Does humanist eupraxsophy* offer any hope for humankind? For many people this is the ultimate test of the secular outlook.
For theists, the single most important hope is theism’s promise of eternal salvation. The term religion in its original etymological sense meant religäre or “to bind.” This referred to a state of life bound by monastic values. Those in monastic orders had the hope of receiving salvation in the next life, presumably as a reward bestowed by God on deserving believers. Unfortunately, the evidence for immortality of the soul is totally insufficient. The belief is based on wishful thinking. Human consciousness (“soul”) is a function of the body, and as the body dies, consciousness, too, disappears.
The belief in immortality should be exposed as a false hope. Death is final for everyone—the believer and nonbeliever, the commander of armies and the lowly soldier, the dedicated teacher and the beginning student, the moral idealist and the profligate hedonist. Would life be truly hopeless, as many theists expect, if everyone accepted the reality that each of us will die some day?
What is the response of secular humanists? What form of consolation can we offer to those who bemoan life’s brevity and uncertainty, suffering and tragedy? Is it the case that without God life would be futile? Should we all become nihilists?
Secular humanists are dismayed by the tenacity with which believers cling to their hopes for life eternal. Why are so many people deluded by a false promise of an afterlife? Such individuals lack the courage to become what they wish. They lack the audacity to create their own world of hopes. They overlook the fact that life can be intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake; it can overflow with exciting expectations and anticipations. Our hopes are as unlimited as our dreams of a better tomorrow.
The salient point is that human hope for the individual person should be viewed pluralistically. There are so many! A living, vibrant person’s desires, wishes, aspirations, and purposes depend on having the courage to become what he or she may wish. Living is always future-oriented. Yet there are so many diverse interests that the opportunities for a good life are truly multifarious. This is especially true within open, relatively affluent modern societies that encourage freedom of choice. Indeed, people—at least, those who have financial means—find that there are so many interesting things to choose from in modern culture that choosing itself comes to seem a burden. Eupraxsophy can help us to make sound choices in the face of virtually unlimited horizons for enjoyment and satisfaction.
Despite the current downturn, the modern global economy is still productive beyond the wildest dreams of earlier civilizations, offering consumers a staggering range of products and services. So many conveniences and inventions are available to make life a source of comfort and enjoyment! Consider washing machines, refrigerators, central heating and air-conditioning, cell phones and computers, automobiles and airplanes. There are so many exciting activities and hobbies to captivate our interests: we can view dramas, comedies, or spirited debates. We can go to concerts to hear Bruce Springsteen or Liza Minnelli and watch football or baseball games (we hope our team wins). We can get involved in politics and hope that our candidate or party prevails. We can read books by philosopher Charles Peirce, French novelist Honoré de Balzac, or poet Emily Dickinson to increase our knowledge and appreciation.
We may aspire to be a good scientist engaged in research. We can seek knowledge for its own sake. We can visit art museums, become a gourmet chef, grow a lovely garden in the back of the house—at least we hope so. We may hope to visit Turkey, Hong Kong, or Paris and finally do so with great satisfaction. We can dedicate ourselves to a new movement and hope it succeeds, such as raising funds to feed starving people in a third-world country or ridding the world of AIDS or cancer. We can invest in the stock market and hope it goes up; we may fall in love with persons romantically and hope that it is requited. We can enjoy erotic sex with a partner who shares our feelings. We can take our family to amusement parks, enjoy our children, and hope they turn out well. We can engage in vigorous exercise every day and hope that we remain healthy. We are dedicated to our careers or jobs—whether in medicine, nursing, education, construction, or sales—and hope we succeed.
In other words, the list of things to do today is virtually endless, depending on the culture in which we live. So individuals have a variety of roads to take and activities to embark upon. It is the fullness of the creative life that beckons us, a life overflowing with desires, aspirations, and manifold wishes. Life need not be “a vale of tears” that we need to escape from but a fountain of satisfaction and significance. If we are somewhat stoical, we accept death at some point as life’s natural end. False promises of eternal salvation will get us nowhere—especially if we can truly find life itself intrinsically meaningful and good.
Of course, not all of our wishes can be satisfied; achieving them may depend on strenuous efforts, our economic resources, and luck. In poor economies, a person’s choices may be severely limited when he or she has to wonder where the next bowl of rice will come from or who will protect the community from danger. The doctrine of divine salvation perhaps makes sense only in poor and/or unjust societies where people are hungry, sick, or repressed.
That is why realistic secularists need to do whatever they can to ameliorate the human condition. We need to bring into being societies that are just and economies that are productive in which every person has the opportunity to realize the best of which he or she is capable. Although life is short, it can be lived fully. Our best response to those who deny this life for the promise of the next is to demonstrate that this life is the only one we have and to insist that we ought not to waste our only lives in fear and trembling. Rather, we should summon the courage to become what we want as best we can. It is life that we need to celebrate—not the life of the fetus or the stem cell but the life of the fully realized person. Life is a precious gift. We should not flee from it! Rather, we should affirm its vibrant appeal in spite of the naysayers in our midst. This is true for every person, but it is also true for those societies that are still constrained by the messianic theologies of the past and seek to limit the realization of human aspirations, thwart reason and science, and not allow humans to become what they aspire to—an attitude that looks backward and not forward. These societies are fixated on death; they are the enemies of life.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen three dominant secular ideologies of hope. The first was Marxism, which portrayed the ideal of a utopian socialist (or communist) society. This now lies shattered on the rocks of failure and disillusionment, though a qualified form of social democracy has survived. Indeed, social democracy stands as the primary modifier of the second ideology of hope, namely libertarian capitalism, which placed its hope for economic prosperity in free markets and has survived (in part) thanks to social-democratic reforms.
A third secular eupraxsophy of hope is a form of pragmatic non-utopian meliorism, such as advocated by John Dewey, arguably the leading American philosopher of the twentieth century. Dewey urged us to place hope in the ideals of democratic participation, education, and the method of intelligence to create more democratic open societies. (Please see the remarkable book by Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille McCarthy, John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope [University of Illinois Press: 2007]. In such open societies, individuals have enough latitude to fulfill their unique purposes, yet the government also has an important role in public policy in ensuring personal freedom, equality of opportunity, and basic human rights.
A new secular eupraxsophy has now overtaken the world, creating the need to extend democracy, education, and pooled intelligence to the planetary community at large, transcending any national state. The efforts by 192 countries that met in Copenhagen in December 2009 to find ways to moderate global warming is the best illustration of the vital importance of an inspiring new planetary ethics that breaks through the limits of national sovereignty and attempts to deal with problems that affect everyone on planet Earth. Such a global focus seeks agreements, treaties, and regulations that maximize the common good for the entire planetary community.
We may not be entirely satisfied by the results of the Copenhagen conference. Yet it marks the recognition by the planetary community that cooperative efforts are essential if we are to solve the serious global problems that we face cooperatively.
Postscript as we go to press: Unfortunately, the Copenhagen Conference was not successful in limiting global warming. That is why the world community needs to create a new International Environmental Monitoring Agency (under the United Nations auspices) that will censure nations that violate agreed-upon guidelines and enforce compliance. This is what Humanist Manifesto 2000 recommended a decade ago, and it urgently needs to be implemented.
Paul Kurtz is chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is the editor in chief of Free Inquiry.