Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What Does Secular Humanism Contribute?

During our debate two weeks ago, and afterwards, Phil Zuckerman generously admitted several times that Christianity had done the world a great deal of good.  He also challenged me to admit what good I might think Secular Humanism has done. 

Paul Kurtz, author, "What
"is Secular Humanism?"
I alluded to this a few times in the debate, but did not answer it in detail.  I emphasized that Secular Humanism is not the worst of all possible worldviews, which may have sounded to Phil like "damning with faint praise." 

Phil was mistaken in accusing me of "defensiveness" in "always choosing the worst example" of non-Christian traditions, however.  As those who have read them know, my books revel in the truth and beauty to be found in Chinese and other traditions, from an ancient and orthodox Christian perspective I call "fulfillment theology."  

Indeed, if I wanted to focus on the worst, I would never have asked Phil to share the stage with me!

But Christians have to be honest, too.   This can thus be the trickiest question from a Muslim.  "We admit that Jesus was a true prophet of God, the 'Messiah' and 'Breath of God' as the Qur'an says.  Why can't you be generous even to admit that Mohammed was a true prophet?"  Well, because I don't believe his message was true, and I don't think he was a very good man. 

So there has to be balance, and honesty. 

The word I used about Secular Humanism in the debate was "squishy."  Phil did not seem to like the word.  But what I meant is that the basic doctrines of Secular Humanism, as defined as I recall by Paul Kurtz, whom Zuckerman cited in a handout at his book table, provide a minimalistic framework: (a) there is no God or divine being; (b) nor an afterlife; (c) one should look out for oneself; (d) and for others.  While Phil explained the essence of Secular Humanism by the Golden Rule ("Do unto others . . . "), not every Secular Humanist need fill out their framework in quite that way.  For instance, many forms of Secular Humanism take a consequentialist view of morality: the ends justify the means.  And some are more rooted in tradition than others.  Around this minimal skeleton a variety of developed systems can be built, of which the democratic Constitutionalism and the Golden Rule are just two choices off the menu.  One also thus finds classical Marxism, Maoism, neo-Confucianism, Boston Confucianism, and perhaps some forms of Stoicism or Epicureanism or philosophical Buddhism. 

Each of these movements has distinct virtues and flaws.  Some, I like better than others. 

So what might the relatively generous democratic secularism that Dr. Zuckerman espouses (not all democratic secularism is generous) contribute to American society? 

Zuckerman seemed to emphasize three main contributions:

(1) Historical: While the American Founding Fathers were "Christians" or at least "deists," they were horrified by the religious wars and oppression of Europe (and our own colonies).  They thus excluded explicit reference to Jesus or even God from most of America's foundational documents. 

(2) Sociological: Secular people tend to have lower rates of crime and other social ills, and hold to political views Zuckerman views as more peaceful and loving, than do most convinced Christians in America.  Highly secular societies also allegedly exhibit fewer social ills. 

(3) Philosophical: It makes sense that people who only have one life to live, would try to improve conditions on this planet more than people who think life is just a brief dress-rehearsal for eternity. 

While I think these arguments hold some force, I don't think any of them is a strong argument for the positive impact of democratic Secular Humanism, for reasons some of which I alluded to in the debate. 

(1) Given that none of the Founding Fathers were Secular Humanists, how can we credit their actions to Secular Humanism?  This argument is, I think, sufficient to show that Americans should avoid theocracy.  But no one was arguing for theocracy.  (As for Europe's religious wars, I fully agree with Rodney Stark, and perhaps Zuckerman, that ideologies that gain a monopoly -- or Ma Bell -- will always use their monopoly power to oppress.  This is one reason I am writing a series here on anti-Christian propaganda in the public education system.) 

A European poster to my blog also pointed out that the societies Zuckerman most admires, do not share America's Constitution and its rigid separation of Church and State. 

(2) The sociological argument, as I have seen it developed in much more detail than was possible in our short debate, is plagued by dozens of flaws.  Zuckerman himself is fully aware that correlation does not prove causation, and thinks social success leads to apathy about God, more than the other way around.  Such comparisons are often made not on the ground level, studying individual lives -- where serious faith is found to make a seriously positive difference -- but from a satellite view, ignoring race, culture, education, age, and other important variables, not to mention cause and effect.  I describe some two dozen problems with such arguments here

(3) Arguing abstractly that Christians should not care about conditions in this world because we hope for a future life, while no doubt true of some people (I described them as "Gnostics" in the debate), would ignore too much of the Christian Scriptures and too much Christian history.  Empirical facts trump abstract theory (which are easy to generate, from any premises), even if there were not hundreds of reasons why Christians should care for this planet -- beginning with God's commands, and the examples of Jesus and his first followers. 

Again, I am not simply dismissing these arguments.  The Founding Fathers were keenly aware of the evil of which established churches were capable.  If they were not, Adam Smith explained the mechanisms the same year as the revolution: in Wealth of Nations, which Madison and Jefferson would read.  But these arguments do not show that Secular Humanism itself has contributed much, yet. 

So what does Secular Humanism contribute?  I might concede the following:

* Christians and people of other faiths need our critics.  American society is "one out of many," and part of the Pluribus that seeks Unum is a plurality of opinions and loyalties.  Secularists expose pedophile priests, shuckster evangelists, shoddy Sunday School science, and tacky religious fanatics, which makes the Church, and society, more healthy.  In turn, it is our cheerful duty to expose the many foibles, sins, and evils that plague the secularist community. 

* Much of our cutting-edge research is conducted by Secular Humanists and other unbelievers.  It is true that theists invented modern science (and to some degree ancient science), and I don't think the Enlightenment speeded it up.  But one must give credit today where credit is due. 

* Often organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have found unique niches for doing good, and bring aid a large scale where religious charities cannot easily go. 

* Secular Humanists who seem to have made the world a better place, include (in my eyes) David Hume, Mark Twain, John Dewey, Erwin Schrodinger, Ernest Becker, Charles Schulz, Andrei Sakharov, and EO Wilson.  It may be that one or two of them were even inspired in the way Zuckerman supposes SHs ought to be: "Good Lord, I'm going to die!  This world is all we have, so less straighten up this bloody mess!"  (Though I think Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares decisively demonstrates that the thinking usually goes the way, however.  "Good Lord!  Jesus is coming -- get busy!") 

* It is, of course, a lot better for the souls of skeptics, whether or not for the world, if they have a community that encourages them beyond nihilism or hedonism, to virtue.  Given the loss of faith, Secular Humanism may provide an important service, in helping many unbelievers find a path of service.  (And therefore, fellowship with others.) 

* And it may be true that secular values have at times run ahead of the general population.  (This probably being a function more of the fact that the new religion spreads through education, and educated people are almost by definition more "advanced.") 

My own view is that "advanced values" are wrong and harmful at least as often as right and beneficial, especially when untethered from the biblical tradition.  This is probably one of the real reasons western Secular Humanism of the brand Zuckerman espouses is superior to communist morality: Marx and Engels "abolished all eternal truths, all morality, all religion," while Zuckerman, like Robert Wright, and some of the humanists who visit us at this blog, are eager to find common ground and build on the good in traditions some of whose premises they largely reject. 


BillT said...

The real problem for secular humanists is that (c) one should look out for oneself; (d) and for others does not necessarily follow from (a) there is no God or divine being; (b) nor an afterlife. One might decide on their own to follow that prescription but many if not any any other (c),(d) can and do follow (a), (b).

David B Marshall said...

Best I recall, Kurtz acknowledged that danger himself.

domics said...

Dr Joseph Hoffmann in these articles makes some interesting reflections on 'secular humanism':

David B Marshall said...

Wonderful writing! This is why I try to always add the modifier "secular" to the term "humanist."

David B Marshall said...

But in a sense, I think this describes Phil Zuckerman as well:

"On hundreds of occasions, (Paul Kurtz) implored the hardcore atheists in his organization to 'rise above' their negativity . . . "