Two-and-a-half centuries after the Founders of our country separated church and state and guaranteed the individual freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and worship, it is a high honor to be a co-founder and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which is organizing to defend these principles and values against continuing attack. We face a constant undertow in Congress of dangerous efforts to stifle science and promote official religious dogma and orthodoxy. Our job is to remind Congress of the kind of Enlightenment Republic that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were fighting for and to seek a democracy that protects both the rights of individual conscience and worship and the central role of reason, science and morality in the making of public policy.
Representative Jerry McNerney, who is also a scientist and mathematician, reiterated the Caucus’s philosophy and goals. “As co-founder of the Freethought Caucus, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and as a scientist, I understand clearly the need to bring rational decision-making to Congress for the good of our nation,” said Rep. McNerney. Huffman and Raskin will serve as the co-chairs for the caucus.
Secular leaders all across the country also celebrated this formation. “We are delighted at the formation of a freethought caucus in Congress,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement, “Finally, the significant portion of Americans who are not religious will have representation in Congress.” Harvard cognitive psychologist and FFRF honorary President Steven Pinker also praised the move, calling it a “historic achievement” on Twitter. Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees. “The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” he said in a press release.
As for myself, I’m so excited about this event. The Freethought Caucus can become such an effective advocacy forum for secular and humanistic perspectives. I also appreciate their willingness to represent others who may not be as secular as them. Their dedication to the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience, speaks to how they want to build bridges with other demographic groups while fighting for reason and science-based public policy. I think most people, non-religious and religious, can get behind that. Nearly 130 years since the founding of the nation’s first freethought organizations, the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, and less than a century removed from the creation of the American Humanist Association, we now have a Caucus who will represent us in Congress. That’s definitely an achievement for the history books.
Since writing this article, Matt Dillahunty has released his reflections on the discussion. I’ve revisited the dialogue here in light of his comments.
I recently listened to the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson’s Pangburn Philosophy sponsored discussion and was extremely disappointed by it. The discussion represented something that has become commonplace in the secular movement when prominent thinkers attempt to discuss religion: there is a full stop at the question of the existence of God. This is unbelievably stifling and, frankly, uninteresting for (at least a few) reasons I will outline below. After a brief interchange with Dillahunty himself about this, I am still rather unsatisfied by his responses to my questions. He welcomed an email from me, and I will update you all when I hear his response.
As a precursor for my exposition below, I just want to give a brief description of my history with religion and religious people, specifically Christianity and Christians, to show that my ideas are not, indeed, foreign either to the study of this religion or these religious people themselves. Dillahunty had charged that I sounded like a person who has never talked with a fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian. In fact the truth is the opposite: these are the people I have known my whole life, and many friends of mine still live within both traditions. I grew up in a small town of 2,000 people in northwestern Indiana: a rural, mostly farmland community where 90% of the population was conservative, Christian, and Republican. I still attend a church there sometimes, although I live near Indianapolis now, and consider myself a secular humanist. I also attended a small, private Christian University (Anderson University in Indiana) to study philosophy and theology (although they cut their philosophy program my fourth year there and I dropped out). I attend seminary courses at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in my free time and anticipate enrolling in their MTS program in the coming months. I like to, as Christopher Hitchens used to say, keep two sets of books. Though I’m a secular humanist, I am fascinated by belief in God and have a deep desire to understand it.
This is where the recent discussion comes in. It seems like the secular humanist movement really needs to get beyond the question of whether God exists, mainly because this question assumes it understands what religious people mean when they talk about the “existence” of God. I just want to briefly suggest here how difficult it is to understand what is meant by the “existence of God,” or the meaning of faith by referring to the ideas of a few prominent theologians.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote on the difference between talking about God and talking from the existential reality of God, effectively claiming that the person of faith can never talk about God (positing God as an object outside herself to be comprehended), but that for religious people God is something like the “Wholly Other” that exceeds all language and thought. Consequently, for him faith means “the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God.” This is a far cry away from the notion that religious people have some kind of rational grounding for believing in God, or that the average religious person strives to do so. The language Bultmann uses suggests an entirely different grammar from the logic of rationality.
Similarly, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” As JBH commentates, “While faith may certainly involve rationality and emotion, for Tillich it transcends them both without destroying either, thereby overcoming the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.” Continuing, for Tillich, “God functions as the most fundamental symbol for ultimate concern. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects ‘God,’ the symbol of God is always affirmed insofar God is a type of shorthand for what concerns humanity ultimately.” Here again, we find a robust definition of faith and belief which goes beyond the understanding that belief is merely the acceptance of a proposition without evidence. It is an open question, given Tillich’s understanding, whether faith can be obtained through reason, or whether faith itself provides a logic of its own for interpreting the world and its events.
Indeed, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, writes in his book to “Religion’s Cultured Despisers” that faith is different from physics, ethics, and art. This Christian thinker understands religious doctrines and dogmas as contemplations of a feeling of ultimate dependence on the universe. Schleiermacher recognizes that this exposition of religious language, as an expression of a certain feeling, puts it in a distinct discourse: “Religion, however loudly it may demand back all those well abused conceptions, leaves your physics untouched, and please God, also your psychology.” He goes on, in this light, to describe the uses of religious terms. A “miracle” is “simply the religious name for an event.” A “revelation” is every “original and new communication of the Universe to man.” I take this to mean that when language gives perspective to life, then it is revelatory language. He also makes a distinction between true belief and false belief: “Not every person has religion who believes in a sacred writing, but only the man who has a lively and immediate understanding of it, and who, therefore, so far as he himself is concerned, could most easily do without it.” Although Schleiermacher calls “God” and “immortality” ideas as opposed to feelings, he points to “God” as a unifying concept “in whom alone the particular thing is one and all.” “Is not God the highest, the only unity?” “And if you see the world as a Whole, a Universe, can you do it otherwise than in God?” With this kind of talk, we secular humanists are certainly standing on a strange continent. Yet we should not turn around, now, and give over thinking to cliches about what “God” or “faith” or “religion” must mean, but we should explore the jungles of religious thought in hopes to find what is worthwhile and intelligible, for in either case we learn about the common humanity that connects us all, whether secular or religious.
With a few questions, let’s further free our minds from the prejudices derived from overly simplistic understandings of religious belief and think for a second about what it would mean for religious people to understand God as a being like other beings. It would mean that fundamentalists themselves would say that we can get closer to God depending on where we stand on the earth, that we could see God if we had better qualities of perception, that we could hear God if our auditory system was more powerful. But this isn’t what even fundamentalists claim. They’ll say God is everywhere. And we have to take that seriously. God isn’t a being like other beings (see the debates surrounding the analogia entis).
You might ask why listen to the major thinkers of theology when we can ask everyday believers what their belief means. This is an important question and bears more attention than it has received. This is a question the philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips took up in The Concept of Prayer. Just because someone knows how to paint, it doesn’t follow that they have anything to say about art theory. Just because a religious person prays, it doesn’t follow that they have some kind of robust understanding of prayer or can articulate it with symbols other than those passed onto them. Daniel Dennett makes this wonderful distinction between having competence in a game and comprehending the game (many pragmatist philosophers of language do as well, such as Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit). I can be competent at playing guitar, for instance, but it doesn’t follow that I comprehend what I’m doing when I play guitar: that I know what the chord names are or I know how to place musical symbols on a scale and write a song with notation. In the same way, not all religious people comprehend the meaning of their beliefs, although they are competent actors within the rituals and systems of discourse in their communities. So a discussion with the actors who are competent religious actors and comprehend religion’s history is paramount for understanding it. This, I think, is the import of Peterson’s point that Sam Harris doesn’t reference Eliade (virtually the founder of religious studies) once in his works.
Another point that D. Z. Phillips made over and over in his career is that distinct discourses (or “language games”) can infect each other, and this infection can either undermine discourses or revolutionize them. The undermining process occurs when the logic of one discourse (say science) is used to interpret the surface grammar of another discourse (say religion), so that even religious believers begin to use scientific logic to think about their beliefs, despite this logic being foreign to their beliefs. So the problem with being a competent actor who does not also comprehend the discourse she participates in is that she is susceptible to this undermining. It creates cognitive dissonance. I think this happens a lot to religious people. And examples of this undermining can be seen when faith is reduced to the shallow understanding of belief (the acceptance of propositions without evidence), when God is reduced to a being (existing somewhere), and religious practices are reduced to their social benefits.
The secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.
As we have seen, the father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote on the relation between religion and the sciences and arts. And I think his answers still have pertinence today. Is faith a feeling of ultimate dependence? Is “miracle” the religious word for any event, and the more religious you are the more miracles you see? Do religious beliefs, in fact, have nothing to do with ethics and physics, as he claims? These are open questions, I think, and can’t be answered just by taking a small sample size, as Dillahunty seems to do, of a small movement, of a relatively new branch of Christianity at its word (fundamentalist Southern Baptists, for instance). A certain sect’s view of theology isn’t necessarily the majority Christian view, nor is it the most traditionally representative. For instance, the Americas only house about a third of the world’s Christians, and at least half of the world’s Christians are Catholic. Why not engage with the thoughts of someone like the Catholic thinkers Karl Rahner or Thomas Aquinas?
As the theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern,” a disposition toward reality as a whole shaped by an ultimate concern (for instance, maybe that being is good despite suffering), and another important theologian said that beliefs are the “thoughts of faith,” we can begin to see how the question of “what do you believe” is a little misleading and unhelpful for us who want to understand religion. The beliefs of religious people seem to be expressions of a disposition toward life as a whole, and aren’t themselves what is worthy of worship (the Reformers for instance distinguished between the letter of the Bible and the Spirit of the Word). Let’s therefore draw a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is an expression of faith and does not ground it. Our questions should be directed toward the lived reality and experiences indicative of faith rather than the propositions of belief. Wittgenstein once said that the concept “God” is something like the concept “object,” in that it is a basic concept for a way of conceiving the basic things in reality. I think it would be fascinating to explore the ways in which the word “God” is similar to that of “object,” for in answering that we might actually articulate an authentic abstraction of religious belief and, perhaps, distill the meaning of faith.
Why fixate on the question of the existence of God when even in theological circles it is a cliche that people do not come to faith through rational argument and, in philosophical theology, there is a distinction made between the God of the philosophers (something like the first mover, the idea greater than that which can be conceived, etc.) and the God of religion (who is worthy of worship, the God of love and hope and freedom, etc.)? Why argue against a God not worth believing in, even by religious standards (and quite likely nobody believes in), and not try to articulate the God who religious people put their faith in? It seems like the major thinkers in the secular humanist movement have done next to no homework on the variety of religious experiences and the different conceptions of religious belief and ritual (as these have been explored extensively in religious studies), and the secular humanist movement suffers for it. If indeed it is possible that the grammar of religious language differs from the logic of rationality, it seems absurd to dismiss it out of hand as not worthy of discussion or serious thought. It seems we have a long way to go before we can actually mount a criticism of religion, because we have yet to understand it. And I’m not advocating here for a distinction between the facts of religion and the values of religion, for us to see the social or psychological benefits or ill effects of religious belief, but an investigation into the phenomenology of religious experiences, and the kinds of experiences and the kinds of thinking that religious belief expresses.
I hope this makes some sense and that I have presented my question sufficiently enough (though of course not comprehensively) so that where I’m coming from might be at least basically understood. Is my concern here unfounded? Does the secular humanist movement have no more work to do in the realm of understanding religion, and the only work before it is to deny and refute it at every turn? Might there be a possibility for building bridges, to recognize the possibility that our common humanity might allow for different dispositions toward the world, and that understanding these differences might allow us all to work together better?
 Some Wittgensteinians draw a distinction between “surface” and “depth” grammar. The surface grammar is the way the grammar of a statement appears to a person. So the surface grammar of “God is in heaven” appears for many nonreligious people as the same as the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen.” Depth grammar is the intended logic that underlies a statement and motivates inferences and conclusions from that statement. So the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen” could be something like “Dinner will be ready soon” or “Mom is not in the living room, basement, upstairs, etc.” The question I am raising here is something like: The surface grammar of the statement “God is in heaven” misleads us to think religious people are making an empirical claim when the depth grammar might mean something like “Come what may, existence is good.”
“I don’t talk things, sir,” said Faber. “I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”
With the gusto and tenderness of a prophet, Ray Bradbury writes about the all-too-human proclivity to passively waste time: the absence of self reflection and awareness in our human fixations with flashes of images on screens, when our ears and eyes obsess over the constant ramblings of social commentators, as we become bodies in motion, moving according to the laws of security, predictability, and monotony of routine. While the famous Fahrenheit 451 was solidified in ink half a century before our pixelated age , it is written for us. He has a message for our engagement-driven, entertainment-filled, networking habits: When anything will suffice to procure attention, it’s impossible to be meaningfully related to things . Bradbury does not offer, as is vogue nowadays, a dystopian future created by the clandestine acts of a few elite, but a future painfully entrenched in the human situation, the inefficient designs of bureaucracies, and, such as it is, the banality of evil. The future is forged not by forces we cannot control, but from the very beating hearts of crying, hugging, talking, average people.
Though recent discourses surrounding the polarizing effects of social media use and the merits of speech that offends have become commonplace and polarizing, the claims and questions of this 1953 masterpiece warrant serious reflection: “We need not be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important? About something real?” Does meaningful discourse require from us a sacrifice? And, if so, are we willing to bear its weight?
Fahrenheit 451 is a book about books, the human experience, and the tension between mere knowledge that absolves conflict and truth that confronts and serves life. As we read, we follow the story of Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, spraying a fire hose full of kerosene rather than water, to create fires in fireproof homes. We observe an awakening—as routines established to ease the burden of consciousness by precluding moments of silence and pensivity, activities that create conflict without pre-made societal answers, and the simple disruption of bare novelty—when Montag undergoes an existential crisis. After a series of important developments, he responds to a call about a woman who has hidden books. Her home was in the ancient part of town, still standing only by the rigidity of the fire-proof plastic sheath applied years ago. After crashing through the door, Montag and the firemen find a stationary woman in some kind of somber state who speaks the words of heretics burned alive in Oxford on October 16, 1555: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The chief fireman, Beatty, attempts to convince her to leave the hopeless books to burn, “Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up her for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel.” With saintly resolve, she remained unmoved, and in a deeply human act of martyrdom,struck the match whose flames swallowed her home, her books, and her body in a blaze of profound light.
There are at least two ways to understand the strange central problem (and how it came to be) of 451: the burning of books. One is from the existential, which we will turn to presently, and the other is the political, which we will analyze next. In a play Bradbury wrote sometime after Fahrenheit 451, Beatty, the main antagonist and chief firefighter of both, is given to a moment of serious biographical reflection. He brings Montag to his house where a massive library of books sit on sturdy, colossal shelves. He reminds Montag the crime is not to own books, but to read them. To collect these books, however, Beatty must have also once loved them in some way, and indeed he had. What made him want to burn them now? Why did he stop reading?
“Why, life happened to me.” The Fire Chief shuts his eyes to remember. “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father—a stampede of elephants, an onslaught of disease. And nowhere, nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge, give or take a metaphor, lose or find a simile. And by the far edge of thirty, and the near rim of thirty-one, I picked myself up, every bone broken, every centimeter of flesh abraded, bruised, or scarred. I looked in the mirror and found an old man lost behind the frightened face of a young man, saw a hatred there for everything and anything, you name it, I’d damn it, and opened the pages of my fine library books and found what, what, what!?”
In the midst of tragedies, failed dreams, and extinguished desires, books offered “no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.” Bradbury argues that both antipathy and apathy toward reading derive from an antipathy and apathy toward life. The “regular damned Tower of Babel” is an image of the conflicts inherent in thinking itself—as they’re piled on one another, they reach toward the heavens—and the recognition of the inevitability of these conflicts cause some to lose faith in existence. They begin to resent people who not only abide by the laws of nature and experience, but somehow, despite the inherent tragedies of existence, by the laws of freedom, and overcome suffering. The misology—which arises when cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness—that Beatty uses to rationalize his disposition towards books is, coincidentally, the very hatred of reason Kant rejects in his famous Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. For Kant, reason has one aim: the creation of a goodwill. Yet, when cultivated reason, which is aimed at happiness and satisfaction, attempts to achieve its ends, those who live and die by it find it brings more troubles than its worth. Reason is, as a result, sworn off altogether and so is the laws of freedom that move us beyond treating ourselves, others, and time as means to ends. When we lose reason, the laws of freedom lose to the laws of nature.
Another way to understand this problem is the analogous monologue Beatty gives in Fahrenheit 451 about how books were banned as a matter of politics. It all boils down to a simple equation: Force = Mass x Velocity. As mass media steamrolled the production of everything for the average consumer, and the velocity at which this production of products increased, the force of mass culture both simplified language and amplified differences. It is a prosaic matter to discern the disparity between two simple propositions, it is another thing, perhaps a matter of the problems of life in general, to discern the fundamental differences between two complex phenomena. When the former acquires unstoppable force, the possibility of the latter is bludgeoned to oblivion, forgotten and ignored. Today to know one political position of a person, say whether they are pro-life, entails, for many, many other positions: pro-gun, anti-immigration, pro-war, pro-corporate welfare. The simplification of language amplifies our differences, for every difference appears to be a difference of essentials: antitheses. If you’re not pro-life, you’re pro-choice, for instance. The opposite of Republican is Democrat, or so we’re told. This mass production of ideologies, language, and products for mass audiences that creates and instantiates differences calls for, perhaps just by inertia, a further, yet ironic, simplification: of thought, of populations, of differences. Why are you pro-life? The Bible says so. That’s where the buck stops, for most. Our essential differences come to have no content but the affirmation of the differences, and the anathema of the other, of the really different, of that which cannot be contained within simple dichotomies, of life itself.
Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico….The Bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!…There you have it, Montag, it didn’t come from the Government down to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. . . .We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So a book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?. . . You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.
Who is easier to offend than the person who cannot hold two conflicting ideas without accepting them, who cannot understand the other side of the dichotomy, or that every either/or is too abstract to accurately represent the infinite potentiality and actuality of everything real? And, yet, as the old dictum goes, who is more blissful?
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag.
Indeed, this monologue provides a social view of the individual pathology outlined before, and what can happen when society is shaped and molded by people like Beatty. In 451, as people moved faster in their cars and between appointments, the time to reflect and relate intimately with others became equally fleeting, until it disappeared, along with the ability to discern between what makes one happy and what makes one fulfilled. Suffering is displaced by speed; meaning is displaced by distraction. The denizens of Bradbury’s world (and many in our own) are more interested in knowing what things are than why they are.
Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies to melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.
The why-question, so often now seen as improper, primitive, and religious nonsense, is a question one can only pose to another human being and to oneself, not to things, but to the meaning of things. When the why-question is lost, so 451 argues, so is history, so is personhood. For history is a story of ourselves: we read history to know who we are, why we are.
451 opens with an encounter between Montag and a vibrant, youthful girl who is passionate about observing and listening to people. She considers outlandish things, like the differences between viewing grass and flowers while moving and while at rest. “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.” Clarisse McClellan even, fantastically, notes that billboards used to be twenty feet wide instead of two hundred. In this world, where the minimum speed is 55 mph without a maximum speed anywhere, Clarisse is attuned to what can only be considered disposable to the standards of efficiency and goal completion. Her uncle, the picture of a pure heretic and outcast, was once arrested for being a pedestrian.
It is on this chance encounter with Clarisse that Montag first becomes aware of a possible world he had never considered, a world in which he might recognize the thoughts of people, the differences between himself and others, the complete alterity of history before his own present. Upon seeing himself in Clarisse’s eyes, he no longer simply conflates the past with the present, others with himself, genuine human flourishing with the recurring completion of social and ritual demands. “He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.” When they part and continue to their separate homes, Montag is confronted by the emptiness and shallowness of his life, the silent familiarity of the blank walls of his home:
He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often—he searched for a simile, found one in his work,—torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?
In fact, Montag had no thought of himself until the questioning attentiveness of Clarisse’s careful eyes had made him see himself, in all his detail, being cared for by another person. Attachment theory tells us we become selves by imitating the reactions of our mothers to our pain and distress and internalizing them. Bradbury seems to suggest if we are not attentive to our place in the world of other persons, we have yet to understand what it means to be a person in the first place.
Throughout the novel, Bradbury’s prose grows from general descriptions of “the whole world” to the particularity of “the alley,” paralleling the development of Montag’s awareness. Many scenes, fires, and conversations after Clarisse, Montag tries to remember an important detail and can only recall an entertainment slogan that blared on a public transit vehicle he used once before. Through such juxtapositions of things that develop, things that endure, and things that emerge, 451 is not a naïve projection of a future that the reader cannot recognize herself in, but a mirror, summoning from the silence of the reader’s solitude the hidden elements of life that seduce, control, widen, narrow, deepen, shallow, and compel. He finds these elements disclosed in the encouraging hand of another person and the stillness that a moment of time cared for provides for the development of inwardness.
Fahrenheit 451 is not a novel to encourage a pretentious bibliophilia. Indeed, when Montag finally meets outcast professors and readers in the final scenes, books are not seen as objects of beauty in and of themselves, as specialized, commodified, functional products created by a division of labor, but as spaces for acts of remembering: reflecting a theme persistent throughout the novel. “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”
The language we use to think and talk about life and its inherent tragedies comes to shape and make real the kind of reality we think life is: one to be resented, one to be avoided, or one to be overcome. As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.
Themes of the book capture insight about humanity in general and can therefore speak to 2018, despite its 1953 publication. One message is that reading is an act of paying attention to persons and remembering the intricacies of life in the solitude and solicitude of the written word. All words are written by persons. And so literature can be defined as a generous act of hospitality of a person from the past, inviting us to make intelligible and bearable the human experience by contending with and overcoming the tragedies and suffering inherent in the life well-lived by learning from the wisdom of those who came before us. And such an idea makes Fahrenheit 451 a book that should not just be owned. But a book that should be read.
“Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
During the late nineteenth century, the Midwest’s religious landscape changed dramatically. Specifically, ideas concerning freethought (open evaluation of religion and its claims) also found an audience within both the general public and formal organizations. This period is often referred to by scholars as the “Golden Age of Freethought,” an era where organized criticism of religion and advocacy of the separation of church and state entered the American mainstream. Lawyer and politician Robert Green Ingersoll, known as the “Great Agnostic,” routinely gave lectures criticizing religion, spirituality, and the influence of the church on American society.
Locally, the most influential element of freethought in Indianapolis was the Freethinker Society, founded by the German-Americans in 1870. As one of the city’s first non-religious organizations, the society facilitated an outgrowth of freethought ideas and practices through educational lectures and social gatherings. As philosophical radicals, the society’s members saw their activism as a corollary of the revolutionary spirit of the Turnvereins, social clubs founded by German immigrants that advocated physical fitness, education, and democratic ideals. Today I’m going to present the society as a case study for understanding the successes and failures of freethought in the central Midwest, with an emphasis on Indiana, during the period.
To begin, we must look at the foundations of German-American freethought, which largely came from one of its most influential spokespersons: Karl Heinzen. Born February 22, 1809, in Grevenbroich, Dusseldorf, Germany and raised Catholic, Heinzen’s education in anatomy at the University of Bonn, informed his growing radicalism. He actively participated in the 1848 revolutions encircling Europe, publishing calls for reforms of the Prussian monarchy. When the movement ultimately failed to enact such reforms, Heinzen left for the United States in 1850. Like many politically radical Germans, attempted to instill his reforms in his new home country. His early attempts at publishing were met with little interest, but with the founding of the Pioneer in 1854, Heinzen found an outlet for his views that would last over 25 years. A radical newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts, the Pioneer regularly published articles that advocated for the end of slavery, African-American emancipation, and a strict separation of church and state.
During his years in the United States, Heinzen cultivated relationships with other religious and political radicals. One such radical was the celebrated Illinois freethinker Robert Ingersoll. They met in 1878 at Ingersoll’s home in Washington, D.C., Heinzen recalled his time with the “Great Agnostic” with both respect and disappointment. While Heinzen saw Ingersoll’s politics as too conservative, they nevertheless bonded through an appreciation of science, most notably the work German naturalist and philosopher Alexander Friedrich Heinrich von Humboldt.
In fact, Karl Heinzen and Robert Ingersoll both wrote lectures on the ideas of Humboldt for the centennial of his birth on September 14, 1869. Ingersoll delivered his in Peoria, Illinois, and Heinzen delivered his in Boston, Massachusetts. In his speech, Ingersoll focused on Humboldt’s contribution to the expansion of scientific knowledge and his commitment to naturalism and empiricism. Like Ingersoll, Heinzen’s lecture emphasized Humboldt’s stern commitment to science, writing that “all that which does not harmonize with it [science] he declares, indirectly, to be nothing but chimera.” Humboldt defined his world, in Heinzen’s perspective, through understanding nature and its “laws” while rejecting all that is in contrast with materialism. These concepts motivated both lectures and their author’s devotion to the scientific method.
Even though Heinzen resided in Boston, Massachusetts, his ideas spread throughout the Midwest. In particular, Heinzen’s lecture on Humboldt was published by the Association for the Propagation of Radical Principles, an organization in Indianapolis run by Hermann Lieber. This organization, run out of Lieber’s own business, published many lectures by Heinzen and advertised their sale in a local freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast. One that would have a profound, but controversial impact was his 1882 lecture, Separation of State and Church. Heinzen took the Jeffersonian maxim of “separation of church and state” to a different level.
Instead of a mere political interest in separating the state from the church, Heinzen believed that the state should be separate from religious doctrines. In this regard, Heinzen was actually closer to the enlightenment tradition of “freedom of conscience,” a philosophy predicated on the protection of individual beliefs from encroachments by the state. “Religion should be free,” Heinzen exclaimed, “but not a license for infringing the common rights and for breaking the laws of the state.” This prescient distinction between the rights of the individual and privileges bestowed by society would guide the founding documents of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis and their own political advocacy. In all, Heinzen’s revolutionary writings on religion, politics, and society influenced freethinkers throughout the Midwest.
As such an outgrowth, German-Americans Karl Beyschlag, Clemens Vonnegut, and Hermann Lieber, among others, founded the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis on April 3, 1870. The city’s first public non-religious organization, the society used the Socialer Turnverein, a German-American social club at 230 East Maryland Street, as the venue for the majority of their initial meetings. These three men, alongside future society President Philip Rappaport, served as the intellectual bedrock of the society and the Turnverein provided the institutional infrastructure needed for the society’s future growth. To understand their lives is to understand the Freethinker Society.
A professor, postal delivery clerk, and Heinzen devotee, Karl Beyschlag was born in Bavaria and came to the United States as a political refugee. After time in St. Louis and Detroit as a newspaper editor, Beyschlag spent the last 14 years of his life in Indianapolis, using his skills as a writer for local German newspaper publications. Beyschlag, a key figure within the German American freethought community, largely inspired the society’s inception. He believed that the founding of the society could organize all the disparate elements of German freethought within their community, as well as provide education and fellowship for future freethinkers. Further illustrating his commitment to this cause, he wrote the organization’s original constitution and elected as its first permanent lecturer. His death in 1883 cut short his influence within the society, but his impact on the society’s formation was never lost on its members.
Another principal founder, Hermann Lieber, was born in Dusseldorf, Germany. He came to the United States in 1853, later moved to Indianapolis, and built his small framing store into the one of the most respected art dealerships of its era. Like Beyschlag, Lieber read Karl Heinzen’s works and even published some of his lectures, selling them out of the local freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast. In an effort to instill the values of skepticism, athleticism, and education of Heinzen and other German thinkers, Lieber co-founded the more politically radical Socialer Turnverein during the late 1860s. This organization proved essential to the formation and success of the Freethinker Society. Most importantly, he served as one of the Freethinker Society’s earliest organizers. He actively participated in executive committee meetings from its foundation in 1870 and later served as society president from 1875-1879.
Philip Rappaport, while not a principle founder, became one of its most influential members. Born in Fuerth, Bavaria in March 1845, Rappaport moved to Indianapolis in 1870. After a small stint practicing law, Rappaport bought the Indiana Tribüne in 1873, which became the flagship German newspaper in Indianapolis. He served as its editor-in-chief until 1900. He became the President of the Society in 1879 and served for four years. As the most outspoken socialist among the society’s leadership, Rappaport’s own political views were closest to their intellectual fountainhead, Karl Heinzen.
However, the most influential member of the society was Clemens Vonnegut. Born November 20, 1824 in Munster, Westphalia, Vonnegut was educated in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. He came to the United States in the early 1830s, and after a year in New York convinced him that America would be his permanent home, he traveled to Indianapolis to start a new life. He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered “one of the city’s most respected citizens…” Like Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education, founding the German-English Independent School and serving on its board for over 30 years. He served as the first President of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication.
The Freethinker Society of Indianapolis had two primary goals: education and advocacy. Education came in the form of lectures, often given by society members, on topics such as socialism, women’s suffrage, science, theology, and American government. The society also devoted resources to schools and extra-curricular youth services. The leadership of the society deeply believed that the success of their organization, and the freethought movement in general, hinged on educating the young in freethought and secularist ideas, so it purchased schoolbooks and established a series of secular schools, including an industrial trade school. and a secular Sunday school. Advocacy came in the form of alliances with national freethought groups and a dedication to the separation of church and state.
As for official membership, Historian George Probst, in The Germans in Indianapolis: 1840-1918, placed the society’s membership at 150. His source was William Holloway’s 1870 history of Indianapolis, who does not cite a source for this numbers. The society’s official minutes never place the membership rolls this high, even as dues decreased. In 1877 and 1878, the minutes recorded their membership at 36 and 47, respectively. 1882 saw its highest numbers at 80. While many non-members attended lectures and volunteered their time, dues paying membership never reached the 150 member mark indicated by Probst and Holloway.
Moving on, educational lectures became one of the most important aspects of the Freethinker Society, providing fellowship and the facilitation of vibrant conversations. The first lecture by a member recorded in the minutes came from Philip Rappaport in 1875. Entitled “What Do We Need?”, Rappaport’s lecture argued for economic protectionism, civil service reform, and the adoption of the Gold Standard as a “remedy for the prevailing evil in the social and political life…” Vonnegut, Lieber, and other members of the society also gave lectures on religion, politics, philosophy, and science. Additionally, if outside lecturers addressed the society, it published an advertisement for them in the local paper.
While lectures provided the majority of its society in-house education, it also held spirited debates and evenings of entertainment. Society members often debated the intricacies of scientific discovery, whether socialism was a viable political system, or, most interestingly, the validity of women’s suffrage. The most fascinating part of these debates involved Philip Rappaport, who changed his mind on whether or not women should have the right to vote. In an 1876 debate at a society meeting, Rappaport gave an “eloquent speech” against women’s suffrage, but by 1882, in another debate, he is in favor. True to the creed of freethought, Rappaport must have changed his mind when the evidence convinced him to. Also, entertainment became a mainstay for the society. Men and their wives who attended meetings often provided singing entertainment.
Alongside education, advocacy for secularism and a freethought worldview motived the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Co-Founder Hermann Lieber wrote a letter to Congress in 1877 protesting a proposed constitutional amendment that recognized Christianity as the official state religion. That same year, the society held a meeting concerning the creation of a possible statewide freethought organization. When these plans never materialized, the society decided to coordinate its activism with freethought organizations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To reach out to the community, they held a 150th anniversary party for the birth of noted freethinker and American Revolutionary Thomas Paine, encouraging all “freethinkers in the city” to attend. Lastly, the society even set aside funds for the printing and dissemination of Karl Heinzen’s freethought lecture “Six Letter to a Godly Man” as an educational tool for the group. In both their educational and advocacy roles, the Freethinker Society stayed very active throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
Paralleling the earlier success of the Freethinker Society, the larger freethought movement in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s also experienced growth and success. The New York Freethinkers Association was founded in 1877 and held its first major convention a year later in Watkins, New York; four years later, the organization grew into the Freethinkers of the United States. In 1885, the National Liberal League became the American Secular Union (ASU), and with Robert Ingersoll as their president, became the nation’s largest freethought organization, with an estimated total membership of 100,000 by 1887. While the national movement seemed poised to grow forever, the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis started to unravel.
In some respects, Philip Rappaport’s resignation as society President in 1883 signaled the beginning of the end. Their shift in the late 1880s into more educational initiatives through the Sunday School, the German English School, and the Industrial Trade School moved their energies away from community outreach, advocacy, and membership growth. As such, the society spread itself too thin and a lack of enthusiasm unfortunately set in. After meager attempts at reform and reorganization, the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis formally dissolved in April of 1890. The organization divided its assets among multiple educational initiatives and charitable organizations within the German American Community.
After the end of the society, Clemens Vonnegut continued his freethought activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction in Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought both in theory and practice. It also displayed a rhetorical flourish that a future member of Vonnegut family would cite as an influence. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.” However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued that morality was the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.
Clemens Vonnegut died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. Literature icon Kurt Vonnegut, Clemens’s great grandson, recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.
Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city, in Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity, love for knowledge, and his activities within the Socialer Turnverein, the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. In it, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:
I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.
Until the very end, Vonnegut believed the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.
Nearly a century later, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his great grandfather. In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even ruined one of his marriages. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do.” In this statement may be the Clemens Vonnegut’s, and the Freethinker Society’s, greatest legacy.
The Freethinker Society of Indianapolis, and the larger freethought movement, never achieved the immediate notoriety and influence that desired, but it did leave a lasting impact. The Freethinkers Society paved the way for the Indiana Rationalist Association, which carried the torch of freethought into the early twentieth century. Equally important, Clemens Vonnegut’s writings and ideas deeply influenced his family and the literary achievements of his great-grandson, Kurt Vonnegut. The junior Vonnegut’s own Midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences.
Today, if you enter the offices of the Center for Inquiry Indiana, the Indianapolis-based freethought organization, you will see numerous portraits on the walls. Alongside tributes to historic freethinkers like astronomer Carl Sagan and businessman Bill Gates, two sets of portraits are prominent. One is of Robert Ingersoll, the historic infidel, and the other is a section devoted to the founding fathers of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. In a row are Hermann Lieber, Philip Rappaport, Karl Beyschlag, and Clemens Vonnegut. This is not just a kind gesture; it is a testament to the solid foundation the German Americans and Ingersoll built for future freethinkers and the enduring legacy of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. The future, like the past, belongs to the iconoclasts.
Episode 38 | A Conversation with Hypatia Alexandria | Reason Revolution - YouTube
This episode, Justin spoke with author and activist Hypatia Alexandria. They talked about her Catholic upbringing, her path to atheism and humanism, issues within the Latino community and their relationship to religion, and how political activism and secular humanism can resolve some of these issues. A special thanks to Karen Garst for making this conversation happen.
The thing that made the discussion so interesting was that Matt Dillahunty was not interested in debating or strawmanning Peterson. His goal, and I take him at his word, was to have a good conversation, be open and honest, seek clarification, and see where they agree and disagree. He wasn’t even the slightest bit disappointed in the dialogue, thinking he succeeded on many fronts. Maybe so. I just want to clarify a few open questions Dillahunty has concerning Peterson’s positions. Although it is quite odd Dillahunty did so little research on Peterson before the discussion, not even aware, in this recent video, of Peterson’s decades-long work as a clinician, the interchange seemed to have happened in good faith, and I have faith that this conversation can now move forward.
Language Use, the True, and the Real
One issue Dillahunty has with Peterson is he thinks people who no longer believe in God but still find religious language useful need to say they’re using religious language idiosyncratically, because they’re not talking about the God people believe in, but the human condition, and the kinds of Gods people invent to cope with that. This point on the face of it appears to be about simply being clear. In Peterson’s view, this is is actually indicative of Dillahunty’s primarily Enlightenment over Darwinian influences. For Peterson, you can’t be a post-Enlightenment rationalist thinker and a Darwinian at the same time because what the latter explicitly conceptualizes the former ignores; that is, you can structure your world according to different presuppositions, and different systems of thought have different purposes. Furthermore, from his Darwinism, Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality. They have amorphous and porous borders, and this point seems lost on the post-Enlightenment thinkers.
Peterson thinks American pragmatists figured this out. The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive. To abstract ideas from survival value and assume that facts as they pertain to belief about morality, the world, and ourselves exist in and of themselves, separate from how they serve or diminish life, is suspect for Peterson. The assumption of post-Enlightenment thinkers is that the knowledge gained by this reduction doesn’t diminish the possibility for genuine human flourishing. Peterson says, “I think it’s dangerous to consider truth independent of its effect upon us.”
This brings us to the question of the real and the true. Peterson takes what he calls a Darwinian position on the question of the real. The real is that which is consistent and endures across time. This is why Peterson is so fixated on religious myths. Dominance and competence hierarchies are some of the oldest evolutionary structures: over 300 million years old, older than trees. The patterns that constituted the competence hierarchy is the place from which ethics derives. What religious myth does is distill the grammar of competence hierarchies. Therefore to know the meaning of religious belief is to understand the millenia long solution to the problem of suffering and chaos, and this, Peterson believes, grounds our ethics.
The question of what is real is actually connected to the question of the true because what is true is what is real, and what is real serves life. This is Peterson’s basic Darwinian position. Some things are only true for one thing, some things are true for ten things. Some are true for thousands of things. And that truth which is more pervasive and most enduring is the most true. Because the true and the real are connected in the notion of that which serves life, and in Peterson’s estimation, when we try to reduce the truth to just facts we have left out the thing that connects truth to reality. It’s not correspondence, and it’s not coherence. It’s life.
Are True Atheists Murderers?
One idea that got online atheist communities in an uproar is a comment Peterson made about nobody being a true atheist. Dillahunty seemed to have taken great offense at this, and perhaps rightfully so, for Dillahunty certainly doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, and he can ground morality in self-interest, of all things. Why do we need a god to be good?
The problem is Peterson isn’t actually taking the typical Christian apologist position on this issue. He’s rather concerned about the consequences of what would happen if the of our culture is lost. For Peterson, the person who lives after this event is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens. Lack of belief is where their commonalities begin and end, for atheists before the west without the Christian mythical substructure did not have a belief in the inherent dignity of individuals, the value of self-interest, natural law (which grounded the first human rights language), and the like. Although, for instance, somebody like Socrates could have argued for natural law, and so it would seem the philosophers of Athens were in effect taking a modern stance on morality, they still believed that the ordering of nature, with its natural inequality, made women and slaves naturally inferior to citizens who could participate in the polity.
Another way to conceptualize Peterson’s idea is in the way Joseph Campbell did in the popular Myths To Live By. In chapter four, “The Separation of East and West,” he begins
“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet—and here is my second point—they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”
He goes on to trace the history of cultures, to show that archaic civilizations operated according to a belief in a great cosmic law which left no room for the individual, and where one’s birth determined who one is, what one is to be, and what one can think. Indeed, strikingly Campbell points out that the “Sanskrit verb ‘to be’ is sati…and refers to the character of the devout Hindu wife immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.”
But the west (what he calls the “occident”) is different from the orient, and it is because of the myths it told. The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. Especially in the Old Testament, as we see in Job,
“the focus of concern is the individual, who is born but once, lives but once, and is distinct in his willing, his thinking, and his doing from every other; in the whole great Orient of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan the living entity is [rather] understood to be an immaterial transmigrant that puts on bodies and puts them off. You are not your body. You are not your ego. You are to think of these as delusory.”
So what does this have to do with atheism in the west and, particularly, Dillahunty’s argument that from self interest he can establish a moral system that isn’t contingent on religion? Well, rationality is a recent invention, and Peterson thinks our concepts are abstractions from the myths we’ve told for millenia. This is why, for instance, the west is individualistic, democratic, tending to understanding justice in terms of liberty, whereas the east is susceptible to collectivism, communism, tending to understand justice in terms of social expectations. Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.
This leads us back to the previous section: as Peterson said in the discussion, it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is real and what is useful. When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.
 See much more in the article above. The logic of “mythical substrate” is basically that our ideas and rationalities derive from our behaviors which are abstracted into myths which are further abstracted into concepts. The loss of the mythical substrate is essentially the loss of the behaviors that give rise to it.
 See Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism for a much fuller picture of what the claim that the west was founded on both Jerusalem and Athens (i.e., Christianity) means. Note that this is not a normative judgment, entailing that now all our values must revert back to some Christian theology to be grounded. It’s simply a description of history, and the acceptance of value derived from Christian thought doesn’t entail the acceptance of Christianity to be intelligible today.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration released its budget proposal. Among the myriad of things I found myself in stark disagreement with, there was one thing I was actually happy to see: renewed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted, “Trump included $120 million to restart licensing on the geologic site north of Las Vegas, as well as to establish an interim storage program to address the growing stockpile of nuclear waste produced by power plants in states across the nation.” This proposal was not without its critics. The vast majority of Nevada’s statewide leaders oppose the project on the grounds that it would turn Nevada into the nation’s “nuclear waste dump.” Additionally, many congressional Democrats are worried that it would harm Nevada’s precious water sources. While these are all genuine concerns, I think they’re a little misguided, seeing as two separate investigatory commissions deemed the site safe for waste storage up to 10,000 years,
After years of work and $15 billion spent, Yucca Mountain was set to become the premiere nuclear waste storage facility in the world when then-majority leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration stalled the project. Sadly it’s main obstacle was less environmental and more political. The public has an allergic reaction to nuclear energy; a 2016 Gallup poll showed that 54% of respondents did not support nuclear energy in the United States. It also concluded that majorities of both major parties don’t really want to touch the subject. This brings up the obvious question: Why do people hate nuclear energy so much, even though it’s one of the cleanest and safest energy technologies in the world? I think answering this question goes a long way toward rehabilitating nuclear energy in the public eye, and with the growing threats of climate change, the time to change that perception is now.
As Penn Jillette noted in an episode of “Bullshit,” some people don’t like nuclear power merely because of the word “nuclear.” The word has become associated with Cold War-era fears of global annihilation. Even President Ronald Reagan, the president responsible for one of the biggest nuclear weapons buildups in American history, chafed at the potential of nuclear after watching the apocalyptic TV-movie, “The Day After.” Furthermore, most American environmental groups don’t like nuclear power and have dedicated years to maligning it in the public eye. The Sierra Club declares that “Nuclear is no solution to Climate Change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.” Greenpeace is even more alarmist: “Greenpeace opposes nuclear power because it is dangerous, polluting, expensive and non-renewable. More nuclear power means more nuclear weapons proliferation, more nuclear-armed states, more potential “dirty bombs” and more targets for terrorists.”
Alarmist attitudes over nuclear power are unwarranted. First, it leaves a smaller carbon footprint than alternatives like solar energy do. As environmentalist and California gubernatorial candidateMichael Shellenberger noted in his TED talk, “according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear produces four times less carbon emissions than solar does. That’s why they recommended in their recent report the more intensive use of renewables, nuclear [,] and carbon capture and storage.” Solar energy’s carbon emissions are mostly created through the process of mining materials as well as the manufacturing process of solar panels and batteries. Second, contrary to Greenpeace’s claim, nuclear energy is incredibly safe. Steven Pinker highlights this in his newest book, Enlightenment Now:
The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population. The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one…. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many—perhaps a million deaths a year.
Let’s unpack the worst accident, Chernobyl, a little more. The people who cleaned up Chernobyl, arguably the most exposed to radiation, saw only a 1% increase in mortality. For comparison, living with a smoker increases mortality by 1.7% and air pollution in a major city like New York by 2.8%. People justifiably worry about nuclear radiation, but the science shows us that fallout from nuclear facilities is not as harsh as assumed.
As anti-nuclear activists harp about its status as a non-renewable energy, they fail to acknowledge that wind, solar, and other supposed “renewables” rely just as much on non-renewable resources as nuclear energy does. Wind and solar energy’s reliance on precious metals and minerals for manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines have a high carbon footprint, not to mention the intense and often dangerous labor required to extract them. Additionally, there’s no consensus on how to recycle solar panels, which contain “heavy toxic metals like chromium, cadmium, and lead.” Shellenberger shares this uncomfortable truth about solar panels: “solar actually produces 200 to 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear.” And this is with a technology that only accounts for roughly 1% of global energy use. While renewables certainly represent a component to our energy future, they cannot fulfill our expanding energy needs entirely, especially in the developing world.
Besides fossils fuels and hydroelectric plants, nuclear power is the only reliable, plentiful, and scalable energy source that can meet our needs. Its concentrated energy is astounding; according to energy researcher Alex Epstein, “the concentration of energy in uranium is more than a million times that of oil and 2 million times that of coal—although given current technology, in practice it ‘only’ delivers thousands of times more energy per unit of input.” Despite technological setbacks, nuclear energy is amazingly dense, not to mention efficient. Additionally, elements like uranium and thorium are plentiful around the globe, and with improvements in technology, a little bit will go a long way. Nuclear energy is also scalable. Take the example of France, which generates 93% of its electricity from clean sources like hydro and nuclear. Not only does France use twice as much clean energy as Germany, one of the world’s biggest renewable countries, but its energy costs are half. As Germany invests more and more in renewables and moves away from nuclear, they have to resort to coal as an auxiliary power. In turn, this made its overall carbon footprint increase over the last few years.
In terms of environmental impact, it is true that nuclear plants do use a lot of water, but it is a lot less than you may think. According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear energy only uses 3.3% of water in the US, which is “much more water than some sources of renewable energy, such as wind and photovoltaic solar, but generally less water than other sources of renewable energy, such as geothermal and concentrating solar.” Thermoelectric energy plants use vastly larger amounts of water than nuclear, and the former’s can be recycled back into the local water supply. Furthermore, Generation III and IV nuclear plants, once online, would use dramatically less water, as a result of new technological efficiencies. In regards to water biomes, nuclear energy plant designs are improving. According to the Canadian Nuclear Association, “While it is true that water intake and cooling systems of shoreline power plants could affect aquatic life, water-intake systems are now normally located deep enough to minimize effects on fish, and shaped to avoid fish entrapment. Designs of water-discharge systems have been modified to help cool the water before it is returned to the lake, and the systems are located to reduce effects on aquatic life.” And, concerning uninhabitable land, wastewater created from fracking and coal plants also leaves uninhabitable areas, and due to the retrieval of energy from the ground, leaves a much larger acreage footprint. Nuclear energy, despite all the negative press it receives, is the most viable alternative energy, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and combating global climate change.
. . . the research led me into looking at what are the real threats of radiation – way less than we thought; what really happened at Chernobyl – way less than we thought; what are the efficiencies of nuclear – way better than I thought; what is the tradeoff against solar and wind, and one of things environmentalists are just learning now is that because solar and wind are so dilute, they make an enormous footprint on the land in order to collect them and then another large footprint with the long transmission lines.
He further noted that, “The safety record of the nuclear industry again, that turned up in my research – is impeccable.” Brand proposes that the United States invest heavily in nuclear power over the next few decades, and if our capacity could become 80% of total energy usage, the benefits to the climate could be extraordinary. Environmentalist James Hansen and even billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates have also acknowledged the potential of nuclear energy.
So, what continues to hold nuclear energy back? Money and politics. Nuclear plants in the US have been historically stalled by suffocating regulations, which makes the costs prohibitively expensive. One way to change this is by curtailing or eliminating unnecessary regulatory hoops for both public and private investments in nuclear energy. Doing this will allow the industry to bring the highly innovative III and IV generation plants online as well as update older plants to match these specifications. This will bring costs down tremendously as well as improve safety; III and IV generation plants can handle potential problems much better than older plants. They should become the standard. The United States has already put billions in subsidies for renewable energies; why can’t we invest money in an energy source that isn’t intermittent, non-scalable, and with a lower overall carbon footprint?
This is where the politics come in. The public (and politicians) love renewables because they look clean and nice, despite the fact that they take up an incredible amount of land (at a detriment to local ecosystems) and use heavy metals and elements that have to be arduously mined, are arguably as toxic as nuclear waste. As Environmental Progress’s Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson have noted, “solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.” These tradeoffs are never discussed when we talk about wind and solar; people just think about the breeze or sunshine that produces energy. By contrast, nuclear energy takes up a lot less land, is way more energy dense, and overall better for the environment. Additionally, wind and solar are only now becoming cost-effective because of decades of government cash. Imagine if we had put that money into nuclear energy.
It’s time for politicians and the public to honestly examine the tradeoffs of alternative energies and stop being so alarmist about nuclear energy. We either need to reinstate funding for Yucca Mountain, or if Nevada doesn’t want to play ball, move the nuclear waste facility to another state, where its economic benefits will be appreciated. Or the best option, now the industry standard, is to house the waste on-site in disaster-proof drums that are monitored daily for possible risks. Any of these options would make our country safer: having secured, state-of-the-art facilities for our nuclear waste would alleviate a lot of potential safety issues. We also need larger investments, both public and private, towards the improvement of older plants and the construction of new ones. It’s time that we stop letting cowardly public leaders and eco justice warriors dominate the discussion. Our world is not going to use less energy; in fact, as the developing world comes online, we will use a whole lot more. We have to take a pragmatic, science-based approach to our energy policy. One big step, if we’re serious about stemming the tide of climate change, is to embrace nuclear energy. Its time has come; we just have to make it happen.
While my training is in history, I have always loved philosophy, specifically ethics. In thinking through the implications of life without gods and the supernatural, I’ve come to the conclusion that giving up traditional religious doctrines requires a complementary philosophical system. I think that secular humanism is such a system, one that is a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. Today, I will present an outline for this methodology and present concise arguments in its defense. In sum, a life based on the application of one’s reason, ethical individualism, and democratic participation can facilitate a life of joy, freedom, and achievement.
To begin, I’ll outline the secular humanist’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, which is built upon three essential components: reason, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. First, reason is the foundational pillar that the other components work from. Reason is our capacity to create abstract thoughts and/or conclusions based on the concretes of reality. It is the emergent faculty of our brains that allows us to conceptualize and systematize the world. The humanist believes that reason, or our ability to perceive and then conceive, is purely natural and without the need for “faith” or “revealed wisdom.”
Philosopher Harry Binswanger has delivered a series of lectures emphasizing this point. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world. Abstraction and conceptualization, which turn our perceptions into knowledge, are processes that require discrimination and systemization of the “raw material” of perception. This is where reason comes in. Nearly anyone can perceive a quasi-spherical red object or a vibrational difference in the atmosphere with their senses; it requires reason to conceptualize that it is an apple or a song, respectively.
Faith by-passes this entire process by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, abstraction and finally conceputalization. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition. This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. In reality, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at valid conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to the creation of knowledge.
Second, we must base our perception on a solid philosophical foundation, which is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of MN comes to us from the RationalWiki:
Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses. To avoid these traps scientists assume that all causes are empirical and naturalistic; which means they can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.
MN does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but rather recognizes the complicated and often problematic investigations of the supernatural. This view is contrasted with philosophical naturalism (PN), which holds that the natural world is all there is and no supernatural exists. While some humanists defend the position of PN, MN is the applicable, default position for the creation of knowledge.
Finally, a humanist epistemology benefits from a healthy dose of skepticism. For this perspective, we turn to the master of skepticism himself, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explains the fallibility of the human mind:
The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us’d [sic] all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d [sic] to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system.
In other words, perceptions are not knowledge. They can be twisted and contradicted from what’s really actually going on. This is why the process of reason is indispensable to our lives. Reason allows us to peel back the layers of “contradictions and absurdities” and come to a more accurate conceptualization of reality. Humans are emotional and messy, often led astray by our biases and misperceptions. Skepticism guides our thinking away from our initial perceptions and requires us to investigate deeper to best approximate understanding of our world.
Moving from epistemology to ethics, a predominant theological and philosophical worldview focuses on the collective nature of human beings. In more fundamentalist strains, it can be a complete negation of a person’s thoughts, desires, and talents. For example, the ideologies of Islamism (the politicization of certain sects of Islam), fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Marxism require that the individual be subservient to the cause, or the “ideal,” of the faith.
This view wholly distorts our human nature; human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved from mostly individual, and not collective, changes. As biologist Robert Sapolsky noted in, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst:
Animals don’t behave for the good of the species. They behave to maximize the number of copies of their genes passed into the next generation. . . . Individual selection fares better than group selection in explaining basic behaviors.
This has profound ethical implications. While it would be unwise for us to directly extrapolate a system of ethics from biology, it is helpful to understand these conclusions and their relation to us as social creatures. Humans are inherently social; we desire communication and connection. However, that does not mean we should seek to achieve these connections through totally collectivistic means.
Building off of that, my view of humanism is guided by the principle of individual rights. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said, “I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This notion is bigger than biology. It is also built on the Enlightenment principle of “self-proprietorship,” outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton:
To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man.
In essence, your life belongs to you, to do with it as you see fit, so long as you do not violate the rights of another. This is a bedrock political tradition from the Enlightenment that continues to expand the rights of all people around the globe.
It is the Humanist view that if the individual pursues activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany them; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result. This ethical doctrine goes all the way back to Aristotle and is called eudaemonism (Greek for happiness).
Therefore, that which is in accordance with the overall flourishing of the individual, within the context of their own life and their relation to others, undergirds a humanist conception of rights. Supernaturalism or gods no longer remain necessary.
Now, Individualism does not imply a short-sighted selfishness. Rather, it represents a committed recognition to the dignity of each person as well as the need for social cohesion for the flourishing of our species. Lamont, again, elucidates this point perfectly:
Humanism, then, follows the golden mean by recognizing that both self-interest and altruism have their proper place and can be combined in a harmonious pattern. People who try to serve humanity must permit humanity to serve them in turn. Their own welfare is as much a part of the welfare of humankind as that of anyone else.
Therefore, it is the ethical promise of humanism to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole, and vice versa.
This ethical interplay between the individual and their relation to others is generally called morality, which in my view, consists of two major components: the moral instinct and the moral framework. Our moral instincts are the product of natural selection; we are driven by “passing on lots of copies of one’s genes” through “maximizing reproduction.” Base emotions like fear, hunger, dominance, and justice, among others, evolved over millennia so our genes could be passed on from generation to generation. This has not only made us successful biologically; it has also made us moral. As such, actions which originally evolved to protect kin began to protect non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.
To illustrate this point, author Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He’s waiting to board the plane when he noticed that a woman had placed her infant “on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barker saw the carrier starting to fall to the ground, “made a quick stride to the left,” and his “fingertips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling towards the floor.” The mother quickly assisted him in leveling the carrier and thanked him. Now, why would he do something so moral without much intellectual consideration? Barker explains:
We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes–or closely related genes–to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.
The moral instinct compels us to carry out many actions without any need for elaborate rationalizations; we just act in accordance with our human nature. Acknowledging this aspect of who we are goes a long way to improving our ethical systems in the future.
Complementing the moral instinct is the moral framework, what we commonly call “ethics,” or a system of conceived principles that advance flourishing and limit suffering, not just in humans but in the ever-growing moral universe. One way to conceptualize the moral framework is philosopher Peter Singer’s “expanding circle.” Based on an earlier concept from historian W. E. H. Lecky, Singer’s expanding circle hinges on moral agents rationally defending their actions without prizing their own status over anyone else. In other words, it’s a more elaborate variation on the golden rule, but with a twist: make moral decisions among others as you would have others make moral decisions among you. The circle expands, as the metaphor goes, as we socially evolve to include more than just other individual humans. Within time, it will include in-group members, out-group members, communities, states, countries, the entire human race, other mammals, all sentient beings, and eventually the entire spectrum of life. Using the moral framework will challenge our culturally-ingrained notions of moral behavior, as its “principles are not laws written up in heaven. Nor are they absolute truths about the universe, known by intuition. The principles of ethics come from our own nature as social, reasoning beings.”
In using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral or immoral. As neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape, “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” While Harris is right about the importance of science in answering moral questions, we must also use ethics when discussing moral values. Both work hand in hand, with science being the investigatory component and ethics being the evaluative component. This is for a reason. Unbridled science (eugenics, atomic weapons) and unbridled utopianism (totalitarian philosophies such as Fascism and Marxism) can lead to gross immorality; it is only through what biologist E. O. Wilson called “consilience,” or a unification of knowledge, that we can make the best moral decisions. In all, the moral instinct and the moral framework serve as two sides of the same ethical coin. The instinctual and conceptual both have a say in how we advance our lives and the lives of others.
Finally, we turn to politics, which is the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of our individual and societal concerns. Democracy, the most successful and beneficial form of government, is predicated on the protection and/or fulfillment of rights through the “freely given consent of the governed.”These rights can be broken down into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are rights that the government cannot take away from you (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.), while positive rights are those that are granted by the government, such as a right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a living wage or pension system. The best encapsulation of both types of rights comes from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1941 “Four Freedoms Speech.” The “four freedoms” are: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are negative rights while the latter two are positive rights. Our modern democratic tradition hinges on these ideals, which fit nicely into a humanist framework.
Humanist scholars such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Paul Kurtz all stressed the importance of a healthy democratic society based on the bedrock of political rights. Dewey, in his essay, “On Democracy,” wrote of the necessity of negative rights:
The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute.
Negative rights ensure that individuals are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intelligence to fulfill the needs of themselves and others. To implement these values, a democracy requires a strong separation of church and state and a free press, so that all citizens can implement the values they hold dear without violating the negative liberties of others.
On the other hand, Hook notes of the “positive requirements of a democracy” in his essay, “Democracy as a Way of Life.” Among the various requirements, the most important to this discussion is Hook’s notion of “economic democracy.” He explains:
By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions.
Like Dewey, he’s leaving options open to the citizens of democratic societies, such as whether to be more capitalist and less socialist or vice versa. In doing so, Hook defends the principle of positive rights in the same fashion that Roosevelt did: to advance human flourishing.
Lastly, we come to Paul Kurtz and his thoughts on democracy from his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism. Kurtz reaffirms the considerations made by Dewey and Hook but also emphasizes the value of discourse and participation to a functioning democracy. “. . . a political democracy,” Kurtz writes, “can be effective only if its citizens are interested in the affairs of government and participate in it by way of constant discussion, letter writing, free association, and publication. In absence of such interest, democracy will become inoperative; an informed electorate is the best guarantee of its survival.”
Each of these views on democracy require citizens to use reason, from protecting their liberties and organizing their economies to discussions among others and petitioning the government for a “redress of grievances.” None of these things happen by virtue of a god or how many prayers a person can say. Rather, democracy is a human-centered, action-oriented enterprise that protects rights, builds economies, facilitates discussions, and encourages achievements.
With that in mind, a functioning democratic society relies on both science and ethics to inform our public policy. With such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty, police brutality, sex education, vaccines, and stem cell research, it is essential that we apply our best thinking to these social problems. With only science as a guide, a government falls privy to overbureactization and malfeasance, and at worst, enacts policies which violate individual rights (eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide). This is why an ethical component, based on the application of reason as well as the guidepost of human flourishing, should always play a core role in shaping policy. It will not always provide us with easy answers, but it is far better than leaving our democracy to the whims of crackpots, religious fanatics, and overzealous central planners.
Ok, so these ideas sounds great in theory, but do they work in practice? It turns out that they do. In his newest, landmark book, Enlightenment Now, Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker analyzes how the values of reason, science, and humanism have lead to a great degree of..