By Dr. Joseph Chuman
I am a humanist. I am also a philosophical naturalist, meaning that I believe that nature is all that there is and there is nothing outside of nature. As such, I do not believe in supernatural beings. I do not believe in ghosts, in angels or a Supreme Supernatural Being. I am an atheist.
But I have another confession to make: I am not quite a secular humanist. Secularism alone doesn’t quite do it for me. It doesn’t quite satisfy. An unqualified secularism has long seemed too dry, too one dimensional, too preoccupied with the practical concerns of this world, too focused on the human realm and its concerns. I yearn for more.
As a human being, I am happily endowed with consciousness. I can think, I can reflect on life and existence, I can dream and I can imagine. I am a creature of experience who is compelled to search for meaning.
As I understand it, and have witnessed the application of secular humanistic principles, its focus is an eminently practical one. It is dedicated to the resolution of problems—political, economic, scientific—in the service of creating a better world and the promotion of human flourishing. This is all to the good and it is worthy of the best efforts of all of us. I fervently share in this devotion.
Yet, in my view, there is more to experience than the practical and the human. We are components of a reality that is much greater, indeed, infinitely greater, than we are. While the scientific enterprise, which is the most powerful expression of the secular domain, has been remarkably successful in rendering knowledge of how the physical nature is comprised and operates, there remains beyond what is known a vast sea of mystery. There is much that is unknown, perhaps even unknowable.
While humanism bids us to be preoccupied with human betterment, the truth remains that nature and reality are impersonal and independent of us and are totally indifferent to our welfare. Arguably, there is something august in this realization. Anyone in a moment of quiet who has gazed up at the nighttime sky and has contemplated the immense distance of the stars has had intuitions of this. This larger, impersonal reality, I submit, makes a claim on our emotions and attitudes to life and existence.
Where I am leading is to the realization that reality, as we experience it, is multi-layered. We encounter the surface of things, the getting and doing, the problems and frustrations and our struggles to overcome those problems and frustrations. We experience moments of joy and happiness, relaxation and the fulfillment of companionship with others. Most of our lives are spent at this level.
Yet there are insights and experiences, undoubtedly rare, that transcend the superficial level and bring us into touch with aspects of reality that lie beneath or beyond. Sometimes we sense we are part of a larger whole that transcends our individual lives. At times we may appreciate that however much science has revealed to us there remain vast oceans comprised of things unknown. While experience tells us that all things change, perhaps beyond that experience there lie ultimate and absolute realities that do not change. While we exploit the world around us and the things in it as utilities to serve our interests, perhaps in moments of deeper perception we can appreciate things just as they are and on their own terms, independent and untagged to our needs and purposes.
Speaking personally, by temperament I am driven to seek something more than is discernible by the world of sense. I seek something that does not change beyond the world of flux; something that stands beyond what we know or perhaps what can be known. Perhaps it is an idea, an intuition of lasting beauty, impersonal and abstract, yet inextinguishable from my thought and yearning. It is a source of reverence and contemplation that elevates beyond the practical and the fulfillment of mundane aspirations. These are concerns that a purely secular humanism usually does not engage. But I plan to in my address of Oct. 7. I hope you can join me then.
I am not quite a secular humanist. Secularism alone doesn’t quite do it for me. It doesn’t quite satisfy. An unqualified secularism has long seemed too dry, too one dimensional, too preoccupied with the practical concerns of this world, too focused on the human realm and its concerns. I yearn for more. Joe will discuss concerns that purely secular humanists don’t address.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.