Paul Kurtz is Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational.
A provocative new book by physicist and astronomer Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus Books, 2007), reviews the scientific evidence for the existence of God and concludes that it is totally inadequate. Stenger has authored several books rejecting theism and supernaturalism. In his latest book, he considers the scientific case for God, including fine-tuning intelligent design and other forms of “evidence,” and arrives instead at the null hypothesis.
Like other illustrious FREE INQUIRY contributors who have recently published noteworthy books critical of religion, no doubt Stenger will also be labeled an “evangelical atheist,” a generic term of denigration used to describe scientific critics of the God hypothesis. To invoke a colorful phrase from an earlier era (coined by William Safire for Spiro Agnew), theists believe that we are “nabobs of negativity.” Quite the contrary, we affirm that, however imperfect, we are paragons of rationality, understanding, virtue, and excellence; or, at least, we strive to be. We are interested in enhancing human life, not undermining it; we are not naysayers, for we wish to realize the goodness of life for ourselves and others.
No one can deny that we are skeptical of the God hypothesis; we are, because we find insufficient scientific evidence for accepting it. Still, we cannot be defined by what we are against. We do not think there is evidence for supernaturalism; we are surely nontheists, but that does not mean that we should be simply defined as atheists. We do not believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus either, but that does not define us. We do not think that our agenda—that is, the agenda of naturalism—should depend on the agendas of others, least of all on the agenda of theism.
Scientific critics of theism, in my view, are to be applauded for making it clear why they cannot accept the God hypothesis and why they reject the theistic tales and parables of the past. Although those tales may have been meaningful to men and women of earlier epochs, they no longer resonate with most modern humans in the midst of our planetary civilization. Contending with planetary crises requires that we do more than simply reject theological claims: we must assert new and useful recommendations concerning the human condition. I concede, of course, that we are atheists—but the key point is that we are more than that.
The real question for us is what we are for. Three terms to describe our position come readily to mind: first, we are scientific naturalists; second, we believe in the principles of secularism; and third, we are committed to humanist ethics. Actually, we do not begin with the fact that God, as a personal being, does not exist but rather with the world and human life as we find them; we seek to describe these things and explain them in natural terms. The perspective of scientific naturalism is nature first and foremost, not the unknown transcendental world of the theist. We begin with actual facticity, things or events that we encounter in experience; and, there, we find order and regularity, contingency and chance, change and process. For primitive human beings, the world was mystifying, full of unexpected tragedies and conflicts, sickness and death, danger and fear. Humans in the infancy of the race attributed thunder and lightning to hidden gods and the seasons of change, birth, maturity, illness, and death to mysterious occult forces, which they considered divine and, hence, supplicated for relief and favor. They looked to what in time became an entrenched priestly class that orchestrated sacrifice, prayer, and ritual to placate the deities.
Humankind has come a long way since then. In particular, we have discovered the causes of many of the phenomena that terrified our ancestors. Naturalistic explanations of tornadoes and forest fires, famine, and epidemics have replaced occult accounts. Historically, first philosophy and later science attempted to provide cognitive tools for interpreting nature and learning how to cope with it. Illnesses had certain symptoms that could be cured; death was a natural fact of all living things, though we could reduce pain and suffering, contribute significantly to health and happiness, and even extend life. Supernaturalism was thus replaced by naturalism. More effective methods of inquiry enabled us to postulate hy¬potheses and develop theories to explain phenomena and confirm our theories by experimental methods and the use of logical inference.
Thus, we insist that we are naturalists—not atheists—first, because we seek to use the best available tools of critical thinking and scientific inquiry to account for what we encounter in nature. We do not think that the concept of God (or gods) is helpful any longer. To attribute pestilence or disaster to the wrath of the gods is an oversimplification of what happens and why. We reject the an¬cient mind’s simple invocation of hidden deities who reward or punish human behavior. We do not deny that the universe is often a scene of inexplicable events. Yet, in part because we have learned to explain so much, we are willing to suspend judgment about that which we still do not know. We approach these matters in the position of equipoise, as an agnostic, with an open mind—though not an open sink into which any wild anthropocentric, speculative fantasy can fall and be ac¬cepted as true. I have called this principle the “new skepticism.” Doubt is part and parcel of scientific inquiry; under the principle of fallibilism (formulated by Charles Peirce), we recognize that we may be mistaken. Hence, we should be ever ready to modify our conceptions of nature in the light of new evidence, confirming our hy¬potheses and theories by reference to the data of human experience and rational inference, not faith or fear, mystery or superstition.
What matters is that we begin by opening the “Book of Nature,” not ancient books of scripture, such as the Bible or the Qur’an—testaments of early human civilizations that were prescientific and prephilosophical. Thus, we say we are naturalists, using scientific inquiry to develop reliable knowledge.
That is why I have resisted the efforts of our critics to label us solely as atheists, although our method of inquiry does lead most of us to atheism or agnosticism. On the contrary, we begin with an open mind, a process of investigation and inquiry, research and exploration, dialogue and debate, and we insist on applying the best methods of objectivity, corroboration, and replication to work out explanations of what we find in nature.
We are skeptical of both the belief that God is a person who communicated with a limited number of specially chosen prophets at some remote time in history and that faith in God is the only solution to life’s quandaries. This seems to us to be an anthropomorphic imposition of human hopes and fears into nature, an attempt to bypass this life by yearning for salvation in the next. Life may cause the bitter tears of tragedy to fall, as doubtlessly it did for so many of our ancient forebears. But, today, it can provide abundant opportunities for achieving the good life and creating the conditions in which we can achieve some measure of harmonious social justice. We need to cope with the disappointments, adversities, and infirmities of life, if and when they occur, by summoning our best re¬sources to cope with them and endure in spite of them.
I reiterate that we are naturalists be¬cause we begin with the world as we find it; we do not seek to leap beyond it, even while we strive to understand it fully, in all its most mysterious complexity. We maintain that humans are capable of developing a critical understanding of how nature works and why. We are committed to the use of science and reason, and we wish to educate the public about it. This does not qualify us as evangelists, only as educators.
A second charge hurled at us today is the claim that naturalists lack any grounds for morality. This overlooks the fact that human civilization has developed powerful moral principles and values rooted in human experience and reason, not in God. Witness Confucian¬ism in ancient China, philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle in Hellenic civilization, and the long march of secularization in the modern world, in which the principles of democracy and toleration, negotiation and compromise, reason and inquiry have replaced reliance on the faith and authority of theologically moral creeds.
That is why secular humanism is virtually synonymous with modernism. That is why we say we are secularists, seeking the realization of autonomous human values, independent of theology. That is also why we are committed to the separation of church—or mosque or temple—and state, and why we consider political liberties so vital and theocracy so dangerous. This demands some confidence in human reason and our ability to create a better world.
In short, secular humanists are committed to realizing the best that we are capable of as human beings; we wish to use our creative powers to develop the arts as well as the sciences, to fulfill our potentialities, and to en¬hance human freedom in a just world. We deplore supernaturalists’ attempts to flee from reason and freedom. We say that life is, or can be, intrinsically good in its own terms, without looking outward for deliverance. Countless generations of humans have, indeed, found it meaningful, a source of enrichment and enjoyment.
Another likely reason there has been so much opposition to naturalism and its Enlightenment agenda is be¬cause be¬lievers fear that we will take away from them the support that religion had provided in the past. Religious institutions may have endured so long because they offer comfort to those buffeted by the vicissitudes of life: fortune or ruin, pleasure or pain, the unpredictable but in¬escapable coming of disease, defeat, and, finally, death. Perhaps that is why devout religionists hate and fear “blasphemers,” as we are sometimes called. They view us as threatening to whisk away the props that sustain them. This is an understandable fear but an un¬necessary one all the same. It is as foolish to believe that, if most people stop¬ped believing in God, all moral standards would collapse as it is to think that gravity will someday no longer press our feet to the floor when we get out of bed in the morning. Indeed, secular moral standards often predated Judeo-Christian values.
This raises an existential-psychological question. The books of Abraham present the mythic figures of Moses (an imposing, patriarchal figure, offering the Promised Land to God’s “chosen people”); Jesus (a bisexual, androgynous Son, sacrificed by God so that true believers can achieve “Rapture”); and Muhammad (a harsh prophet threatening hellfire, torture, and violence to those who do not submit to Allah but promising paradise to those who do). Can naturalists create secular communities of equal strength and support to help those burdened by the vicissitudes of fortune?
In his insightful new book defending Darwin, Living with Darwin: Evolu¬tion, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford Uni¬versity Press, 2007), Philip Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor at Columbia University, argues that secularists should not seek to destroy the existential-psychological forms of sol¬ace and comfort that many religions offer unless they are prepared to provide new foundations—new sources of community and comfort that can provide the aesthetic and moral dimensions for new forms of “spirituality” realized in naturalistic terms.
Not everyone feels this way. Some libertarian secularists are so relieved to be emancipated from the stranglehold of orthodox religious communities that they do not wish to enter new humanist communities. Yet all too many individuals in contemporary, affluent societies feel alienated and lost. They are surrounded by a banal consumer culture; a competitive free-market economy where to the winner go the spoils; a vulgar mass media saturated with advertising, sensationalism, fear-mongering, violence, and mayhem. They ask how they can find deeper meaning and motivation in the fast-paced culture in which we live without drawing on Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, or the Kabbalah.
Given that the mythic system of ancient beliefs has been undermined by the scientific outlook, can we create new symbols appropriate to the Age of Science, new metaphors for human possibility, new sources of inspiration and hope, and a new resolve to go on living in spite of adversity?
No doubt, our commitment to truth comes first, but we cannot overlook the power of affection and love in enriching our lives. Caring for other persons as they care for us can soothe the aching heart in times of grief and open it up to laughter and joy, devotion and creativity. The love shared between parents and children, sisters and brothers, companions and partners, friends and colleagues builds supportive bonds of shar¬ed experience. We learn to develop an attitude of goodwill toward others in our face-to-face communities of interaction and also, in time, to transcend local and parochial interests for the wider community of humankind. We do not need to believe in God to extend sympathy and altruism beyond our ethnic and racial groupings—and ultimately to all human beings on the planet Earth.
Thus, the challenge we face is whether we can create alternative institutions that satisfy the hunger for meaning, that satisfy our ideals, that support sympathetic communities, that are able to provide comfort in times of stress. We need alternative institutions that will support us in appreciating the majestic reality of the universe, in forging our determination to enter into nature, to understand how it operates, and, ultimately, to build a better world—to bring about a more creatively joyful life for ourselves and others in the new planetary civilization that is emerging.
We say “Yes” to the rational and passionate dimensions of life and “Yes” to the affirmative principles of humanist ethics. We can discover and luxuriate in the boundless potentialities of the good life. This, I submit, is the bountiful ex-istential-psychological fountain from which we need to draw in order to supplant the God hypothesis. We need to affirm our commitment to the possibilities of achieving the fullness of life. Let us eat both of the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” and of the “fruit of the tree of life!” We need to cultivate ethical wisdom and to appreciate the intrinsic value of life for its own sake.