Paul Kurtz is the editor in chief of Free Inquiry, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the chair of the Center for Inquiry.
In the current discussion of the “new atheism,” one point is often totally overlooked by most commentators: the positive dimensions of unbelief. Conservative religious critics have deplored the denigration of religion as an assault on the moral order and social fabric. They ask, “What does secular humanism have to offer?” I respond with neo-humanism, a new term I have introduced to highlight secular humanism’s affirmative ethical principles and values.
There are various forms of unbelief in America and the world today. At one end of the spectrum stand the “evangelical atheists” (so maligned by their critics), who focus primarily on the case against God, noting the lack of evidence, the disregarded contradictions, and the atrocities committed in his name. But we need to point out, if for the umpteenth time, that the community of religious dissenters in America includes not only atheists but also agnostics, skeptics, and even a significant number of religiously affiliated individuals. The last may be only nominal members of their congregations and may attend church or temple primarily for social reasons or out of ethnic loyalty to the faiths of their forebears. This ethnic-cultural fixation can be very difficult to overcome, and it may linger long after belief in a given body of doctrine has faded—sometimes for many generations. Yet such individuals, though still members of their religious denominations, are skeptical about claims.
In the middle of the spectrum stand the “humanists,” and even that category has its internal distinctions. On one side, some humanists seek to appropriate the term religious in a metaphorical sense. Among the self-described religious humanists, we may find people identified with liberal Protestant denominations, Unitarian Universalists, secular Jews, lapsed Catholics, and even some who wish to distinguish the “religious” quality of experience from religion (following philosopher John Dewey). Although they are naturalistic humanists rather than supernaturalists, do not believe in a transcendent God, and wish to encourage a new humanist cultural identity based primarily on ethical ideals, they call this “religious.”
On the other side of this category are the secular humanists, who are wholly nonreligious and naturalistic. They do not consider their stance religious at all; they think that the term religious obfuscates matters. They draw their inspirations primarily from modern—not ancient—sources: preeminently science but also philosophy, ethics, literature, and the arts. Nonetheless, they wish to encourage the growth of secular-humanist communities in order to provide shared bonds of fraternity and friendship.
May I suggest that the term neo-humanism best describes a new posture, which aims to be inclusive and respond to the critics of unbelief:
Thus, to focus solely on atheism’s negative posture fails to do justice to the richness of neo-humanist eupraxsophy. Neo-humanism rejects theism and affirms the secular outlook. It is broad enough to encompass atheism, agnosticism, and humanist ethical values. It is a large enough mansion to include both nonreligious humanists and those who consider humanism to function religiously in so far as it celebrates human ideals and values. Neo-humanists do not believe in God, yet they wish to do good.
Christopher Hitchens’s brilliant book God Is Not Great is subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything.” The subtitle is, no doubt, an overstatement, for some of the things that religions have done are positive (such as their charitable efforts) and some secular movements (such as Stalinism) have been destructive. As Hitchens points out, religious practices have all too often been impervious to criticism and taken for granted even when they do harm. Many have been allowed to go unpunished even when terrible things have been done in their names.
Child sexual abuse, for example, is a dastardly “moral sin.” Consider the $660 million settlement recently reached in Los Angeles on behalf of more than five hundred victims of abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, finally apologized to those who were abused—after years of cover-up and denial by the hierarchy, including the transfer of offending priests to other parishes once they had been accused of sexual assaults on children. Mahony should not simply have said that he was sorry but should have admitted what a heinous crime these clergy members have committed. Some think that he should be removed from office and charged with complicity in a cover-up.
Similar scandals have erupted across the country, with thousands of individuals suing the Roman Catholic Church and more than $2 billion paid out so far to settle claims. Even so, the total number of innocent victims may never be known, as some will never find the courage to come forward. The point should be clear that the Church is to blame—for its representatives have committed sexual crimes for centuries, and the Church has invariably sought to paper over them. Indeed, homosexuality has reached as high as the papacy itself, but with scarcely a blink. What is so outrageous is not only the hypocrisy of the Church’s doctrine enforcing celibacy—a crime against humanity in and of itself—but its intransigent denial that human sexuality is intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake; considering it “sinful” unless it follows Church diktat is more so. Refusing to allow clergy to marry has injured novitiates, nuns, and priests over countless generations; and it has most likely contributed to clerical pederasty. It is hypocritical to condemn homosexuality, which, when it occurs between consenting adults, is not a sin or crime but a natural expression of a human proclivity, most likely genetic in origin, much the same as heterosexuality.
A burning (if less noticed) issue today is the indoctrination of children into absolute religious precepts by parents and elders and the refusal to allow them to be exposed to alternative points of view, such as the scientific worldview, and the study of comparative religions.
I am astonished by the fact that six books on atheism have been published by five authors (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor Stenger) to such vitriolic comment in the press. Taken together, these six titles constitute perhaps one million to one and a half million books currently in print (before returns). Yet nary a word of criticism has been made about the fact that the latest Harry Potter book by author J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, had a first printing of twelve million copies. I do not wish to be accused of being an old fuddy-duddy, but I deplore the fact that millions of young people rush out to devour books of fantasy, touting witchcraft and other paranormal phenomena, without even a semblance of skepticism. Bookstores are so eager to stay in business, they’ve had special parties for readers heralding its publication. Why not have such parties for best sellers that are science fiction but at least ground their speculations in responsible extrapolation from the known? At their best, books of fiction can inspire human imagination while remaining in touch with the empirical world. One might argue that books of blatant, untrammeled fantasy such as the Harry Potter books and films have a negative effect, especially when these tales are not presented—or understood—as pure fantasy. I surely believe in freedom of the press and the aesthetic power of novels; but I wish that there were counterbalancing literature to pure fantasy.
Incidentally, to our list of six books by the so-called five horsemen, we should add a new one, which is perhaps equally significant: An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam, by Taner Edis. I should point out that this book is published by Prometheus Books, which I founded. Nonetheless, An Illusion of Harmony is important because, of all the major religions of the world, Islam stands out for its doctrinal defense of creationism and its rejection of evolution, allegedly supported by the Qur’an. Indeed, a new eight-hundred-page, glossy, pro-creationist book, the Atlas of Creation, has just been published and distributed worldwide to defend Islamic creationism. Penned by the prolific (and pseudonymous) Harun Yahya, a household name in Islamic countries, this book will no doubt enjoy significant sales among believers. Edis’s work, by contrast, critical of intelligent design and creationism, will no doubt have modest sales.
Will the pundits who’ve deplored recent books on atheism likewise deplore Edis and his criticism of Islam as an unwarranted assault on religion? The paradox is that books on religion far outnumber by many hundredfold books on atheism. The number of religious books in print dwarfs the sales of the recent best sellers on atheism. What I find so puzzling is not the outcry of religious folk—which is to be expected—but that of the so-called neutral liberal and conservative pundits of our time. What an unfair assault on the effort to apply science and reason to religion.