Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The difference between religious and secular humanism

Here's Tom Flynn on the key difference between religious and secular humanism:
There's the difference between religious and secular humanism in its essence -- in a nutshell, if you will. Religious humanists yearn to "express transcendence and connection with others." Secular humanists are fine with expressing connection with others, but inasmuch as they are secular, they attach great importance to the recognition that ... hang on now ... there is no such thing as "transcendence" or "the transcendent."

Essential to the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. It's the domain of matter, energy, and their interactions -- and nothing else.

On that view, words like divine, spirit, and transcendent share one essential quality: they have no referents in the real world. There is nothing to transcend, because the domain of everyday experience is -- so far as we can see, and the range of our seeing has gotten pretty good in recent decades -- the whole of what exists. Being all that is, it cannot be transcended. There is nothing "above" it, nothing "beyond" it ... there's just reality.

Secular humanists recognize that "the transcendent" is an empty set. We say to those who yearn for a realm beyond that can never be, "Just deal with it."

Flynn is responding specifically to this post by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian (UK), and I'm definitely on Flynn's side in this (to the extent that, as fellow atheists, they're on different sides at all).

It's not that I don't value aesthetics. It's not that I don't value beauty, that I don't have feelings, or that I never get emotional. But the "magic" of life is that it's not magic. It's real. "Nature" is real, too. That's what's so neat about it.

"Spirit" is... well, that's a word I avoid, because all too many people use it in a literal sense, and there's simply no good evidence that a spiritual realm even exists. I know that some atheists use the term in a more general sense, and maybe they're just trying to find common ground with the faith-based, but I don't like it, myself.

Still, that doesn't mean, necessarily, that I dislike ceremony or ritual. When I was a kid, we had our traditional family practices at the holidays (we had oyster stew and chili on Christmas Eve, for example, which might not be typical for other families), and if I'd had kids, I would have wanted to continue them (no doubt merged with the favorite practices of my wife).

But magic isn't real. Some things are magical, in a sense, but it's not really magic. Social bonds are real, so even we atheists welcome them. Even we atheists feel emotions, and we're glad we do. We just don't make judgements about what's true and what isn't on the basis of unsupported feelings.

All too many people who've given up religion still have this fuzzy idea about a spiritual realm. Not Moore, I don't think, though she's getting too close for my tastes. And what do you make of a question like this?
This is what I mean about aesthetics. Do we cede them to the religious and just look like a bunch of Calvinists?

Say what? Did she forget that Calvinism is a religious movement? If John Calvin rejected aesthetics (and I can't say one way or another, myself), he did so for religious reasons. So what does that have to do with us atheists,... especially since we don't reject aesthetics?

Moore concludes with the observation that she's "not a good atheist." Well, she's not an atheist at all if she believes in a god. Otherwise, there aren't 'good atheists' or 'bad atheists,' because atheism doesn't work that way. Atheism is just a label for not believing in a god. Period. We don't have dogma, so nothing else is required.

Humanism is a lot fuzzier, which is why I don't use that label, myself. And, of course, you can be a 'good person' or a 'bad person,' whatever you believe about gods. But 'good atheist'? What does that even mean?

Anyway, I'm with Tom Flynn on this one. We know a great deal about the real world. We don't know everything, true. You can always add "as far as we know" to every statement about the real world. (As far as I'm concerned, that's just a given.)

But let's not start throwing around fuzzy terms - or even clear terms, if there's no good evidence backing them up - just because they might feel good. If we start doing that, what makes us any better than theists?


jeff725 said...


Have a Happy and SAFE New Year!

And remember what Benny Hill once joked: "Don't be an atheist....'cause they don't get any holidays." :)

WCG said...

Oh, we at least get New Year's Day, don't we, Jeff? Admittedly, Jews get four New Year's holidays, I think, which is hardly fair. :)

And a Happy New Year to you, too!