If a solar storm should burn off the peculiar damp that clings to this planet, this would be a very small change—no change at all in cosmic terms, which are apparently based on averages. The universe is lifeless now and will be lifeless then, so negligible is our presence in it.
—Marilynne Robinson, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” The Nation, November 28, 2011
The most resolute secular humanists are not merely nontheistic and humane but also committed to a sternly naturalistic view of the universe. Sadly, some of us also tend to shoot ourself in the foot. Here’s what I mean: imagine conversing with an average American, by whom I mean someone fondly attached to some form of what James “The Amazing” Randi so delectably termed “woo-woo.” Imagine that individual objecting that your naturalism seems cold and arid. Now imagine yourself fending off that critique by assuring your conversational partner that naturalists are still fine folks: while we may not believe in God, we stare into the night sky and feel as much “awe and reverence” as anyone else. The truth is, imagine yourself saying, “We’re spiritual, too.”
Congratulations. You have just imagined shooting yourself in the foot.
This inclination (strategy is way too strong a word) to reassure mainstream people that we naturalists are more like them than they think can bear strange fruit. I’ve written before on the problems that arise when naturalists resort to the language of spirit and spirituality (see, for example, “Taken in the Wrong Spirit,” FREE INQUIRY, April/May 2009 and “When Words Won’t Die: A Dispiriting Proposal,” FI, Summer 2002). Having beaten this drum so often, I won’t belabor matters here. Suffice it to say that when we employ “spirit” talk, we encourage our hearers to suspect that we are insecure in our naturalism.
Why does this matter? In part, it matters because apologists for religion and mysticism doggedly insist that human beings can’t endure life without clinging to some vestige of the metaphysical, the transcendental, the mystical—you know, woo-woo. When our language suggests that we can’t endure it either, we buttress their position. That’s regrettable because the argument that real atheism is, in effect, psychologically impossible can be hugely powerful among “fence-sitters”: individuals nurturing real doubts about their former religious convictions but fearful of what forsaking faith completely might entail.
Allow me to speak from personal experience: misgivings of exactly this sort cost me at least two of the seven lonely years I spent thinking my way out of the Roman Catholicism of my childhood and into (eventually) a frank and settled atheism. “Gee,” I used to wonder, “can people live without religion, without mysticism, without cosmic meaning, without any of it?” I’d been told so often that people couldn’t that I thought it might be true.
And sure enough, just when I’d begin to think that living without woo-woo was possible after all, along would come someone like Carl Sagan with some declaration along the line of “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge” (Pale Blue Dot). Why should someone like Sagan want a new religion? Why not imagine a future without religion? Dejectedly, I’d conclude that if not even a famous scientist could dispense with spiritual security blankets, maybe the apologists were right.*
Or consider two statements by towering giants of physics, neither of them conventionally theistic: Albert Einstein’s quip that “God does not play dice with the universe” and Stephen Hawking’s claim that should physics develop a so-called theory of everything, we will “truly know the mind of God.” Naturalists know that in each quotation “God” is meant metaphorically. Unfortunately, most Americans see these passages as proof that the two smartest human beings whose names they recognize embrace a metaphysics indistinguishable from that propounded by Rick Warren. How many men and women who might otherwise complete their intellectual odyssey to the welcoming shores of secular humanism instead sigh, “If Einstein and Hawking are still theists, who do I think I am?”and just give up?
Make no mistake, these offhand statements in which famous nontheists sound like believers—in God, in religion generally, or simply in “spirit”—can do real damage.
But what can we do about it? Before going further, let’s try to define more precisely what such sound bites of dime-store “spirituality” really signify. Sometimes their apparent meaning is literal, spirit serving as the label for an alleged metaphysical substance that somehow transcends time and space, the stuff that ghosts and souls are imagined to be made of. (When we naturalists speak defensively about how “spiritual” we are, we risk our hearers walking away convinced they’ve heard us make fools of ourselves by admitting that we believe in ghosts.)
But if we dig a little deeper, when we examine what more sophisticated naturalists may mean when they resort to “spiritual” language, I think it most often boils down to a sense of cosmic meaning—a feeling of anchoring significance that reaches deeper than the everyday world of cause, effect, and experiment. Often it shades into a sense that the cosmos reflects a unifying design, a sense of having been intended that ties everything together. (Fine-tuning arguments, anyone?)
But if we are thoroughgoing naturalists, we know that this, too, is just woo-woo. We know there is no plan; there’s no underlying design, no such thing as cosmic Meaning with a capital M (see my “The Big M,” FI, June/July 2007). Here’s a radical idea: We should say so! What we mean when we choose our words matters less than what others understand when they hear them. It’s when we try to shade our language in order to sound naturalistic without sounding too naturalistic that the danger of shooting ourself in the foot is greatest.
I think it pays to resist that inclination to reassure others that we’re more like them than they think. In this situation it’s more important to stress how different we are, thereby demonstrating that, contrary to what our conversation partner may have heard from the Sunday pulpit, a wholly dis-“spirited” naturalism lies within the scope of ordinary human possibility. Even if it means sounding harsh, we need to say it forthrightly; to the degree that we are thoroughgoing naturalists, we’re not “spiritual too.” Whenever possible, we should leave no doubt that when we claim to live without religion, without mysticism, without “spirit” or any sense of the sacred, we’re claiming precisely to live without that bedrock sense of deeper meaning. And we aren’t just saying so; we really live that way, taking life as it comes, accepting its foundational absurdity, and conceding that our presence in this universe fulfills no plan and reflects no entity’s intent. Most of all, we strive to resist that all-too-human tendency to read patterns into events that actually just happen.
I’m reminded of a bumper-sticker sentiment ubiquitous twenty or thirty years ago: “Shit Happens.” When it was trendy, it conveyed a superficial fatalism. Now that it’s out of favor, maybe committed naturalists should revive it in order to convey our deep mindfulness that far from being the predestined unfurling of some cosmic plan, life is just, well, a series of events. (Following Elbert Hubbard, I could call life “just one damned thing after another,” except that there’s no one to do the damning.) In all its crude colloquial vigor, maybe “Shit Happens” can help us capture just how matter-of-factly, how foundationally, we embrace the naturalistic view and all it implies.
How might we recast some common scientific abuses of spiritual language into words that express our naturalism without compromising—without tossing a lifeline to woo-woo?
Here’s a thought exercise: let’s make like Carl Sagan, tilt our heads back, and contemplate the glories of the night sky. (Pretend you’re somewhere really, really dark. Okay, now pretend you’re somewhere really dark, and you’re outside.) Magnificent, isn’t it—the sheer immensity, the layered billions of light-years filled with gas and dust and energy and dark matter (whatever that is)? Stars blaze in their refulgent glory, in every size and color, living out every stellar life span that physics permits. And ever so infrequently—whether it happens once or a billion times, it’s still an inexpressibly tiny component of the whole—a thin film of life clings to some otherwise unremarkable speck of rock, doing its lonely best to poach energy from its parent star and perform its fabulous party stunt of, however locally, turning back entropy. Pretty cool, huh?
I think it’s appropriate to view this spectacle, as Sagan said, with awe. I think it’s an enormous mistake to view it, as Sagan also said, with reverence. Reverence to whom? For what? Nobody planned it, nobody designed it; it’s not the cosmos bringing forth life so that it can contemplate its own wonders and sing a happy tune—it’s just (here it comes!) shit that happened. The most we can say of it while remaining true to our naturalism is, “Isn’t it fascinating—can’t we learn a lot from it—that this particular shit happened in just this way?”
Now let’s peer into the proverbial electron microscope. (Pretend it’s a really, really good one that doesn’t interfere with biological function and renders motion in real time.) Watch the double helix of DNA split and re-form—perhaps the grandest mystery of all, the process by which one life becomes two. Now let’s focus on a human blood sample, marveling as the immune system identifies and efficiently destroys some invading bacillus. Again, awe may be an appropriate response (“Isn’t it breathtaking how this shit happens?”). Reverence is not. No matter how breathtaking it may seem to our wondering yet limited human understanding, it’s still just more shit happening, nothing more.
And that’s the point: there is nothing more. Instead of shooting ourself in the foot trying to sidestep that cold reality, we naturalists should make it inarguably clear to others that this is just the way we see things, deeply and without evasion. Yes, it’s only shit happening. That’s genuinely our view, yet we do not succumb to nihilism. We sleep soundly each night; we love those close to us with aching intensity; we laugh and make music and art and revel in exuberance. You don’t have to be “spiritual”—or believe in design that isn’t there or in Meaning that isn’t there either—in order to have all these riches in your life. And we’re the proof of that!
Each time you make that clear, it’s up to you whether to drive the final conclusion home or let your hearers make the connection for themselves: If I live this way, you can too.
This is why it matters whether so many secular humanists will go on shooting ourself in the foot—or whether more of us will forthrightly represent what is true about us, however unsettling others may find it at first. As long as average Americans don’t understand that many secular humanists genuinely, honestly live in a world without design, without transcendent meaning, without woo-woo, they will never feel challenged in their naïve certainty that no one can live that way. Conversely, once an average American absorbs the realization that some of us really do live that way, then the path will open for them to realize: “If they can live that way, then maybe someday I could live that way.”
If you’re like many secular humanists, you may invest a good deal of time encouraging the people you converse with to embark on their own voyages away from woo-woo. Let’s help them, not unintentionally hinder them.
*Creative anachronism disclosure: My own odyssey to atheism occurred in the 1970s, and Sagan didn’t become a household name until Cosmos aired in 1980. Pale Blue Dot wasn’t published until 1994. The quoted passage is, however, typical of spiritual-sounding utterances that make famous atheists sound like believers. In my own case, it was spiritual-sounding remarks by Isaac Asimov and E.O. Wilson that obstructed my progress toward atheism. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to run down those quotations. The abundantly attested Sagan quote used here is a fitting stand-in for them; also, I have been told by individuals who cast off their faith in later decades that spiritual-sounding Sagan quotes, particularly the one cited here, raised questions in their minds as to whether Sagan was a true atheist role model in just the way I describe.
Way back in FREE INQUIRY’s Spring 1991 issue, founding editor Paul Kurtz published “A Short Guide to Comparative Religions,” an anonymous humor item that recast “shit happens” as it might be expressed in various religious traditions (“Zen: What is the sound of shit happening?” “Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to US?”). To his dismay, the result was a small deluge of reader mail complaining about the item’s “undignified” language accompanied by the largest number of subscription cancellations the magazine has ever received in connection with a single article. Think of this editorial as my effort to gauge whether today’s FI readers are prepared to be more open-minded when casual profanity is used for a reason.
Tom Flynn is the editor of FREE INQUIRY, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Nonbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007).