By Michael Werner
I grew up in an area so Catholic that I had never met anyone or didn’t even know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. One day a Protestant family moved in down the street, which was the same as saying they were Pagans to me. You see, my vision of them came from seeing Charlton Heston in the movie “The Ten Commandments” come down from the mountain only to find a wild orgy taking place by the pagans around their golden calf. (Which today looks like a pretty cool party to me.) Even though I gave the new neighbors’ house a wide birth, I noticed that they kept their drapes drawn and I just knew they had a golden calf in the living room. I just couldn’t figure out how they could afford the gold when they seemed as dirt poor as we were.
My deconversion began at the age of 10 or 11. I was sitting alone in the back of a church, praying to a supposedly caring God to relieve my sufferings, but I received no response. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was talking about—and neither did anyone else. I saw fault lines in all my beliefs, from the notion of the Trinity, to the idea of just having ungrounded faith, and, most important, to the problem of evil in the world. I made a vow then to learn the truth about life, no matter what. If that led me to hell, so be it, but I would commit myself to seeking truth no matter where it led me.
Instinctively, I also knew my quest would take years. It indeed did take a long time and persistent effort. I was not really comfortable with my beliefs until I was almost 40.
25 percent in U.S. are religious “nones”
Now I look around and see that, according to the 2016 Pew Religious Landscape Study, those who call themselves nonreligious are the largest and fastest growing “religious” segment of our society. Around 25 percent of the total population in the United States are religious “nones.” That is more than all the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarians combined. Religious “nones” are larger than the Catholics. Among young adults, ages 18-29, 39 percent are religiously unaffiliated. Some of those are “spiritual, but not religious.” Atheists altogether account for between 3 and 6 percent of the population. Another 6 percent are agnostic.
Interestingly, polling depends on the questions asked. If you ask, “Do you believe in God?” anywhere from 12 to 18 percent say they don’t. It appears that the word “atheist” has a negative connotation that keeps people from expressing their real views on the supernatural.
In Europe the joke is that there are only three times people go to church anymore and two of them they are carried in. Batching, matching and dispatching.
There are more Humanist celebrant weddings in Great Britain than religious ones and in Ireland it is over a year to be able to actually schedule a humanist celebrant.
How can people actually believe literally in the bible with its talking snakes, satyrs, unicorns, zombies, witches and wizards?
How can people believe in a bible that is opposed to masturbation, shrimp, gays, but finds rape, slavery, and genocide OK?
How do Mormons believe a con man spoke to an angel who made him head of a religion allowing him to have many wives?
How do people today give all their life savings to ministers who amass tens of millions of dollars, luxury homes, cars and jets?
All the scientific studies show religious people are less intelligent, less educated, more anti-science, more attracted to authoritarian figures, more prone toward racism, more fearful, more homophobic, more misogynist, and have higher rates of incarceration.
Don’t end the quest when it is just starting
All I have said so far is bullshit. It’s bullshit, not because it’s not true, but because this pattern of focus and thinking leads to a smug, self-congratulatory, self-righteousness, certainty of our morality, and can be an excuse for ending the quest, just when it is starting. Just because we know one thing is true doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. We become a one-trick pony.
Atheism is what I don’t believe. But, what do I believe? Socrates said there are only two main questions in life: What is true and how shall we live?
Nietzsche asked where is God? Not out of some triumphant conclusion, but as a cry for answers to what will replace him.
Max Weber, one of the founders of the modern science of sociology, noted that the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the “disenchantment of the world.” He was concerned that with the loss of religion, people would lose an emotional connection with the world. “And then,” in the words of Kenneth Clark, “exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of material prosperity” would result. Sound familiar?
I have seen too many who found one great truth, that God doesn’t exist, and stopped their search there. I have seen those who don’t have a vital center to their lives and fall into a “nihilistic disenchantment.”
The father of modern social science, Emile Durkheim, coined the term anomie to describe the condition in which a society provides little moral guidance to individuals. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community.
In our movement we have nice sayings like “Good without God,” “Just be good,” “No Gods, No Masters,” that simplify, but also can mislead how difficult moral decision making is to make. I hear secular notables like Sam Harris appallingly say to just follow the science, or Peter Singer and Joshua Bell dogmatically tell us that Utilitarianism is a complete moral theory.
How many of us can explain to someone what the ultimate goal of morality is and how to achieve it? How should we make moral decisions? What undergirds secular morality or is it all just relative?
Science alone doesn’t provide our answers
Some would see science answering everything we need to know, ignoring the many tools the humanities have given us but then we see there are other sources of knowledge. Democracy and the concepts of human rights are gifts from history and civilization. Philosophy gives us tools for critical thinking and a conceptual framework to evaluate the world. Literature and art heighten our awareness about what values are important. Again we can see rather shallow answers by some on our part. We can laugh at those who say morality comes from the Ten Commandments and knowledge from the bible, but have you studied these fundamental questions and do you have confidence in your answers? Can you answer what grounds our knowledge and in particular science? What do our foundations stand on, if anything? Can you answer Socrates’ question on how we best shall live? Do you still feel the excitement that comes from challenging your old ideas? Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” How well are we doing on both courage and depth?
A deep search shows, distressingly to some, there is no certainty, no absolute foundations on any knowledge, no absolute moral theory, no single moral goal, no absolute meaning in life, no one right way to live our lives. All scientific knowledge ends up being tentative, fallible and probabilistic. Knowledge emerges from a combination of many methods laced together in a whole web of belief. Regarding ethics, while there is no one moral complete theory, we find that secular morality is more like painting a picture with many hues and colors. It is without a mathematical formula like rationality. Like finding truth, it requires a whole garage of tools, none complete, none without problems.
We also find that ethical dilemmas are inherent in all our decisions as all our highest values are in radical conflict with each other. Every value we have has downsides and trade-offs. It is what Isaiah Berlin calls a “tragic liberalism.” We also find there is no one ethical goal we have. We end up with multiple goals, multiple foundations, multiple moral tools.
Does all this mean that secular knowledge and morality is hopelessly adrift, nothing more than one’s choice? Does it say that nihilism is correct? No, it does not. We don’t need certainty to gain knowledge. The world is indeed relative, but it is not arbitrary. Also, we don’t need absolute ethical paths and goals to make good, confident decisions for the betterment of ourselves, others and the biosphere. We just need to do the best we can with a messy situation. Many people, if not most, don’t like messy, ambiguous situations, but that’s what we have. But we are not helpless, just challenged.
Founders of Humanism looked inward
A century ago the founders of modern-day Humanism were much more focused on discovering the best ways to live a secular life. They had even more problems with the religious right, but put more of their efforts into looking inward rather than outward. Betterment of society, character and honor were dominant concerns. Today criticizing religion consumes too much of our efforts.
Why Humanism? Because we want to devote our lives to profound ideals. We want to answer the fundamental questions of existence. We are looking for passionate life commitments beyond our own needs. We are looking for ideals born of conscious reflection in the glaring light of knowledge. As the progressive educator John Dewey wrote, “We are looking for those ideals and ends so inclusive that they unify the self.” We desire a “North Star” to guide us.
Religion exists because people want a whole, integrated story of life. We want a north star to guide us. We want to structure our loves around profound ideals. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it. To have imagination and taste, to love the best, to be carried by the contemplation of nature to a vivid faith in the ideal, all this is more, a great deal more, than any science can hope to be.” When Santayana refers to “A vivid faith in the ideal,” he is taking about Humanism.
Humanism asks us to search for and commit ourselves to our highest ideals, our noblest sentiments, our greatest values, and what civilization and science say matters most. Humanism is a blend of the best of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movements, saying this world is all and enough. It is a whole world view, an open-ended, evolving life-stance where Bertrand Russell described the good life as that which is guided by reason and motivated by love.
Our hearts long for an integrated whole view of life, where our ideals match reality. We long for a vital center to our lives that both grounds us and inspires us, a vision of grander authenticity to our lives, not just smaller truths. All of us long for an evocative whole story and a higher vision that lifts our hearts, moves our society, pushes us to higher meanings, and ennobles our lives. Some may find that integrated story is already with us, in the balanced Humanist secular life of here and now, as we accept the exhilarating challenge of a responsible search for truth and meaning.
Guided by values rather than beliefs
The Humanist life stance is based on our values, not our beliefs. These values encompass open-minded critical thinking, science, justice, freedom, tolerance, democracy, reason, compassion, human rights, all people’s inherent worth and dignity, and the importance of human flourishing. These are just some of the values that hold our web of belief together.
We can’t afford the luxury of just critiquing religion. We must tell our alternative story so anyone contemplating change will know a non-religious worldview can support, inspire, and comfort them; that knowledge of science, while tentative, is surely firmer than blind faith; that the exhilaration of focusing on the here and now is more meaningful than otherworldliness; that hope and love are certainly better than hate and divisiveness; that compassion and responsibility can be balanced with self-interest and freedom; that service to others may be our highest calling. The ambiguity inherent in all our value/ethical/political choices need not paralyze us; it does make it even more important that we reflectively consider all our choices.
Humanist ethics derives its power from affirming all people’s inherent worth and dignity. It realizes that if justice is to be given, only we can give it. If love is to be given, only we have that power in this moment and in this hour. Real suffering exists and only we can bind the wounds. This world certainly is all and enough—enough to fill us with the joy, wonder, hope and awe that is our natural birthright.
Now is our time. Now is our chance to move society toward reason and the good life. Now is our time to move society out of the dark ages of theocratic and ideological control and toward human fulfillment. We cannot falter in the face of certain hostility or our own inherent ambiguity; neither can we stand idly by hoping for a secular society to automatically shape itself. It is our duty to show that a secular world need not end in anomie and nihilism. It is our obligation to demonstrate that we can build communities that embrace a progressive, ethical, Humanist worldview of human and global good.
May the truth that sets us free
The hope that never dies
And the love that casts out fear
Lead us forward together
Until the dawn breaks
And the shadows flee away
From Bette Chambers:
“Humanism is the light of my life and the fire in my soul. It is the deep felt conviction, in every fiber of my being that human love is a power far transcending the relentless, onward rush of our largely deterministic cosmos. All human life must seek a reason for existence within the bounds of an uncaring physical world, and it is love coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service which undergirds the faith of a humanist.”
It’s up to us, flawed and finite as we are
As Humanist UU minister Kendyl Gibbons says: If there is no personality governing the universe and promising us love, justice, and meaning on some ontological bottom line, then it is all the more necessary for us, flawed and finite as we are, to give love, to enact justice, and to build meaning here and now.
Let there be only the cold whistling of the solar winds out to the ends of space; let the past and future merge into a Mobius strip of endless, beginning-less flow; let there be no everlasting arms, no judgment, either indulgent or severe: let there be nothing, nothing, nothing at all but what we are and what we have in this moment in this matrix of energy/matter, in this movement in the dance of entropy. It is enough; more than enough; measure pressed down, shaken together and running over. It is marvelous enough and terrifying enough, mysterious enough, holy enough to fill me full and overflowing with wonder.
The love I give and receive (and withhold and reject) is precious and sacred and not to be lightly held precisely because it is all there is, not just a spoonful out of some inexhaustible supply. The justice I do not do is not taken care of at the end of the day, like a parent picking up forgotten toys; its opportunity is lost forever, and the suffering that results is real suffering, not ultimately wiped away by a tender Hand. How much sacred significance can we endure?
Something about that reality is a needless, gracious gift; the eternal surprise that there is anything instead of nothing, and that the anything includes us and our awareness. Something about it makes us understand that we are painfully finite; that our time is limited, our individual abilities and understandings limited, that we are parts and participants in a project that endures beyond us and is greater than ourselves. And something about that reality calls us, allures us, demands of us that we grow, into all the wisdom and justice and love of which we are capable, because that is the fulfillment of the deepest reality of what we are.
Look around you. Everywhere, on all the sidewalks and byways of the world, women and men hunger for the meaning in life, and find it in the ardent sod, the warmth of sun and breath of air; in the miracle of the setting sun and the altar of the ocean; in the struggle of now, salted with wishes and dreams, in human love and understanding. The person who hungers for the meaning in life is you, is me, is each of us, whatever words we use to try in vain to say what fills us, what makes us all that we are and out of that emerges demandingly, our inherent worth and dignity. Surely possible, oh, yes; for every day we wake and make it so; and every breath we take says that unfathomable Yes to the life that is all we have, that is all we know, that is our hunger and our fullness and is, beyond all that we need, enough.
Michael Werner is author of the book, “What Can You Believe If You Don’t Believe in God?” He delivered this platform address at the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County on Nov. 25, 2018.