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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Responses on my Graham article

Sagada pond. (cc) Jojo Nicdao
I recently received a substantial letter of response to my article on Billy Graham and atheism, in the Houston Chronicle, from a reader named Robert. He wrote:

“It's disingenuous to write that you couldn't agree more with Billy Graham's indictment of atheism, when you know that your answers to the questions "Why am I here?" and "What happens when I die?" will be the same as an atheist's.”

Actually, it is by no means guaranteed that the answers of a Humanist will be the same as an atheist. Robert is assuming a broader meaning of ‘atheist’ than is the case, which was a big part of the point of my article. Let me illustrate with an example:

Imagine a person who believes in the supernatural, doesn’t like science or its approach, and believes themselves to be psychic or have a ‘supernatural sense’. However, their beliefs or worldview of what the spiritual realm is like (their supernatural cosmology, if you will) is quite different than a Judeo-Christian one. Let us suppose that this person believes they have astrally projected their soul throughout the planes of existence and have found there to be a great many spirit beings, but no God or gods. This person, because they lack a belief in a deity, lacks theism. Being without theism, they are an atheist. More than that, they are not merely a ‘bad example’ of an atheist. They are every bit as much as atheist as Christopher Hitches, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Of course, such a person is a very rare kind of atheist, but an atheist nonetheless; fully fitting the complete definition of the word.

The fact that most atheists happen to value reason, evidence, and science is mere happenstance. Surely, it is the very reason they have come to their position lacking theism, but the reason one does not believe in a deity is not a part of the definition. The definition of atheist is not, “One who lacks theism because…” The mere lack of theism is sufficient to be an atheist. To further illustrate the distinction between reason and atheism, consider the opposite: a person who accepts reason and evidence as the basis for their beliefs, but who has concluded that there is empirical evidence for a God. Both of these examples illustrate just how bare-bones and minimally communicative is the term atheist alone.

Now, if an atheist values an empirical approach, then that atheist is also something else; an empiricist, or perhaps a skeptic. Certainly they needn’t consider that their moniker. All of us are many things simultaneously, but choose to go by only certain labels because those are the ones that convey the image of ourselves we wish to convey. People may refer to themselves by whatever term they wish, but that doesn’t change the definition of atheist or of skeptic, and doesn’t exclude their beliefs from corresponding with those definitions.

Robert mentioned the questions of “why am I here?” and “what happens when I die?” but did not mention the other questions of “how should I live?” and “what is right/wrong?” and “what is the meaning of life?” I suspect this may be because the range of answers for an atheist (with nothing else about their beliefs known) is even wider. Here we find that Joseph Stalin is every bit a legitimate example of an atheist as Carl Sagan, neither holding a greater claim to the term. This isn’t an insult to atheism; it is merely the reality of the simplicity of the term. Likewise, you can also have murderous stamp collectors and virtuous stamp collectors. Atheism is one position on one topic (and a topic I personally find of little relevance to the most important things about a person).

Humanism has as a part of its collection of principles a healthy skepticism, an appreciation of the scientific approach to knowledge, and so on. It also has an ethical element which is the compassion and caring for fellow human being I mentioned in my original article. Any person who subscribes to these things, the naturalistic scientific approach to knowledge and the humanistic ethics, is a Humanist (capital H) by the modern understanding of the term. Of course, some of them may not like the term, or prefer another, or may even be unaware of the term despite being a Humanist in substance.

If a person prefers to call themselves an atheist because they like the sting of the term or want to perhaps be a good example in reforming its image, that is certainly their right and I respect that. If they want to use the term because a big part of their emphasis is on the God question, or they feel it is for others and want to make that more clear than anything else about them, that too is fine.  What is not fine is suggesting the term encompasses more than it does, and suggesting when we are told someone is an atheist that we can assume they value reason and/or compassion when we, in fact, do not have that information about them at all. It would almost be as if you asked someone about their values and they responded with “I like chocolate”, relying on some cultural connotation about chocolate lovers to fill in the blanks.

Another matter that has come into being lately is among many Humanist organizations which, perhaps in an effort to broaden their base, have become completely incapable of ever printing the word ‘Humanists’ without following with “and atheists”, almost as though the two terms were synonyms. They are not. Humanism is something more than mere atheism, and the differences are culturally and philosophically significant and of great importance. Humanist organizations, if no one else, should be at the forefront of promoting those important elements. Instead, what we see are many Humanist organizations following policies that make them redundant with the many worthy atheist and secular organizations which focus on church/state separation, nonbeliever rights, and religious criticism. Humanist organizations have an additional and important responsibility, which should be programs built around compassionate causes and initiatives, promoting ethical guides to happy living, and being a source of inspiration to people looking for more than mere non-belief. Understanding the important distinction between Humanism and atheism is essential to that focus.

Robert continued:

“Why would secular humanists, who read much more than the average person, want a humanist minister to tell them what to think and to officiate at naming ceremonies(?), weddings, and funerals?  (Sermons do tell people what to think, don't they?)  A justice of the peace can marry them and a memorial service can substitute for a funeral.  And any Unitarian church can satisfy the longing for ritual.”

One would have to ask the many people who have Humanist ceremonies why they chose them for a good answer to that. Robert has already mentioned the Unitarians as a source of ritual for naturalists, and the same justification and role can be made for Humanist ministers (indeed, many Humanist ministers are involved with their local Unitarian churches, as Humanism and UU share an intimate history). However, Unitarian churches may also include those who may have supernatural beliefs, so a Humanist minister would be very much like a Unitarian, but more specifically naturalist. 

The term Robert uses, “secular humanist”, refers to a specific kind of Humanist which has decidedly opted to consider Humanism a secular philosophic life stance – an alternative to religion – rather than a religion itself. However, there are also ‘religious humanists’, who have just the same rational, empirical, and naturalistic worldview, but think of ‘religion’ in broader terms and practice Humanism in a more ritualistic style. The founders of modern Humanism in 1933 were more like religious humanists, and established the first manifesto as a declaration of intent to usher in a new era for a naturalistic reason-based religion.

I do not consider myself solely in either camp. I do believe there is a viable role for ritual for the naturalist, and I also believe there are many practices, like meditation for example, which can be very helpful and do not require a supernatural element. But I’ve come to find the word ‘religion’ so imprecise that my stance is: it doesn’t matter whether we consider Humanism a religion or not, and that should be up to each individual to decide for themselves. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), not long ago, made a declaration that they would drop all the adjectives and simply be ‘Humanists’ and I concur.

Would a “secular humanist”, as Robert put it, prefer the kinds of services Humanist ministers and other secular celebrants provide? Perhaps or perhaps not. But the meaning of the IHEU proclamation was not that secular humanists would shorten their name and subsume the entirety of the word from all Humanists. It meant that both religious and secular humanists would come together and leave it up to the individual whether they wish to call their fully naturalistic philosophy a religion and practice it in that style or not.

“The word spirituality should never be used by anyone who doesn't believe in the existence of a spirit world separate from the physical one.  Giving different meanings to commonly understood words is a good way to confuse people and hinder communication with them.”

This ignores the history and origins of the term. There is a naturalistic spirituality which has nothing to do with ‘spirits’ as in supernatural entities – but has to do with ‘the spirit of things’ (i.e. the ‘spirit of the law’ or ‘school spirit’). Also defined as “the essence” of a thing (the essential things in life) or, as the original root word spiritus originally referred to; the breath. For more on this, please see the excellent page on spirituality at (HERE) – particularly the excellent article, Spirituality Without Faith, or the Wikipedia article on spirituality, or my own writing about spirituality at, such as HERE (particularly, Chapter 2 further down on the page).

On the matter of appealing to popular conception, it seems most people today when hearing the word spirituality think of it as one’s personal life practice and set of values, principles, and most special beliefs. Whether something is in the supernatural or natural realm is becoming less relevant – you know the difference between a ‘spiritual person’ and otherwise when you see them. They may or may not be religious, and may have a variety of beliefs, including naturalism and empiricism. Many believers even, are starting to have interpretations more like the ancient Stoics, who viewed all of nature as one integrated material whole. The question then becomes, 'What is in that natural universe and how do we best come to know it?' Humanists have a healthy skepticism and an empirical standard for answering that question, but they often show that a person can be spiritual without belief in the supernatural. This may be against the grain of the connotation of the word to many, but just as many people go by the word 'atheist' to help be an example against the common impression, many use the word 'spiritual' for the same reasons. Of course, some religious people and some Humanists and some atheists aren’t spiritual at all in their demeanor, attitude, or focus.

“Philosophy became anachronistic after the sciences separated from it.  The humanities, which include the arts, are a holdover from a prescientific age and mostly compete with sports as entertainment.  Authors of fiction can make their characters say and do anything they please, which has impeded a genuine understanding of human behavior.”

I could not disagree more with this. Science today, is a subset of philosophy and thus part of philosophy. Philosophy goes much further, however, to include the nature of language and meaning, ethics, and more. It is all philosophy, and always has been. Philosophy being ‘the love of wisdom’, anytime we ask ‘what is’ or ‘what ought to be’ we are conducting some form of philosophy. The scientists are merely that subset of philosophers tasked with the observation of the natural universe. They provide our factual basis, upon which we set the rest of our philosophy so as to ensure our prescriptives operate functionally within accurate descriptions of the world.

In fact, science itself is based on the ‘philosophy of science’ or the scientific methodology, which is a philosophic approach to knowledge. Furthermore, when we hear scientist proclaim that we need to cut carbon gasses or that we should brush our teeth, that scientist has left the realm of science and has moved into other areas of philosophy, because they have moved from description to prescription. Our methods are more sophisticated today, but we are doing the same work that Socrates did – evaluating our natural environment rationally as best as we can, and both inducing an deducing the best courses of action to ensure our goals are met.

Ultimately, for an individual, philosophy comes down to the very basis on which he or she lives – how one answers the question, ‘what is the best way to live?’ Further, what practices allow us to form habits and develop character that can move in that direction more easily? This is the central and crucial role of philosophy as life practice today, and science is one small part of that; assigned one narrow but foundational and essential role within it. Without that, one may as well use science to obliterate all life on the planet as easily as cultivate it.

Many thanks and best wishes to Robert for reading and his comments, and thanks to everyone else out there reading and commenting!

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