Monday, February 01, 2010

Atheism, Humanism or What?

The Journal for Interreligious Dialogue has some thought provoking commentary about atheism and humanism. The first comes in an excerpt from Samir Selmanovic's book, It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim, Atheist, Jewish, Christian. Selmanovic argues that atheism represents a blessing:

"Atheism at its best participates. It does not simply dismiss religion but engages with it constructively so that the world is better for it. It is an expression of faith in humanity, even faith in religious humanity—however misguided they might be, religious people are human too!—asking the difficult but legitimate questions that religious people dismiss, about scientific evidence ignored by religion, about historical facts forgotten by religion, and about suffering produced by religion. Atheism at its best questions religion while acknowledging the good it brings…..

Atheism at its best is a guardian of secularization, a process of creating a common and safe space where worldviews—including religious ones—can share their treasures and expose themselves to correction by others. It demands that every religion should have the whole of humanity, not just religious insiders, as its ethical community.

Atheists are God’s whistle-blowers.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam need atheists, both those who are constructive and those who are less so. Religion deserves to be challenged. This deserving is of two types. First, religion deserves the pain of criticism and correction because of its failures to live up to its own ideals. Second, religion deserves the blessing of criticism and correction because it has often been a precious catalyst for justice, peace, and beauty in the world." (Read the whole thing here)

The second comes from an excerpt of Greg M. Epstein's book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. Epstein argues for the relevance of humanism:

"Religion is a profound source of meaning and purpose for many people—…… But a Humanistic approach to life can provide nonreligious people with a profound and sustaining sense that, though there is no single, overarching purpose given to us from on high, we can and must live our lives for a purpose well beyond ourselves....

I want to offer an affirmative response to the question can you be good with God? I urge atheists and agnostics to strive for what Steven Prothero calls religious literacy, and I implore religious people and Humanists to enter into deeper dialogue and cooperation—because we live in a world that is flat, interconnected, interdependent, not to mention armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction—a world where we can no longer afford to misunderstand one another or to be ignorant about what makes each other tick.

I believe that community is the heart of Humanism. In the past century, God was supposed to be dead, but too often it has seemed that Humanism died instead. What will it take for a new Humanism to arise—one that is diverse, inclusive, inspiring, and a transformative force in the world today?" (Read the whole thing here)

I have not yet had the opportunity to read either of these books and would love to hear from people who have. What did you think of them? Did you agree or disagree with the arguments made by these authors?

Reading these excerpts brought a few things to mind for me. First the idea of atheism as good for religion is one of the more interesting arguments in support of atheism that I've heard in a long time. I'm reminded that the Baha'i Writings suggest that the rejection of religion is at times a perfectly reasonable and even praiseworthy response:

"True religion is based upon love and agreement. Bahá'u'lláh has said, "If religion and faith are the causes of enmity and sedition, it is far better to be nonreligious, and the absence of religion would be preferable; for we desire religion to be the cause of amity and fellowship. If enmity and hatred exist, irreligion is preferable." Therefore, the removal of this dissension has been specialized in Bahá'u'lláh, for religion is the divine remedy for human antagonism and discord. But when we make the remedy the cause of the disease, it would be better to do without the remedy." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 231)

As I've said before, theists have done more to discredit religion than any atheist. The question is whether the abandonment of religion is the only answer to it's admittedly mixed record. To put it in religious terms, is religion hopelessly flawed or can it be "redeemed"? My understanding is that in the Baha'i view, the problems with religion illustrate the need for it's renewal, rather than it's rejection:

"Note thou carefully that in this world of being, all things must ever be made new. Look at the material world about thee, see how it hath now been renewed. The thoughts have changed, the ways of life have been revised, the sciences and arts show a new vigour, discoveries and inventions are new, perceptions are new. How then could such a vital power as religion -- the guarantor of mankind's great advances, the very means of attaining everlasting life, the fosterer of infinite excellence, the light of both worlds -- not be made new? This would be incompatible with the grace and loving-kindness of the Lord." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 51)

As for being good without God, there are several questions worth considering. First, who decides what is good and what is not and on what basis? Is goodness a self-evident truth? Is goodness simply whatever individuals believe it to be? Is goodness a reflection of popular or majority opinion? How does humanism address the potential problem of moral and cultural relativism?

Another issue is who/what is being good without God. If it is a question of whether believing in God is a necessary condition for an individual to perform good actions, there is ample evidence that the answer is no. A different question is whether society as a whole can be good without God. Is a good society simply the sum of individuals doing good things? Religion is not only concerned with encouraging individuals to do good but also and perhaps primarily concerned with promoting the social good:

"The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 129)


  1. Anonymous3:56 PM

    Great Post!

    I think the last point you make really broadens the debate on the validity of religion in an important way.

    It seems that gridlock has become the norm in democracies world wide, perhaps nowhere more so than in America. We instinctively like democracy because in theory at least it lets us have a voice in society - but we find that without any unifying principle around which people can unite, democracy becomes cacophony. Confident in our own intelligence, why should any of us submit to another's opinion or view point?

    Religion presents a potential solution to this problem by positing a more than human authority. A people that accepts that a given teaching is from God can be united in support of it.

    That's of course a very simplified view, and ignores a number of problems, including how people can arrive at a common understanding of God in the first place, etc.


  2. Anonymous6:34 PM

    We expect much from those who say they believe in noble and lofty ideals, be they believers in God or atheists. But hearts suffer profound trauma when confronted by the disappointment of hypocrisy. It is terrible enough that we must suffer from evil-doers, but to suffer from the dereliction and abandonment of great principles and noble aspirations by those who espouse them—this cuts beyond telling.

    Back in 1959-60, Mr. Payne was one of our Baha'i youth teachers in Cleveland, Ohio. I argued in class that those who did not believe in Baha'u'llah would invite Heaven's chastisement. Tapping his finger on my chest, Mr. Payne sternly admonished me, "You are trying to do God's job. Only God can judge. As Baha'is we must always strive to live our lives according to what we believe, and we leave to God those who choose not to believe." Mr. Payne's lesson is one I have never forgotten.

  3. I agree that some of the most spiritual people have been atheists and some of the least spiritual people have been religionists. But a study of the moral/ethical behavior of the population is far from a study of the extremes.

    I think that religion for most people leverages them out of going through the motion to one of trying to do one's best and that when this impulse is fresh and alive in society it when the cycle of civilization blooms and when that stance is least active is when civilization dulls and empires collapse. Often such dynamics are coming and going at the same time - the processes of construction and destruction.....

  4. Anonymous11:54 PM

    I would like to hear opinions on another recently published book "Dying for Heaven - Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers - why the best qualities of religion are also its most dangerous" by Ariel Glucklich (Georgetown University). He addresses the question of what causes people to "chose" religion (over a strictly secular approach to life), as well as trying to analyze why suicide bombing sometimes emerges as a tool of terrorism.