By Michael De Dora
Executive Director, Center for Inquiry New York, and Contributor to Patheos.com
We live in a time when most Americans — indeed, most humans — believe that we have a work of divine authoring or inspiration on our bookshelves. Accordingly, most Americans believe in the existence of a supernatural realm, in a God who can change the course of human events, and in Heaven and Hell. These religious beliefs, combined with other related or implied religious ideas, are severely harming social and political affairs in the United States and beyond. How might we change this?
The ensuing conversation would be wide-ranging, but would surely include secular humanism at some point. Secular humanism (or humanism, as I will call it for reader ease) is a philosophy that rejects the supernatural and faith as sources of reliable knowledge and instead asks us to rely on science, reason, and the naturalistic outlook. Humanism holds that we can apply critical reasoning to all claims. It focuses us on how we can have a good life now, and how we can make life good for other conscious, sentient creatures on Earth. It asks that we foster a world based on ideas like wisdom, justice, equality, empathy, compassion, individuality, collective sacrifice, and happiness.
Notice two important things before we move on. First, humanism does not necessarily demand atheism. One can believe in some form of the supernatural or God while not relying on those for answers to questions about meaning, morality, or politics. Second, humanism is not a religion, as religion is commonly understood. It is not a replacement for one religion or another, but rather an alternative to religion.
It is my opinion that the tenets of humanism are more widespread than most believe — that many people are essentially humanists without knowing it (to be fair, the word humanism isn’t very popular). Whether or not we realize it, we all have basic senses of right and wrong that drive our moral decision-making. When we act morally, our reasons are usually nothing transcendental, just simple respect and compassion for others.
This does not mean humanist values do not need spreading. Religious morality must be countered, and people must realize their potential to be good without dependence on or reference to religion. But for me, the future of humanism depends very much on the secular quality of our discussions on morality. Morality is an enormously important topic. It is at the core of both religion and nontheistic philosophies, and informs both social and political decisions. A secular-oriented conversation about morality will pare down needless or wrong religious morality, and further enlighten others about humanist moral values.
Pursuing a secular-oriented conversation on morality is not an easy task. The nature of belief (in that it is tied to action), and fully open discourse, means we cannot control which beliefs and reasons are put forth. A person’s religious views often influence his or her moral views, and our public discourse does not and should not bar these views from entry. Secularists may desire to hear more secular reasons from others, but people cannot be forced to give them in opposition to their real beliefs.
Yet we can attempt to steer public discourse in ways we believe will help us get closer to the truth. However, any attempt cannot ignore that we live not just in an open society, but also in a pluralistic democracy. As such, religious moral views are absolutely allowed to enter into the public square, but they cannot be defended solely by reference to a holy book or faith. As President Barack Obama notes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” An example he uses is abortion:
If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
To further illustrate this point, Obama recalls the well-known biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Obama writes:
It is fair to say that if any of us saw a twenty-first century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we could call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that part of what we know to be true — as individuals or communities of faith — will be true for us alone.
In short, we can neither hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Humanists and many others also do not believe in the claimed divinity of holy texts, or hold confidence in claims to faith. Even different religions, some more similar than not, disagree about such matters.
The solution is this: one has the right to hold and act on his or her religious beliefs, but in a society in which different people have different values, and laws influence a diverse population, purely religious reasons are ideally not to be employed. Of course, in a religion-heavy society such as ours, religious reasons will surely enter the public square. The answer is not to ask the religious to leave their beliefs at home as “personal,” or else to dismiss them as outright absurd, barred from discussion. Instead, all beliefs that influence social or political affairs should be exposed to critical reasoning; and moreover, reasons for those beliefs must be clear and understandable to all citizens — not just members of one religious sect.
At the least, this approach to moral discourse gets reasons flowing in clear view. At the most, it will help foster a more reasonable, humanistic approach to morality, and perhaps even more generally, life.
Michael De Dora is executive director at the think tank Center for Inquiry in New York City. Michael has a Master’s degree in political science from CUNY-Brooklyn College, and a Bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Communication at SUNY-Albany. He writes essays on moral and political philosophy for his blog, Democratic Discourse, and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking. Michael was previously a news writer and editor at both FOXNews.com and the City University of New York.