In my first post I wrote that philosophy ought to be more concrete and applicable to human life. With this in mind, I think we should bracket the timeless fundamental conundrums and focus instead on the most significant product of philosophy: unclouded thought. In this post I will expand on what I consider to be the first of the three most important human projects that sorely lack level-headed thinking today.
1. Replacing Religion.
It’s about time that books with titles like God is Not Great, The God Delusion and The End of Faith made it onto Bestseller lists. Perhaps you agree with these books. If not, you might still agree as a religious person (or as a particularly non-confrontational non-believer) that broadening the conversation about religion in the 21st Century is not innately bad.
Full disclosure: I don’t believe in God or any religious articles of faith that I have seen. I also doubt the pragmatic value of religion in modern society. I further believe that religion is a significant factor – though certainly not the only factor – in major global problems such as terrorism, ethnic disputes and war in general. In short, I think religion has long outlived its usefulness and needs to go away as quickly as possible.* But how religious beliefs ought to be phased out is a question I won’t pretend to answer here. I suspect they will never be eliminated, even among a significant portion of the population. In fact, I suppose I’m glad that religious beliefs can’t disappear overnight when I consider the likely fallout:
- Millions of single men would be out of work and making their awkward debut on the dating scene.
- A huge number of people would be without the charity they depended on for essentials like food, shelter, education or medicine.
- Sunday morning TV would consist almost entirely of cartoons and secular infomercials..
- A surge in available office, living and recreational space would flood the real estate market.
- An end to tax-exempt status for religious buildings would generate increased local and federal tax revenues.
- Countless people around the world would be left with emotional, spiritual and conceptual holes in their lives.
- And so on…
Although some of these would be welcome changes, I think it’s clear that the overall effects of suddenly vanishing religion would be disastrous. Religion is too pervasive to simply extract from society without something to replace its social functions. Good or bad, organized religion has survived in its many forms partly because followers find it fulfilling. Many millions of people would likely claim that their religion is a necessary component of their lives. My counter-argument is quite simple. I think people confuse religion with the distinct social functions it packages under the mantle of a particular doctrine. Basic aspects of human nature are manifest in the structures of the most successful organised religions. Let’s very briefly consider three broad examples.
First we should note that our relatively short history on Earth has been marked by great ignorance. Religions purport to fill this gap by boldly claiming to answer many of humans’ fundamental questions. The meaning of life, the nature of death, the reasons for evil and suffering, and how we are to act are all traditionally in the province of religious thought. For many people religion provides a psychologically satisfying worldview that diminishes the problems that plague all human societies. Even if it does so indirectly, via false premises, religion actually does provide reassurance, community-building and comfort to believers.
Second, let’s consider some basic elements of human societies. A fundamental reality is that humans generally value traditions, customs and ceremonies. Religions happen to excel at providing these valued social functions. Humans also tend to uphold hierarchies, and religious leaders are often political experts. As respected, influential figures in most societies, leaders of organised religion have exploited their authority throughout history to further their own interests, which they package along with points of doctrine. Under the guise of metaphysics and morality, religions have profited immensely from basic structures of social organisation.
Third and finally, let’s take charitable works as a case study. It is simply a fact that churches have a wide philanthropic reach around the world, perhaps at times even beyond that of governments and major secular NGO’s. Despite the stain of missionary work (which I find a particularly unappealing conduct of organised religion), religious organisations do tremendously good work around the world, contributing a great deal to the world’s vulnerable people. But if you are convinced that the reason you seek to do good deeds is inextricably linked to your religion, you will defend your religion on the basis of these good works. And perhaps it’s true that religion motivates some people to help others who otherwise might not. However we know that secular groups can match the work of religious ones minus the recourse to dogmatic beliefs. The notion that it takes religion to provide a moral framework for good works is simply a distressingly common mistake. And yet organized religions defend themselves (and raise a lot of money to boot) with this insinuation. To the humanist, religions are not important because they advocate good works. Rather, religions derive some of their social importance from the importance of the good works they do.
In short, religions have cemented their existence by latching on to many of humans’ most fundamental desires, fears, ideals and needs. Religions pretend to exclusively and conclusively solve or account for these issues. This is the genius of religion. I will return to this theme in a later post on how memes can be particularly useful in the study of religion.
Organised religion will continue to exist, and indeed thrive, well into the foreseeable future, but not because it is the exclusive or most effective institution to carry out its multiple social roles. And yet this very notion widely persists. In response it is not enough for scientists, politicians, philosophers and others to simply criticise religion for its many ills, which I need not enumerate here. Instead, the time is ripe for a dialogue about what constitutes a positive ethical framework for the non-believer in the 21st Century. There is much discussion bubbling in academia, but unlike the books by the “new atheists”, the dialogue has not yet garnered popular attention. I suspect that part of the problem is marketing, for lack of a better word. Religions are the major brands that people have come to trust. They offer better value and come in fancier packaging. Humanism needs an exciting revamp and massive advertising campaign to support its re-launch onto the marketplace of ideas. If we don’t spin humanism the right way, it doesn’t stand much of a chance. What religion posits as sacred and immutable, humanism posits as consensual, yet open to evolving norms. Religion generally offers fantastic metaphysical rewards for compliance and piety. Humanism rejects such rewards outright and posits that goodness is its own reward. Subtlety may make for a better argument, but it certainly doesn’t make for a better sales pitch. And although humility is ostensibly a part of every religion, it is clear from a tour of the world’s most ostentatious religious sites that this is hardly taken seriously in practice. Humanism, to its credit, actually takes the principle of modesty to heart. Fortunately this constrains the possibility of unsavoury humanist proselytizing. On the other hand, this likely explains the inertia of humanist ideals in modern society.
But isn’t it fair to say that humanist ideals have spread quite well in the Western world since the Enlightenment? Secular humanism posits many fundamental freedoms that even devoutly religious people living in the West duly support: equality beneath the law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, no taxation without representation, and other related democratic ideals. It is interesting that democratic packaging is far more palatable to religious people than a roughly equivalent humanist version. Perhaps it is in matters of personal conduct that humanism is seen as an inadequate moral foundation. In order to test this, I will finally have to say what I think humanism is really all about. Here it is:
I call humanism the personal and communal endeavour to manifest what we call empathy, civility, compassion, generosity, humility, reverence for the natural world and recognition of the other.
Something about all of these points should be fairly remarkable: most nominally religious, moderate people living in the Western world (and indeed elsewhere) would subscribe to each of these ideals independently. Each one of these has been the topic of many a sermon, prayer or other religious countenance. Most of them are just common sense. “Be nice to others” is not exactly a groundbreaking proposal. It isn’t particularly fertile ground for heated conceptual debate either. I suspect most people would view many of the basic humanist principles of moral conduct as common sense and entirely intuitive. This brings me to my main point; it isn’t the content of religion that should particularly concern us. It is the framework of organised religion, blind faith, and (mostly) unelected hierarchies that causes so much confusion in our moral discourse. By accidents of history, politics, evolution and geography, religion has ascended to its exalted place in human affairs. It piggybacks on independently valuable ideals, actions and concerns.
The humanist simply wishes to remove the free-riding, non-contributing framework of religion and replace it with a more flexible, open alternative. Because as much as I have stressed the shared values of humanism and religion, the devil is in the details. When the question of limits comes about, (who to recognize, empathize with, how much to value, help) the humanist is better equipped to recognize how arbitrary our parochial distinctions are likely to be. A humanist can admit that prejudices are likely functions of geography and culture and era. We can recognize that things are supposed to change, that the traditionally marginal can eventually be accepted. Many religious people might recognize this as well, but their worldview leaves them hamstrung. It is much easier to defend a conservative position when it is fossilized in your Holy Texts or is outspokenly advocated by one of your most respected leaders. Furthermore, it is much easier for collective inertia to take hold when a few particularly conservative leaders stake certain doctrinal points on the integrity of the whole package. ‘A good Christian believes x‘ is apparently enough to stifle debate, provided that it comes through the right channels. A result of the internal logic of religion is that the role of debate is secondary to that of tradition and received wisdom, as influenced by certain leaders or influential subsets of believers.
The point humanists need to make clear is that it truly matters how ideals are cobbled together to form a worldview. The job of humanist advocates and philosophers is to make the case for a worldview that still has norms and values, but that is based on open dialogue, consensus and evolution. New information should result in new values. For this reason, the role of science is crucial to the humanist package and it will be the focus of the post after next, which will be on a humanist theory of recognition.
I know this post is long so I offer this quick summary/conclusion:
One can be an atheist and recognize the indirect, positive effects of religion. But to be an effective campaigner for the replacement of religion, the atheist must argue how the social goods traditionally commandeered by religion can be independently established and maintained. Religion does not need to be demolished to build up a humanist worldview, but the responsiveness and accuracy of any competing worldviews must be compared. Humanism replaces the role of religion, but it does not promise the same things. It leaves many doubts festering in plain sight and is perhaps far less comforting in times of devastation. Nevertheless, a humanist discourse is what we need to address the many moral and social problems that face humans in an increasingly complex world. Gaining ground for humanism at the expense of jealous religions is a challenge that sorely needs help from philosophy.
*To lump all religions in together is in most cases wholly unsophisticated. As Sam Harris rightly points out on many occasions, undertaking fundamentalist Islamic jihad is different than adopting the fundamentalist Jain do-no-harm principle. I hope that for the purposes of this post the reader can tolerate broad strokes concerning the nature of organised religion.