defamation of religion” is a violation of international human rights, a premise eerily like the Blasphemy laws that led to the murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. I am saddened that innocent soldiers have to die to make a point about living without fear or reprisal and in the hope of freedom, sadder still that the atrocity of religious violence usually ends up not merely short of its objective but in the rubble of another Muslim household.

I am outraged at the religious sources of ignorance. Gallup 2010 says that only 39% of Americans “believe” in evolution while a further 36% have “no opinion,” a conclusion almost as stupefying as the first. And while the religion marketplace is competitive, and while church attendance is slightly down, Pew Research suggests that between 80 and 85% of Americans are either “religious” or “very religious.”

They are also anti-science and pro-ignorance: Abortion is not a science question, but a healthy 52% (Gallup) oppose it, exceeded by the 57% (Rasmussen, 2010) who oppose embryonic stem cell research because opponents think it involves killing babies for their brains.

I am angry at the teaching of absolute falsehood and mythology as truth, whether it is put across as history or geology or geography. The entropic principle in American democracy has always been the insistence that there are two sides to every story, and then applying this notion to facts.

There are not two sides to facts. It is self-evidently a crime against reason to tell “learners,” as we like to call the innocent these days, that a fact has the same epistemological value as an opinion or a perspective, thereby encouraging them to think that things that really are just opinions, like religious doctrines, have higher status than facts.

Scientists know this about facts or they could not do their work. You cannot treat cancer like a cold. There is nothing to be said for the idea you can get to the moon in a cardboard box. But there are still people in postions of authority over mind and heart, some of them passing laws on our behalf, who believe the world was created in six days and that Jesus walked on water and ascended into heaven. There is no doubt that this did not happen: there are not two sides to it.

Neither is there any merit in the idea that God created marriage for the procreation of the human race. The human race was doing very nicely without the god of the Hebrew tribes before the story was invented, and the Church cared almost nothing about the religious value of marriage until the 12th century. Procreation is a fact. Interpretations of its sanctity or exclusivity are opinions.

This list could be extended, should be extended. What these cases have in common is not only that they offend against our intelligence and perhaps basic sense of decency–a phrase that needs to be revived–but that religion is implicated in all of them. There is no secular child abuse scandal. There are very few secular suicide bombers. Among seculars facts are, in the main, valued and Darwin is permitted to speak. This doesn’t mean that secular women and men have not done evil things, but they have done them through malice, not in the name of secularity. In cases where the State simply replaced God, as in Soviet Russia, the motivation was essentially religious.

I am not happy to say Leave the dims to their dimness and let’s get on with converting the world to atheism. For one thing, that is not going to work. For another, we see what happens when the religiously craven are left to their own devices. It is a question of how long before they come knocking at your door and require you to have a Bible or a Quran in your house—just like pistol packers who want you to pack a pistol, too.

And I am also not prepared to say, “We need to start talking to each other, find out where the other side is coming from.” I have limited faith in the powers of this conversation. There comes a point, and we have reached it, that to indulge religious illiteracy is the same as saying there are two sides to every fact. But we can bring with us people with sincere, peaceable religious commitments who are nonetheless equally committed to secularity. That is not dialogue; it is common cause. It can be carried on with kindred spirits still living and long dead.

It may be true that atheism, agnosticism, interfaith understanding ,and various interest domains share with the Laïcité an interest in opposing and—to be perfectly militant—defeating the repugnant positions I have mentioned here. But the battle line has to be made up of people who see the world in a particular fashion and who do not think that the truth that constitutes knowledge of the world is negotiable. That is what Laïcité is all about. That is what a radically secular worldview requires.

All of the people who do these things, who believe these things, who teach these things are terrorists, not only the ones who throw bombs. The Catholic Church has committed acts of terror against children. Ultra-conservative protestants continue to promote intellectual feebleness among millions of people worldwide. Significant numbers of Muslims have adopted an anti-rational posture toward their domestic critics and towards all outsiders, especially in the west. That is the world we live in.

Slogans about there being No God (Live with it), about “Being good” without God–or about it being possible to be loving, gentle, and kind without God, besides being laughably obtuse, are almost hopelessly irrelevant to the problems we face. They shift the emphasis from causes to the moral rectitude of unbelief, a different matter, a game being played on a different field. Atheism and Goodness without God may be perfectly worthy subjects of discussion over coffee, among friends. But they are not relevant to this discussion, which is how very badly a great many people who believe in God are behaving. The problem requires a great many more than the 16% of Americans who aren’t especially religious to solve, since the religious ennui the statistic may betoken is not the same as laïcité–a radical secularity.

I hope that those of you interested in joining a cause, an organization, and a movement that is both targeted and appropriate to what’s happening in real time on the world stage will join the Institute for Science and Human Values. We affirm that there are non-religious solutions to the problems we face. We affirm that human beings shape the future by shaping appropriate values in the present.

Join us in promoting the cause of a radically secular future—one where there are not two sides to every fact.

______________________

Note on Roman Catholic Abuse Scandal:
The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The surveys provided information from diocesan files on each priest accused of sexual abuse and on each of the priest’s victims to the research team, in a format which did not disclose the names of the accused priests or the dioceses where they worked. The dioceses were encouraged to issue reports of their own based on the surveys that they had completed.

The team reported that 10,667 people in the US had made allegations of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002 against 4,392 priests (about 4% of all 109,694 priests who served during the time period covered by the study). One-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002 and 2003, and another third between 1993 and 2001. “Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials,” says the report.

Around 81% of the victims were male; 22.6% were age 10 or younger, 51% between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% between the ages to 15 to 17 years.

Killing Audrey

Audrey must die.

My post on the self-confident SSS (Students for a Secular Season: fictional, I think) representative accosting a little black girl as she tried to drop some change in a Salvation Army kettle was a nuclear disaster.

A few ardent unbelievers have come to regard her as a folk hero and asked for her contact information.

A larger number of critics thought I had lost my natural theological sponginess and had taken secularism over the line into churlishness. (I am not Mark Twain so I will not follow with “and have joined the Salvation Army.”)

A few others thought it was “obvious satire,” but disagreed with its inobvious point–that atheists need to be more Christian in their giving habits. Note to some of my readers: This is called Irony.

I know that religion can get ugly. Not as ugly as politics, its natural twin for the better part of human history, but pretty awful. No one needs to remind me that the church has ignorantly done its bit to exacerbate poverty and disease, so forgive me if I remind you that the church did not create poverty and disease. It is darkly ironic (that word again) in a world where the state professes to care about people that the promoters of religious violence in Pakistan and Lebanon, the Taliban and Hezbollah, also run the most efficient social relief operations in those countries and do so because they believe their religion commends it. Now if they could just sign on to the Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men appendix.

But just as a pedantic point, Christianity has a long and fairly impressive record of cor ad cor loquitur–heart speaking to heart. The early Christians remembered Jesus having said radical things about giving: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12.33). True, he had a long prophetic tradition to draw on–for example, Isaiah 58: 6,7-10: “I have chosen…to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke… To share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood …And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

The early church turned these traditions into what even Roman emperors like Julian (the last “pagan” ruler of a socially unglued empire) recognized as the distinguishing, if cloying, characteristic of the Christian faith: its conscience. “The religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1.27); or “If anyone has possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3.17-18). Saints ranging from Francis of Assisi to Martin of Porres and Vincent de Paul to Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Seton and Louise de Marillac deserve, in their contexts, to be viewed as social justice activists, and many cared just as deeply about education as a way of climbing out of the conditions that made poverty and ignorance flourish. True, their church bureaucracy was not always so concerned and while they rang bells–the ancient symbol of being outcast and downtrodden or diseased–bishops prospered. But for many people until the rise of the secular state, charity did not begin at home because there was none: it began at the rectory door. Education, such as it was, at the parish school long before the state thought about getting into the game.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

Even critics of the early Christians found their charity remarkable, if also cloying. The second century writer Lucian tells the story of a particularly dodgy philosopher named Peregrinus who apparently decided that becoming a Christian teacher would be the quickest route to advancement among the yokel adherents of the new religion. He quickly “masters their books and writes a few of his own.” Peregrinus has no real interest in the doctrine of Christianity, but he does know that once you’re in, you’re in and that even the poorest converts will spend what little they have to help a teacher in distress. When Peregrinius finds himself on the wrong side of the law and is imprisoned for professing his faith openly, if insincerely, Lucian takes the occasion to tell us the following, half of it ridicule, half informative:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus [Peregrinus] was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favorite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,—but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the jailers to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrinus (as he was still called in those days) became for them ‘the modern Socrates.’ In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”

Finally rejected even by the Christians, Peregrinus becomes a cynic (i.e., wandering) philosopher and ends his days around 165CE by igniting himself atop a funeral pyre in full public view. Had he stuck with the Church, he would have had the distinction of being the first Christmas light display.

It’s plain from Lucian’s story that shyster evangelists have always been the other side of the Christian mission; but that notwithstanding, so has this strange habit of actually caring about other people. Organized caring, mercy, and compassion have never (alas!) been much prized among the non-believing intelligentsia, and perhaps that is why they are in such short supply among atheists.

Bright doesn’t do compassion well. Think of Audrey. Now we’re getting somewhere.

At the risk of being outrageous, I think I know why people like me are so stingey. It’s because our concern for the downtrodden isn’t actually mandated by anything we believe about ourselves. In fact, thinking of ourselves as an intellectual minority is only possible because, truth to tell, smart, rich, good-looking, healthy and successful is the finite set we’d prefer to dim, poor, sick and useless. There is nothing in our life-stance textbook that explains for us why we should care about the second set, and the cleverer and more self-reliant and progressive we are, the more tempting it is to become slightly (how shall I say) Darwinian or at least Marie Stopes-ish about this. Let’s not mention Margaret Sanger; she did so much good in other ways.

Belief in a God who cares about you no matter how craggy your skin, crappy your life or your credit score is both the bane and benefit of religion when it comes to “philanthropy”–literally, love of human-kind. What your faith insists on is a human family where imperfection and disadvantages can be accepted within a context where human perfection, religiously speaking, isn’t possible. I know: it isn’t fair, and for an atheist totally irrational. But as a prod to loving your fellow human creatures great and small, irrespective of their girth and goodness, there is nothing quite like God to get you moving. If he can do it–and think of how rich he must be, and how much smarter!–then who am I to resist putting a few pennies in the old man’s hat at Christmas? It seems to me that you can reject this logic entirely and still enter into the spirit of the season without compromising your secularity.

But don’t take my word for it. My secret love, the Naked Theologian (a discreet UUA minister herself) recently commented that the whole “Good without God” campaign was based on the false notion that liberals and seculars were just as inclined to charitable giving as religious folk.

“Several studies have shown that American liberals—namely, those most likely to have little or no God, are least likely to give to charity. Hurts, doesn’t it? Where’s the proof, you say? Robert Brooks, who recently wrote a book, Who Really Cares, about charitable donors discovered the following (as reported by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof): ‘When I started doing research on charity,’ Mr. Brooks wrote, ‘I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.’

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’s data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood. But what about the relationship between having a God and being generous? Based on a Google poll (again, as reported by columnist Kristof), religion is the essential reason conservatives give more. And although secular liberals tend to keep their wallets closed, it turns out that religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives.

Reading this made me re-think Audrey. If I had finished her story, rather than send her into her back yard where she fell down a well and drowned, it would have gone like this:

Audrey joined her SSS colleagues at Target. It was December 16th, and the group had a thousand bumper stickers to distribute to shoppers. Each one had a picture of a quarter, with the motto slightly altered to read, “In Good we trust.”

An old woman adjusted her shopping bags, took one graciously, inspected it, then handed it back to Audrey saying, “I think there’s a misspelling here.”

Audrey said, “That’s no misspelling. We don’t believe in God. We believe in good, get it?”

“Oh yes dear,” the old woman said unfluttered, “So do I. But that’s not what our money says, is it?”

Audrey turned around in exasperation. She was surprised to see the little girl and her auntie–the ones she had encountered at Walmart–standing at the card table, which had been draped with a banner that read “No God, No Problem: Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”

“I like these,” the Auntie said to Audrey, as though their previous interchange had never happened.

“They’re free,” Audrey said flatly. “But you’re welcome to make a donation to the SSS to help our efforts.”

The Auntie’s face took on an expression of concern. “Now do those efforts go to supply kitchens and shelters or buy medicine for sick folks?”

“No,” Audrey said, turning a suppressed sigh into a yawn. “We need fuel for the van.” “Uh-huh.” Auntie said looking first at the little girl, then back to Audrey as though they were the same age. “And where’s the good in that?”

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.

New Ethics and Atheist Newbies

The Necessity of Atheism?

Pardon my cough when I see titles like Good without God being hailed as “trendsetting.” Not only is the title overworked and the subject matter stale, but the author manages to get through the entire discussion without so much as tipping his hat to the theologian who pioneered the debate almost a generation ago, Cambridge University’s Don Cupitt.

To be fair, it is possible the author never read Cupitt. American learning is almost as parochial and inward-looking as it was in Emerson’s day when the sage, in his exceedingly dull 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, tried to argue that American scholarship (still the object of ridicule in Europe) would be concerned mainly with “Nature.” So, we in this nation, especially perhaps scholars, are part of a proud tradition of not paying attention to foreign scholarship and are more prone than Europeans to claim squatter’s rights to ideas developed by others, elsewhere, often long ago.

Whatever the case, to write a book about ethics without God and not to cite Don Cupitt’s The New Christian Ethics strikes me as plainly negligent, to the point of being out of touch with the topic. A bit like writing a book on the history of the Statue of Liberty without mentioning Frederic Bartholdi.

This out-of touchness is something I have been battling for years. The problem with Atheist Newbies (as good a beginning of a carping sentence as you could want) is that they are too little aware that the battle they think they are fighting was fought over a century ago, fought by theologians in liberal trenches (not atheists in foxholes) and for better or worse won by the forces of reason—if not exactly the battalions of unbelief.

I suspect that is why they spend so much time battling old believers–ranging from DMS’s (Dead Medieval Scholastics) to MILFs (Multiple Illiterate Leadheaded Fundies) because for the most part their work shows no currency with the serious strands of contemporary theology, social ethics, or even of philosophical dialogue with theology. This isolation from theology also nurtures a strong tendency among the Newbies to assume that they were at the station ahead of theologians who had actually caught the train days before them.

Of course there is no need to keep current if you have determined to win against the religious losers and claim that there are no other intellectual positions worth fighting against. It happens to be true that a great deal of modern theology is not worth bothering with. But that is doubtless true of books in general. Not to know the history of theological Destruktion since Kant, Coleridge and Schleiermacher ruled the waves is simply to claim poverty as privilege.

Which brings me to Don Cupitt. Cupitt was the unwitting source of my greatest disappointment many years ago when I was offered a place to read theology at Caius College, Cambridge, and decided to go the City of Dreaming Spires instead.

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

To be blunt, there was no one quite like Cupitt at Oxford, though a few came close. In 1988 he published a modest volume called The New Christian Ethics. The book was a follow-up to his highly controversial, absolutely marvelous little book called Taking Leave of God. (1980).

Taking Leave of God had taken what theologians sometimes call a non-realist position: God is a conglomerate of expressions about god, but not the same as any individual expression nor any total of these expressions. In this sense, God is not “real,” and so any idea that this God has given moral commandments to the human race is untrue.

Like a lot of non-realists, I prefer to say that God is not real instead of saying “I do not believe in God,” or more confidently, “There is no God.” I have no idea whether there is any god that equates to any idea or expression of god. How could I? When I say “God is not real, “ I simply mean that there is not now nor has there ever been a being equivalent to the descriptions of the divine being in sacred scripture and Christian (or any) theology. I am not saying that Christian theology is deficient and some other person’s theology is “right.” I am saying that while I cannot rule out the possibility of God, I can rule out the historical descriptions of him and the rules of conduct thought by some religious people to emanate from him. It’s odd how close this is to atheism, but the atheists I know are the last to admit it.

The idea of the unreality of God gets us beyond the existence question in a healthy linguistic way, because it means that there is no way to experience the reality of God in the way we experience the reality of the world. We know that the historical, traditional descriptions of God are man made. We know this as fact.

The commandments of the Bible and Quran are man-made as well. They are ideas that were used in antiquity to flesh in the idea of God as lawgiver and sovereign over the customs and conduct of human beings. Almost certainly, they are the work of a professional class–priests, prophets, royal sycophants and bureaucrats.

With the collapse of the biblical-realist idea of God, which happened in theology beginning in the nineteenth century, the idea of “divine command” ethics was washed away as well. For many contemporary theologians it does not matter that a great many errant and usually unrefined voices still defend the “reality” of God, the basic soundness of the biblical view of God, or the general “wisdom” (if not the details) of divine command theory. It should matter however that these voices are evidently the only ones of any interest to Atheist Newbies and matter as well that the most vocal critics of religion don’t really seem to care about making the careful distinctions that would, if ignored, sink them as experts in any other field–especially the sciences. The moral is, it is easy to be a critic in a field in which you’re an amateur.

However, the most important thing about Cupitt’s ethics is that he regards the end of realism (the end of the belief in the reality of the God of the Bible) as a turning point in human history. Rather than setting up a straw-man opposition between the “truth” of science (and any ethics emanating from “scientific reason,” whatever that is) and the falsity of religion (with its God-driven, rule based, non-negotiable edicts), Cupitt sees the end of God as a challenge that confronts everyone: the atheist may consider herself free of it, but her obsession with continuing to play with tin solders contradicts her freedom. The Christian, Jew, Muslim on the other hand must begin by acknowledging that the challenge has not been met, and that they may still be infatuated with ideas they have never taken the time to question or examine:

The end of the old realistic conception of God as an all-powerful and objective spiritual Being independent of us and sovereign over us makes it now possible and even necessary for us to create a new Christian ethics. It is we ourselves who alone make truth, make value, and so have formed the reality that now encompasses us.”

Cupitt’s position is far more radical than it seems—radical precisely because he is not saying what I take the Atheist Newbies to be saying–that is, if they are arguing a kind of ethical détente between believers and nonbelievers consolidated in the paralytic slogan, “It is possible to be good without God.”

Cupitt is saying that it is not only (or primarily) the atheist who must learn to do without God-based ethics. Believers do not have the option to choose a reality of godly proportions and christen his commandments as the divine will as a cover and support for their morality. He is saying that everyone, including believers, must learn to be “good” without a God who is not real in the first place, who has never spoken—and not just not to atheists–and certainly not to the modern mind.

This is optionless ethics, where an atheist will find no opportunity to exchange the fixed certainties of religion for the discovered truths of science as an alternate source of ethical reassurance.

“There is no bedrock and nothing is fixed, not my identity nor my sexuality nor my categories of thought, nothing… There is no external measure or value or disvalue– and therefore our life is exactly as precious or as insignificant as we ourselves make it out to be.”

In his work, Cupitt has always been clear that there is a strong religious argument against religious ethics and against the objective existence of God. Religious argument against God? Yes, certainly. It shows through vividly in those faiths that profess an absolute loyalty to an absolute ruler who reigns from the heavens. In Christianity and Islam, the idea that God exists primarily to tell us what to do, knows what we do, and reacts by punishing and rewarding what we do, is prominent if not primary. It is not only repressive; it so limits the idea of the freedom of human beings that this sort of God cannot really desire choice as part of his plan for salvation: salvation would necessarily (and actually does) mean salvation from the structures he imposes on his own creatures.

Cupitt dismisses with a stroke of the quill the turbid debates of two millennia concerning freedom and bondage of the will and says that they are a conceptual overwrite of a scriptural tradition that precludes them—inveigled in from philosophy, planted in Eden, but with no convincing root system. “An objective God cannot save anyone. …The more God is absolutised, the more we are presented with the possibility of living under the dominion of a cosmic tyrant who will allow nothing, and least of all religion, to change and develop.”

The unreal God of the Christian tradition is nothing more than humanity setting limits on its own self-understanding by projecting such a tyrant and his rules as restrictions on human freedom. Nowadays, Cupitt argues, “the nature of language dictates what can and cannot meaningfully be said of anything, God included.”

As to the thesis that it is possible to be “good” without God: The more radical proposition is that a morality based on choice and freedom is only possible once the reality of God has been sacrificed to a deeper understanding of our own humanity.

Interrogating Tradition: A Prospectus for Humanist Studies*

*Lecture given at Goddard College, October 30, 2009 launching the Goddard Humanist Studies Initiative.

In 2004 I became chair of the department of Religion and Human Values at Wells College in upstate NY, not far from Ithaca where I now live. I was intrigued by the name of the department: most colleges and universities of any size and distinction have departments of religion, or departments of religious studies, or in some cases, Harvard to name one, programs in the “study of religion,” but a department of religion and human values–how intriguing, how mysterious. What’s going on here I wondered. I asked a colleague how the juxtaposition occurred and she told me that once upon a time the idea had been to organize teaching around the conversation between the ideas and ethical practices that we normally associate with the world’s religious traditions, and those that emanate from the secular realm.

Over time new faculty came and went, the department chair who had proposed the name became a born-again Jungian and absconded, leaving her legacy behind her along with a patchwork of courses that looked very much like any other religious studies program I had known. As I proceeded to rework the curriculum, I kept coming back to the original idea and tried to sort out in my own head what was wrong with it.

The problem was that if you call something “religion and human values” it assumes that there are two independent and perhaps antagonistic streams of thought and action that grow up quite separately from each other, one mired in an interesting but fundamentally mythic or discredited worldview, the other socially responsible, scientific, rational and relevant.

But those of us who think of ourselves as philosophers, historians, social scientists or artists know that it isn’t that simple. Religion isn’t a “knowledge pool” and secularism doesn’t spring like the ever reasonable Athena from the head of all powerful Zeus. The relationship is more complicated and is more evolutionary and erratic than symmetrical.

Having spotted the problem in a curriculum that didn’t live up to its name and probably never could, I was still intrigued by the fact that if we simply dumped the name human values we would lose something of importance. Philosophy as an academic profession cared more about technical philosophy and had spent the last fifty years trying to become a science. Religious studies had bought phenomenology hook, line and sinker and now considered itself primarily a descriptive field, wedged somewhere between literary studies and anthropology. True, our best colleges offered thematic writing seminars and various opportunities to look at topics and issues from cross-disciplinary angles. But where in the college and university curriculum would “human values” get a fair hearing? Where would students learn that at a macro level, they were the beneficiaries of a long struggle for humanistic and secular learning—something the modern university quietly embodied but failed to express.

In 2006, I became a vice president of the Center for Inquiry, tasked with building up its educational offerings. I brought the “Wells conundrum” with me to the job. In fall of the same year I flew to Miami for a meeting with a donor and a dean at the University of Miami to see whether an alliance could be forged between the Center and the University with the specific purpose of creating a program in human values or humanist studies. The dean, who remains a close friend, was direct, skeptical and helpful: He said in so many words that the modern research university is an industrial, money-making entity. It is interested in rankings, faculty development, growth, and visibility. In short, it has to be competitive with institutions that look just like it.

Moreover, he said, how is a program in humanism any different from what the college or university does every day in its scores of departments, research programs, centers and consultations? Isn’t the promotion of reason and science not only among the goals a university aims to achieve but the foundation of a good university’s existence?

I have to say, I was slightly stunned. Stunned because the answer to the question (yes) is actually strongly implied in the premise. The assumption is that the modern university is humanistic, secular, committed to science and reason, or at least to certain values that make its work possible and its product worth paying for. The further assumption is that whether you are studying Romance Linguistics or Creative Writing, biochemistry or technical theater, you are the beneficiary of this implied humanism.

So I said to the dean that nowhere in this industrial competitive model is the working assumption made clear to students. For the students, the supermarket is all about choice and the product is groceries. Increasingly it is the aggregation of disaggregation and the role of the university or college is to provide maps in the form of distribution requirements and maximum variety rather than a learning prospectus. What they are missing is any careful reflection on why education is valuable to begin with, why the products of human culture are worth studying, why we need to think of the past as more than a series of ancient embarrassments that we need to fix, or why the future is not necessarily a smooth sea called scientific progress leading to a better world.

Unfortunately, unless human values, the study of the secular, and an explicit humanism can be brought forward as integral to whatever the overworked phrase liberal education means, the most visible, well programmed, highly ranked university or college in the world will not be doing its job.

I had come a long way from puzzling over the phrase to recognizing that the poor dear Jungian who tried to slot it into the curriculum had been onto something.

But what?

The term human values has been around for awhile. The Princeton University Center for Human Values was founded in 1990,

“through the generosity of Laurance S. Rockefeller ‘32, to foster ongoing inquiry into important ethical issues in private and public life and supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values throughout the curriculum and across the disciplines at Princeton University.”

Partly this was done, if you examine the history of the Center, to provide the sort of integrating counterweight to the movement of disaggregation I was just describing. The problem, however, is that the Center was conceptualized as a research and “special events” agency, and research centers devolve quickly, even with the best of intentions into restaurant menus: lectures on fascinating topics that soon begin to mirror the private interests of big-name speakers.

Without saying that this has what has happened at Princeton, I invite you inspect the most recent lecture schedule posted on the website. What you will find are lectures on “Economic Freedom within the EU,” one on “Bioliberation,” and quite a few called “title to be announced,” strongly implying that the status of the speaker outweighs any systematic effort to link topic to vision.

I am tempted to say Let Princeton be Princeton, but rather like the situation at Wells College, there is a tendency to use the term human values so generously that its key markers—humanism and secularism are hardly mentioned at all.

What Mark Schulman, the president of Goddard, and I began discussing over two years ago now is the possibility of creating a degree program where these markers are front and center-not embedded in a general studies program, not lost among the shelves of the educational Wal-Mart, not used as a counterpoint to religion or a synonym for science or just another way of talking about ethics.

But before that discussion can take place, a little positioning “beyond Princeton” is necessary–on the premise that it’s better to avoid Alice’s situation in that famous dialogue with the Cheshire cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?,” Alice asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” says the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” replies Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat. For purposes of what comes out of this dialogue, direction and definition matter because we have some idea of where we would like to end up. Otherwise, as Cicero said, “Stercus accidit.”

In the first place, human values are cultural. They may lead to the writing of books, including ones considered sacred, but they do not emanate from those books.

They are not revealed but developed. The basic principle in the human sciences is that we make culture and live in it and through it. The human values are the ones that we bring with us to this process.

Because we’re in culture “like” a fish is in water, there are key elements of our life that we don’t question, analyze, or think very much about. (The story about not telling a bee it can’t fly is a case in point). We value life, we value the continuation of life—not just our own but the lives of others and the life of the planet and the environment that supports it. And we know that most other values we can name originate in that primary valuation and that the various specialized cultures (agriculture, horticulture, techno-culture) support different parts of our existence in different ways.

But we’re not fish and we’re not bees. Human values are the values that make us human. The question of human values, as we examine the various discrete cultures that touch our lives is whether there is anything that rises above the specialized value-systems that emerge in relation to the demands of each community. If all systems of culture are need-driven, if (as we think) needs differ from culture to culture, and if we are the makers and managers of culture, isn’t the fundamental value competition and everything else piety? An impressive number of thinkers have thought so.

I am not asking that question just to say No (too pious) but to say that that’s the kind of question that would arise in this program. It is the kind of question that arises for a humanist–for someone interested in interrogating and not merely analyzing tradition.

What a humanist studies program will look like will depend on its incorporating core questions about the human past, the human condition in the present, and a vision for the future. That’s not just a cliché way of thinking about a curriculum as an obligatory three-part soul but a way of thinking about its objectives. It describes three dimensions or areas of interrogation:

1) Human achievement. Take this, broadly speaking, as the historical or social-historical dimension. Humanism is not a glorification of the human past and the accomplishments of great people. The Great Man theory of history had its heyday in the 19th century and educational programs are still recovering from the model and the assured conclusions concerning what constitutes greatness. When politicians in Washington or Moscow “invoke” national mythologies or impose patriotic categories on contemporary issues, it’s the archaic-categorical version of history they invoke. Since human values is a critical and question-provoking field, the emphasis for a student is to develop skills in analyzing and interrogating a whole range of artefacts—different expressions of material culture, ideas, ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions and social experiments. It is multidimensional and layered rather than linear and chronological.

Historical study—which would include everything from archaeology to political studies and the history of ideas—suggests that we value memory: we write things down. We pass things on—everything ranging from nursery rhymes to myths, prejudices, superstition to battle stories and folk wisdom and techniques of war. The cultural world is composed of these memories in various forms—books, poems, art, cemeteries, ruins, myths, rituals. What do we value about the past that makes memory significant? How does the study of human achievement and memory integrate our knowledge or, in some sense, help us to understand the kind of creatures we are and the challenges we confront? Are we capable of reaching a deeper understanding of human achievement than we get in the average lecture on the Crusades, or the nineteenth century novel, or a power-point on the Battle of Marathon? The interrogation of the past, to be straightforward about this, is not the memorization of data but an experimental approach to a shared global history.

2) Human Responsibility. Just as we value the past, we have also valued certain forms of behavior. During our time on this planet, we have obeyed the customs and taboos of the tribe, the rules of priests and kings, and the commandments of various gods, and the ideologies of secular states. If one thing has characterized our behavior in general right up to the present day, it is that we have seldom thought of ourselves as the sources of these norms and regulations, and we have just as often been their victims as their beneficiaries.

It is easy to understand this procession from god-given to legislative as the swell of progress from fear to understanding. And that is certainly a theory that many secular people cherish. But just as we can point to the creation of social networks and the creation of cities as a chapter in the history of human achievement, we also have to point to war, class division, sex and gender inequality, and economic exploitation of whole human populations as failures of secular idealism.

That is to say, while we are ethics-making creatures, we are also often recidivist in the way we approach the question of responsibility. If responsibility is a human value, how can we approach it without a systematic knowledge of various political, theological and philosophical attempts to ask the question that Aristotle subsumes under a discussion of happiness and the good life for the human animal? What would that systematic approach look like? What sorts of questions would we expect a student enrolled in a humanist studies program to be asking, and how would those questions be translated into action, leadership, and the education of others?

Many humanists just now are talking about the Good-without-God craze, but I happen to think that the entire campaign is capital misspent. If there is a real correlation between human good (that is, the good for human beings) and human goodness, the God-question doesn’t arise at all. It should not dominate the interrogation of human responsibility for humanists since the question of “how ought we to behave” cannot be defined antithetically to settled dogma and metaphysics that put human beings in inferior positions. Put a bit more cynically, and epistemologically: how does the humanist know he is good without God?

3) Finally, Human Imagination. Yes, the vision thing. The utopias and dystopias, Star Wars and Heavenly Reward. I tend to think that the only difference between the vision of a science fiction writer and the vision of the author of the Book of Revelation is that the latter is conscious fraud (well-intended perhaps) whereas a lot of science fiction is studiously non-fraudulent and honest.

But human imagination encompasses a wide variety of forms, and incorporates both the proposals of science and theories about our ability to imagine the future—apocalyptically, rationally, or idealistically. It may be true that we can’t depend on the Congress of the United States to imagine a universal health care plan, but historically human beings have imagined worlds without war and wars between worlds. Imagination has been used to warn, excite, scare, destroy, and to reveal possibilities that would have seemed impossible if we were simply the pawns of history and the victims of the past.

We have not only imagined creator gods but a creatorless universe whose beginnings are subject to various imaginative solutions. And we need to recognize that the sciences and not just the arts rely on this value and that it worth exploration in its own right. That sentiment is encapsulated in Einstein’s famous comment, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” A certain psychological bias, familiar to humanists, may raise a flag on this value: after all, we have imagined all sorts of things, ranging from heavenly patriarchs to savior gods to a world without Jews to monsters in the deep.

But the fact that we have envisioned a full range of possibilities and have expressed it in art, literature, science and religion doesn’t diminish the need to interrogate the value. We need to encourage an awareness in the student of human values the central role of the imagined world because as Carl Sagan commented a generation ago, “imagination will carry us to worlds we can never see but without it we will go nowhere.”

These are the categories through which I think a coherent program in humanist studies can be developed. They are broad not because generalization is a good thing but because the purpose of such a program is to stress the unity of areas of discovery that are atomized in the departmental nature of the modern university.

You’ll notice that throughout this treatise there is a strong emphasis on the interrogation of tradition. I have refrained deliberately from using the word skepticism because “skepticism” is a habit of thought whereas interrogation is an active and constructive skill. Today especially skepticism is simply identified with what is not believed, what is capable of being disproved or debunked. Education needs to do more than train the seven year old not to believe in the preposterous or to look for card in the magician’s left hand when the right one is in motion. Interrogation is the constructive assessment of what is given to us in every area of knowledge and its motive force is curiosity and the desire for truth–which is the end of knowledge.

Painting Building at Goddard College

Ideally, all higher learning should emphasize interrogation, but it is difficult to move beyond canons, bibliographies and the accumulated structure that defines the modern university and college to that further horizon. Francis Bacon did it in the Novum Organum of 1626 when he challenged the grip of scholasticism and church authority on university training at Oxford and Cambridge, the reliance on authority and tradition and the dark suspicion of new forms of learning—especially experimentation.

Goddard’s program in humanist studies will not break the grip of specialization, but it will offer a humanistically critical approach to sources and authorities. We want to give students who are not content with compartmentalized learning and information a chance to be humanists in two senses: widely read and literate in a variety of disciplines, and highly critical of received opinion and tradition through developing the art of interrogation.
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