Monday, March 03, 2008

Humanism Does Not Have To Be Anti-theism

I nicked this article from Faith House Manhattan. I think it is pertinent and I want to spread it around like a good Youtube video. Greg Epstein is a Humanist chaplain at Harvard. In his article, he calls for better conversation between theists and atheists, to look at the bigger picture, rather than circling the wagons and loudly proclaiming the same arguments.

The following post is adapted for Faith House by Greg Epstein, originally posted on On Faith, an online conversation about religion facilitated by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn.

Christopher Hitchens, author of the bestselling book God Is Not Great writes that "Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

In this quote, Sally and Jon identify a classic example of the way in which Christopher Hitchens’s approach to religion goes far beyond atheism and is really better understood as anti-theism.

While atheism is the lack of belief in any god, anti-theism means actively seeking out the worst aspects of faith in god and portraying them as representative of all religion. Anti-theism seeks to shame and embarrass people away from religion, browbeating them about the stupidity of belief in a bellicose god.

Anti-theists are often brilliant scientific thinkers. The ones I know tend to be passionately ethical in their personal lives. And as in the case of Hitchens, they can be ferociously eloquent. So why hasn’t anti-theism ever gained any real political or social power?

In most people’s minds, “religion” does not just stand merely for belief in an unseen, all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It stands for the things we hold most dear: family, tradition, and community. Memories of lost loved ones and consolation in the face of death. The organized pursuit of social justice. Not to mention music, art, architecture, and I could go on and on.

These things are all good. If you take a rhetorical blowtorch to religion without acknowledging the way it provides them, you get precisely what we have today: a nation and world where despite all our scientific knowledge, 80 to 90 percent of people say they are religious.

Now let me be perfectly clear about myself. I have zero belief in god, gods, goddesses, or any other manner of supernatural spirits. I affirm that there is one and only one world: this natural world. As far as any human being will ever know we get only one life, from womb to tomb.

My conviction that this life is all I have, however, is precisely why I don’t want to spend my days focused on the worst in religion. I prefer seeking the best in each of us. I am not an antitheist, and not simply an atheist, but a Humanist.

Humanism is the non-religious pursuit of all that is best in human life. It is based on reason, compassion, and creativity, and promotes loving and ethical connections with family, community, all human beings, and the natural world surrounding us. It is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity.

Simply put, Humanism is being good and living well without god. And that is no small matter, because it is hard to live a good life in this world regardless of what you believe. We human beings are all so imperfect—we are hurt so easily and too quick to hurt others. We get sick and die just when it is least fair and most painful.

Ultimately, we are social animals. We need each other. Our lives are best when we take part in an ethical community that extends far beyond ourselves; for thousands of years, religion has been the best human institution at providing that community. So if all we stand for is anti-theism, we will get nowhere, even though Hitchens is right -- partially -- about the evil religion can do.

Today, the billion of us around the world who are not religious can and must join together to create a humanistic alternative to religion. And let us do so while honoring the good in those of our religious sisters and brothers who are trying to live well according to a belief system we cannot share.

For a Humanist, it is not enough to simply rage, rage against the dying of the enlightenment. Let us get involved in Humanism and make this world, though it will never be perfect, a better place.

Greg endorses the work of Faith House Manhattan:

"Faith House Manhattan is a really intriguing idea, and quite possibly a necessary one. I would encourage my fellow Humanists, atheists, agnostics and the non-religious to check it out, and to consider getting involved. Samir Selmanovic should be commended for reaching out earnestly, in respect and friendship, to our community. We secularists and freethinkers should do the same to him and to theistically-oriented Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious people everywhere. Global warming doesn’t care what we believe or disbelieve about a god, and that’s just one of the many dangers that may doom us if we can’t figure out how to work together and care about one another despite differences. I’m hopeful this project can help build common ground and enable us to learn from one another in New York City and beyond."


Redlefty said...

What a wonderful worldview. I probably have more in common with him than I do with the average member of my church.

Andrew said...

Heh... too true. Give me a thoughtful, empathetic, and gracious person & I could care less what their religious or non-religious stripe may be.

Mike said...


Thanks for this interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I read the article over at Faith Manhatten and I really liked it also. I think a lot of people - irregardless of their belief or God or not - are quite good people and want the best for humanity as a whole group. I see this writer in that category - and I see Hitchens in a divisive category more or less. Does Hitchens really care about society as a whole entity is the big question? He can say 'yes' but he denies the Theist their right (which is also by law in most countries).

Anonymous said...

For a Humanist, it is not enough to simply rage, rage against the dying of the enlightenment. Let us get involved in Humanism and make this world, though it will never be perfect, a better place.

The problem is that religion is anti-humanist.

Religion tell us that we are sinless, hopeless worms that can do nothing without God. We are to surrender our lives (aka our brains), sit on our hands, and wait for God to do something. "Everything to God in prayer," remember the hymn?

Also, Christianity says that the world is going down the tubes anyway, so why bother taking care of it?

In order for humanism to work, religious brainwashing needs to be gotten rid off.

Supernaturalism and humanism are mutually exclusive, unfortunately.

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