Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis at the Society for German American Studies Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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.
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Theme: “Jon’s on Fire” by Silent Partner
This episode, Justin had a conversation with atheist activist Damien Marie Athope. They talked about axiological atheism, skepticism, the value of reason, humanism, anarchism, and other topics.
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Recently I wrote on how I was disappointed by the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson dialogue produced by Pangburn Philosophy. Although I still remain fundamentally disappointed by it, a few things have been clarified for me by Matt Dillahunty’s reflections on the discussion.
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.
The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than it appears in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content. I would like to see Dillahunty and Peterson discuss these issues more fully, and I think for this to happen we have to get beyond, as I’ve said, the full stop question as to the existence of God. With or without God, how does religion affect our modern landscape? With or without God, what does the language of myth provide that, say, pure-hard logic can’t (if anything at all)? I’m hopeful the conversation might turn more interesting on these points, given that it appears both Dillahunty and Peterson had a good faith dialogue last time. Next time we might be in for something special.
 See much more in “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson.”
 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.
 Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 61.
 Ibid., 69.
Something truly momentous happened this week. On April 30, California representatives Jared Huffman and Jerry McNerney along with Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Michigan’s Dan Kildee officially announced the creation of a Congressional Freethought Caucus. Spearheaded by the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality, the Congressional Freethought Caucus will “promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and nonreligious persons; champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” This couldn’t have come at a better time. With around a quarter of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 7% openly identifying as atheist, secular and humanistic perspectives will now get a larger voice in Congress.
Congressman Jared Huffman, who recently came out as a secular humanist, noted his excitement about the caucus and hopes it will “spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.” Congressman Jamie Raskin, another open humanist, highlighted the “historic” nature of this event and its ties to the founders:
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.
This step also pushes non-theist and humanistic perspectives more to the forefront of our politics. As Ron Millar of the Center for Freethought Equality put it, “this caucus will help end discrimination against nontheist candidates and elected officials, allow candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs, and encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanists to run for political office.” With the ever-growing creep of theocracy into our federal government after the election of Donald Trump, the Freethought Caucus is exactly the kind of move we should take as a nation. Huffman reiterated this in his statements on Monday: “There currently is no forum focused on these important issues, and with this Administration and certain members of Congress constantly working to erode the separation of church and state, this new caucus is both important and timely.”
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.
A Historic Achievement for Humanism
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.”
Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on secular humanism at the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church in Carmel, Indiana.
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Music: “Constellations” by Sound Surfer
Lecture at HUUC, April 8, 2018
American humanism has always benefited from its trailblazers, the radicals whose revolutionary ideas moved the progress of freedom, equality, and justice forward. One almost without peer was Emma Goldman, the anarchist philosopher and public intellectual; her unique perspective on atheism constantly challenged the status quo. Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States, toiled in the sweatshops of upstate New York before coming to political consciousness after the Haymarket Riot, a massacre that left countless dead and implicated labor activists as scapegoats for the violence. This event pushed her out of her first marriage and into New York City, where she met fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman and fell in love. She used her new-found freedom to study the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and atheism, which influenced all of her later activism and writing.
Authorities followed Goldman her entire life. They attempted to charge her with involvement in the near-murder of Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick, which had been carried out by Berkman as a response to the bloodshed at Homestead. While she was involved in the plot, she was never charged due to lack of evidence. In 1901, she was wrongly arrested for alleged involvement in the assassination of President William McKinley; but, like the case involving Frick, she was later released. In 1919, after speaking out against World War I, the government convicted her of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts and deported her from the United States. She lived in multiple countries during her exile before her death in 1940.
During her many years of activism, Goldman wrote for a variety of publications, including Mother Earth, a magazine she founded in 1906. Her writing championed free speech and expression, free love and open relationships, anarchism, the rights of labor, education, birth control, and criticisms of religion. This essay will explore Goldman’s ideas about atheism and how they fit into her larger ideological framework. As her writings will show, three core themes permeate Goldman’s work: strong advocacy for individual freedom, rejection of Christianity, and the defense of atheism. In all, Emma Goldman’s radical atheism was rooted in her love of humanity, and while the term didn’t exist then, that made her a deeply committed humanist.
Women as “Victims of Morality”
In 1913, Goldman published a lecture entitled, “Victims of Morality,” where she argued that religious puritanism had, like a disease, infected the moral compass of America, with significant consequences manifesting particularly in the lives of women. “Through the medium of religion they have paralyzed the mind of the people, just as morality has enslaved the spirit. In other words, religion and morality are a much better whip to keep people in submission than even the club and the gun,” Goldman wrote. She was speaking in reference to Anthony Comstock, the overzealous social reformer who used his position as special agent at the U.S. Post Office Department to enforce strict laws against the purported transfer of “obscene” literature via the mail. In fact, the “Comstock Act,” which prohibited the passage of obscene literature of the mails, is named after him.
Goldman believed that Comstock’s style of Victorian puritanism violated the rights of women. “It is Morality,” said Goldman, “which condemns woman to the position of a celibate, a prostitute, or a reckless, incessant breeder of hapless children.” Now, why would she capitalize “morality?” Was she speaking in reference to a specific kind of morality? In the context of this article, her capital-M morality referred to “Property Morality,” her view that the capitalistic United States was beholden to property. “Woe to anyone that dares to question the sanctity of property, or sins against it,” she declared. In this passage, we see Goldman’s critique of morality as part of a greater critique of capitalism itself. To her, capitalism and its slavish devotion to property created the conditions under which those who were oppressed by its machinations barely understood their own servitude. In this milieu, religion (specifically Christianity) and Victorian moralism served as a major contributor to false consciousness. In turn, Goldman estimated that “until the workers lose respect for the instrument of their material enslavement, they need hope for no relief.”
As indicated above, this condition wreaked havoc on the rights of women. For Goldman, the celibate is created by the morality of marriage, the prostitute is created by the morality of property and money, and the mother is created by the morality of socially-sanctioned reproduction. All these moralities amount to the same consequence: the lives of women were preordained by social roles, at the expense of their liberty and freedom. Goldman’s solution to this problem is for women to throw off the social bonds of “Morality” and embrace a moral individualism that is consummate with a person’s own desires and needs. “Woman is awakening, she is throwing off the nightmare of Morality; she will no longer be bound,” Goldman wrote, “Her love is sanction enough for her.” She believed if people lived their lives without any regard for gratifying oppressive structures of the church and the state, they would live full lives of meaning and purpose.
Christianity and the Denial of Life
To further her critique of society’s “Morality,” she published another pamphlet lambasting its fundamental support structure: Christianity. In “The Failure of Christianity,” also published in 1913, Goldman saw herself as the rightful heir of such notable German iconoclasts as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. Goldman declared that they “hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because they saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, and the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.” The concept of “slave morality,” as articulated by Nietzsche, understood Christianity as a system that reinforced moralities that enslaved by making humility, obedience, and charity virtues as opposed to the master moralities that prize pride, power, and nobility. Goldman agreed. As she wrote in a further passage, “I believe, with them, that Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us today.” Christianity, in Goldman’s eyes, ripped away our human potential by stripping us of our strength, courage, and agency.
She’s also not forgiving to Christ as a teacher; she saw his religion as “the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life; hence responsible for the things done in their name.” Now, she differentiated the concept of “Jesus Christ” into three distinct categories: the theological, the ethical, and the poetic. The theological Christ is the one presented by the Bible, a divine-human figure, with all the miracles and supernaturalism. The ethical Christ, like the one depicted in the Jefferson Bible, is stripped of supernaturalism and miracles to focus on his ethical teachings. Finally, the poetical Christ focuses on the story of Christ as a metaphor for life, a story that helps a person understand their place in the world. In her view, the theological Christ was refuted long ago, by such luminaries as Thomas Paine, Ernest Renan, Richard Strauss, and Ferdinand Christian Baur (she spells as Bauer). Her main contention, which she saw as more important to the culture of her time, was the influence of the ethical and poetic Christs: “the ethical and poetic Christ-myth” Goldman argued, “has so thoroughly saturated our lives, that even some of the most advanced minds make it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke.”
Goldman’s frustration was less with the fundamentalists of Christianity (who would be refuted over time by scientific and theological inquiry) but the liberal wing, whose dedication to the myth led to widespread ethical contradictions. They couldn’t see how the metaphor of life the poetical Christ represented had made them slaves to social and political ideologies requiring subservience and intellectual sacrifice. For instance, Christians who decried slavery lacked self-awareness of their own religion, for while it taught them ethical responsibility, it also taught them “slavish acquiescence in the will of others” and encouraged “the complete disregard of character and self-reliance, and [was] therefore destructive of liberty and well-being.” Thus, well-meaning Christians actually propelled and sustained the slave trade for centuries, despite the ethical call to “love thy neighbor.” In order for a society to truly achieve progress, it must reject Christianity, in any form. It is a religion which prizes the allure of heaven over the concerns of the here and now. It teaches that to be “poor in spirit” is to be virtuous, that those who toil on this earth need not bothered with their current status or the political state of the world in which they find themselves. The rich will suffer in hell while the poor live in heaven. And most of all, it reinforces subjugation as a virtue.
This is Goldman’s central problem with Christianity; like “Morality’s” assault on women’s rights, Christianity’s insistence on meekness becomes “the whip, which capitalism and governments have used to force man into dependency, into his slave position.” Furthermore, Goldman observed, “Righteousness grows out of liberty, of social and economic opportunity, and equality. But how can the meek, the poor in spirit, ever establish such a state of affairs?” In order for society to truly promote and preserve individual rights, freedom, and equality, the institutions of social cohesion (the state, market capitalism, organized Christianity) must crumble before the working classes.
Goldman’s Audacious Atheism
Alongside her continued appraisals of religion, Emma Goldman also articulated an alternative in the February, 1916, issue of her magazine, Mother Earth. Called “The Philosophy of Atheism,” this short essay has become her best-known writing on the subject (and was recently included in Christopher Hitchens’s edited omnibus, The Portable Atheist). It’s fairly surprising how prescient she was in this essay, laying out ideas that have become common themes in our modern discourse on atheism. For example, she writes early in the piece that “the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.”
Today, this critique is heavily used against the “God of the Gaps” style arguments for theism, which use current gaps in knowledge to posit the existence of God. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson echoed Goldman when he said that “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on – so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.” While their views are separated by nearly a century, it’s remarkable how parallel they are; this reinforces my view that American freethought goes back much farther than we often think.
Another clear influence on her own atheism was the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, whose own work God and the State she quotes at length in “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Bakunin argued that gods were the product of “the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties,” which led to the “abdication of human reason and justice” and “necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and in practice.” If this sounds familiar to you, it should, because Goldman also viewed religion as slavery and wrote about it at length in the aforementioned “Failure of Christianity.” In accepting Bakunin’s thesis, Goldman declared that “In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.”
One more instance in which she presaged another well-known intellectual was with her critique of what she called “theistic tolerance.” Goldman noted that as religious belief wanes in the public square, denominations of all stripes will “combine variegated religious philosophies and conflicting theistic theories into one denominational trust” in a “frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the ‘pernicious’ influence of atheistic ideas.” Therefore, “It is characteristic of theistic ‘tolerance’ that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.” With this analysis, she anticipated the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s concept of “Belief in Belief,” from his 2006 work, Breaking the Spell. In the chapter of the same name, Dennett argues that many view the belief in a god or gods as essentially valuable to society, regardless of whether or not the god(s) exist or religious doctrines are empirically true. Like Goldman (and me), Dennett is firmly convinced that as societies forge evermore robust secular systems of justice and social harmony there will no longer be any need for this “belief in belief.” Now, Dennett wouldn’t go along with Goldman’s anarchism, but would definitely sign on to her diagnosis. This make her a pretty damn good prognosticator of some of mainstream atheism’s most prevalent ideas.
After clearing away religions under the lash of her pen, Goldman spends the rest of this essay articulating her view of atheism. She begins with an excellent definition:
The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.
Her definition reaffirms her commitment to the real world, not the promise of heaven or the fear of hell. In fact, she even says as much in a further passage:
The philosophy of Atheism has its roots in the earth in this life . . . . Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.
Atheism allows a person to fully embrace their humanity for the betterment of themselves and the world they live in. When one is dedicated to processes of self and scientific discovery, religious notions can be easily pushed aside.
Atheism’s Moral Affirmation of Humanity
Finally, Goldman turns to moral questions. One of the oldest and most-common questions unbelievers get is, “How can you be good without God?” First, she dismisses the idea of Christian morality outright, as it “has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.” Goldman never thought much of the traditionally Christian notions of fixed moral states set by a god; they don’t reflect what morality is really all about, which is creating a framework of human interaction based on shared norms of freedom, flourishing, and facts. In all times, she declared, the freethinkers were the ones who fought for these principles:
They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race; not fixed and eternal, but fluctuating, even as life itself.
This could be interpreted as moral relativism, but that wasn’t Goldman’s intent. She actually believed in some moral universals such as freedom, choice, and empathy. She just couldn’t stomach a morality disconnected from real-world human needs that precidated its universals on unknowable gods and their indecipherable whims.
Atheism gives humanity agency in a way that theism doesn’t; it compels us to show up for the tasks of life, to make the hard choices, to benefit from our successes, and to learn from our failures. In a sense, it allows us to be fully human. As she writes at the end of her essay, “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”
Nevertheless, it is a radical position: atheism is the eternal “Yes” to humankind. Paradoxically, we try to make our view more palatable by obscuring it, as when we tell an acquaintance that we’re “not religious” instead of explicitly atheist. While this position is rightly applied to those who don’t fully grasp our intentions, it is far better to foist our wares on the counter in the slim hope that some passerby might delight in our goods. This is exactly what Emma Goldman did with her writings on atheism. Raw, rancorous, and always controversial, Goldman’s iconoclasm reads nearly as modern as anything by O’Hair or Hitchens. It’s this boldness—a desire to own one’s radicalism—that electrifies her writing. This disregard for pleasant spectacle in the service of radical truth reaffirms Goldman’s rightful place in the pantheon of American humanism.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 11.
 Mikhail Bakunin, in Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.
 Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.
 Ibid., 412.
 Ibid., 414.
 Ibid., 415.
 Ibid., 415.
 Ibid., 416.
 By contrast, Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, declared in 1918 that God speaks an eternal “No!” to man. https://postbarthian.com/2017/11/21/wrath-god-karl-barth-said-name-god-know-not-say/
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