Saturday, March 3, 2018

Secular Humanism: What Is It, And Can It Replace Religion?

There are numerous ideas in modern social justice philosophy and tactics used to achieve its goals that are counterproductive and that are fueling a resurgence and interest in the political Right. Many people on the Left are completely unaware of this because they live firmly surrounded by the ideological bubble cocooning them from any views they might disagree with.

And so in the sea of alternatives to traditional religion, a large segment of the Left has turned to social justice in a way that resembles all the hallmarks of a traditional religion, just without the deity. This alarms many, including me, which is why in my last post I argued why we have no better alternative but to double down in our efforts to replace traditional religion with something like secular humanism. But this won't be easy, and secular humanism is fraught with problems if it is to replace religion. And that's what I'm going to explore in this post.

What is secular humanism?

First, what is secular humanism? The name gets used a lot by atheists, but what does it mean? While there are numerous definitions, I'll focus on two. From, it's a "comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance incorporating:
  • A naturalistic philosophy
  • A cosmic outlook rooted in science
  • A consequentialist ethical system"
So secular humanism commits one to a basic consequentialist ethics, according to the Council for Secular Humanism. According to Wikipedia, secular humanism is a "philosophy or life stance that embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making."

The international symbol
of secular humanism
So let's examine the definitions above. First, secular humanism is naturalistic, meaning, it's atheistic. And that means it can't be religious in any traditional way. So far so good. Second, it's rooted in science, meaning, it's a worldview with an epistemological framework "relying on methods demonstrated by science." A critic could argue that this is scientism. Scientism is the view that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. The problem with that is it's wrong. There are other ways to know truth besides science, like for example, philosophy. It's not clear from the secular humanist's site that they are saying science is the only way to truth, but it is implied. Science is certainly the most reliable way to know truth about our world, as I've written about in the past, but it isn't the only way. This is a modified view known as weak scientism. Third, strict consequentialism as a normative ethical theory is too restrictive. The best approach to ethics is the tool box approach: a combination of consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology. So demanding that secular humanists must abide by consequentialism is a potential problem. It can alienate people, like me, who think there is no single normative ethical framework that works perfectly in all situations.

I think secular humanism can be broken down into two basic ideas best described by the Wikipedia definition above, showing what it is for and what it is against
  • For: human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism 
  • Against: religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making.
That to me is more broad from the restrictive definition by the Council of Secular Humanists, but it's perhaps also its flaw. If it's too broad it isn't in any way going to be a unifying force. What is "social justice" is also vague. There are pro-life secular humanists who do want to see an end to abortion as "justice," while others would see a woman being forced to birth a baby against her will as a grave injustice. Without a stance on such a divisive issue, how could secular humanism possibly unite? 

Maybe all that matters is that we get people off of religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition. In other words, maybe what secular humanism is against is more potent a unifier. The issue is that we need to reject dogma of all sorts, not just religious dogma. Rejecting religious dogma, and then succumbing to various secular dogmas, like the kind the social justice Left unhesitatingly embraces, just replaces one dogma for another. I get the point that secular humanism's definition may need to specify religious dogma in particular, given its naturalism, and perhaps the "human reason" part covers all forms of dogma. Further down in the Wiki article, it mentions secular humanism is against political and social dogmas:
  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.
So it's technically covered, I'd just prefer it be a bit more explicit. If you test many of the ideological claims by the modern social justice Left against the weight of evidence, they would fall apart. This means that ideology can never trump facts. And if the conclusions of facts are uncomfortable, that can never be a good reason to deny the facts. This message is lost on many social justice warriors, even ones who identify as secular humanists. There is no doubt however, that the broad principles under secular humanism are far better than any other system of thought or worldview that's out there. And if humanity could somehow embrace it fully, the world would be immeasurably better off. Religious critics of secular humanism almost always miss the mark, but debunking their arguments is for another blog post.

Can secular humanism replace religion?

Moving on from what secular humanism is, the question of whether it can replace religion remains. Given our tribal nature, and our tendency for dogma and group think, I think the chances of a majority of humanity embracing secular humanism, with its emphasis on critical thinking, is slim. Even many educated self proclaimed secular humanists in Western countries fail to embrace reason and critical thinking properly. What chances do relatively uneducated people in cultures steeped in superstition have? 

So do we just give up? Should we throw in the towel and declare humanity will never adopt something so far in conflict with its nature? Although I'm tempted to say yes, I feel we have no choice but to fight on. It may take centuries, or it may never happen, but promoting the adoption of human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism without religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making, is the only hope for humanity's long term survival. 

The question is, how can secular humanism ever replace a religion like Islam or Christianity which tell a story that puts humans at the center of the cosmos and prescribes a specific moral framework on how to live? Let's be honest here, it's either never going to happen or be really hard. But I'm hoping for the latter.

In the Western world, traditional religion is already dying. That seems to be a natural consequence of numerous factors I've written about in other posts. Given this decline, a person who's come out of religion is not necessarily going to come to secular humanism. Secular humanism is not a natural consequence of non-religion. And that means it has to be taught, and to be taught it has to be understood by a teacher. That's one problem. Another problem is that because it's naturalistic (i.e. godless) it can't be taught in public schools because it would force the government to take a position on god, and that would violate the establishment clause (at least here in the US). So it has to be taught outside public school. And so you have to ask yourself, how can enough people learn about secular humanism such that enough people embrace it for it to replace traditional religion? Most people learn of secular humanism by doing their own personal research, usually as they're coming out of religion. But you need to be intellectually curious in order to do so. If all you care about is making money, or watching sports, you're unlikely to be curious enough to find out about secular humanism and adopt its principles.

That opens up a new proposal. Some of the principles within secular humanism are themselves neutral on god. Teaching human reason, ethics, and social justice in public schools without religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making is perfectly compatible with secularism. In fact, to teach reason, ethics, and social justice, while appealing to religious dogma and supernaturalism would violate secularism, because that would be teaching religion as fact in public school. So kids in public school can be primed for secular humanism without violating the establishment clause. In my opinion, we need to emphasize critical thinking in all schools everywhere as much as we teach reading, writing, and math, because general critical thinking skills are just as important. We need to teach kids basic logic on how conclusions can be properly drawn from premises. We also need to teach them about human cognitive biases. I'd have classes constructed where students would read claims made about a various topics — including one's they likely accept — that make numerous logical fallacies and they'd be tested on spotting each fallacy and cognitive bias in the argument. It would be specifically designed around controversial political topics to challenge the student's own biases as much as possible.

It's amazing how you can go through 12 years of school and not be taught anything about the most important subjects you'll need to know as an adult: logical and critical thinking mindful of human biases, how taxes work, how money, banks, interest, credit cards, the stock market, and loans work. None of it! No wonder we graduate millions of teenagers unprepared for adulthood.

How do we keep people who've left traditional religion away from the other forms of New Age superstition and secular dogmas? The only thing I can think of is by teaching them logic, science, and how to think critically with one's biases in mind from a young age. When we do this, most people will naturally come to something like secular humanism, even if they don't call it that. In other words, atheism and naturalism don't need to be taught. Just teaching kids how to be logical and think critically about the world, along with science, will lead them to it. We need to find ways to make these things interesting to kids to get them curious about the world around them. I don't have the solution to this, but people much smarter than me on the subject are figuring out ways this can be done.

And that's how we get more secular humanists tomorrow: (1) We let religion naturally die as it already is, (2) to expedite this process and to immunize children against religious indoctrination, we teach kids how to be logical and think critically about the world with an emphasis on recognizing their own biases, along with teaching them science, both in school and out, and as a result, this should prevent most people from falling prey to adopting things like social justice as a religion. The problem of course is that this is always a lot easier said than done. Schools and colleges are not teaching students on how to think critically, and that's why so many on the Left have morphed social justice into a religion. And so as traditional religion continues to die, at least in the West, the growing challenge for critical thinkers like myself in the decades to come will be fighting the rising tide of secular dogmas. We will be in for a long fight.

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