The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
One of the first books I read upon my arrival in the United
States was a fundamentalist tract that had, I was told, sold very well. The book
was called Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium, and not since
Mein Kampf had I read a more venomous, misanthropic travesty of reality and
truth. And nowhere have I seen a clearer example of what I view as
"anthropocentric conceit" than in this book. After repeated
invocations of the "lies" of humanists, feminists, and liberals
(including religious liberals), the inherent evil of homosexuality, the United
Nations, and art the authors cannot understand, they had the temerity to picture
their reception upon reaching heaven. "Try to imagine the moment,"
they wrote, "when this life is over and you stand before the bema and hear
from the lips of Jesus Christ, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You
have been my lighthouse to the world.'"1
Here is the key to the ongoing success of religion. One can
spit tacks at the world, make outrageous judgments, besmirch the integrity of
anyone one disagrees with, and then expect the creator of the entire,
fifteen-billion-year-old, multibillion-star universe to glow with pride at one's
achievements! While actually being hateful, ungracious, and petty, one can bask
in the glow of humility.
Even among people more in tune with toleration of
difference than Mind Siege authors Tim La Haye and David Noebel, this
anthropocentric conceit is a notable feature. So many accounts of pious converts
tell of suffering low self-esteem that was then resolved by being told that they
did indeed matter; that despite being one biped among millions on one planet
among millions, the creator of this entire universe is interested in their
welfare. The success of religious conversions and apologetic arguments consist
of religion's ability to inject people with such quantities of anthropocentric
conceit that it almost becomes plausible. As Joseph Goebbels said, the bigger
the lie, the more likely it is people will believe it.
And neither is this phenomenon restricted to the
fundamentalist fringe. Recently, a prominent "intelligent design"'
proponent in New Zealand—one who specifically distanced himself from
creationism—got to the nub of the matter when he claimed that "[m]ost
astrophysicists are now convinced that the universe is not only created but fine
tuned for the express appearance of life on this planet."2 Wouldn't it be
wonderful to be so important? One of the many annoying things about
presumptuousness of this sort is that atheists, so often accused of
presumptuousness themselves, have a long history of warning against it. To take
one example from many, Bertrand Russell wrote in 1935: "Is there not
something a trifle absurd in the spectacle of human beings holding a mirror
before themselves, and thinking what they behold so excellent as to prove that a
Cosmic Purpose must have been aiming at it all along?"3
In the face of such a metaphysical cornucopia, humanism can
offer only thin gruel. But, as most of us realize along our various roads to
some sort of maturity and acceptance of ourselves and the world, we can't always
get what we want. And what is more, most of the metaphysical agencies designed
to give people what they want are ones we are supposed to outgrow, Santa Claus
and the Tooth Fairy being examples. To my mind, the outgrowing of all
make-believe providers of things we wish for is an essential element of our
development to full humanity. Such an approach is more coherent philosophically
and scientifically; but, and this is just as important, it is also morally
A century ago humanists used to say that there is no
religion higher than truth. Today, we would rephrase this to say that there is
no value higher than truth. And this is where anthropocentric conceit is
dangerous. Believing one matters to God is likely to have a positive effect on
one's self-esteem. Its main problem is that it isn't true. Anthropocentric
conceit rests on a fundamental untruth that, in the long run, has to undermine
its moral benefits. The basic ethical consequence of scientific naturalism is
that we don't matter to the universe; there is no bearded nice guy, vital spark,
first principle, cosmic law, or anything else waiting to usher us in to the
dress circle in the sky. This means that our anthropocentric conceit is not a
sign of humility but a sign of immaturity and arrogance.
And it's not as if we haven't had enough time to prepare
ourselves for this realization. The human race has suffered three fundamental
challenges to its anthropocentric conceit. The first was when Copernicus showed
that Earth was not the center of the universe. Since then, and with
ever-increasing clarity, we have come to understand that our planet is but one,
not very distinguished, orb surrounding a sun of singularly mediocre aspect, in
a nowhere-in-particular solar system in a nowhere-in-particular galaxy, in, for
all we know, one universe among many.
But the heliocentric universe as outlined by Copernicus
was, of course, only the first of the assaults on our anthropocentric conceit.
If the Copernican revolution dethroned us from the center of the universe,
Charles Darwin dethroned us from the apex of the Great Chain of Being. He did
this by toppling the Great Chain's entire structure. Since Aristotle, human
beings had presumed for themselves the spot second only to the gods in the
divine hierarchy. This divine hierarchy proceeded vertically from the gods,
through men, then down to women, and on to higher animals, lower animals,
plants, and rocks. This view of nature can also be found in the Hebrew
Scriptures (Psalm 8: 5-6) and to this day is endorsed by fundamentalists, the
most recent examples being the mind besiegers La Haye and Noebel.4
But, of course, the hierarchy known as the Great Chain of
Being has no foundation in evolutionary thinking at all, and relies on a
self-referential and self-congratulatory set of values. As we all know, Charles
Darwin proved that we evolve by means of natural selection, an excruciatingly
long, wasteful process that works by a series of ad hoc adaptations from what is
available to deal with the issues most pressing upon one's chances of immediate
survival. It has nothing whatever to do with preserving or bolstering a vertical
chain of command in descending order from gods down to globules. Since Darwin,
human beings have had to come to terms with the essential interdependence of all
life forms on the planet. The Darwinian axis is a horizontal one of all being
members of the same planetary ecosystem, rather than a vertical one of fixed
species, the authority for which emanates from a metaphysical entity.
Without doubt, the next major assault on humankind's
anthropocentric conceit is happening as we speak. The great revolution in
genetics taking place right now is the next, and potentially most decisive,
assault on our inflated notion of our importance as a species. So, not only are
we not the center of the universe, or even the star act among the players on
this planet, it is no longer clear what we mean by words like I. As
scientist/philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have shown, we cannot speak of an
"I," which somehow constitutes the essence of what and who we are.
There is no Cartesian theater, as Dennett called it, orchestrating what it is to
be me or you.5 This means that there is no mind, soul, or psyche in which
resides the blueprint of god, or any other metaphysical entity. And this goes
for reason as much as it goes for God. We can no more give reason a capital
letter and imbue it with a mystical significance as a process immune from error
than we can for God. As Donald Calne puts it, reason is a biological product
fashioned for us by the process of evolution to help us survive in an
inhospitable and unpredictable physical environment.6
Whatever view one takes on the momentous questions of
cloning or genetic engineering, few people would dispute Michael Ruse's point
that our biological origins "can and should be a starting point for
philosophy today."7 And if biology can and should be a starting point for
philosophy today, how much more uncontroversial is the recognition that science
is absolutely essential as the principal tool by which we can recognize
anthropocentric conceit, see it for what it is, and then eliminate it? Religions
around the world have contributed to instilling and preserving a sense of our
special value as a species, but science and philosophy have been the methods by
which we have sought to outgrow such dangerous folly. Extolling the value of
science is frequently to risk being accused of scientism or positivism or some
such ghastly pejorative. But scientism, as I understand the term, is devoted to
putting science on just the same sort of pedestal people have traditionally put
religion; as an agency of salvation. Herein lies the difference between science
and scientism. In the context of anthropocentric conceit, science is
fundamentally averse to pedestals.
The role of science as antidote to anthropocentric conceit
was articulated well by Stewart Guthrie in his fine book, Faces in the Clouds: A
New Theory of Religion. Guthrie argues that anthropomorphism lies at the heart
of religious experience. All religions share the feature of "ostensible
communication with humanlike, yet non-human beings through some form of symbolic
action."8 But Guthrie is careful to go on and add that, while
anthropomorphism is understandable, it is also, by definition, mistaken.9
Anthropocentrism is more willful still; it compounds the built-in errors of
anthropomorphism with a more selfish and narrow focus. And understanding our
natural anthropomorphism and its frequent slide into anthropocentrism becomes a
key to understanding the importance of science. For Guthrie, the chief role of
science is to "eliminate human features from representations of nature.
Science is one of the most systematized forms of knowledge and one of the least
anthropomorphic."10 This, incidentally, is one of the explanations of the
popularity of pseudoscience: it is an attempt to inveigle anthropomorphism back
into naturalistic philosophy.
The role of science as a principal weapon against
anthropocentric conceit is one of the chief reasons that humanists value it.
Humanists place great value on methodological naturalism—what used to be called
the scientific method—because it is our insurance against anthropocentric
conceit. This is what Paul Kurtz had in mind when he wrote about the
transcendental temptation, which is the temptation many of us feel to create
some supernatural realm for ourselves as a means of creating.11 To me the notion
of anthropocentric conceit conveys a greater sense of urgency in the outcome of
this particular development we each need to make. The notion of anthropocentric
conceit is essentially a moral protest at the presumptuousness required to
presume for oneself a central place in the cosmic drama.
There are many forms in which our anthropocentric conceit
can be seen, but for me its most alarming manifestation comes in the form of our
rampant population growth, with its sanguine presumption that the more homo
sapiens there are, the better. Many countries are already finding that the
simple weight of numbers is putting such a strain on natural ecosystems and
political and social infrastructures that endemic corruption, the return of
previously conquered diseases, increasing scarcity of water, and a renewed
communal and religious fanaticism are direct corollaries of the central issue of
too many people.12 But rather than a planetwide focus on population control and
management, huge resources are being put into opposing the provision of
contraceptive information, safe abortion, and the education and liberation of
women so that they can decide these issues without fear. And make no mistake,
the opposition to these measures comes from those whose worldview remains
centered around the vertical hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being. The guiding
metaphysical motif that informs their actions is anthropocentric conceit. To my
mind, this constitutes the most significant, and most dangerous, example of
anthropocentric conceit in the world today. For women to have access to reliable
contraceptives and the degree of control over their own bodies to be able to
decide when they should be used seems to me the number one challenge facing the
planet in the twenty-first century. In this way, the best contribution an
environmentalist could make would be to work for the worldwide liberation of
women. And it should go without saying that any growth in secular liberties is a
net increase in the freedom of women around the world.
While this for me is the main issue facing our errant
species, there are many other pressing that capable people are devoting their
lives to solving. The inestimable value of the philosophy of humanism is that it
provides a framework under which many people can work, in many different fields,
for the betterment of humankind. Those driven to work for the environment, those
who find themselves working for social or political causes, for charities, for
the skeptics' battle against nonsense and misinformation—every one of these
activities is a legitimate example of humanist eupraxsophy. And for humanists to
be engaging in any of these struggles is to do so for the simple sake of doing
good, and in full knowledge that we can expect no reward from beyond the grave.
Any of these activities constitutes an effective antidote to anthropocentric
conceit. Paul Kurtz noted this in Forbidden Fruit. Fear of punishment or hope of
reward, he wrote, "is hardly an ethical reason to follow God's
commandments. It masks a basic self-interest: one is moral out of prudential
considerations. Indeed, in one sense, the theists' argument is immoral, for it
abandons the moral conscience for an authoritarian ground, and thus sidesteps
the content of the moral imperative itself."13
Okay, so where does this leave us? Is the price of
recognizing the dangers of anthropocentric conceit that we should succumb to a
grim sort of scientific Calvinism posing a secular version of original sin? The
answer to this, thankfully, will vary from individual to individual. Optimists
will tend to see the glass as half full, pessimists as half empty. I would have
to say that I am more of a pessimist at the moment. It seems to so many people
that there is no viable alternative between the various anthropocentric conceits
of the past, most of which are veiled in the language of religion, and the
mindless narcissism of contemporary commercialism. The current paralysis of the
West is exacerbated by postmodernism, which does nothing more than throw its
arms in the air and declare any constructive attempt at a solution as little
more than the arbitrary grasping of a discredited modernism. But there is an
alternative to the stifling certainties of the religions and the intolerable
dreariness of commercialism and postmodernism. Humanism is a comprehensive
worldview that, because it takes science seriously, is better equipped to rid
itself of the anthropocentric conceits that so disfigure religions. And, unlike
postmodernism, humanism offers a vision of how the world could be made better
and what this would require of each individual. This has been done most recently
in the Humanist Manifesto 2000.
Whatever field of humanist work in which one chooses to
involve oneself, it would be understandable to be overwhelmed occasionally by
the scale of the problem and soldier on with something of the Calvinist grimness
mentioned above, bereft of hope that one could effect any real change. But
soldier on we must, and, if that sounds Calvinistic, then so be it. It's really
a case of damned either way. Either one's humanism is morally serious, in which
case it's derided as gloomy, or it's not, in which case it's written off as
superficial and unable to grapple with the major issues facing humankind. It
depends on which of these misconceptions of humanism one is most inclined to
react against. Each humanist will work out ways to reconcile himself or herself
to the truth of their cosmic irrelevance. For me, I find relief in the British
tradition of absurdist humor. It really is important not to take life, or
oneself, too seriously. I have a poster in my office that proclaims that
"seriousness is stupidity with a degree."
So if we are to shed once and for all our tendency to
anthropocentric conceit, then we are going to need to recognize just how closely
allied atheism is to the naturalist worldview. Atheism matters, not just because
atheism happens to be the most accurate view of the cosmos, and not just because
of its philosophical and scientific coherence. Important though these elements
obviously are, it is just as necessary to take atheism seriously for moral
reasons. Contrary to the foolish fear-mongering of religious apologists, atheism
is the surest guarantee of cosmic modesty, and few things are more immediately
required of our species than a good dose of cosmic modesty. Having played such a
foundational role, both intellectually and morally, atheism can then retire from
the field and allow interest to turn to the understanding and appreciation of
the naturalist view of the world. But it is difficult to do one without the
other. As Bertrand Russell said, "It is not by delusion, however exalted,
that mankind can prosper, but only by unswerving courage in the pursuit of
1. Tim La Haye and David Noebel, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville: World Publishing, 2000), p. 286.
2. Ian Wishart, “Intelligent Design Creationism: A Defence,”
The Open Society 76 no. 2 (Winter 2003).
3. Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961 ), p. 221. See also H. James Birx,
Interpreting Evolution (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 17.
4. La Haye and Noebel, p. 247.
5. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin 1993 ), especially chapters 5 and 7.
6. Donald B. Calne, Within Reason: Rationality and Human Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), p. 12.
7. Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. xiii.
8. Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 197.
9. Ibid, p. 204.
10. Ibid, p. 165.
11. Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991 ), p. 449. Also, see Victor Stenger, who recommended we take a cosmic perspective as a tonic against anthropocentric conceit. See Victor Stenger,
Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998 ), p. 182.
12. I recommend readers consult the Web site of the World Population Foundation for further information on these facts:
13. Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books), pp. 149–50.
14. Bertrand Russell, “The Pursuit of Truth,” in Fact and Fiction (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961), p. 46.
Bill Cooke is international director of the
Inquiry–International, based at Amherst, New York. His most recent book is
The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association
(London: Rationalist Press Association, 2003). This article was originally
presented as a paper at the Inaugural Conference of the
Center for Inquiry–Florida,
held in St. Petersburg on February 7–9, 2003.