We spend considerable time discussing religion, considering especially that many of us say we are not religious. I have long believed that this is dead end unless we have an alternative. I believe we do.
One of many ways for scientific naturalists (including as in my case a born-again Humanist) to approach the question of religion is through narrative. Christianity has its narrative, and it is powerful, as evidenced by the depth of commitment to it and emotional involvement in it. We Humanists have a narrative that is even more powerful in my view because it encompasses everything. We have the great literature of the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Hugo, Dickens—- all of it, from all over the world. We have all the great films that have told those stories through visual media. We have all the world’s music, from Hildegard von Bingen nearly a milennium ago, through Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, to Coltrane and John Adams. I wouldn’t hesitate to include Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, or even biblical parables, because every bit of that literature touches on human experience in some way. We would, of course, be careful to categorize literature into fiction and non-fiction (George Washington and the famous cherry tree belongs under fiction), but in a sense all the world’s art and literature is ours to use, including Bach’s religious cantatas and Michelangelo’s Last Supper, because all of it is a product of the human mind and therefore of human desire.
I am currently reading one of the few scholarly works in wisdom, a book entitled Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins and Development. The editor is Robert J. Sternberg, of the psychology department at Yale. This collection of works points out that a word like wisdom invokes many different meanings. For example, Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi of the behavioral sciences department at the U. of Chicago observes in an early chapter that wisdom can be seen as a cognitive process, a virtue and a good. One author makes the point that wisdom implies a transcendance beyond our personal thoughts, feelings and desires. This is a naturalistic use of the term “transcendance.” Our literature, our art, our true stories contain examples of every facet of what we call wisdom.
This opens the possibility for human beings to understand ourselves better. I can envision a day when young people will study these matters, employing not only our literature, art and history, but also MRI brain imaging and other techniques from the emerging field of the cognitive neurosciences to understand human thought, feeling and behavior better. It seems to me that this is among the most important tasks for scientific naturalists interested in the human condition and the human future. One element of this endeavor might be to look at literature, art and history and identify and categorize its messages, because after all those messages are what the brain is processing and registering with an emotional response. Why, there’s enough material in the Harry Potter novels alone to consume years of study, not to mention Shakespeare, Tolstoy, et. al. When we do that, if we do it well, we can offer something powerful enough to draw people in.
This is a center for inquiry. Are others intrigued? If so, how do we get at it?
Well, I certainly think we can get from art, especially literature, much of the reflection and distillation of the human experience that most people get from religious narratives. But religions tend to have a limited core narrative that is common to all adherents, whereas all the world’s art is a bit big to organize a world view around. And the problems that plague religious literature, such as the Bible, of widely varying interpretation, inconsistency, varying claims to primacy or legitimacy would plague the sum total of human literature to an even greater extent, unless a central authority were to take charge of determining a canonical interpretation, which I think is counter to humanist values. As a literature major in college, I’m not sure it would be possible to “categorize the message” of art in a coherent, widely accepted, enduring way. Part of the genius of lasting art is that it contains an ineffable core of truth about the human experience that can be appreciated even when culture has changed so much that its interpretation and “message” would be incomprehensible to the author or original audience.
Still, I absolutely agree that while science provides much knowledge about the universe (and the only knwoledge worthy of the term), it does not do very well at provide meaning, And while not all atheists agree that humans need meaning, I feel we do. And for myself, literature provides much of what the religious get from their narratives, as you say; the presentation of thoughts, feelings, and experiences I have had personally as part of the grander human narrative that comes from seeing them represented in literature, the avenues of expressing wonder and gratitude and celebration for the fact of my existence and the universe I have the good luck to experience. Certainly an intriguing project. And as a scientist by vocation, I am absolutley convinced that the study of art and literature provides and depth and breadth of perspective that fleshes out the scientific understanding to make a more complex, layered appreciation of the human experience. I think many of the greatest scientists (though certainly not all) have proven to also be quite literate and deep thinkers in areas outside their professional expertise, and I suspect that this is part of the reason for their greatness.
Do you have a specific idea of how you would use the “narrative” provided by art and literature to organize the humanist alternative to religion?
while science provides much knowledge about the universe (and the only knwoledge worthy of the term), it does not do very well at provide meaning, And while not all atheists agree that humans need meaning, I feel we do.
in an absolutist sense, I am one of those who feel we dont need meaning. one thing I like to tell my daughter - even when i know the answer - is: sweetheart, I dont know the answer. its okay not to know. maybe you will be the one who figures it out and you can explain it to Daddy.
but fundamentally I agree with you on a general need for meaning, which is why I was always inspired by this (from Bertrand Russell’s autobiography):
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
[note: if I ever have a son I want his middle name to be Effing. I think there could be no cooler middle name than that. Imagine what a boost of confidence he would get when he tells the ladies (or dudes, if he’s gay): My name is Jonas Effing McGehee, what’s your name?]
McKenzie, those are excellent questions and observations. I also enjoyed truthaddict’s post and would include Russell’s observations in our Humanist narrative. This discussion is off to a rocking good start IMO.
To begin by answering McKenzie’s question, I do have a rather specific idea how to (at least) begin using our omnibus human narrative to organize a Humanist alternative to religion. A little more than a decade ago I participated in a project at Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, New Jersey. It was called the Human Faith project, mentored by Calvin Chatlos, a psychiatrist by profession and a fellow member of the society. You should still be able to find Calvin’s description of the project by googling his name and “human faith.” Calvin proposed that we can better understand pretty much everything about human beings by recognizing that most people make distinctions, which serve as the basis for our language. One of the fundamental distinctions is that there are three domains of human Being: thought, emotion and action. These correspond roughly to areas of the human brain: the brain stem (center of drives and action), the midbrain (seat of emotions) and the cerebral cortex (seat of thought, including reason). He was able to develop a definition of worth and dignity from these distinctions, and also identify creative forces in our lives, such as Love, Truth and Faith. These words will be immediately off-putting to some, as they were to me (especially “faith”), but as I participated in the project it became increasingly apparent to me that he was right. On the evening of January 16, 1997 I had an ah-ha! moment of the kind Thomas Kuhn referenced in his now classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Religious people call it a conversion or “born-again” experience. Since then, I have continued to apply and further develop Calvin’s model, developing a rather lengthy framework of distinctions and categories that I find useful in understanding human dynamics.
So if I had the resources, I would begin cataloguing the world’s art, literature and recorded experience and organizing it per the system first developed by Dr. Chatlos, which I have spent the last 10 years expanding. I do a little of it, but because I am a busy attorney I don’t have enough time to make a meaningful dent into any kind of real project.
Still, it excites me no end because I see the possibilities. The story of Helen Keller’s early life, for example, as chronicled in the film “The Miracle Worker” is an example of what I would call Faith. Having no empirical basis to support her claim that it was possible, Annie Sullivan undertook to teach language to a deaf and blind child – and succeeded! To me, that is Faith: acting for good in the world even though we have no guarantee of the outcome of our efforts. And isn’t that exactly what scientists do all the time! Isn’t that exactly what we do when we embark on a law school education, not knowing whether we can pass a bar exam. (Demonstrably, many law school graduates don’t pass the bar.) For me, that resurrects the idea of Faith, bringing it into the real world of scientific naturalism and yet retaining its power to move us. If we can do that, we can compete with religion in the “hearts and minds” of people, where it matters culturally. We have stories like Annie Sullivan’s to tell about everything, but we need to find the time and energy first to learn the model and then to sort through our vast database of information, understand it and organize it. That is my vision, and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the task be given to a central authority because I wouldn’t make any claim that this would be exclusive. I just see it as a tremendous opportunity to advance Humanism and scientific naturalism light years ahead of where they are today.
I don’t accept that this is too big a task. It’s a huge task, but the whole point is to look at everything in human experience and bring it together into a coherent whole – not in the sense that we’re going to reconcile dogmatic fundamentalism with Humanism, but in the sense that we can understand what fundamentalism is, where it comes from and how to address it. And of course masterful art contains many messages. There’s no reason to think we could put a work as brilliant as Hugo’s Les Miserables under a single heading. Let’s draw everything from it.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but as you may surmise, I’m excited just discussing this. If people are interested in continuing this discussion, I’ll ask Calvin if he can join us. He would be a great asset here.
I’ll try to make time to read up ont he Human Faith project (I’ve a vacation coming up, so it just might happen). Though I am cautious about trying to redefine terms, I’m not automatically opposed to “faith,” “spirit” and so on being used with secular meanings. I just think we’ll have to always take extra care to be clear about our meanings. They are, it seems, descriptive of aspects of the human experience that can’t be easily replaced in one go (as opposed to “satanism,” which I think is terribly hard to redefine, and for which there are plenty of better alternatives:-) ). The idea of redefining faith as not belief without or despite evidence but hope without certainty is appealing, since I agree that such hope is needed to motivate discovery and meaningful action in a world in which we seldom have ironclad, 100% complete understanding. I don’t think you necessarily need to complete the project for it to be useful, either. I can see, when people of religious faith ask how one finds hop or purpose without God, pointing to Russell, or Sagan, or some other writing or art form that exempliefies this aspect of the human spirit. I do think that since religion has dominated culture, and art, for so long, it might be difficult to find examples that were easily amenable to categorizing as secular (since the language of “faith” and “soul” would likely have been meant literally by the original authors, which undercuts their use as examples of the secularized versions of these terms), but I can see it being done.
I hate to say it, but Russell and Sagan are worthless. Utterly worthless. Their writings on religion make sense only if you assume the average theist believes in God for the same reasons Aquinas did. So they write about the beauty of science, as if the average Christian does not deconvert only because he thinks without God there is no beauty.
Incidentally, I’ve written an article about this for the next issue of the Secular Humanist Bulletin, entitled “Leftist Morality: an Alternative to Religion.” The relevant excerpt is,
Leftist morality has succeeded more than any other alternative to religious or otherwise conservative morality. It has made racism and imperialism globally unfashionable, even among people who secretly support them. Almost every advance in women’s rights in the world is due to the left. Conversely, everyone knows its failings and excesses: political correctness, the endless search for oppressed groups where none exist, the zeal to order people’s lives and attitudes.
It seems that to be successful, a morality has to address certain universal concerns—condemn the murderers and the thieves, sustain the needy, and empower the marginalized—without seeming too empirical or a posteriori. Nobody votes for a politician who openly proclaims to support what the polls say the majority supports. Instead, the successful politician must have his own values and his own agenda, which must be in line with what the people think on most of the issues. Morality is the same. This is why libertarianism, legal-rationalism, and classical liberalism have never succeeded.
The many issues on which leftist morality is not very different from religious morality are therefore probably not improvable by secularism. People need a morality that calls for action; a more passive secular humanist morality will never leave the academia.
... as if the average Christian does not deconvert only because he thinks without God there is no beauty.
when i have discussions about this kind of stuff with theists, that is a popular response. they claim they cant imagine what it would be like without belief in God. they have built a delusion of this deity being the epicenter of meaning, purpose, value and beauty.
and i think alot of backsliders - myself included - would strongly disagree with your characterization of russell and sagan as “utterly worthless.” if that was the case then the two wouldnt be so popular for the purpose of awe insipiring rationalism.
I agree with Brennan that this is an admirable task, but I question redefining faith. I have pondered many of the concepts you have mentioned and never experienced a “born-again” experience from them. To put this in perspective I have been interested in similar research that seems to point out it makes no difference either way. Some short examples that come to mind are from the Ted videos.
And yes, Russell’s utterly worthless. He reeks so much contempt for people, considers so many lesser than himself, that he should be a monarchist. I’m less sure about Sagan, but at least some of his writings are just as bad (incidentally, judging by the movie, Contact is alright, though the priest character was obviously written by someone whose knowledge of priests comes entirely from reading about church scandals in the media).
The beauty argument is slightly different… but again, different kinds of beauty. Most people aren’t interested in what Sagan thinks is beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there’s anything wrong with the fact that nobody in this forum is interested in constructed languages, which I find very artful. Talking about the beauty of natural science is a good way of deconverting science geeks, but it doesn’t generalize to people who’re interested in the workings of machines, or in cars, or in food, or in children.