Paul Kurtz is editor in chief of Free Inquiry, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.
The question that has intrigued me for the lion's share of my life is whether it is possible to develop secular and humanistic alternatives to theistic religion. I have been puzzled by the persistence of ancient narratives of revelations from God and promises of salvation. They are "news from nowhere," for they are uncorroborated by reliable empirical evidence. Supernatural tales about Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, and other prophets endure, despite the advances of modern science, the increase of literacy, and the availability of higher criticisms of biblical and Qur'anic claims. Fictionalized parables of miraculous wonderment still captivate countless human beings, virtually everywhere-astonishingly, even in the United States with its highly educated public.
Still, not everyone on the planet is fixated on a transcendental realm or tempted by its false lures. Religion has declined dramatically in secular Europe, Japan, China, and other countries of the world. Why is it still so prominent in other areas, and why does it affect some credulous individuals and not others?
Two questions are often posed. The first is, why does religion persist? The second is, can we create secular and humanist alternatives? There are several explanations that have been suggested in answer to the question: Why does religion persist? One reason is that vast numbers of human beings have been exposed to pro-religious propaganda through the ages by the proponents of the Bible, Qur'an, and other so-called sacred books. Too often, they have lacked access to skeptical critiques of the highly questionable claims of revelation from On High. It is now abundantly clear that the ancient documents on which the great historic religions are founded contain gross exaggerations and untruths, were written by evangelical propagandists for specific faiths, and are products of an unsophisticated, prescientific age. Monotheistic religions are among the oldest institutions in human history. Rational critiques of revealed religions were usually forbidden in most societies. It was generally a crime to question the Word of God or blaspheme his name, however much the orthodox religions of the day might have disputed among themselves over which religion was authoritative. Just in recent times, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims have vehemently disagreed and persecuted one another. Today, Shiites and Sunnis slaughter each other with abandon. Past and present, all this violence is carried out "in the name of God."
Nonbelief is still punishable by death in many Islamic countries. Although Western countries no longer torture or burn heretics, all sorts of sanctions are applied to nonbelievers; at the very least, it is still considered in bad taste to doubt the sacred icons of society, no matter how bizarre or preposterous they may seem. U.S. polls consistently identify atheists as the nation's most unwelcome minority. In most cultural milieus today, it is very difficult for iconoclasts of any type to make themselves heard, given the fact that the young are indoctrinated into the creeds of their parents from the very earliest, and powerful institutions have been erected to propagate and defend the faith.
Richard Dawkins has introduced the concept of the "meme" to account for, among other things, religion's persistence (The Selfish Gene, 1976; see also Susan Blackmore, The Meme Makers, 1998). Memetics refers to the imitative process whereby humans transmit ideas, values, beliefs, and practices to each other. The memes that catch on are conditioned by repetition and imbibed by subsequent generations. Memes are the conveyors of customs and traditions. The concept of the meme is highly suggestive; it would apply to all kinds of cultural information that can be passed down through repetition and imitation. Critics maintain that memetics lacks a precise scientific definition. Nevertheless, I find the arguments rather persuasive that memes function in ways analogous to genes, which, as we know, are transmitted biologically by natural selection. Memes supported by religious or ideological sanctions may function as "viruses of the mind." Some invasive biological viruses can be cured by antibiotics, and some cannot; invasive memes are often very difficult to root out. There are vaccines that can inoculate us against infectious diseases. Is there something analogous to a vaccine that can protect us from noxious memes? Yes, I think that there is: the use of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry are the best therapies for nonsense!
Daniel C. Dennett has also drawn upon the meme concept to explain the "spell" that supernatural religion often casts on people infected by it and the difficulty they experience in breaking its grip (Consciousness Explained, 1991; Breaking the Spell, 2006). He argues that we need to pursue the scientific investigation of the causes of religious beliefs in order to weaken their hold on human culture. If humans better understood the origins of religious myths, perhaps they could be released from their noxious influence. The origin of any given meme is usually forgotten, especially if it was implanted in the deep historical past. I was graphically reminded of this recently when my three-year-old grandson, Cameron, began to sing the English nursery rhyme, "Ring around a Rosy." I chimed in and we both laughed and fell down when we were supposed to:
Ring around a rosy
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down!
I had sung the nursery rhyme to my children and had been taught it by my parents. Yet the original source of the story was largely unknown to us. The rhyme is believed to refer to the bubonic plague (or Black Death) that struck Europe in the fourteenth century. "Ring around a rosy" refers to the pink circles that would appear on a sick person's body; later the circles would turn black and the person would die. Posies refers to flowers that people thought would purify the air if breathed through. Ashes apparently refers to the fact that they burned the dead and the houses they lived in. And "all fall down" means falling dead. How ghastly this innocent rhyme, its real source buried by the sands of time; yet it has been repeated for centuries. If parents really understood the true meaning of the rhyme, no doubt they would be hesitant to pass it on.
Apply this memes principle to religious beliefs and rituals that are deeply ingrained in the young: witness the madrassas, schools in Islamic countries where young boys are taught to memorize Qur'anic verses by rote; or the five prayers a day required of Muslims in which phrases are intoned by repetition. No wonder these ancient memes continue to possess devout believers, who are willing to die for Allah. This process of indoctrination is similar among Orthodox Jews, who put on tefillin and prayer shawls daily and repeat phrases from the Torah; devout Catholics, who rub their rosary beads and recite Hail Marys; or Protestants, who avow the Nicene Creed at Sunday services. Religious memes whose origins are largely unknown have driven their roots so deep into the psyches of devout believers that they are difficult to erase. Of course, there are fairy tales-such as Santa Claus-that everyone knows are pure fiction. But when Gospels are taken as absolute truth and never questioned, this may become destructive of other genuine human values. For example, ardent faith may incline believers against accepting the findings of the sciences, as in the case of those true believers today who refuse to accept evolution.
There is still another possible explanation for the persistence of religious memes and the difficulty believers encounter in shedding them. In my book The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Prometheus Books, 1986), I postulate a "transcendental temptation," that is, a quest for an unseen spiritual reality behind this world. That temptation explains in part the recurrent persistence of religiosity. It has deep roots in cultural history and genetic disposition. The transcendental temptation is expressed by human beings overcome by the fragility of life and yearning for a deeper purpose to the universe. A common fear of death and nonbeing gnaws at the innards, goading humans to seek balm for the aching heart and to find solace in the promise of deliverance. The "quest for certainty," as John Dewey called it, seems to offer a secure anchor in a contingent universe for those seeking such security. Thus the belief in God and immortality expresses our imaginative flight toward an ultimate sanctuary beyond death. If this is the case, then perhaps another reason religious memes continue to be propagated and to flourish is that they satisfy some need (real or apparent) for their holders. These spiritual responses are no doubt spurious, exacerbated by false prophets selling their wares and services. Nevertheless, the transcendental message still resonates with individuals who hunger for existential comfort. This deep-seated temptation is not present in all human beings, nor in all cultures, to the same extent; at the least, it takes on different forms, particularly in secular societies that encourage a naturalistic worldview. Thus, magical tales of a transcendental realm do not entrap all human beings in an ancient "fixology."
This leads to the second question, which is especially intriguing: Is it possible to create naturalistic-existential-moral poetries, narratives of sufficient power and intensity to attract and supplant the ancient memetic systems of religion? The question of truth is an enduring problem for human civilization, and it is especially central to secular humanists. It is apparent that inerrant fundamentalist religions are not only false but dysfunctional, insofar as they have blocked scientific research, denigrated individual autonomy, repressed sexual freedom, and denied the possibility of human beings solving their own problems without reliance on God. Still, religious creeds have provided important support systems, and they have cultivated charitable efforts and the bonds of moral cohesion. I readily grant that, where mainline religious denominations have built what were in fact secular communities of friends, they have satisfied important psychological-sociological needs, often without imposing authoritarian overlays. Secular humanists can learn much from the denominations about the need to build communities. But secular humanists differ from the religious in that they are unable to make the leap of faith required to believe in the messianic message of the ancient prophets, even if reinterpreted in metaphorical or symbolic language. These original rituals for salvation were contrived by our nomadic-agricultural forbears, and, however liberalized, they are difficult for highly educated and sophisticated moderns to swallow. Secular humanists, skeptics, and rationalists affirm that they believe in the unvarnished truth, not mythological poetry. They prefer new truths and values, based on conceptions of reality drawn from scientific understanding, not from the ancient religious classics. Modern humans need new, secular prophets of liberation.
The secular humanist outlook relies heavily on cognition and reason. It is committed to the following principles:
The consistent use of objective methods of inquiry for testing truth claims, based on science and critical thinking;
Conceptions of "reality" derived largely from empirical research; its cosmic view is naturalistic and evolutionary, and the human species is viewed as part of nature, not separate from it;
Sharp skepticism of a theistic God or immortality of the soul, for it finds insufficient evidence for these claims;
The belief that human values are relative to human experience, interests, and needs, and that objective principles can be developed for realizing human happiness and improving the human condition; this includes the belief in maximizing individual freedom and in expressing altruistic concerns for the needs of others;
Commitment to the democratic society, predicated on freedom and equality, tolerance, the right of dissent, respect for the open society and the rule of law, majority rule and minority rights, and the separation of church and state;
Recognition of our global interdependence; it believes that we need to develop new planetary ethics that are devoted to the preservation of the planet Earth, biodiversity, and the creation of a genuine planetary civilization in which all members of the human species are considered equal in dignity and value. This new Planetary Humanism seeks to transcend the ancient racial, religious, ethnic, national, and gender differences of the past in order to develop a peaceful and prosperous world community.
If secular humanists are to be effective in creating institutions that provide alternatives to traditional, theistic religions, then, I submit, we need to satisfy the following conditions:
First, we need to confront directly the root existential questions about the "meaning of life" and respond cogently to the quandaries that trouble so many human beings. We need to help people withstand the blows of outrageous fortune: illness, grief, suffering, conflict, failure, and death-weltschmertz, as the Germans call it. It is vital that we bolster the courage to go on in spite of the sometimes tragic dimensions of human existence. We need to marshal a stoic attitude, which resolves us to persevere in spite of adversity while it recognizes the bountiful satisfactions still available in human life.
Second, we need to develop an appreciation for ethical values and principles that are firmly grounded in human experience and reason, rigorously tested by their consequences in practice, yet sufficiently attractive to inspire dedication, a sense that life is really worth living, and a respect for the obligations that we owe to others. This includes a moral recognition that we ought to help build a better world for ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Third, we need to appeal to the heart as well as the mind, the passionate and emotional dimensions of life as well as the cognitive and intellectual. For secular humanists, life is discovered to be intrinsically satisfying, rich with various potentialities for joyful exuberance: sexual fulfillment, creative expression, and genuine humanitarian concerns. The arts illustrate the power of aesthetic experiences. Literature, novels, poetry, and drama open us to new forms of the flowering creative imagination. The visual arts, such as painting, sculpture, and architecture, expose us to objects of beauty. Photography and cinematography offer vivid insights, while music, singing, and dance carry the promise of enthralling rapture (in a secular sense, of course).
Fourth, we need to use the arts to create new narratives that celebrate life (not deny or denigrate it) and that also dramatize the rites of passage: birth, graduation, love and friendship, marriage or civic unions, career-building, retirement, and death. Humanist ceremonies are necessary ingredients to a life well lived, intrinsically good for their own sake. The message of the humanist is emphasis on the potential goodness of life, the power of reason, and the determination to resolve human problems. In short, we need to arouse emotional commitment to inspiring humanistic values, the beauty of life and shared experiences, the joys of discovery, the satisfaction in reaching accords.
We also need to arouse a sense of the splendor and majesty of the natural world by viewing the expanding galaxies in full color and light as seen through the telescopes of astronomy or in studying the rich diversity of life as we discover it in the biosphere.
We especially need to celebrate the power of science and reason to unlock the secrets of the universe and invent new technologies for the betterment of life. It is not blind faith but the objective methods of inquiry that best help us to solve the problems that beset us and offer us the means to ameliorate life on our planet. The march of reason through history, in spite of setbacks and defeats: the sheer joy of achieving progress in conquering disease, improving health and nutrition, reducing pain and suffering, overcoming ignorance and poverty, and expanding the opportunities for education and cooperation-these are the great discoveries and breakthroughs that the human species should herald, rather than supplicating in fear and trembling before the unknown forces of the universe. It is the Promethean person who is able to enter into the world and change it for the better, not the masochistic mystic who petitions unknown forces, unable to summon the resources to overcome challenges by creating new tomorrows.
Fifth, in building naturalistic alternatives to religion, we need to focus on exemplary role models in history: humanist heroes and heroines, scientists and thinkers, poets and artists, authors and composers, explorers and adventurers, statesmen and stateswomen, humanitarian and progressive battlers for beloved causes and an improved world, people who have made life better. Among these are Solon and Pericles, Socrates and Hypatia, Galileo and Darwin, Shakespeare and Beethoven, Einstein and Salk, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Dewey and Russell, Margaret Sanger and Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. These are the great free thinkers, independent persons, and iconoclasts who have exemplified excellence and nobility in their lives, for themselves and others, and who have illustrated the fullness of humanity that is both creative and caring.
Sixth, we need especially to develop communities of sympathetic persons, committed to science, reason, and free inquiry in every area of human interest, yet able to cultivate goodwill and a moral regard for others. I cannot overestimate the importance of the need to establish alternative secular communities for humanists and naturalists. These institutions must demonstrate by example that it is possible to be a creative individual, a loving person and friend, a loyal member of the society in which he or she lives, rational and affectionate, intelligent and empathetic to those within one's communities of interaction.
The great challenge that humankind faces in the twenty-first century is the need for a New Renaissance. This is the special challenge that the Center for Inquiry movement has taken upon itself (however modestly) as it focuses on building Centers and Communities dedicated to both inquiry and human enrichment. Our efforts are directed at developing new communities as moral-aesthetic-intellectual substitutes for the ancient religious dogmas and rituals spawned in the infancy of the race and encrusted by memes and customs that are no longer fully functional. We should respond with optimism and dedication to the proposition that it is possible to transcend the transcendental temptation and to infuse any such temptation with humanistic rational, poetic, and existential alternatives. This would focus on both the individual and his or her quest for creative exuberance and the communities in which we live-and preeminently to the Planetary Civilization of which we are all a part. Melting Glaciers and Global Warming
I recently returned from a glorious educational cruise to Alaska aboard the Holland American liner, the Westerdam. I was accompanied by the skeptics and humanists of the Center for Inquiry Explorers Club. We sailed from Seattle, Washington, and Victoria, British Columbia, to Juneau and Sitka, Alaska; and we visited Glacier Bay. Perhaps I should qualify the term glorious by saying that the spectacle that we viewed was tinged with sadness, for though we had a splendid opportunity to behold the wondrous snow-covered mountain peaks and pristine temperate rainforests, we also witnessed the great glaciers of Alaska rapidly disappearing. We visited the impressive Mendenhall Glacier, which receded 250 feet the year before last (when it was very warm) and 170 feet just last year, and which continues to melt year in and year out. We observed with great remorse the rapid calving of icebergs, the falling of large chunks into Glacier Bay and floating out to the Pacific Ocean. We learned from Mark Bowen (author of Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains, John MacRae Books, 2005), one of the speakers aboard this educational cruise, that the glaciers are melting all over the world and that, in time, they may very well disappear; this is also true of the snow-capped mountain peaks in Peru, the snows of Kilimanjaro in Africa, and of the great Mount Everest in Nepal. If this process of global warming continues, then water levels will rise everywhere. This would be a worldwide disaster, not only for human populations in low-lying coastal areas such as Florida and Bangladesh, but also for the biosphere in general. In his new book, The Creation (Norton, 2006), E.O. Wilson warns that we face an unimaginable crisis in the ecosystem of the planet with the accelerating pace of the death of species.
It is difficult to deny the reality of global warming, though some scientists and politicians, financed by powerful oil companies, have attempted to do just that. How much of global warming may be attributed to the pollution caused by human civilization or to natural forces is open to debate. The preponderance of scientific judgment is that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere-known as the "greenhouse effect"-is a major contributing cause. Al Gore is perhaps the leading American politician to shout this warning, especially in his new film, An Inconvenient Truth. These facts have been denied by religious conservatives, who believe that the Earth is made for humans, to be used as they wish for their own purposes. Those who love our blue-green dot, as it appears when seen from afar, need to work together with all members of the planetary community in order to take whatever measures we can to prevent this, if there is still time. This is incumbent not only on the United States, the major user of fossil fuels, but also on the underdeveloped world as it rapidly industrializes.
While aboard ship, we read aloud the following pledge of allegiance, which sets forth our ethical obligations to our planetary abode:Planetary Allegiance
One lesson to be learned from this discussion of global warming is that it is a mistake to think that secular humanism begins and ends with skeptical critiques of religion (the false "idols of the tribe," according to Francis Bacon). The question that is often raised is, if you reject the discredited beliefs of the religious systems of the past, what do you offer in their place? To which I respond: clearly, there are humanist values and principles, which are tested by human experience that are relevant. Implicit in the question of global warming is the basic human imperative to strive today to preserve the natural ecology of the planet. This is so apparent that only a foolhardy person would deny its moral authority.