This week, Justin sat down with friend and co-founder of Reason Revolution, Tylor Lovins, to discuss a wide variety of topics, including: the Reformation and its relevance to Secular Humanism, the “truths” of theological statements, Christianity’s relationship to American identity, the discussion on free will between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, Objectivism’s merits and drawbacks, and the role of luck in moral decision making.
This week, Justin chatted with psychologist, author, and activist Dan Dana.
They talked about Dan’s upbringing and path to atheism, his love and dedication to science, his book, The Reason Revolution, Donald Trump and his support from evangelicals, the differences between liberals and conservatives, and the importance of Secular Humanism.
This episode, Justin sat down with his first return guest, Cory Johnston of the Brainstorm podcast, to discuss a wide range of topics, including: Justin’s criticism of Dave Rubin, the pros and cons of the left and centrism, health care, anarcho-syndicalism, and critically analyzing content creators.
This week, Justin answers your questions in his second AMA episode. Topics covered include: Bill Nye’s new TV show, religious beliefs of the Presidents, the historical research on freethought, free will, the science of ethics, and other topics.
What is the defining quality of the secular movement, if there is a center at all? Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” This aspect is self-evident to everyone in the movement. Many prominent secularists have at one point or another declared war on religion, typically by reducing all religious traditions to their fundamentalist, literalist manifestations. Motivated by the theory that religion was a primitive form of science, the mystifying beliefs of divine inspiration, holy-book-inerrancy, and divine-human relations have been shown for what they truly are: linguistic and ritualistic artifacts of a world now left behind by the progress of science.
The movement of secularism isn’t itself contained within this definition of secularism, however. The definition for humanism, which stands today as a largely non-negotiable feature for many in the secular movement, describes the contexture more precisely: “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason and science, coupled with anti-supernaturalism and displacing religion, appear to be the primary drivers of secularism. This warrants some critical reflection. Although reason can be understood as an intellectual endeavor that utilizes principles of logic, it’s not self-evident whose reason, and which rationality, should undergird the secularist movement. The de facto rationality motivating the secularist movement at present is rationalism.
The rationalist tradition for our purposes can be understood as the tradition of thought that makes truth the outcome of an equation: it proceeds from premises to conclusions that are warranted by logic. This is, in Aristotle’s term, “dialectic.” More broadly, a compelling yet underdeveloped strain of rationalism that creates the framework for secularism subsumes empiricism. Here, the premises of thought do not rely entirely on abstract, a priori conditions but take into account scientific findings and experiential knowledge. Another strain has developed, unfortunately, deducing that our motivated action is grounded by the rationalist equation. Let’s call this “naive rationalism.” The naive rationalist asserts we’re basically rational animals and with our handy reason, we are guided by rationalist equations. The yield of these equations are the truth in the realm of thought, and the good in the realm of action. Proposed as the successor to religious traditions that make claims based on authority, the rationalist tradition appears poised to further the cause of humanism and the advancement of knowledge by the force of reason, in a way that is historically unrivaled and unparalleled.
This ambiguity in the rationalist tradition should be interrogated. For centralizing the naive rationalist tradition in the secularism project devalues the fundamental, constitutive role valence frameworks play in any kind of rationality in the first place. Reasons, as modern philosophy and psychology have shown, do not originate from value-neutral systems, but rather are products of systems of value. The point can be made more explicitly: this rationalist tradition favors facts and reason as the highest goods, virtually diminishing the explicit roles of fitness, creativity, virtue, and meaning in the scheme of human motivations. Secularism could benefit from reintroducing these roles back into the pantheon of humanism.
What I am suggesting is not entirely novel, but it remains sufficiently foreign to many projects sympathetic to secularism that it bears repeating and amplifying here. I am not, after all, calling for a devaluation of reason. Reason is a grand achievement of humankind, and rightfully remains as the symbol of not only progress but of a future world without mass population manipulation by appeal to fantastical claims. I simply want to bring reason back from the clouds of the Enlightenment to the real world, where values, emotions, and unconscious biological mechanisms propel us to action and thought.
In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist explains that rage is the psyche’s way of creating a massive distraction, enabling one to not account for potentially punishing or threatening stimuli (whether in memory or experience), but rather displace them, so as to shut one’s eyes to these stimuli as meaningful or real. The picture of rage here is like the child who hides her head under blankets after seeing a scene from a horror film. The way in which we use arguments to reduce others’ positions to ludicrous strawmen is precisely a type of security blanket, but in linguistic form. Let’s remove this blanket, and confront the ambiguity in the function of rational beliefs that emerges when we ground them in the creaturely realm. Our beliefs themselves, whether true or not (in the sense that they adequately take into account our place in the world in the present), may be what obstructs us from ascertaining truth in the future. Truth, in this way, returns to the motivational level, and doesn’t remain in the realm of articulate conscious thought. Our knowledge of the present may not be true enough to enable us to thrive or acquire truth in the future. Whether reason itself is (1) a method for finding truth or (2) a claim about the authority of an assertion is a tension for many int he secular movement. Just take a look at all the anti-religious memes and rhetoric flourishing in online secular communities to see just how much reason has been misunderstood as a position or claim and not as a method.
Truth as motivational, as operating in the realm of meaning, is important when the secularism project encounters religious thought, and especially as it invokes science. Humanism’s anti-supernaturalist bent is understandable and significant. With Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s final cause, the method of science was significantly brought into focus and under these conditions prospered without religious conceptions of the world. We don’t need to know the metaphysical constitution or nature of a thing to determine its efficient or material causes. That there may have been a being that created the material world does not weigh in on the question of why the sky is blue or how bacteria cause disease, or even, now, where humans came from. With Bacon, the weight of supernaturalism no longer grounded science, and it could finally fly freely toward the light of truth.
This is not where the story ends, however. Science appears positioned as Icarus. Important modern figures of secularism and champions of science like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken their cue from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, claiming religion is a primitive form of science, and that with the progress of science, it will be left behind. Although Frazer rightly positions the basis of myth and religion in psychology, the view was unfortunately colored by a naive rationalism. Frazer, among others even today, do not account for the importance religion has for the inward life and the psychological mechanisms that motivate religion in the first place. Seen as an institution that delivers a guide to right action and right thinking based on authority, religion becomes cosmology + ethics, undermined by its supernaturalism.
One reason the rationalism of science fails to adequately give an account of religion is because the tradition of rationality itself hasn’t taken into account the creature that uses rationality, but rather has reduced this creature to something like a more-or-less competent logic-guided robot. This oversight is a significant one. The public and communal nature of the scientific enterprise meshed with the philosophical underpinnings of secularism’s rationalism and empiricism make for a formidable force not unlike that of Christendom’s mix of magisteria and religion in the life-world of Medieval Europe. Still, the potential has yet to be unlocked. At this point in history, especially in the post-industrial, Christian-inspired nations of Europe and North America, secularism is like the potential energy of two tectonic plates producing some seismic activity in the last two or three centuries but overdue for a massive earthquake.
Motivation and Articulation
The religious wars that gave impetus to a non-religiously grounded framework for truth and political institutions birthed our modern secularism in more and less obvious ways. As deism rose to prominence during this time, true religious beliefs were no longer associated with the authority of church institutions, which had enforced the status of these truths by political force. Rather, truth became an inward reality, an “inner light.” The public became private, the communal individualized. The stakes of this reformation, owing much to the ideas of the Reformers who ignited growing ideas of nationalism and equality already in place, couldn’t be much higher at the time. The political leaders who were endowed with authority by the Church weren’t just making sure, as in our day, the beliefs of one person didn’t intrude on the liberty of another, but were charged with the task of safeguarding the souls of their people.
As human history moved to favor the death of ideas over the death of people, the importance of symbols and narratives as the spaces where truth showed itself were lost within the development of rationalism. The separation of church and state has reversed the roles of what fundamentally grounds us. This is easily seen in populations of both religious and secular stripes, with people in both groups claiming that the minimal requirement a valid belief must meet to be legitimate (or, at least, not disallowable) is that it won’t infringe on the liberty of others. With rationalism sectioning individuals into types and tokens, our beliefs have become hyper-individualist, and what motivates us on the pre-conceptual level has been lost as a category for thinking, in the demand to typify everything for the calculus of our secular rationality.
For the kinetic energy of secularism to support life rather than diminish it, it’ll have to not only capture the minds of the masses, but also the hearts, and not just in the equivocal, ambiguous way by assuming and sublating the good, or motivational truth, with the method of rationality. The disparity between the proselytizers of religion and the advocates of secularism might just be measured by the forms made available to religious people in symbols and rituals that haven’t found a functionally equivalent home in secular movements. These forms enable the appearance of content framed as statements of belief, which illuminate, inspire, and unify the mind and heart. And the reasons are somewhat obvious, for those with eyes to see. Image processing and pattern recognition, as forms of thinking that are innate and unconscious, are more primary to and pervasive in consciousness than articulate thought. That the myths of religion are saturated by images and narratives is, as a result, no accident. Stories grab us on a pre-conceptual level and even appear to ground our conceptual frameworks in the first place. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow depicts this secondary role of articulate thought in consciousness even more acutely: our “fast” system, what in common parlance we name “intuition,” this pattern recognition mechanism that I mentioned before, “makes” choices for us on most occasions. It is only when something unexpected or unknown is encountered that our secondary, “slow” system becomes operative: articulate thought.
If the strictly rationalist perspective of the human were true, whereby the givenness of thought were provided completely in the mediation of sense data from the world, through the eyes, to the vassal of our minds, waiting to be formed by our concepts, then the world would, in a significant way, be value-neutral to our biological systems: there would not be a primitive reaction of fight, flight, or freeze, but an immediate compulsion of reason—articulate thought would be more pervasive than non-linguistic thought. This is, in fact, not what we find and doesn’t account for everyday experience.
A now prevailing theory of perception supports the valence-laden notion of the world. Scientists formerly believed that when we look out at the world and perceive the “givenness” of it, those objects with the most salience attract our attention. The consensus is moving in a different direction. We are, rather, attracted to valence: the most meaningful aspects of our perceptual field. And, on a more general level of analysis, when we don’t know what’s going on, when we find ourselves in situations that are new or unexpected, our amygdala goes to work, and in some degree produces the fight/flight/freeze response. This is true not only for situations in the world when we encounter strangers, animals, natural disasters, or darkness in a foreign place, but also for situations in the mind, when we encounter new ideas and beliefs.
To be fair, the disparity I am outlining, between truth as fact and truth as valence, isn’t irreconcilable. The difference rests merely on two images of humankind conceived in “natural” or “normal” states of affairs. The naive rationalism that grounds some strains of secularism would have us believe it is natural for humans to encounter the world in a value-neutral way, although the methods of science itself, and its empiricism, contradicts this claim. On the other hand, religion, as it encourages literalist interpretations of its mythical symbols, would have us think the world is populated by gods and demons, and that it is natural for humans to encounter a world for or against them. These claims are literaly false, but perhaps metaphorically true. The issues arising from naive rationalism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other are not inherent to the secular enterprise itself, but are simply artifacts of the pre-Darwinian philosophy of Descartes. It is my belief that becoming more Darwinian will galvanize secularism to a more synthetic and all-encompassing view of ethics, politics, and especially religion.
Religion and Rationalism
If we take Kahneman’s research and conclusions seriously, rationality appears to be a mechanism motivated by the negation of itself. We can put it conceptually this way, using Hegel as our guide, contrasting the understanding from conceptual thinking: (1) the understanding is an immediate (meaning unmediated) interaction with the environment, bellying most of our thinking most of the time; (2) dialectic, or conceptual thinking, is a mediated form of the immediate, and its goal is to synthesize the mediated with the immediate experience to adapt understanding and return to the world, forgive the religious image, as a new creation, better fit to overcome whatever obstacles stand in one’s way. Rationality, as the conceptual aspect of thinking, arises when we encounter a problem or an unknown in our environment, when our unmediated understanding, our immediate experience of the world, becomes questionable. When the issue appears, we mediate the world, so that we don’t have to die to learn, but can predict, contradict, examine, and evaluate new courses of action to map on our environments. Our mental life returns to immediacy until a new problem or a novelty is encountered again.
This cycle of immediacy and mediation seems to account for a significant difference between rationalism and religion. And I think rationalism could gain from learning about this difference.
A piece of a Darwinian understanding of religion will reside in this framework, I believe, not limiting religion to either a scheme of morality only or a cosmology only, or simply both together in varying intensities. Wittgenstein once wrote “God” is a term like “object,” and with it, you get an entire conception of the world. The first commandment given to the Jews, that they should have no other god before God, can now be interpreted in the way the Father of Modern Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, once spoke of miracles: “Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant….The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.” Religion makes a move that rationalism doesn’t necessitate but could, and should, incorporate. The moment of mediation, for religion, is not a moment to figure something out about the objective world, whether that be the causal relations of objects or the laws of nature, and to the extent that these are figured out by religious people, it’s an accidental and not an essential feature of the religious disposition. The moment of mediation is undertaken to correct disposition: mediation is a form of meditation, a reception or correction of behavioral patterns. Immediacy becomes transformed into miracle the very moment God is sought in all things. Consider the words of Deanna A. Thompson, explicating the centrality of faith for the Christian life in light of Martin Luther’s theology:
“…having faith means that your whole life is redirected toward ‘trusting [God] with your whole heart’ and looking to God ‘for all good, grace, and favor,’ honoring God through the orientation of your inner life.”
Rationalism, on the other hand, utilizes mediation in a fundamentally different way, and this is what separates the objectivity of rationalism from the existentiality of religion. The point of mediation for rationality is to understand the causal connections and physical makeup of the world. Yet it doesn’t end there. Mediation becomes saturated with facts, more so than the religious disposition strives to attain, and in such a way sets the mediated move of reason as the primary driver of thought, rather than a certain disposition toward the world as it relates to oneself immediately.
This is a significant difference. It doesn’t mean that religion only operates within the realm of value and rationalism in the realm of truth, but it does indicate a different kind of navigation of the world as it presents itself to human beings, as creatures who not only think and plan but also suffer and love. The platitudes, deriving from metaphors, narratives, and images, used to communicate religion by religious people themselves, inspire a depth of life for many that appears simply, at least in this point in history, inaccessible by other existing avenues. Taken seriously, with a more fully Darwinian conception of religion we may acquire a wisdom and appreciation for not just life itself but the lived experience of life that has been hidden in the cliches of the sages of the past. The fact that so many religious people use platitudes or canonical beliefs, grounded in metaphor and imagery, to communicate deep inward experiences tells us conclusively that these inward experiences need forms to carry them to the public eye, and these forms are patterned and universal. It seems otherwise a miracle, for instance, that the myths of the world have global structures and archetypes, which when abstracted from any individual myth fits within a universal framework common to all myths. To go further, an experience that I can’t mediate to myself doesn’t have meaning, and the way I mediate these to myself is the same way they’re mediated to communities I find myself in: by language and images. There is some sense in which, as a result, the meaning and shape of experiences arise within communal constraints and traditions. And these constraints and traditions, undergirded by patterns of categories seemingly inherited, testify to something all too human.
Rationalism as a Humanism
Rudolf Otto introduced the notion of “awe” as central to the encounter with the divine, as the most salient characteristic of a religious experience. And we might say this “awe” is essential to the propensity to live by inward disposition and motivation rather than external manipulation and control. Joseph Campbell asks in Myths to Live By “what the proper source of awe might be” for us who no longer live in a world of gods and demons? What are the sources and symbols of mystery and inspiration that evoke “the impulse to imitative identification?” He traces these sources in history as beginning with animals and their mystical agency, then to the vegetable world where death changes into life, and then to the cosmos and the seven moving cosmic lights that affected the ordering of societies. He finds in our time the individual stands as the source: “as a Thou, one’s neighbor; not as ‘I’ might wish him to be, or may imagine that I know and relate to him, but in himself, thus come, as a being of mystery and wonder.” Every human is a new beginning, a singularity in the history of humankind, and to diminish this novelty is a kind of blasphemy.
Like Nietzsche, Campbell finds the first explication of the human as a source of awe in the Greek tragedies, already in the period of Homer. From the two classically recognized tragic emotions as indicated by Aristotle, pity and terror, we discover a conceptual framework in which to turn the traditionally religious movements into a humanist project. Campbell uses James Joyce’s exposition to spell these out: “Pity is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”
In tragedy, we are compelled to relate to the individual by the shared grave and constant reality between us, and we are inspired by the secret source of this grave and constant which unites us. In our case, it is death which is the grave and constant specter that haunts us, and it is life which is the secret source of death, but also of things greater than these: family, creativity, and meaning. In this recognition, we may return to the Father of Modern Theology but without God: life is received as a gift, that which we share with all our brothers and sisters, which we did not ask for or could not acquire by our own actions, but by the happenstance of evolutionary history, are gifted immeasurably.
For rationalism to motivate secularism properly, it must catch up with the times, and not deliver to us an image of humanity dreamed by the ghost in the machine of Descartes, or in the tabula rasa nothingness of Locke’s children. Being clear about the nature of the creatures who use rationality is one thing. We must also understand the motivations of these creatures. Reducing, disregarding, or criticizing religious beliefs by a way of thinking foreign to it, without first taking genuine steps toward understanding it on its own terms, doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable response to a phenomenon that has enamored most people for most of history. Rationalism, itself, is a tradition, a human tradition. It is imperative that secularism recaptures the human element in the heart of rationalism. The best secularism, in my estimation, is the one that takes into account and integrates the best of all human thought, no matter where it may be found. What images of the human we use in this process will be crucial, for it is our metaphors that “mediate between our procedural wisdom and our explicit knowledge; they constitute the imagistic declarative point of transition between the act and the word.”
The West celebrated the God incarnate for millennia. It’s time we celebrate the fact that life became human, and that now, with the gift of consciousness, we may understand, revere, defend, and serve it. We need not pray that God bless us, for life has. Nor should we pray for God to return, for life is here. No more prayers for miracles of God, for the secret source that connects us all, life, demands of us that we act. The only question is whether we will become worthy of this demand. “The old imagery now carried a new song–of the unique, the unprecedented and induplicable human sufferer; yet equally a sense of the ‘grave and constant’ in our human suffering, as well as a holy intimation of the ungainsayable ‘secret cause,’ without which the rite would have lacked its depth dimension and healing force.”
 See Christopher Hill’s wonderful book where he tracks this in England from 1400-1580 in The World Turned Upside Down.
 This is Freud’s insight and it has turned out to be true in an interesting way: our “fast system” heuristics are such that we have systematically predictable errors that we make in our thinking.
 I find this especially in the Objectivist ethic, but this idea has advocates from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant as well as Ayn Rand.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.
 And already does to some extent. Listen to lectures and presentations by Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll hear a very similar view.
 Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 58.
 Ibid., 59.
 Peterson, 94. We should note, here, a prime example of our danger. The fact that the trolley problem has been posed as a moral problem, in the sense that it awakens our intuitions enough to perceive it as a moral problem in the first place, is disconcerting, as it assumes the moral choice can be perfectly moral while making life expendable.
 Campbell, 59.
In my previous essay, I explored the implications of life without gods and the supernatural. Acknowledging that the abandonment of traditional religion requires a complementary philosophical system, I will present secular humanism as a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. This brief overview will not be exhaustive; it 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.
The Humanist Epistemology
A secular humanist’s epistemology (theory of knowledge) 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 the capacity of human beings 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, basing his conclusions off of the principles of an Objectivist epistemology. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world, in that it requires mere physical processes. 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 for the concretizing and systemizing process of conceptualization to understand that it is an apple or a song.
Faith by-passes the entire process of knowledge, by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, and abstraction. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition, akin to Plato’s “forms” or Kant’s “pure reason.” This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. As Aristotle, Locke, and others have rightly noted, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at our conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to epistemological questions.
Second, it is important to base our perception on a solid foundation, which in this case is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of methodological naturalism comes to us from the RationalWiki:
Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. 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 hold the position of PN, it is more philosophically and intellectually honest to accept MN.
Having said all that, it is important to note that MN does not ignore supernatural claims altogether. When a faith healer says he can cure cancer or a psychic claims to know intimate details of your life, these are specific, testable claims that can be refuted by the scientific method. Even more broadly, when a religion makes specific claims about the natural world (God created the world in six days, God stopped the Sun in the sky, Jesus rose from the dead), these can also be debunked by scientific investigations. What MN cannot do is refute God or supernaturalism all together, seeing as these concepts are too broad and amorphous to be falsified, a key component to the scientific method. Therefore, Humanism’s dedication to MN, and its lack of confidence in supernaturalism and gods, is based on the simple logic of Occam’s Razor. If a phenomenon can be explained by natural means, it is therefore unnecessary to attribute them to supernatural means. Additionally, if a phenomenon we attributed to the supernatural is proven to be true, it is then added to what is natural.
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 all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d 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 is actually going on in the real world. 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. As I noted in my previous essay, 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 our understanding of the world.
The Personal Level: Ethical Individualism
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. In a secular lens, this type of view can be summarized by the 19th century philosopher, and founder of the term “altruism,” Auguste Comte: “The individual must subordinate himself to an Existence outside himself in order to find in it the source of his stability.”
This view wholly distorts our human nature. While some scholars quibble over the nature of group level selection (see Haidt), the foundational level of selection concerns the individual. Human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved based on mostly individual changes which then added up over time. As Robert Sapolsky noted in his recent masterwork, 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 collectivistic means.
Building off of that, my personal view of humanism is built on the guiding 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,” beautifully outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton (as quoted by intellectual historian and philosopher George H. Smith):
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 ideal within the Enlightenment political tradition and one that continues to expand the rights of all people.
In Overton’s time, they attributed individual rights to a sovereign God of nature (similar to Jefferson and the founder’s notion of “Nature’s God.”) While this tradition has historically been built upon that premise, it is equally valid to base these rights upon the virtue of being a thinking, sentient being with the capacity for reason. Philosopher Corliss Lamont described this concept’s classical roots and its modern application:
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). It contrasts with hedonism, which holds that pleasure alone is intrinsically good, by putting primary emphasis on the sorts of activities that a person chooses; at the same time it assigns an important and pervasive role to pleasure. “Pleasure,” as Aristotle said, “perfects the activities,” yet remains secondary. The Humanist ethics, then, “recognizes that the intentional objects of human striving are, in point of fact, not pleasures, but pleasurable things. And by identifying the good with voluntary activities and preferred objects, which are publicly observable, it facilitates discovery, measurement and production of the good.”
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 and/or god(s) no longer remain necessary.
As mentioned above, a person’s relation to others must also be taken into account. 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.
Our individualism must be grounded on an ethical promise to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole. Even though the Devil will be in the details (pun intended), it is the ethical project of humanism that protects individual rights while advancing all of humanity forward.
The Societal Level: The Moral Instinct and the Moral Framework
In the last section, I mentioned the devilish details of the individual’s ethical relation to others, generally known as morality. In my view, our morality breaks down into 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 made us successful morally. As such, actions which originally evolved to help direct kin began to help non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.
Here’s a story to illustrate this point. In his book, Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He was 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 “finger tips 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 for his action. 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 logical considerations; 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 your kin. 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.”
Using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral and 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 immoral actions; 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.
The Political Level: Rights as Paramount, Science and Ethics Guide Policy
Finally, the political sphere, which combines individual and social concerns, becomes the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of each component listed above. 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 “Four Freedoms Speech,” delivered in front of Congress in 1941. 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 stress 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:
While the idea is not always, not often enough, expressed in words, the basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence. 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. There are two generic criteria to decide such questions. One is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization makes possible an abundance of goods and services for the greatest number, without which formal political democracy is necessarily limited in its functions, if not actually endangered. The other is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization preserves and strengthens the conditions of the democratic process already mentioned.
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, law enforcement overreach, 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.
Conclusion: Humanity’s Future
Like so many ages before us, our age falls prey to barbarism, mysticism, hero worship, tribalism, superstition, and flat-out nonsense. To avoid these trends, we need a philosophy of life that prizes reason over faith, knowledge over ignorance, freedom over tyranny, and most importantly, humans over dogmas. Secular humanism is exactly that kind of philosophy. It is a way of life that puts human beings at the center of their own destiny, no longer chained to the whims of fundamentalist religion or totalitarianism. Its openness to new ideas and diversity of thought allow for a more enlightened religion, one that is compatible with humanism’s core principles. If one has left gods behind, it gives you the framework to live a moral and fulfilling life. The beauty of humanism is that it isn’t much of an “ism” at all; its essential values allow for a multiplicity of worldviews to coexist together, in something akin to Robert Nozick’s notion of a “utopia of utopias.” By leaving society free, open, and dedicated to human flourishing, all people can live among one another with more peace, prosperity, and progress.
Isaac Asimov said it best when he declared that, “Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.” This is the apotheosis of humanism. Despite our flaws and failures, humanity has achieved so much in its time. We have conquered the heavens and the earth, built civilizations, eradicated diseases, ameliorated poverty and suffering, expanded freedom and opportunity, and created art and literature that will last for ages. All of this occurred because we valued our lives and dedicated ourselves to improving them. Every minute we waste speculating about the afterlife limits the value of our lives right now. We are young in the vast chasm of the universe, grasping for glimpses of truth and wisdom. We have so much to learn, which requires us to leave behind the shadows of our past and walk into the light of the future with an open mind, an open hand, and an open heart. Humanism gives us the path; we just have to take the first step.
This episode, Justin spoke with Cory Johnston (@HardcoreSkeptic), the host of the Hardcore Skeptic and Brainstorm podcasts.
They had a great conversation about his deconversion, our respective podcasting projects, misconceptions about “Classical Liberals” and “SJWs”, and the complicated politics of free speech.
This week, Justin sits down with atheist activist Trav Mamone. They have a wide ranging conversation about Trav’s deconversion, Trav’s personal experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer individual, and the problems with dismissing the importance of social justice within the atheist movement.
What do we lose when we leave religion? I have been asked to respond to this question by a friend and, to be honest, it’s not easily answered. For us atheists, it’s obvious to mention all the terrible things we abandoned when leaving religion. The dedication to barbaric texts and practices; the racism, homophobia, and misogyny of its most fundamentalist believers; the superstitions that hinder scientific and moral progress. All of these are good reasons to leave religion on the “ash heap of history.” Nevertheless, many still yearn for something bigger than us, something to confide in when times are tough. There is still a longing for the “transcendent,” alongside the need for community, that keeps droves within the fold.
Atheists are often criticized for our lack of a totalizing vision for humanity. “It’s just a negative position; you don’t believe in anything,” we’re often told. In this essay, I hope to dispel this notion and to offer a countervailing, yet meaningful way of life to the broadly-termed “religious.” Atheists often fixate on what we don’t believe; I’m here to tell you what I and many others do believe. I also hope to show how a secular life plainly replaces much of what people miss when they lose their religion.
For starters, atheism is merely a position to the question, “do you have a belief in God?” For us that say “no” or any other answer but “yes,” that makes us atheists. However, for many who came out of religion or experienced a modicum of religious life, that’s not enough to fulfill something inside them that is experiential and not merely rational.
One of the biggest insights I’ve accrued over the last few months, especially after reading the work of Jonathan Haidt and others, is that religion is more than the sum of its beliefs. Sure, abandoning the supernatural and all its problematic baggage is a great first step in creating a more humane world, but it is not the only thing we must reconsider when we lose religion. As mentioned earlier, countless people stay within religion for its community, the songs, or the emotional connection they have with their church. Religion is a system of life, not a mere reflection of it. In the case of Christianity, it is a religious practice with over 2,000 years of traditions, beliefs, and cultural contextualization. When someone spends their entire life committed to a system that totalizing, it is often jarring when they leave. I have spoken to and read of former believers that felt an intense sadness when they lost their faith. It was as if a part of them died when they left it behind.
I don’t know what that feels like. I grew up in a nonreligious home with largely nonreligious parents — not necessarily because they were atheists — but because religion didn’t matter to them all that much. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been to a church for a religious service. I studied the major religions and tried to adopt one I found intellectually satisfying, and when none of them were, I became an atheist. Atheism was exactly the kind of position that suited my life; I was a rationally minded, critical thinker who neither missed nor yearned for religious experiences. My position was always an intellectual one, not an emotional or experiential one. Because of that, I always discounted these aspects of religion. Now having read about group psychology and the importance of religion in non-rational terms, I’m starting to understand what we really leave behind when we lose religion.
I have never felt “God,” but I have felt the power of music. I have loved music my whole life. There’s something beautifully tribal about the way that music makes us move, cry, and ultimately feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. I especially love film music; I love music that is designed to make you feel something. It has always moved me how specific chords or motifs play off of one another to elicit a response from the viewer. I’ve endlessly believed that a movie is only as good as its soundtrack. I think religion works the same way. The way a church invites you, the hymns move you, and the sermons encourage you. It’s just like music.
This is some of what we lose when we lose religion. The numinous and transcending experiences aren’t easily replaced by a commitment to reason and critical thinking. While those attributes are essential for living a successful and fulfilling life, there’s so much more we have to account for. As such, I think that Secular Humanism fills this void.
Secular Humanism is a philosophical tradition as old as religion, with elements tracing back to antiquity. In essence, it comes down to three component parts: reason as the means of knowledge, ethics as the way to live among others, and experience as the goal of life.
In secular humanism, one leaves behind the superstitious and mystical and embraces the reasonable and evidential. When this component of religion is lost, the possibilities of human achievement and flourishing are boundless; they are no longer shackled by the dogmas of the past.
As for humanity’s relationship to each other, morality is firmly rooted in philosophical investigations (ethics) and a growing understanding of our nature (biology, psychology). The interplay of nature and nurture provides us with the framework by which we advance our individual and societal interests. It will not be easy, but it has not been made easier by religion’s near stranglehold on this conversation. For many, the only way to be moral is through religion. Secular Humanism, by contrast, provides a reasonable and palatable alternative to religion as the sole arbiter of ethics.
Finally, the experience of life, from the numinous to the communal, thrives in a Secular Humanist framework. A sense of achievement, fellowship, and transcendence exists within the real world; there’s no need to rely on religion. The arts, nature, and social interaction become more fulfilling when left to open exploration. Yes, humanists generally reject the afterlife and accept the finitude of their lives, but that encourages them to live well and to treat others equally well. As the humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont once wrote, “Humanism encourages men to face life buoyantly and bravely, relying upon their own freedom and reason to fashion a noble destiny in a future that is open.”
In short, atheism is only the beginning of a person’s journey when they lose their religion. There are countless philosophies and viewpoints to consider when one leaves their faith. However, this shouldn’t be a lament but a celebration of one’s capacity for achievement and fulfillment in this life, the only one we are guaranteed to have. There is so much to gain when one places religion to the wayside. We can build better families, better communities, and better societies. We can dedicate ourselves to improving the lives of others, through scientific discovery, intellectual achievements, and interpersonal connections. We can develop an ethics that views individual rights, not collective, irrational whims, as the pinnacle of political organization. And this can all be done while we enjoy great art and contemplate the meaning of our lives and our place within the cosmos.
While we lose a great deal when losing religion, we gain so much more in freedom, truth, beauty, and wisdom. As Penn Jillette said, “For someone who loves freedom and loves people, I don’t think we should hope for God at all.”