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.”
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.
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..