Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Macro Humanism and Micro Humanism

One of the things that religion pretends to be able to do is make its adherents “better” persons. How many times have you heard politicians or religious leaders bemoan the prospect of “godless” societies? How often has it pointed out that Hitler was an atheist (he wasn’t according to Hitler himself) and that the greatest wars of the last century were begun by non-believers (they weren’t.)

In fact it would be shocking indeed to hear a public official claim that religion wasn’t at the source of all morality, as if human concern for others could not have been the result of something like “natural selection” (it was.)

CFI-LI friend, Rabbi Marc Gellman often depicts non-believers as less likely to moral than believers; he’s implied that non-believers are more likely to run others over in a parking lot! There is no data to support this contention.

The lack of supporting is at long last being addressed, sort of. An article in Slate magazine noted that “In Gross National Happiness, author Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street.” (Go to I’m sure the experiments that led to this conclusion were very “scientific”.

On this issue, the Slate article cited a strong rebuttal argument:

“In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.”

What could be the explanation, other than the very possible explanation of falsified data, for this difference in American godless and foreign godless behavior? (Note: the possibility that American atheists are more generous after all is very real – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, James Simons, and Ted Turner are among the biggest philanthropists in the world – non-believers all.)

The Slate article points out, “The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, "[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them."

This is an obvious explanation that makes a lot of sense. In countries where secularism is the rule, it is often religious minorities that feel most alienated, fairly or unfairly. In the US, atheists, who are seen as the ultimate “outsiders”, could understandably be reluctant to donate money to, for example, the Boy Scouts, which excludes them, or the United Way, which gives to the Boy Scouts. It may be simply too much to ask for the despised to be generous to the despisers.

Humanism and secularism would seem to have much to offer on the macro level involving public moral policy; what could be a better philosophy for public policy than a non-dogmatic approach that uses reason, science and free inquiry with a goal of making the world a better place?

Humanists have consistently advocated for freedom, justice, and peaceful means for achieving these social aims. Humanism does not necessarily imply specific solutions to specific problems but it certainly is well equipped to frame problems properly and lead to asking the right questions. Secular humanism has little to apologize for as a basis for formulating a public, national, international and/or planetary or macro morality.

But this leads to the subject at hand which was inspired by the very compelling talk given by former Baptist minister Kevin Cordle at a CFI-LI forum earlier this year and an article in Free Inquiry by Paul Kurtz noting the shortcomings of many humanists on the personal level.

Mr. Cordle was a committed minister but his scientific orientation led to his questioning of his religious beliefs. However, the clincher was the lack of success that religious belief had in making his congregants better persons. In-fighting, politics and petty arguments that were the antithesis of “love thy neighbor,” soured the sincere minister on the necessity of religion.

But while it is obvious that religious beliefs do not make the religious better persons, neither does non-theism. Yes, on the personal level, humanists can act like jerks just as easily as the next person. Some humanists cheat, lie, hurt and behave poorly – is there any doubt? They profess humanism but cannot live its principles.

Hopefully this realization should make Mr. Cordle feel a little better; in no way should he feel that he failed because his congregants continued to behave poorly or indifferently despite all his efforts. Good character on a very personal level does not depend on belief, non-belief, zealotry or apathy; neither does good character depend on interest about god, religion or science.

So exactly how are we to nurture better behavior from fellow humanists and non-theists? Surely demonstrating that belief in god is unreasonable will not directly teach or inspire a person to treat others better.

The best approach must be setting a proper example. While humanism will definitely influence a person to denounce primitive and destructive religious practices, including FGM, sexism, many forms of bigotry and racism, religious war, religious intolerance and much more, it is much more difficult to make a person behave honestly, kindly, responsibly and courageously towards others on the personal level. But by showing others how to behave, we can practice our professed humanism on the more difficult micro level.

So what can we do to behave more humanistically? If I knew the answer to this question I would surely apply it to myself! I would figure out how to modify my own behavior so that I don’t yell at the kids, be more understanding of my wife and generally be more patient with everyone.
We are all works in progress; hopefully we’re getting better at applying the common decencies and virtues in our daily lives.

Perhaps working on an issue at a time would be a good approach to applying humanism on the micro level. Perhaps our character is too hard wired to be modified greatly, perhaps not. But we can take solace in a couple of facts; humanism is an approach that has been used to make great progress in civilizing humanity on the macro level to great benefit. Perhaps we need to discover the principles of a quantum humanism so that we can behave more humanistically toward each other every day on the micro level.

Any suggestions?