On ‘Secular Humanism’

This post is written largely as a reflection on our times. Yesterday I had the honour of addressing the European Society for the Philosophy of Religion in a plenary session. I was glad to learn that one can believe in God without believing in religion — which is basically my own position. I gained a renewed respect for theologians who are very alive to theirs being quite literally a ‘science of God’ and not simply a science of religious experience, whatever the source.

I am a self-declared ‘secular humanist’. I am also a ‘theist’ in the sense that I believe that God is an entity worthy of sustained inquiry, whose existence would effectively rationalize how humans have conducted themselves over the past couple of millennia, if not more. Here I am alluding to the Abrahamic belief that humans are created in the image and likeness of God, which has led to ideas that we might get into the mind of God (a la physics) or even play God (a la biology). But this general line of thought has nothing to do with ‘religion’ in the conventional institutionalised sense. In this respect, my belief in God should be treated as a theoretical commitment, or ‘hypothesis’, subject to scientific investigation. For this reason, I believe that theology should be counted as a ‘science’ in the proper sense, Wissenschaft.

My empirically considered view – of course, subject to revision – is that we act as if we are on the road to merging with, if not outright becoming, just such a deity. Although it is still fashionable to follow Voltaire’s derisory portrayal of theodicy (i.e. the justification of divine agency in human terms) in Candide, as a matter of fact our species has followed the advice of Dr Pangloss and treated even the worst of human atrocities – say, the Nazi genocide of Jews – as learning experiences from which we come out stronger. After all, research into genetics could have been stopped altogether, if our overriding concern were to prevent any version of racism from arising in the future. But in fact such a precautionary policy was not adopted. Instead particular individuals were punished for documented atrocities – but the science was left unscathed.

The history of genetics research in the second half of the 20th century and beyond has vindicated such a restrained approach toward dealing with mass human error on the scale perpetrated by the Nazis. But wherein does this wisdom lie? The answer is complicated. After all, the constraints imposed by what academics routinely experience as ‘institutional review boards’ were products of the ‘never again’ mentality generated in the wake of the discovery of the atrocities that the Nazis committed in the name of medical research. To be sure, they have hobbled the progress of science in ways that astute commentators have already noticed. Nevertheless, these constraints have functioned more as an irritation than a discouragement. We are still on the road to divinity — and movements like ‘transhumanism’ represent very adventurous, and perhaps even adolescent, steps in that direction.

Given all of the above, there is no natural place for either atheism or religion in my sense of ‘secular humanism’. Atheism doesn’t make sense because the chequered history of humanity reveals us to be a being who is primarily focussed not in the here and now but in some much greater expanse of space and time, on behalf of which we have been willing to undergo considerable risks and sacrifices along the way. More importantly, the strategy seems to have worked. But at the same time, the strategy leaves no obvious place for ‘religion’, understood as a specific set of dogmas and rituals. The sense of ‘faith’ that is relevant to secular humanism is that, whatever we do, we remain in contact with the source of all being. But the bottom line is that what goes on in a lab is more likely to provide a secure route to this ontological connectedness than what goes on in a church.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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5 replies »

  1. “Atheism doesn’t make sense because the chequered history of humanity reveals us to be a being who is primarily focussed not in the here and now but in some much greater expanse of space and time, on behalf of which we have been willing to undergo considerable risks and sacrifices along the way.”

    I’m not sure I follow this at all, but why doesn’t the claim I’ve quoted amount to saying this: “atheism doesn’t make sense because people have illusions”? Why anyone would accept this as valid is hard to fathom. (‘Illusions’ would be another way of putting the bit about people having a purview beyond the here and now for which they are willing to take risks and costs. I know this isn’t what Fuller intends – but that’s my point.)

    There is, of course, a problem with people who think that once they’ve joined the Dawkins club, presumably by expressing confused outrage 3 or 5 times a day, they get full rationality honours by default and can claim not to have any illusions themselves. In this way, having a fixation on atheism does *not* make sense as a positive world view. But woe betide those who forget the Greek privative in ‘atheism’; who says we need a positive world view? I might find many, unconnected ways of orienting a life, but find the God-people (Wissenshaftlich or otherwise) so consistently annoying and obstructive that it makes a great deal of sense, in a context I can’t escape from, to maintain a constant guard. Finally, I might in fact regret this apparent necessity, because it might seem like a waste of effort compared to what I might otherwise do with my time. Just like sitting in traffic on the A46, waylaid by the common herd.

  2. I think you’ve addressed your own point, and I agree with your conclusion. The real battle is not between Dawkins and the theists. It is between, on the one hand, Dawkins and the theists and, on the other, the Greek sceptics (including you and, I believe, Darwin himself). The former are obsessed with what you call ‘illusions’ but tell different stories about how to justify them, whereas guys like you just recognise them as illusions and carry on in what George Santayana called ‘animal faith’. But then the burden is on you to explain why we think humans are special and, in particular, why the most abstract science is the most special thing that humans do…. that is, unless all of that is an illusion too….

  3. To the extent to which people do think humans are special, isn’t it because we’ve managed to build-up 6-8 million years’ worth of self-serving self-importance? And don’t most of us very often forget the specialness of humans, and replace it with the specialness of myself, or my family, etc., whenever a sufficiently scarce resource is present? Wouldn’t all of this be more of an explanatory challenge – and provide more support for your theism – if *another* load of fairly highly cognitively capable animals, perhaps from another planet, were to commonly think that humans were special?

    As for abstract science, presumably the people who think it is the most special thing humans do feel it shows-off our exceptional (but not evenly distributed) cognitive abilities – and then get a bit excited about it. These abilities have been a real advantage in material life, so the excitement isn’t exactly inexplicable. Naturalists always travel with an appropriate beast to carry the burden of proof: adventavit asinus, pulcher et fortissimus…i.e. self-interest.

    Not the Greeks, Pragmatists, or Darwin, I’m actually with Marx (a la The German Ideology) on all of this: any shopkeeper can tell you the difference between what people say they are and what they actually are. Taking people’s various God-sounding aspirations as any kind of evidence at all for the existence of such a thing sounds like repeating the error of failing to be as discriminating as a shopkeeper – which he nailed in the historians of mid-nineteenth century Germany. (Feuerbach in particular.) Marx’s own aspirations, of course, turned out to be equally pretend; once more, thought and action went their separate ways…the one to Paris and the other to Russia?

  4. I think you’re arguing with yourself. We’re in agreement. You are indeed a sceptic. Marx, by your own account, was on the side of illusory self-importance. Marx, after all, actually believed that humans were special, and this led him to retain the medieval idea (also in Locke) of ‘labour’ as a source of value. In Marx, horses do work but do not engage in labour. Economists more comfortable with the replacement of human labour by technology have differed with him on this point, since they are more concerned with the ‘done’ than the ‘doer’. So Marx is an irrelevance to your argument.

  5. I’m not sure what we agree on!

    Just because Marx got his predictions and thinly veiled prescriptions wrong, as I suggested, doesn’t imply his criticisms of the German historians in The German Ideology were wrong too – the only part of Marx I was relying on. He nowhere in the Ideology (or the Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations part of the Grundrisse) takes the specialness of humans as a focus – presumably getting him to say this involves digging for presuppositions with an interest different to Marx’s in mind.

    But your theistic argument, as I understand it, is that people believing in God and acting in ways that register this belief can be ‘rationalized’ by taking God actually to exist (presumably “actually transcendentally”). Not only is this as horribly circular as the original ontological argument on one hand and anthropologically doubtful on the other, there are also better, more sociologically mundane explanations, like those I summarized above. As with Marx, I think there are good materialist explanations for why particular beliefs proliferate and why people are inclined to think in certain ways; unlike Marx, I don’t think things are as simple as base and ideological superstructure. If I’m a Greek anything it’s a materialist rather than a skeptic – I’m only sceptical about things that don’t exist!

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