2011-05-02

The need to challenge liberal religion as well as fundamentalism

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by Tim Widowfield

I’ve been catching up (thanks Mary) with other blog posts addressing atheism, in particular the New Atheists and their strident criticism of religion, in particular those appearing in response to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views and posts by Stephanie L. Fisher. One that has particularly caught my attention, along with its related comments, is The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism by Eric MacDonald. Part of my initial curiosity Eric’s post was learning that it was related to a lead post by Stephanie L. Fisher, and that Fisher’s post had subsequently been taken down. This is the second time this has happened recently — presumably on her own requests after others responded critically. (R. Joseph Hoffmann has since explained in a comment below that he removed Steph’s guest post as a matter of routine policy. I am sure Stephanie will like to repost it somewhere where it can have a more stable history.)

I enjoyed Eric’s post enough, and many of the related comments to it, and was incensed enough over assertions by some who like to be called humanists but object to being called atheists (even though they apparently do not believe in god/s), to join the fray with my own thoughts on the importance of atheists publicly challenging religious belief systems. My own thoughts are amateurish and inchoate compared with those expressed by Eric. But one has to start somewhere. Perhaps feedback can help me sort out with a bit more depth and rationality my own ideas. So here goes.

I am an atheist and a secular humanist. I sometimes do good deeds, like donating to worthy causes and people in need. I sometimes give my time and effort to help strangers in difficulty, and I sometimes speak up on behalf of those unable to do so for themselves, and I have been involved in several social justice and anti-war activist campaigns. None of this is anything special because I know in these things I am no different from most people I know.

The reason I state this here is to point out that at no time do I do any of these things in the name of atheism or humanism. I do not attribute any of these things to my atheism or sense of humanism.

If you were to ask me about my grander views of our place in the universe, I would speak of a sense of identification and one-ness with all humanity above any sense of nationalism or racial identity. I would speak of the distinctive characteristics that make us human, and our universal values, as staging posts in the ongoing process of evolution.

I am an atheist and a humanist because of rational and scientific understanding of life, the universe and everything. My atheism or humanism does not prescribe for me how or what to think about gods of humans. It is what I have come to understand through rational and scientific processes about gods and humans that makes me an atheist and secular humanist.

Religion is different in obvious ways. It does prescribe what to think about humanity’s place in relation to the supernatural, and the place of the individual in relation to all others. Some people may conclude there is a god for any number of intuitive (not scientific) reasons, but religion is much more than the simple idea of god.

This is not to say nonreligious thinking by definition is without risk. Scientific inquiry can of course find itself being hijacked for a terribly wrong cause, and people can arrive at ideologies and race theories that profess to explain humanity and prescribe what is true about our species. Prescriptive ideology and such theories of race are to be as much deplored as any other system of thought-coercion. Ideology starts where free inquiry stops — historically with a bullet or meat hook.

Simply being human means living with risk. Even our planet, with its unpredictable forces and competing life-forms, is only partially fit for human habitation.

We don’t need to add to our risks by allowing, unchallenged, fundamentalist belief systems that prescribe self perceptions and perceptions of others that are divisive, oppressive and very often psychologically and emotionally damaging.

Any of us who has knowledge of how fundamentalist belief systems work, in particular those related to religion, and who has an opportunity and ability to speak out or work with others, has a moral obligation to warn against this form of toxic and personally and socially harmful religious belief.

But where does that leave the liberal forms of these religious ideas?

Now I like it when Christians participate in social justice and anti-war causes. It’s good to hear some of them speak out for the values that have become the norms of enlightened modern society. Christianity has managed to survive through the centuries largely by managing to keep catching up with evolving cultural values. At least it is no longer pro-slavery. Some of its leading lights today have joined the secular causes for women’s and gay rights.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But I do feel queasy when I hear them justify these actions in terms of their religious beliefs. Baloney! Those religious beliefs change with the times. I suggest that those adherents of religion would be just as committed to social justice causes in any other environment. I believe in doing my bit for humanity for the simple reason that it is part of my human nature to want to do that. There is no need to rationalize my actions in terms of some other belief system, unless I really am acting against my will. There is no need for religious activists to use their good deeds to promote their religious belief systems.

Those religious belief systems should be challenged by atheists and secular humanists for the simple reason that they support the foundation of the worst of the fundamentalist belief systems. One can even say that fundamentalists are on the whole merely taking seriously, or literally, the fundamentals of what the liberals believe and teach. I can’t imagine many clergy more liberal than John Shelby Spong. Generally speaking I think it is fair to say he does not want anyone taking the Bible literally. But he does want people taking it seriously, and to believe in a God essence of some sort behind it all. He reserves a licence for jumping the rails of rationality (critiquing the Bible) and embracing a form of irrational mysticism. Faith trumps rationality and scientific reasoning.

So ultimately even one like Spong stands within the same faith-centred perspective as any fundamentalist does. The battle between the two is how to build on that faith foundation. To what extent should they embrace the values of the secular world? Spong is fearful that unless they embrace them Christianity may die. His fundamentalist opponents believe Christianity will die if they do embrace those values. The contest is over tactics. The strategy, the goal, the foundation, — all of these are the same.

We saw an astonishing case of just how irrational and out of touch with normal secular thought processes liberal theologians can be recently when Butler University’s Associate Professor James McGrath publicly declared he had no ability to formulate his arguments as a syllogism and that he had no answer for the logical argument of Earl Doherty. He could only reply that he preferred to think the way his theological peers do, and once again resorted to spitting insults. When introduced to a book analyzing artefact by artefact (from the scholarly publications) the archaeological evidence for Nazareth, his immediate reaction was not to seek to read the book for himself but to ask someone to debunk it, and to publish blatant falsehoods about what the author had written. If there is anyone who epitomizes all that Hector Avalos has pointed out is plain wrong with liberal biblical scholarship today it is surely James McGrath.

The examples of irrationality and out of touch thought processes among liberal Christian scholars can be multiplied. This area of institutionalized (mostly liberal Christian) scholarship does little for public enlightenment or the values of rationality and norms of logical or scientific thought processes.

Not all liberal Christian scholars are like McGrath, fortunately. There are a number who do have the honesty to acknowledge the weaknesses of their own scholarly processes, and I have engaged with a few who are courteous and intellectually honest. I would include Spong himself among those. It would be uncivil and disrespectful to go out of my way to criticize them personally for their beliefs. Nor would never think to challenge my octogenarian mother over her religious beliefs.

But public debate is different. Atheists and secular humanists who speak out against religion in all its forms have a rightful place in society. There are reasons to believe that even liberal forms of religion are torchbearers for the a belief system that does bring in its wake much harm from the widest societal levels down to thwarted personal developments of individuals.

Sure there is also good done by many religionists, and of course many individuals have had their lives turned around for the better when they have turned to a religion. (Hitler for a while also did much good for young people, women, the unemployed and transport systems. Many who experience some of the more extreme excesses of fundamentalist religion can say the experience was totally without benefits.) That is all part of the debate that deserves to be aired and addressed.

I am personally not fussed on the politics of some of the new atheists, and I have criticized some of the statements of Hitchens and Harris that I think fan ignorance. But that’s no huge deal. It widens the debate and opens opportunities to express and correct public ignorance.

Any attempt to stifle public criticism of religious beliefs is to be deplored as a retrograde step for human progress.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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48 Comments

  • rey
    2011-05-02 15:23:11 GMT+0000 - 15:23 | Permalink

    I liked this comment where he was making fun of Steph’s analysis, and he says “In other words, the atheist goal of obliterating religion is simply quixotic, and atheists should simply cease and desist with the radical critique of religion.”

    But obviously, she’s right. If the problem atheists have with religion and god is that religions represent god as a tyrant, then instead of attacking god (which only emboldens the most fundamentalist and cruel of religionists to be more cruel and more outspoken, and to proselytize with more zeal)…instead of this pointless, quixotic, attack on the very existence of god, they ought to simply teach a better kinder more rational god. You have to fight religion with religion.

    Atheists have to become Deists in other words. It was Deists after all that came up with natural law and human rights. Atheists are just a bunch of complainers taking credit for all the achievements that Deists made. All our freedoms in America depend on the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” Can you imagine an atheist Declaration of Independence “all men evolved from monkeys and therefore can be killed by the government whenever considered undesirable” or a Christian or Muslim one “all men who are not Christians/Muslims are blasphemers and should be stoned.” Only the Deists could have achieved the success of human rights because only their philosophy really allows for it. Atheism cannot see all men as created equal, since it doesn’t see them as created at all. Thomas Jefferson showed up how to fight crazy religion, and it wasn’t by atheism: it was by Deism. Duh.

    • 2011-05-02 16:49:06 GMT+0000 - 16:49 | Permalink

      rey: “Can you imagine an atheist Declaration of Independence ‘all men evolved from monkeys and therefore can be killed by the government whenever considered undesirable’…

      No, I cannot, because if Jefferson had learned about evolution he wouldn’t be so stupid as to think that “men evolved from monkeys.” Jefferson could read, and he was smarter than you and me put together. He’d tell you that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. Duh. I have no doubt that if Jefferson were alive today and knew about evolution, genetics, quantum mechanics, modern cosmology, etc., he’d be an atheist. After all, a deist is just an insufficiently educated atheist.

      However, I can imagine the deists of the French Revolution and their Committee of Public Safety. I can also imagine the streets of Paris running red with blood. Because it happened.

      Perhaps you remember a little thing called the French Revolution and their Church of the Divine Being. Fine deists, all. And maybe you also remember the Reign of Terror?

      Deists, Christians, atheists, Muslims, and even Buddhists are all capable of the most horrific behavior. Sadly, the problem is not in our stars but in ourselves.

    • steven carr
      2011-05-02 19:10:58 GMT+0000 - 19:10 | Permalink

      ‘ “all men evolved from monkeys and therefore can be killed by the government whenever considered undesirable” ‘

      Are you claiming Americans find capital punishment abhorrent?

      • rey
        2011-05-03 13:03:08 GMT+0000 - 13:03 | Permalink

        No. The emphasis is on the “whenever considered undesirable” part of that sentence. The constitution says something about how we can’t be deprived of life or property “without due process of law.” In other words, you have to be convicted of a crime. You can’t just be euthanized like those morons on the atheist site supporting “choice to die” would undoubtedly support.

        • 2011-05-03 14:16:05 GMT+0000 - 14:16 | Permalink

          rey: “The constitution says something about how we can’t be deprived of life or property ‘without due process of law.'”

          At the outset, the Constitution also made clear that property trumped human life, especially when that life happened to be somebody else’s property. A slave-owner could mistreat, cruelly punish, or even kill his “property,” practically with impunity. Despite state laws on the books making such murders illegal, the fact that no “colored person” could testify in court meant the slaveholder could kill at will.

          So, sure, your wonderful deists believed that a citizen was protected by due process. It’s just that they had a much, much narrower definition of citizen, let alone human than what we have. And if the choice was between a citizen’s property versus three-fifths of a human, guess who won?

          Through reinterpretation and amendments (not to mention a bloody Civil War), things have certainly improved, but our Constitution, which I do admire and have sworn to protect more than once, is still much better at protecting property than life. The thumb of justice is always resting on the side of the scale that holds the property owner.

          • rey
            2011-05-04 10:44:24 GMT+0000 - 10:44 | Permalink

            Not everyone framing the constitution was a deist. I’m sure the pro-slavery crowd was mostly Christian. And for what its worth the famous clause stating that for the purposes of the census slaves would only count as 3/5’s a person was not meant to devlaue human life but to end slavery. You see, the population count in the census determines the number of representatives a state gets. Thus the pro-slavery states would get way more representatives than the anti-slavery states if slaves were counted in the census. Of course the slave states would never have signed on to a constitution that didn’t count slaves in the census–they wanted to have the advantage that would keep slavery alive. But a compromise had to be made so the anti-slavery crowd allowed them to count slaves in the census–but only as 3/5’s a person, so that the slave states would not be able to use large slave populations as a way to elevate the number of representatives they got in congress via the census. Ironically, counting the slaves as 3/5s a person for the census was actually anti-racist. But your school teachers were too brainwashed by the liberal media to know that.

            • 2011-05-04 16:25:22 GMT+0000 - 16:25 | Permalink

              rey: “…the famous clause stating that for the purposes of the census slaves would only count as 3/5’s a person was not meant to devlaue human life but to end slavery.”

              No, it was a compromise that assured the slave states would agree to join the new federal system and ratify the Constitution. Its intent was not to end slavery. As long as new states entered the Union at the rate of one slave state for each free state, it was well understood that slavery would not end. An equal number of slave and free states allowed the South to dominate the Senate. An inflated population count thanks to the three-fifths rule kept them competitive if not in outright control in the House.

              rey: “Ironically, counting the slaves as 3/5s a person for the census was actually anti-racist.”

              That is so wrong-headed I’m not sure where to start. How dominant was the South in antebellum politics? Let me give you some examples.

              1. The Dred Scott decision of affirmed that Americans of African descent were not and could not be citizens. In fact they were not persons of legal standing in the court system. The majority ruled that the three-fifths rule applied to population counts, not to individual humans. To put it in simple terms, a black man could be a free human, but he was not a citizen, nor was was he 3/5 of a citizen; he was 0/5 of a citizen. The Supreme Court at the time, of course, had been packed with judges sympathetic to slavery, judges who had been nominated by pro-slave Presidents — thanks to the South’s over-representation in the Electoral College.

              2. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forced Northern states to assist Southern slave owners in recovering their escaped property. How did such an odious law get passed? Because the South had sufficient political power in the federal government to demand passage as part of the Compromise of 1850.

              3. The Gag Rule

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gag_rule#United_States

              Yes, you will hear people talk about “rough parity” in the antebellum federal government. But consider this: Southern lawmakers had enough clout that they were able to forbid even the discussion of slavery for several years.

              What enabled the South to maintain its power in the Federal Government for most of the first century of the Republic? A combination of factors, to be sure, including balanced state admission into the Union and the South’s habit of continually sending the same people to Congress, thereby ensuring seniority privileges in committees. But one of the biggest tools that allowed the South to run roughshod over the government was the three-fifths rule that exaggerated its representation in the House and added greatly to its effect in the Electoral College.

              The Dred Scott decision in particular is one of the most racist documents you will ever read, and is still cause for shame. And it was made possible in large degree because of “Slave Power” made possible by the three-fifths rule.

              rey: “But your school teachers were too brainwashed by the liberal media to know that.”

              Now you have ventured into “not even wrong” land. You need to read more. Start here:

              http://books.google.com/books?id=ek9JxaIwAp4C&

              • rey
                2011-05-05 08:55:49 GMT+0000 - 08:55 | Permalink

                The 3/5 compromise was only intended for CENSUS purposes, INTENDED, I say. Was it used in pro-slavery propaganda to mean something else by illiterate morons who couldn’t understand the constitution nor the INTENTION of the framers? Duh. And I suppose if the framers hadn’t been elitist intellectual types they might have had brains enough to see that coming. They tried a rather sneaky tactic to trick the slave states into signing on to a constitution that they thought would eventually result in the abolishment of slavery. That their plan backfired is obvious. It takes a common man to see how bad a plan will backfire in the future. An intellectual thinks his nuance is so smart. That’s the problem with atheists just as it was with the founders. Abolishing religion will be as disastrous in the end as the 3/5 compromise. Just as the 3/5 compromise being for CENSUS purposes only was a distinction too fine for the common redneck to understand, so also any atheistic concept of morality will be too fine for them to understand. In 200 years a little you will be mocking the current you in the same way that you mock the founders…and it will be as well deserved.

              • 2011-05-05 09:31:56 GMT+0000 - 09:31 | Permalink

                rey: “They tried a rather sneaky tactic to trick the slave states into signing on to a constitution that they thought would eventually result in the abolishment of slavery.”

                That’s an interesting fantasy, but it bears no relationship to reality. The roots of the three-fifths compromise lie in the Articles of Confederation, in which it was used as part of the formula for levying taxes. Ironically, at that time the South didn’t want slaves to be counted at all, since more people meant a higher tax burden.

                During the Constitutional Convention, the roles were reversed. The North thought it unfair for non-voting property to be counted toward representation. Not surprisingly, the South wanted all slaves to be counted. The impasse was broken by delegates who recalled the earlier compromise on taxation.

                It’s true that some of the founders thought slavery would die of its own accord, especially once the transatlantic slave trade ended. (Sadly, it had little impact.) And, as I mentioned before, it was always believed that if the number of slave states could be contained, the institution would wither away.

                But nobody ever thought the three-fifths ratio would help end slavery. Quite the contrary, it gave them disproportionate power in the federal government for many decades.

                rey: “In 200 years a little you will be mocking the current you in the same way that you mock the founders…and it will be as well deserved.”

                Mock the founders? What the hell are you talking about? They created the first modern, secular republic. That’s a huge deal. They were geniuses and brave men of the finest caliber. However, they were not saints. We don’t do them any favors by pretending they were perfect.

                If anything, many of our system’s problems stem from the fact that they (the Founders) were the first. Later representative democracies came up with methods to deal better with proportional representation and ways to avoid plurality rule (like run-off elections).

                You should read about American history instead of making things up. I think you’d enjoy it.

              • 2011-05-05 11:52:30 GMT+0000 - 11:52 | Permalink

                Well done and nicely written, TW. Your civics (history) teacher would be proud of you for properly understanding and appreciating this oft abused and misunderstood compromise.

        • steven carr
          2011-05-03 15:27:02 GMT+0000 - 15:27 | Permalink

          I stand corrected.

          When you say it would be horrible for the government to kill ‘undesirables’ you didn’t mean murderers, who I now learn do not fall into the category of ‘undesirables’.

          Presumably Osama bin Laden was guaranteed ‘due process of law’ by the constitution. Or is it only American citizens who the US government has to give due process of law to before depriving them of life?

          Citizens of other countries can be considered ‘undesirables’ and killed to much rejoicing if an ‘undesirable’ is killed by Americans pledged to uphold the constitution saying all men are created equal.

          • 2011-05-03 16:22:58 GMT+0000 - 16:22 | Permalink

            You need to be corrected again, Steven. The U.S. President does indeed reserve the right to kill U.S. citizens without due process, and has acted on this privilege:

            http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article24516.htm
            and more recently —
            http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article25165.htm

            As for the particular rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, one of the first things I recall learning in my study of American history was the curious ways that famous phrase “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” found itself modified so that “property” kept appearing in various documents where once the word “happiness” stood.

            • 2011-05-03 16:56:23 GMT+0000 - 16:56 | Permalink

              John Locke’s original triad was “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson edited it slightly for the Declaration of Independence. You can find a fairly good summary here:

              http://books.google.com/books?id=ULQ99X_6r2YC&pg=PA65#v=onepage&q&f=false

              • 2011-05-03 17:08:17 GMT+0000 - 17:08 | Permalink

                I can understand Locke’s triad. He was attempting to arrive at natural law. Began with the implications of a person discovering some resource, e.g. an apple. All the theoretical questions of ownership were extrapolated from that scenario. But by the time it got to the post-Jeffersonian stage there were more practical (i.e. monetary and class-ownership) matters in question.

          • rey
            2011-05-04 10:45:34 GMT+0000 - 10:45 | Permalink

            Osama bin Laden wasn’t on American soil. He was killed in a military action on foreign ground. And what do you expect from a President who is a smoker?

            • rey
              2011-05-05 08:57:49 GMT+0000 - 08:57 | Permalink

              Plus, wasn’t he dead already anyway?

    • 2011-05-02 22:25:43 GMT+0000 - 22:25 | Permalink

      Time writes After all, a deist is just an insufficiently educated atheist.

      Very good.

      It adds to the notion that that agnostics (who are sufficiently educated not to be deists) are really just atheists who have managed to get themselves intellectually stuck on their journey across the fence between belief and non belief.

      • 2011-05-02 23:22:49 GMT+0000 - 23:22 | Permalink

        Agnosticism describes one’s attitude toward knowledge. Namely, can you know whether there is a god or gods?

        Atheism describes one’s attitude toward gods. Specifically, do you have a belief in god.

        They measure two different axes. Most atheists are also agnostics, including me. Many theists admit to being agnostics.

        Sorry for taking potshots at deists, but rey’s ridiculous post forced me to poke fun.

        • 2011-05-02 23:41:24 GMT+0000 - 23:41 | Permalink

          Of course agnosticism relates to knowledge, and every atheist I know admits to having no knowledge about god, but agnosticism is typically used to describe a position between belief and non belief as if this were honestly held (and often superior to) the somewhat grounded (and rather dirty) positions on either side of that fence.

          We don’t know an infinite number of things about everything so for self-proclaimed agnostics to remain intellectually honest, they must also assume a position of agnosticism about everything and not just cherry pick supernatural beliefs for their straddling. Gravity may work here but do we know it works the same way everywhere? Of course not, but few people will suggest it is desirable and perhaps even superior to be agnostic towards gravity when one is choosing how to leave one’s tenth floor apartment by its window or travel safely to the ground floor before exiting the building.

    • Veronica Abbass
      2011-05-02 21:32:01 GMT+0000 - 21:32 | Permalink

      rey says

      “But obviously, she’s right.”

      If Stephanie L. Fisher were right/correct, she would not have asked Hoffmann to remove her post. I do remember one statement, in the post or the comments, that humanism is a worldview. I don’t remember that Fisher or anyone else supported that statement.

      • rjosephhoffmann
        2011-05-02 21:58:48 GMT+0000 - 21:58 | Permalink

        Just for the record–Stephanie Fisher’s post was removed and are not archived like all guest pasts after 72 hours because I don’t have the time to moderate them: there have been a dozen other guest posts and three coming up and all are treated the same way.

  • maryhelena
    2011-05-02 16:05:11 GMT+0000 - 16:05 | Permalink

    rey: “Thomas Jefferson showed up how to fight crazy religion, and it wasn’t by atheism: it was by Deism. Duh.”

    Well, I, for one, just don’t get Deism. I can’t for the life of me imagine creating a beautiful garden and then failing to maintain it; or a beautiful house and letting the sun, wind and rain, do it’s damage without being available to clean up the damage. And lets not go there with watching the suffering of the sick and the poor……………Deism – no thanks……much worse than theism – at least that god had/has his chosen people, albeit giving them a hard time now and again – but always there for restoration….;-)

    No, one does not beat theology at it’s own game – one more god to add to the pile….One beat’s theology, by mounting the barricades and raising high that flag of atheism…..

  • 2011-05-02 19:41:33 GMT+0000 - 19:41 | Permalink

    Deism was about rationalism. Since Deism rationalists have discovered evolution. Evolution makes no difference to what is right and wrong, to justice and universal human values. It merely explains them scientifically — rationally. I think most eighteenth century Deists would be impressed.

  • rjosephhoffmann
    2011-05-02 21:37:23 GMT+0000 - 21:37 | Permalink

    [NOTE: I have moved rjosephofmann’s comment and follow up comments to the relevant post site: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/interview-with-rene-salm/#comment-16350 — Neil Godfrey]

  • 2011-05-02 22:24:03 GMT+0000 - 22:24 | Permalink

    I agree with Steph.

  • maryhelena
    2011-05-03 00:22:47 GMT+0000 - 00:22 | Permalink

    Neil: “Any attempt to stifle public criticism of religious beliefs is to be deplored as a retrograde step for human progress.”

    Steph: “In a truly humanist society, individual private beliefs will matter less and less, and education in a secular humanist state will probably eventually dissolve them. But that is a goal for education–not for coercion by unbelievers, who have no more right to urge their point of view than a believer has to encourage that America “rediscover” its Christian past.”

    So, the bottom line for steph is – just don’t go telling liberal Christian believers that their ideas are nonsense…..Indeed, no one is advocating that one stop one’s neighbour in the street and read them the riot act re their belief system. But public debate of ideas is required. Obviously, those who know steph’s history re certain ideas of the ahistoricists/mythicists variety – know full well what her aim is here. Pot shot at the ahistoricists/mythicists.

    Joseph Hoffmann is more concerned, being “an uncommitted player” in the ahistoricist/mythicist debate, with organized humanism rather than humanism in general. “…..read the most recent posts and reposts about the history of organized humanism in the last 75 years you would become convinced that there is not much doubt about the efforts of atheists to coopt humanist organizations.”

    Hoffmann:.”Just a humanist who like Stephanie sees atheism neither as a prerequisite nor as a necessary intellectual concomitant of humanism.”

    Steph: “Atheism is an option for a humanist. A humanist doesn’t have to be an atheist – atheism is an option that the humanist is free to deny. Atheism is neither a prerequisite nor a natural consequence of humanism.”

    Humanism without atheism? Now that would be just great in a humanist world – unfortunately, the world that we actually live in is a world where supernaturalism, where god of some variety, is ever present. While this is the case, then humanist have to become atheists in order to safeguard their humanism from those who want to impose supernaturalistic ideas upon society.
    ————
    a few points from other postings….

    We don’t become humanists, our job is to retain our humanism. We can give short-shift to humanism and become theists; we can deny the supremacy of our humanity by allowing it to play second fiddle to supernaturalism, to gods. Atheism rejects that supernaturalism – and thereby retains, upholds, the primacy of our fundamental human, humanistic nature.

    Atheism, being a rejection of theism, and all other supernaturalistic gods, is humanism safeguarding it’s very being. It’s battle cry, it’s suit of armour against the onslaught of gods and their fellow travellers wanting to impose their superiority.

    The humanist starting point is human nature and not god – a reversal of the god first mantra. God, however defined, is a side issue or a non-issue. God only comes later, indoctrination or conversion. However, as long as god believers can demote their god to second place, then they cannot be denied the humanist label simply on the basis of their belief in a god.

    The ‘humanists’, of the steph variety, don’t want to carry around the atheist label – supposedly it puts people off humanist organizations. That’s like saying atheism is not really a feature of humanism, it’s just a choice of some people….humanism can get by without all those pesky atheists! But humanism cannot get by without reversing the ‘god first, man second’ mantra. Humanism stands or falls upon it’s basic principle – man first, human nature first. If the liberal god believers can abide by that principle, (demoting their god to second place – god, out of the limelight, out of secular and political life, god tamed and confined to purely wishful thinking) then for sure, they are humanists. If not, then they are supernaturalists not humanists.

    Obviously, humanists and supernaturalists, at least the liberal believers, need to cooperate in order to live in our present social/political environment. To label any necessary social/political cooperation ‘humanism’ would be nonsense. Such cooperation would be a necessary aspect of our present social/political environment – not a demonstration of what humanism stands for, what humanism is. Perhaps humanitarian would be a better description for cooperating with and showing empathy for others, ie a description dealing with reality as it is and our concern for others.

    A supernaturalists says god knows best. A humanitarian deals with what is. A humanist seeks to understand our human nature; seeks betterment, seeks flourishing and intellectual growth. “It is not an easy thing to achieve” (Joseph Hoffmann). It needs constant work, constant vigilance.

    Humanism is not an elitist philosophy. Humanism is our basic human nature. Atheism is a position one takes up in order to protect ones’s humanism, one’s human nature, one’s birth right to live a humane and flourishing life. Atheism is humanism in protection mode. Sure, if there are no gods then no need for atheism as a protective shield. However, methinks that is not going to be happening anytime soon – or ever. God does have staying power, albeit a shape-shifting power….

    It’s only when people take up supernaturalism as their first priority that they have demonstrated their denial of the supremacy of their humanist nature. It’s either god first, or man first. Supernaturalism verse humanism – not in the sense of denying one or the other – but of priorities. A favourite saying of mine – not all of our intellectual furniture is suitable for our earthly home….

    It’s not a case of telling people don’t believe in god or some form of supernaturalism – one cannot stop people from thinking whatever takes their fancy. It’s a case of, particularly within a social/political setting, that god ideas have to be put in second place to humanist concerns. It’s a case of priorities that are necessary for social interaction.

  • vorpal
    2011-05-03 00:29:48 GMT+0000 - 00:29 | Permalink

    “Ignorance is bliss”, so the saying goes. Religious people do benefit from the ignorance of their beliefs. If I could believe like them, I probably would. Quite frankly, they seem happier.
    Moreover, religion does seem to be a human universal. Perhaps human beings are built to believe.

    Given this possibility, what position on religious beliefs should humanists take? Humanists are for the well-being of people, and yet the well-being of people seems bound to having theist delusions. This could place humanists in a parental role where atheists tend to the truth so the rest don’t have to.

    Given the power human beings have over the planet. And given the technical nature of human civilisation at this point in history, it might well be argued that the comfort of religious beliefs is a comfort we can no longer afford. We traded it in for coal-fired electrical generators, petroleum-based fertilisers, IPads, drone fighter planes and strip malls.

    Food for thought.

    • 2011-05-03 02:17:30 GMT+0000 - 02:17 | Permalink

      Humanists are for the well-being of people, and yet the well-being of people seems bound to having theist delusions.

      This much is true at first glance. Religious people — as individuals — do seem to be happier overall. But “no man is an island”. Religious societies are much worse for wear. While I’m not going to say that religion causes poor societal health, there’s a nasty and consistent correlation between societies that are highly religious and societies that are highly dysfunctional.

      Out of first world democracies, the most religious ones are positively correlated with rates of homocides, STDs, teen pregnancies, and other societal ills.

      Belief in god doesn’t reduce substance abuse, and makes people more intolerant.

      Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks, and not god belief, that makes people happier and society better.

      It could be that religion has a shared connection with some other social “rot” that drives the correlation (my own bet is on the value placed on education). Those studies also don’t differentiate between “liberal” and “fundamentalist” religions.

      I would say that I think there’s no reason that humanists should be friendly towards religious beliefs any more than they should be friendly to any other belief that individuals hold. There shouldn’t be any sacred cow that’s safe from criticism. To reiterate maryhelena’s point – any belief system that values a god or some other supernatural being more than humanity should rightly not be considered truly “humanist”. And as I’ve posted, religious belief might not even be very healthy to humanity as a whole.

      • 2011-05-03 10:57:29 GMT+0000 - 10:57 | Permalink

        This much is true at first glance. Religious people — as individuals — do seem to be happier overall.

        I recall hearing on a news report years ago about a survey that disovered the happiest people were those who believed in God and watched soaps.

  • Bob Carlson
    2011-05-03 07:21:24 GMT+0000 - 07:21 | Permalink

    Evolution makes no difference to what is right and wrong, to justice and universal human values. It merely explains them scientifically — rationally. I think most eighteenth century Deists would be impressed.

    Schindler regarded Beethoven as a deist. I guess the fact that Beethoven was playing on the radio while I read this signaled his approval of your post. 🙂

  • 2011-05-03 07:48:15 GMT+0000 - 07:48 | Permalink

    Most insects are pests, but we know that their eradication would disrupt the eco-systems that sustain us, and ultimately make the world uninhabitable. Similarly, religion may be noxious, but perhaps, for all we know, a world without religion would be a much worse place than it is today. Tamas Pataki

    I am as persuaded as any atheist that the propensity for magical thinking is an evolutionary adaptation that was hardwired into the human psyche to enable man to cope with his consciousness of mortality. However, what science knows about the workings of the human mind is still only a tiny fraction of what it doesn’t know.

    • 2011-05-03 11:13:42 GMT+0000 - 11:13 | Permalink

      I sometimes wonder if there is something to this, especially when I have witnessed war memorial services. Collective revisiting of great myths (God, country, human spirit) strikes me as a tool for enabling more psyches to willingly join the human wastage projects for group dominance or survival.

      • 2011-05-03 12:13:05 GMT+0000 - 12:13 | Permalink

        I am reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War when a number of influential men were urging him to get rid of General George McClellan. Lincoln asked them who they proposed as his replacement and they responded “Anybody!” Lincoln replied “Anybody may do for you, but I must have somebody.”

        I too can see all the negative purposes which religion can be made to serve, but I don’t think that psychology or sociology are anywhere near the point of determining that these are the only purposes that religion serves. I don’t think that I am quite as sympathetic to religion as either Stephanie or Hoffman, but it seems to me that many atheists take a position that anything is better than any religion, which is supported more by prejudice than by rigorous empirical analysis.

        • 2011-05-03 12:36:03 GMT+0000 - 12:36 | Permalink

          I don’t see the question as being anti-religion for anti-religion’s sake. Is not the argument for a better way of thinking and approach to life? Is it not good to expose religion’s failings and promote a better option?

          No doubt there are knockers who only want to tear down, as in any field of ideas. But there is no discussion with them.

    • yesmyliege
      2011-05-03 11:39:07 GMT+0000 - 11:39 | Permalink

      I recently perused the abstract of a study which looked into whether the eradication of the mosquito would lead to ecological imbalances and/or collapse. The conclusion was, happily, no – plants and animals would be fine without them. As I consider the mosquito and flea to be de facto proof that there is no Abrahamic god, Zeus is now an even more important part of my life.

    • Bob Carlson
      2011-05-05 04:03:51 GMT+0000 - 04:03 | Permalink

      Most insects are pests…

      This part of Pataki’s statement is utter and total nonsense. Being an entomologist, I can assure you that only a small percentage of insect species are pests.

  • vorpal
    2011-05-04 00:30:42 GMT+0000 - 00:30 | Permalink

    Ultimately, I think the key to unhealthy destructive behaviors and beliefs is through empowerment. People turn to superstition and religion to give themselves a sense of control. Control over the weather, over sickness, over political disputes and control over death. In fact, this is the thesis of Mencken’s “Treatise on the Gods”. (which I highly recommend, funny and insightful). Moreover contemporary research has shown this to be true.

    So, if you truly want to diminish unsupported beliefs systems, then one thing that must be done is the educational, financial, and political empowerment of the individual. If they don’t have secular means of securing a sense of control, they will turn to other means.

    • 2011-05-04 02:37:58 GMT+0000 - 02:37 | Permalink

      When people dab at their tears and ask — “Why do the…[sniffle]…New Atheists have to be so darn mean?” — I have to wonder if they’ve ever read Mencken or Twain.

      • vorpal
        2011-05-04 08:20:55 GMT+0000 - 08:20 | Permalink

        Twain, Mencken, Carlin. Any one of the three would probably do most people some good.

    • 2011-05-04 08:18:47 GMT+0000 - 08:18 | Permalink

      On the other hand, the God-father idea keeps us in the frame of mind of being powerless children.

      A personal anecdote: Soon after I no longer believed in God I was faced with a personal crisis, and so accustomed had I been to turning to God in every difficulty that my first impulse was to go and pray. But when I looked up at the ceiling I reminded myself that, hey, I did not believe in God now, and all that was up there was the blank ceiling. I was left to realize I had two legs, two arms, a mouth, and all I had to do was get up, go out and sort out the matter as a man. No gods involved. Didn’t need the strong arm of God or words from him put into my mouth. I had my own. And it worked.

      So what led to my “empowerment” was simply the acknowledgment that this is all there is, this is all I am, and that I had to grow up and be a man. No more being one of God’s little children!

      • vorpal
        2011-05-04 08:23:35 GMT+0000 - 08:23 | Permalink

        Geesh, you kinda sound like Clint Eastwood there. Gave me goosebumps.

        • 2011-05-04 08:27:00 GMT+0000 - 08:27 | Permalink

          Sheesh, now I’ve embarrassed myself. I was just very late in learning to grow up. How I envy those who have grown up in more natural environments and don’t have to struggle just to come out of their god-coffins.

          • 2011-05-04 10:08:55 GMT+0000 - 10:08 | Permalink

            In some ways, it’s like a death in the family. As you get older, you lose people you used to call up and talk to when things get rough. No wonder ancestor-worship was so common…

            • 2011-05-04 16:16:39 GMT+0000 - 16:16 | Permalink

              And it is still the norm among Buddhists, Taoists and such among the Chinese, as I’ve learned from living in South-East Asia.

          • vorpal
            2011-05-04 15:41:54 GMT+0000 - 15:41 | Permalink

            I was just teasing you, subtly alluding to a scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.

            Actually, your story is a good one and could no doubt help a lot of people if they heard it … college students in particular.

  • Pingback: Religion’s Decline & the Rise of Secularism « The Call of Troythulu – Musings of a Skeptophrenic

  • rjosephhoffmann
    2011-05-21 09:24:59 GMT+0000 - 09:24 | Permalink

    But public debate is different. Atheists and secular humanists who speak out against religion in all its forms have a rightful place in society. There are reasons to believe that even liberal forms of religion are torchbearers for the a belief system that does bring in its wake much harm from the widest societal levels down to thwarted personal developments of individuals.

    Go on…

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