Paul Kurtz - Ethics for the Nonreligious
December 21st, 2007
Paul Kurtz, considered by many the father of the secular humanist movement, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books, and as editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry Magazine, he has advanced a critical, humanistic inquiry into many of the most cherished beliefs of society for the last forty years. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has been featured very widely in the media, on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFO abduction, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead, and the historicity of Jesus.
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz talks about ethics from a nonreligious perspective, how morality develops, the moral education of children, and whether or not ethics can ever be more than just self-interestedness. He also explains how the question of God’s existence should be immaterial to any discussion of human morality.
Also in this episode, Free Inquiry magazine editor Tom Flynn explores the “reason for the season” as a secular humanist.
Summed up in one sentence, Paul Kurtz suggests to sidestep the God question and to focus on the ethical questions.
I much applaud that approach because the God question - as well as those nebulous Why? questions which he also derides - are so easily brushed aside.
Here is how I suggest how to argue effectively against the concept of a deity.
It’s short and two-pronged:
One: many people can be brought to realize that belief in a personal God who decides your every step, and at the same time judges those very steps is simply childish and does not stand to reason. All atheists and deists, and open minds, can make short works of such ideas.
Two: With the personal God down, still standing is the Deist god, the Creator who kicked it all off and has since been AWOL. This looks at first like a way to rescue the concept of god, but it becomes instantly apparent that nothing ethical follows from such an idea. Nothing.
It’s too far away in time and consequentiality. Way too far.
Farther than, say, some 11th century rape that, generations upon generations and a millennium later brought myself into existence. Or the coincidental success of homo sapiens over co-evolving hominds, or the discovery of penicillum that allowed my recovery from an otherwise deadly childhood infection, or…
We don’t even owe a nod of gratitude, because we’re only guessing a creator. If still we feel some psychological need to acknowledge our luck to be alive it may be because we’re social animals, used to find ourselves inside hierarchies of mutual obligations, and generally ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
None of the ‘deep’ questions humans ask themselves can be anchored in a Deist god, and draw substance from one.
What are we here on earth for?
What does is all mean?
What is good?
Nothing derives from positing a creator to provide even a glimmer of an answer. There is no connection.
It’s like standing up in a research seminar in the particle physics department and saying: “My great great grandfather once drank a glass of milk. That explains it all, doesn’t it?!”
If people still think they want their ‘deep’ questions answered, they’ll have to find source material other than this empty postulate.
Or dispense with the questions. Perhaps we should go with Wittgenstein’s (early) postulate: that of which one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Or look for mutually agreeable, and in that manner of speaking: humane, concepts to guide our behavior.
So there were are, back in play, no longer fixated on milking a stone but willing and able to make coexistence work.
That, whether or not god exist we still live and that there are moral principles that we can discover and it is important to recognize that.
Exactly, the way I put it was: nothing follows from the existence of god.
I know, breaking out of a lifetime of religious indoctrination is not easy, but given that this observation is so basic, clear, and unadorned, yet true should provide a lever to crack open such indoctrination.
(Totally unimportant side note: yet again my post counter is stuck at a long past number, 76. For months it was 52. I’ll be an eternal newbie on this board…)
Humanist ethics should be the center of what defines humanist activity. This is the arena that attracted me to humanism from the outset and it ought to be one of our most primary areas of focus. We are kind, caring, compassionate humans and we are deeply concerned and committed to the wellbeing of others- good health, ethical decency, pursuit of eupraxsophy, and social outlets that are free of dogma and destructive forms of tribalism. We need to show this to others by example and positively assert our values within society.
This ought to be a primary focus of our dialog. It is more than a bit refreshing to see Paul steering us on such a positive track.
Of course, I respect Tom’s right to do as he chooses for his own personal reasons, but I couldn’t disagree more with his assertion that the secular-humanist community is served well strategically when he does not participate in popular holiday cultural events such as Christmas.
One reason is contained in Tom’s own editorial. In the same way that the Christians have Christianized pagan holidays and traditions, our humaist participation is secularizing the Christian holidays and traditions. As a non-Christian participating in Christmas, I am secularizing Christmas.
Another reason we <u>should</u> participate in such community holiday celebrations is that through our participation we maintain healthy avenues for dialogue within our community. Just the opposite of Tom’s assertion that secularists disappear during the holiday season by participating in the holidays, it is those secularists <u>who do not</u> participate in community holiday celebrations that are the ones being marginalized.
Take advantage of this time of year when so many people in your community have decided to take a few days off of work. Use the time-off to throw a holiday party of your own. Let your neighbors and friends know that you enjoy a good time even though you don’t share their religious beliefs. Let everyone know that this time of year is not owned by Christians.
If every house on your street is lit-up with holiday lights and it is known that not all the houses are Christian households, then the lights no longer represent a statement about Christianity. It’s a good thing, not a bad thing to participate. As long as there are enough others like me hanging holiday lights for no other reason than because they are pretty and it brightens-up the season (at a time when it gets dark here in Wisconsin at about 4pm), then the lights will not be a symbol of Christianity, but instead a symbol of community spirit shared by all.
“Who is we?” is a legitimate question. Humans can be altruistic and benevolent but they don’t have to be. They can also reserve their altruism to their “In-group” and screw everybody else. The “planetary humanism/altruism” Paul Kurtz is calling for is not easily achieved.
Remember Lawrence Kohlberg? This Harvard psychologist looked at moral development (unfortunately, he fell into depression and killed himself). One of his students, Georg Lind, now a professor at Konstanz University in Germany, has applied his ideas to the real world and has experimented with model schools where democratic self rule is guiding principle and practice, and where students learn to confront their (arbitrary) beliefs in discussions of moral dilemmas. Apparently this approach has had some success.
Moral dilemmas are a very powerful tool. If you work through one you’ll realize what your values are, whether they are all that useful, what happens if you allow them to be your sole guide, and why people with other values will chose differently. It kind of squeezes dogmatism right out of you.
You can read about Prof Lind’s work here in English: http://www.uni-konstanz.de/ag-moral/about.htm
It should be noted that this is not some provincial third rate stuff but that Lind has made huge waves in Germany and abroad for his work on building moral competency. I find it very promising.
Compare that to the utter waste of money in the US which every year prints millions of “inspirational posters” so that students can (rightfully!) spit on them in school corridors.
Why do I mention this? Because altruism, fairness, concern for the needs of others must be fostered, developed and taught. It has to be part of education, which happens outside the reach of parents for 80% of the waking hours of a child. But at school - and even at elementary school! - the corrupted US school system focusses on test scores instead of teaching. Go figure.
OK guys. Sure. It is a perfectly valid point to question a “we” formation given that you may not identify with what I was asserting. As you can see iif you look again at what I had written, I was referring quite specifically to “humanists” when I said “we.” And I assumed, perhaps falsely, that you considered yourselves to be “humanists.” Identify with the term or not as you like.
I also used the words kind, caring, etc. as concepts that I associated with the word label “humanist.” As far as I’m concerned those are fundamental qualities, on a semantic level, of what the word “humanist” means. You may not agree that being a “humanist” involves, to a certain degree, being kind, caring, etc. If this is the case then I question whether or not you understand the meaning of the term “humanist” in its conventional context. You also may consider yourselves to be unkind, not caring, etc. If this is the case then I am utterly baffled, not to mention that I feel sorry for you (and the people toward whom you behave unkindly, without caring, etc.).
I actually still suspect that both of you, George and moreover, do consider yourselves to be all of these positive qualities and are just playing devil’s advocate here. So let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Do you have an inherent problem with being placed in any “we” group, even if it does perfectly well describe you?
And, moreover, of course I don’t think that people “have to be” altruistic or benevolent. Just that I consider myself to be altruistic and benevolent, that these qualities are part of what is meant by the word label “humanist,” that this is part of why I personally identify with the word label “humanist,” and (perhaps incorrectly) I assumed that you see yourself in this way too. And my point was that this was the starting point for working constructively rather than just critiquing stupid religious beliefs.
Riley commented: “If every house on your street is lit-up with holiday lights and it is known that not all the houses are Christian households, then the lights no longer represent a statement about Christianity.”
If that is true, never mind the secular humanists. So much the worse for any Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists living in that neighborhood, who have just been deprived of a way to affirm their identities as non-Christians.
My first big lesson about religious diversity was being one of the only Catholics in a majority-Protestant elementary school back when they still had King James Bible readings over the school PA system. (See Chapter 2 of my book THE TROUBLE WITH CHRISTMAS if you’re curious.) My second big lesson about religious diversity was when my family moved from a city neighborhood that contained no Jewish families and moved to a suburban neighborhood with a substantial Jewish population. (Amazing but true, I knowingly met my first Jewish kid only in 5th grade.) It was amazing to ride around in the back seat of the family car of an evening, looking at Christmas lights, and seeing all those houses without lights ... and knowing that each such house marked a family whose religious commitment was so different from my own. (OK, now I realize some of those lightless homes probably belonged to atheists or adherents of Eastern religions; at the time I thought they were all Jewish homes, and that was enough to rock my world.)
Ever since I’ve had a powerful appreciation for the power of public refusal to “just go along” with popular symbolism. We need very much for holiday lights to continue representing a statement about Christianity, so that kids and adults today can have the same learning experience I did. As non-Christian orientations spread—Judaism, atheism, Islam, utterly apathy, you name it—it’s critically important that everyone be able to see that there are a few less houses lighted up each year than there were the year before. That’s powerful support for individual non-Christians, one more reminder that they are not alone—and a powerful reminder to those still Christian that they need to conduct themselves in the public square with greater humility.
It saddens me to think that large numbers of non-Christians will start thinking of Xmas lights as “holiday lights,” just go putting them up willy-nilly, and so increase the false impression held by many non-Christian Americans that “I’m the only one like me I know.” Dark houses during the Christians’ holiday season raise consciousness. IMNSHO we should think twice about throwing such a powerful tool away!
It saddens me to think that large numbers of non-Christians will start thinking of Xmas lights as “holiday lights,” just go putting them up willy-nilly, and so increase the false impression held by many non-Christian Americans that “I’m the only one like me I know.”
Ah, but Tom… doesn’t tree lighting predate christianity? My understanding is that it is an acceptance of a hijacking to call them “Xmas lights” as if they truly have anything at all to do with some sort of “Christ Mass.” Isn’t the terming of the traditional lighting of a tree for the winter solstice as “xmas lighting” at least as superficial as naming it as a Hannukah lighting or a Divali lighting and considerably more dishonest than, say, a Humanlight lighting?
After all, the celebration of the winter solstice is truly what the lighting of the tree is all about, and truly what all those other silly and superstitious “holy” days are about. No?
Erasmusinfinity writes, “Ah, but Tom… doesn’t tree lighting predate christianity? ... After all, the celebration of the winter solstice is truly what the lighting of the tree is all about, and truly what all those other silly and superstitious ‘holy’ days are about. No?”
Lighting trees indeed predates Christianity. If you want to generalize it as using pine boughs and candles together in seasonal decor, the tradition can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt. Hanging lights from the eaves and planting illuminated reindeer-shaped bundles of birch twigs on the lawn? Those are more recent, and have no apparent connection to anything but Xmas.
As I mention in the book, I’ve never understood the allure of the winter solstice. If we secular humanists are not Christians, we’re not pagans either. (Heck, even Christians reject paganism, why should we restore a belief-set that folks who still believe in, oh, the Trinity can see through?) To my mind, the solstice and its variants like HumanLight have three important problems that render them unfit for celebration by moderns. First, if you understand a little astronomy it’s evident that the solstices and equinoxes are nothing special—they’re automatic consequences of living on a spherical world with a tilted axis that orbits a star. Big deal! Second, most of us have central heating; many of us live in warmer climes. A message of hope that winter will one day end doesn’t carry the resonance it did in ancient or medieval times. Again, big deal! Third, any winter solstice celebration is inescapably parochial: it only “works” for people living in the north temperate zone. For folks who live in the tropics, it’s immaterial; for folks who live in the south temperate zone, it’s reversed. The British Empire had no scruples about inducing its colonists in Australia and New Zealand to celebrate Christmas at the crest of summer heat. Secular humanists who aspire to be “citizens of the world” ought to know better.
Humanity has outgrown the solstice. It’s time for more non-Christians, especially those who left Christianity during their own lives, to recognize that they’ve also outgrown Christmas.
Hi Tom, and thanks for coming by the forum to chat!
I do see where you’re coming from here, and certainly support your decision to do whatever you darn well please during Xmas or any other time of the year. That said, I’m assuming you take the weekends off, even though the seven-day week (AFAIK) comes from Genesis ... (And one could go on with these sorts of arguments, of course).
The problem is also that people do tend to enjoy parties and celebrations, and however we schedule them, they do tend to come around once a year. Why do we need any particular justification to get together with family and friends and have a party? If a secularist decides to have a party on December 24 or 25, well, why not? You will say that by doing so they give weight to the general cultural notion that everyone is Christian; I do see your point. But there are at least a couple of issues that come to mind. First, I live in NYC. I am surrounded by non-Christians. Nobody will know we are having a party except my family and friends, and perhaps their immediate neighbors, many of whom are probably Jewish and couldn’t care less. So there’s that, for at least some of us.
Secondly, weren’t the Puritans themselves Christians? I mean, do we really want to come across as cheerless nannies? Implying that we should not organize any fiesta that cannot be justified on purely secular grounds does, you will have to admit, seem rather puritanical in spirit.
Thanks for responding to my post Tom. I very much respect your decision and I certainly don’t think that everyone ought to have a celebration at the time of the winter solstice in the same manner that I do. Or at all if they don’t want to. You are no exception, and you make excellnt points as to why you don’t.
I find your third point to be particularly interesting. I should think that persons living in the southern hemisphere could just as easily celebrate their reverse solstices at corresponding times. Perhaps it would be most globally aware of us to celebrate the two solstices of the two hemispheres simultaneously, in due respect for the fact that it is the opposite solstice somewhere too. What an excellent opportunity, I should think, to increase our global awareness by considering other parts of the world. Of course, this point becomes a bit more complex when we consider equatorial and tropical regions. Particularly non-western countries that now have established christian traditions as a result of a western colonialization that has superficially imposed christian holidays atop non-corresponding seasonal structures. But, in my mind, this presents only a problem of implementing alternative celebrations within the currently established ones, not a question of whether or not the goal is worthwhile.
Maybe I just haven’t grown up yet, but if growing up means not taking part in any sort of ritual than I feel no desire or need to grow up as such. I enjoy celebrating both Winter Solstice and Humanlight. The first because that’s what is actually happening and the second because it’s a nice way of expressing solidarity with other humanists. I will even admit to picking and choosing ritualistic elements freely from christmas and hannukah celebrations while stripping them, to the best of my ability, of their religious meaning. I realize that this is nothing more than theater, but after all… “all the world’s a stage.”
A celebration of nature is what all of those other holidays are really all about, underneath their religious pageantry. I’m just a naturalist who loves a good party.
Do you have an inherent problem with being placed in any “we” group, even if it does perfectly well describe you?
I know many religious (and non-religious) people who are much nicer people than me. I am not a humanist. I believe we are all as carrying as we can afford to be. And yes, I personally do have a problem with being placed not in any group, but in some groups: it just sounds a little too naive to me to think that I’ll be more carrying if I call myself a humanist.