Humanism’s Destiny lies with Naturalism, not Religion

May 29, 2009

Why advocate for an all-natural humanism? We are bombarded with the contrary warning that humanistic values are only safe with religion. I doubt it.

Humanism has long been caught in the crossfire between supernaturalism and naturalism. Humanism requires practical notions of the self, freedom, values, and morality. Naturalism accomodates all of these things, despite false claims to the contrary, though that issue won’t be taken up here. I’m curious: when did religions suddenly acquire a taste for personal liberty and conscience? Ironically, religions long demanded submission and subservience to gods; humanism was almost killed in the cradle by religion. Nowadays, religions falsely accuse science of strangling humanism. In the West, Christian Theology openly invites humanism into an alliance; in the East, Hinduism has embraced humanistic democracy in India, while Buddhist humanism and Confucian humanism have slowly emerged. All around the world, many humanists are asking whether supernaturalism or naturalism best supports humanism.  

Religion’s temptations for humanism are easy to see, as religion does focus on human values and ethics, in a way. But religious brings the wrong focus! It is true that naturalism de-centers humanity from its infantile fantasies; science reveals how vanishingly small and unimportant we are as compared against the whole universe. Frightened by such insignificance, the religious feel comforted by a non-natural soul that enjoys divine immortality. These extravagances dazzle and outshine science’s cold facts. But humanism must resist temptation. We claim that humanism can be healthier by being all-natural: no additives, and no preservatives.

Religion tries to hide the harmful effects of spiritual additives and preservatives. If religions simply promoted heartfelt connections with others and the wider world, the spirit would remain as natural as the body, only transcending the body with its higher thoughtful perspective. Most religions manufacture unnatural transcendence instead, artificially sweetening life and prolonging fantasy. Dependency and addiction weaken the mind and body. Religion claims to be the only supply of values and ethics, but what price do people really pay for their souls? Worry over immortality, and confidence in immortality, can similarly cheapen and deaden this mortal life. Souls actually represent the irrelevance of ethics, while adding a god eliminates ethical responsibility entirely.

Buddhism and Christianity have pushed the problem of this terrible price of souls to its logical extremes by embracing opposite paradoxes. Buddhism denies value to each individual while maximizing the value of all souls combined; helping others who need you to realize their emptiness is the ethical way to achieve your emptiness. Christianity sustains interest in life by making a pleasant immortality conditional on satisfying a god; your full divinity is achieved by submitting yourself to another divinity who doesn’t need you. These terrible ethical paradoxes of the soul are dissolved easily enough: our imperfect ethical work in this life is not really helped by imagining a perfect ethical life in another world.

If we know our responsibilities here and now, that should be motivation enough; an illusion of immortality does no real work promoting motivation and responsibility. If there is an afterlife, it will have to look out for itself; we can have no knowledge or concern about it. Not only does the notion of the soul or god add nothing to ethics, these notions degrade ethics.

Humanism and naturalism insist that real people have real value, right here and now, and our moral responsibilities should stay focused on this life’s work. Many religious people are presently inclined to agree with this ethical orientation, unable to follow their religions to their logical dead-ends. Such common-sense humanism has been doing the real ethical work behind religions all along. Buddhists abhor selfish suicide, and Christians deny any accusation that they could commit moral evils if god told them to. Sensible religious people put their ethics first and their god second; this is the humanistic spirit at work. In this modern age we hold people responsible for their own deliberate conduct, unimpressed by the defense of “I was commanded to commit that evil.” Humanism is the modern expression of this progressive ethical standard. Life has value here and now, we are ethically responsible for such value, and we should intelligently pursue the good life for all. Religious people pronounce allegience to this humanism as if their religion had invented it. Sorry to shatter this pleasant illusion, too—only naturalism forces people to take this mortal life seriously.

Religions are slowly realizing that they can no longer suppress humanism, now that terrifying populations with hells and angry gods isn’t working so well. Religions are suddenly proclaiming that they are the only repository of humanism’s ethics and democracy’s rights. Religious leaders are trying to scare people with caricatures of naturalists unhinged by science and inclined to moral atrocities. This is utter hypocrisy—blind faiths like Christianity and Communism have a monopoly on genocide, and no major religion fully endorsed mass democracy before the 20th century. Religious people who are proud of humanism should quietly drop illusions of souls and afterlives as unnatural and unhealthy additives. A healthy humanism is an all-natural humanism.