Sunday, August 05, 2012

Notes from the Humanist Strategy Wars and Sharing Humanist Values

By Gary Berg-Cross

In the free thinking community there are bound to be disputes and honest differences of opinion about difficult but important issues. Think of Aristotle and Plato or Newton and Leibnitz as detailed in the book Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. (Or Stephan Jay Gould and most evolutionary theorists). Just because gifted people think on an issue, doesn’t mean there will be an easy convergence. Paul Kurtz and Richard Dawkins may agree on many scientific things and taking an atheist stance. But they may not agree on the tactics of keeping up community momentum & the vision needed to build toward a less faith-centric world. Dawkins as a representative of the New Atheists, believes that religion writ large tends to fundamentalism that is so radically absolutist, anti-intellectual and uncompromising that it is extremely harmful. In reaction the strategy is that religion must be publicly discredited and opposed for the good of society. This side of freethinking takes a confrontational approach and is contrasted with what was called the "don't rock the boat” crowd in an earlier article on this Blog. The New Atheist side has been presented on the blog recently, but less about the alternative has been blogged here, so I thought I would jot down a few things drawing on Paul Kurtz’s earlier writing.

Kurtz’s position reflects a less confrontational style and his concerns about a strident approach were evident in a 2010 Buffalo News interview. In that interview he deplored a hot focus on attacking religion. The worry is that it might come at the expense of other broader humanists goals (such as articulated in the NEO-HUMANIST STATEMENT OF SECULAR PRINCIPLES AND VALUES: PERSONAL, PROGRESSIVE, AND PLANETARY)

"It's become fixated in recent years on atheism, the criticism of religion," ..And I think that's a strategic blunder. Not just a strategic blunder, but a philosophical and ethical one, as well…. Let's say the atheists are successful, and religion continues to decline, so what do you have, a vacuum?" …. "That's really the burning issue in America today: How shall I live? What should I strive for?"

Kurtz, unlike the New Atheists, sees a place for believers in the broad spectrum of secular humanism for some time. It’s just a practical consideration of how society may evolve in manageable steps. Without a working agreement on some shared values for the common good any movement toward a more humanist societies (based on humanist principles as linked to above, rather than faith) will go nowhere. We might hope that enough of us share core values, although some express these in religious forms and others in human terms.  Then if so we can move ahead on some things and iron out wrinkles from old thinking as we progress. This is perhaps the idea developed somewhat in Robert Wright's (at times confusing) book, THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. Why do people believe in a figurative concept like God and Religion? One useful view of God is as a concept, like a cultural tool, that people use for various purposes such as to discuss and justify values. Such a belief is not a matter of truth grounded in external reality, but one of a concept that serves a purpose. Kurtz developed this view in his 1958 article "Functionalism and the Justification of Religion" (a book chapter in In Defense of Secular Humanism ).

We get a sense of this functional role of the God concept from the still familiar old style God/Religion Biblical concepts crafted in the Bronze Age. The guiding principles could be  pretty harsh (such as an eye for an eye and an Old Testament God that is vain and vengeful) but could be useful tribally. Common concepts holds tribes together. They helped provide a way of life and serve more as artistic justifications of things than scientific. Our standards for justification has changed but fundamentalists still find value in them, while some humanist's strategy is to continue and speed up  the evolution of the ideas and provide alternative tools.

So the argument is that if the attack on these old, unevolved concepts is just one of scientific truth, it misses the larger role that concepts play in giving meaning to people’s lives. Such old concepts are used in the sense that they ought to be true rather than are true. But in this way we might say that some humanist concepts will appeal to religious people who will see that they ought to be true and provide increased benefits. Evolved principles should replace and might the older concepts by substituting for their functional value. Framed this way the idea is to not just attack the "truth" of an idea, but to work on making others believe in humanist evolved values. This is one group's strategy for adapting some figurative concepts (and their implied values) over time. It’s happened before as the “love thy neighbor” addition found in Christian writing evolved in top of the earlier Jewish writings. Caring for one’s neighbor is a good concept to believe in and a value to share with others. Viewed as a humanist ideas may help evolve figurative religious culture. One view of the reality of the situation was expressed this way:

"Religion will be the medium by which people express their values for a long time to come, so it's important to understand what brings out the best and the worst in it." Robert Wright

Image Credits:

Paul Kurtz:


Edd.Doerr said...

As a humanist since 1950 and an original signer of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II, whose architect was Paul Kurtz, I am in total agreement with Paul on this. I plan to do a piece on the matter for Free Inquiry.

Michael R said...

"... so what do you have, a vacuum?"

Good point. People see atheism as vacuous: no morality, no community, no culture, just anarchy. They won't be persuaded to leave religion until humanism can offer something that fills the void.