In an Op-ed published in the New York Times last month, the philosopher Stephen T. Asma offered a defense of religion. I responded with an article of my own published here on Medium a day or two later.
Asma’s article had a somewhat provocative title: What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t). My primary beef with Asma’s argument wasn’t that he was wrong about religion’s emotional benefits so much as he seemed to be arguing there are no other means — or at least no better means — of providing them.
Asma is correct that however we get them, as a social species we require the things religion provides: community, meaning, and ritual among them. As I’ve reflected now and then upon the argument he laid out in his June 3rd Op-ed, it’s clear to me that whether we are religious or not, we will seek out means of meeting these needs to the best of our ability.
Unfortunately, when it comes to theological debates there’s something inherently problematic about how we frame the argument. There’s an either/or quality to it. Having been raised in a religious family, this quality of religious belief has been something I’ve had to wrestle with throughout my own life.
Atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s the absence of a belief in a very specific idea: the existence of a supernatural being or beings. By itself, this absence does not determine any particular personal moral code. The failure to believe that Zeus still lives somewhere on Mt. Olympus or Yahweh really did speak to Moses from a burning bush does not require one to take a relativistic or nihilist view either of human relations or the universe as a whole, let alone mandate a lack of concern for the well-being of others.
Atheism represents one end of a spectrum. It’s a spectrum that is when we get right down to it, rather uninteresting in its dualism. On the other end is a belief in a god or gods and in between there is a short space occupied by doubters that lean one way or the other along with a fair number who don’t really have an opinion on the subject and don’t care to develop one. No matter how much any of the partisans in this fight may think otherwise, nowhere along this short line is the really important questions about human well-being, ethics, political philosophy, or science successfully resolved by any of the answers people give to the question of whether or not there’s a god.
If we’re being honest, the question of God’s existence is a rather annoying distraction. It is, after all, an unanswerable question. If it were answerable it wouldn’t be a matter of faith but one of science. If certain practices or customs work to enhance human well-being, then we should strive to understand the reasons they work and to duplicate and perfect them to the greatest degree possible. If certain actions reduce suffering and improve our individual/collective quality of life, then we should laud them and seek to incorporate them into both our lives and our societies. This is a rule of thumb that shouldn’t be controversial to either believers or non-believers.
In a recent episode of the NPR program The Hidden Brain entitled Creating God, host Shankar Vedantam explored some of the current research surrounding religion’s origins and benefits. The broadcast featured University of British Columbia psychologist Azim Shariff. Though Stephen Asma’s name never comes up, Shariff generally agrees with his assessment of many of the benefits religion provides. But Shariff views religion from the longer perspective of biological and cultural evolution. As a result, the program ends with him pointing out that many of the functions religion once served have recently been taken over by other institutions.
We’ll sacralize ideas like freedom. We’ll sacralize our nation. We’ll sacralize the flag. And in terms of the governmental institutions that can spread trust, one of the interesting things you see is that if you look across countries, those countries that report having the least importance of religion to their daily lives are the countries that have the highest faith in the rule of law. So those are the places where you trust institutions like the bank, or contract enforcement, or the police, or the justice system.
Once you can set up those types of trusted secular institutions, well that obviates the need for a lot of what religion has done. Now, it’s only been in recent years that we’ve been able to have those types of centralized effective institutions, and still in most parts of the world we’re not able to. But, in those places where we are, we see ourselves moving towards a post-religious world where a lot of the functions of religion are accomplished by other means and potentially better means. ~ Psychologist Azim Shariff on NPR’s Hidden Brain, July 16, 2018 (Emphasis added)
Given the human tendency to sacralize objects, symbols, rituals, and beliefs is hardly restricted only to religion, we shouldn’t be surprised other institutions can take its place. Political ideologies, nationalism, pieces of art, stirring music, and even scientific theories are all examples of things that humans have, for better or for worse, sanctified and ritualized. That most biologists have the same visceral response to attacks on evolution as orthodox believers have when faced with challenges to their literal interpretation of scripture is not an indication that both are equally valid descriptions of reality. But it does demonstrate that whatever humans attach meaning to will become emotionally salient to at least some extent.
“I have never come across a coherent notion of bad or good, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable that did not depend upon some change in the experience of conscious creatures,” Sam Harris wrote in Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion. The idea that we could create a moral philosophy that justified itself on anything other than its actual or foreseeable impacts upon us or other creatures similar enough to us for us to imagine how they would feel is, if we stop to think about it, patently absurd. As Harris points out later in the same paragraph, “If you think [particular] actions are wrong primarily because they would anger God or would lead to your punishment after death, you are still worried about perturbations of consciousness…”
That morality is grounded primarily in our experience is a fundamental tenet of what is commonly referred to as Humanism. The humanist label has been attached to a number of periods and philosophies, but the emergence of what we commonly understand as humanism today is best seen in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods.
As the political philosopher Larry Siedentop argues in his 2014 book Inventing the Individual, “Any set of basic assumptions opens up some avenues for thought, while closing down others.” Siedentop goes on to state that the Christian emphasis on the importance of each soul rather ironically paved the way for the individualism that became central to what eventually developed into modern secular humanism.
It was precisely this initially Christian and later secular regard for the dignity and worth of the individual upon which modern democratic societies are built. It provides a blueprint for all contemporary societies to follow as they hopefully move toward greater freedom in the future. However, while theism can exist within a humanist framework, humanism cannot exist within a theocratic one. In a pluralistic society humanism already rules the day because pluralism is a humanist ideal.
Every mainstream tradition existing within a modern pluralistic context has necessarily sacralized the individual. Each person, no matter where they are along the belief spectrum, relies upon their personal right to determine for themselves where they will stand and to express their reasons for standing there if they choose to do so. This sanctifying of the individual can readily be found within our churches as well as in conversations among secular humanists.
From a purely humanist perspective, the challenge isn’t how best to articulate the dignity and rights of the individual but how to incorporate religion’s commitment to the community into its ethos without sacrificing its core principle. Enshrining freedom of religion into law didn’t just enable heretics to break away and speak their mind without risking punishment. It also enabled worshipers to willingly commit themselves to a religious community, with all the personal sacrifices that often entails, while still maintaining that doing so was an expression of their own individual freedom.
Humanism as a philosophy places a number of intellectual demands upon those that embrace it: an appreciation for the scientific method, healthy skepticism, and a degree of openness to uncertainty. However, in practice, it has struggled to replicate the structured setting and ethic of mutual support religion has historically been good at.
As is pointed out in the Hidden Brain episode Creating God mentioned above, the threat of punishments such as eternal damnation does play an important role in sustaining membership in religious organizations and motivating followers to adhere to the moral codes their religion promotes. Humanists, on the other hand, believe that people should do the right thing not because they desire a future reward or fear a future punishment, but because there are reasons that we can identify for doing the right thing. Those reasons follow from the consequences of the actions in question and can be evaluated both objectively as actual physical or emotional impacts on ourselves and others, and subjectively in terms of how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of the action.
Humanists and other secularly minded people are organizing themselves into communities in greater numbers, though membership lags far behind anything seen in most religious denominations. American humanists first began seriously organizing themselves in the 1920s. The humanists responsible for starting what became the American Humanist Association emerged from the Unitarian tradition at that time. For its part, Unitarianism represented the first religion to formally embrace the Enlightenment values many of us take for granted today, but remains relatively small as religions go.
Unitarian ministers and humanists organizing regular meetings of like-minded individuals could be forgiven for sometimes wishing eternal damnation was available to them to hold over a membership that too often chooses to sleep in on Sunday mornings. But humanism’s success shouldn’t be measured in membership numbers or attendance statistics. Humanism’s greatest accomplishment is the variety of museums, concerts, non-profit organizations, political beliefs, and religious choices now available for billions of people around the world to choose from.
Humanism does not require people to give up a belief in a supreme being or other “supernatural” powers. However, it does set aside such beliefs as meaningless to our attempts to address life’s most fundamental challenges and enhance our understanding of reality. As Azim Shariff pointed out, as societies provide greater economic security and a longer menu of activities and ideas for people to choose from, the emotional needs that religion once met can increasingly be satisfied via other means. As more and more communities develop around causes and pursuits in the secular realm that fulfill our desire to find meaning and form communities, the types of demands religions place upon individuals as a condition for membership will make it harder and harder for them to compete.
The sense of wonder we often describe as spirituality can also be readily evoked listening to a symphony, viewing an awe-inspiring work of art, at the local natural history museum, in solitude or with others watching a beautiful sunset, or even lost in conversation with friends at the local coffee shop. Imposing a religious doctrine or highly ritualized behavior upon these pastimes simply isn’t necessary to receive many of the benefits Asma and others argue religion provides.
What religion has been able to give us that humanism can’t effectively deliver is the illusion of membership in a chosen tribe. In addition, with membership in a particular faith has come the assurance of comfort during periods of suffering and loss. However, whether we’re believers or not the price we are each increasingly required to pay in return for the benefits of living within a modern secular society is greater personal responsibility. The role of providing for each other is now not only the proper moral stance of the individual as a person in their own right, but the proper civic role of the citizen within a much larger national/global cosmopolitan community. This is true not because we will receive some heavenly reward in exchange but because regardless of our personal religious beliefs or nationality we all benefit right here on earth from such mutual concern and cooperation.
For the first time in human history, we must find within ourselves the motivation to care for each other rather than relying upon promises of heaven or threats of hell to do the heavy ethical lifting that comes with being born human. Likewise, mere assertions that a divine being has dictated a moral code is no longer sufficient in a pluralistic setting where others often don’t share the same religious beliefs. Within societies aspiring to provide greater freedom to their people morality must rest upon reason. That’s a heavier burden than we’re used to carrying, but one lightened by the shared humanist conviction that our individual right to choose what we will believe and how we will pursue fulfillment is only guaranteed by our willingness to recognize everyone else’s right to do the same.