I had hoped to do a live debate with SJ on the topic linked to above, but after first agreeing she backed out – ostensibly because I’m too arrogant. How a simple semiliterate biker who lives somewhere under a bridge could be too arrogant remains a mystery, but even if it were true it is hardly an honorable reason to renege on the agreement, and I’m certainly no more arrogant today than I was last week when she agreed to the debate. I considered just remaining silent if there were to be no debate, but SJ’s article is literally the silliest and worst-reasoned writing I have ever encountered. Such a rare event should not be left unremarked – it may never come my way again.
Overall, the article is a sad mixture of stawmen, sweeping generalizations, false comparisons, and a conflation of humanism and atheism. The first half never even mentions humanism, secular or otherwise, but bemoans the wane of Christianity in the west to the gain of atheism and agnosticism, and in doing so she presents a strained and inaccurate comparison of secular Europe to the Christian Europe of the past. Finally, in the second half of her article she defines “secular humanism” by quoting an article in “Free Inquiry” that proposes three essential characteristics of secular humanism, which we will explore below. First, however, we should note that humanism in general, and secular humanism in particular, covers a wide range of opinion and “Free Inquiry” no more speaks with authority for all of humanism than SJ does for Christianity. As usual, the subject is far more manifold and nuanced than SJ allows, and her attenuated representation enables a more easily constructed strawman by allowing her to obscure the fact that not all atheists are humanists and not all humanists are atheists. As a result, she conflates Nazism and Communism with humanism – a ridiculous association.
The Comparison of Secular Europe to Christian Europe
I won’t address the first half of her article in detail since the topic at least claims to be secular humanism which is presented in the second half, but will briefly recite the main points.
She begins by quoting statistics showing the decline of Christianity and growth of non-believers in Europe and the US. From there, she proceeds to claim a causal relationship to what she deems to be Western devaluation of human life. In doing so she avoids all mention of the fact that the most atheist countries in Europe are also the least violent and most contented populations in the world. Rather she cites without reference to controversy various practices such as suicide among the terminally ill, abortion, and a claim of addiction to pornography as proof of this devaluation. Of course, there are competing views on the morality of each of these categories, but again there is not only no argumentation for her claim, there is no mention of the differing opinions – merely an assertion. It can be argued that suicide in such cases is the more humane approach when suffering reaches the point of no longer bearable, that there are arguments to consider that a fetus is not yet a human individual, and that pornography does no harm but rather is a personal choice that leads to a healthier life than does Christian sexual repression. But, of course, we find not a hint of such unwelcome complexities.
More egregiously, she moves to an implied causality of atheism and possibly secular humanism to the barbaric murder by fascist and Communist regimes. But not all atheists are humanists and the totalitarianism of fascism and communism are the driving force behind the murderous oppression, not atheism, which does not appear in the vast majority of nonbelievers. To repeat, the least religious countries in Europe are the least violent and most content. More pointedly, most fascist societies, including the Nazis, were Christian.
I will cite one passage from the later section because it sheds light on what follows:
Let us not forget that Friedrich Nietzsche portended what the world would be like without God. In the Godless communist regimes of the USSR, China and Cambodia, estimates indicate that around 120 million perished in the last century.
” Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, – you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forewards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife, – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event, – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”
What SJ sees as a simple portent of trouble ahead is far more profound and meaningful. It is a poetic presencing of the vertigo that persists yet today, caused by the death of God whom we killed in the Enlightenment. This is not a reversible event because the Enlightenment removed the very possibility for a rational thinker to believe – an event only equaled by the myth of the Garden of Eden, where humanity dared to surpass the dim delight of the animal to become self-aware human responsible for his own actions. Now we are taking the final step of devising our own values since the primitive values of Christianity died along with God. The result, of course, is shock and vertigo from which we have no choice but move forward. The old values proved false and groundless and it is up to us to find a ground for more authentic values. Or as Heidegger put it almost a hundred years later: “We come too late for the gods and too early for Being..” And as we toil to connect to Being, which reveals true values, we bury the dead.
She is, of course, referring to the seminal Aphorism 125 of The Gay Science; a work she very likely never read and certainly doesn’t comprehend. The relevant portion reads:
The aphorism ends with these words:
– It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: “What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?”
And yet today, there are those who remain in the darkness of these tombs and cling to the corpse, SJ among them. The rest of the world, however, and in fits and starts, discovers in freedom the beginning of these new values – values rejected and hated by the tomb dwellers. But values that move in the direction of individual liberty and responsibility and away from ignorance and superstition. It is that direction that SJ hates in the form of liberty and science, but doesn’t realize all other paths are closed for good.
Three Elements of Secular Humanism
1. A Naturalistic Philosophy
“A naturalistic position is a position where people believe that everything we experience can be explained by natural causes or properties, excluding supernatural or spiritual explanations. People who endorse naturalism believe that everything can be explained by science. This belief is also known as scientism.”
She conflates all naturalism with scientism. It is certainly true that humanists generally believe everything exists in the physical universe absent any unseen metaphysical manipulation or power. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean all humanists believe everything in the universe can be reduced to scientific formulation. Many of us believe scientism, as superficial objectivism, can be as great an error as religion as we search for a broader and deeper understanding of the world while resisting with all our strength any relapse to metaphysical assertions. It is only along this path that Being reveals the ground of values.
2. A Cosmic Outlook
“According to SecularHumanism.org, “Secular humanism provides a cosmic outlook—a world-view in the broadest sense, grounding our lives in the context of our universe and relying on methods demonstrated by science. Secular humanists see themselves as undesigned, unintended beings who arose through evolution, possessing unique attributes of self-awareness and moral agency.”
Here we see the above-mentioned hatred of science. Merely through unargued assertion, she claims that without Christianity we cannot explain the deeper nature of humanity and resorts to the long-debunked claim that DNA is a literal code and proof of intelligent design. This is a stark example of an attempt to replace hated Enlightenment science with the old myth and superstition – a hopeless task. While it just might be true that science alone cannot explain our universe, there are other complementary approaches than confine themselves to physical reality. It is certainly true that Christianity was a false attempt to do so.
I have written of this in more detail in other pieces on this blog.
3. A Consequentialist Ethical System
“Our conscience further speaks to God’s intense love for us. The moral argument states that if we have objective moral values and duties that transcend eras and cultures, we must have an objective and transcendent moral lawgiver. Numerous studies have indicated we have objective moral values and duties to follow the Golden Rule and these transcend people and generations. Accordingly, we have a Divine moral lawgiver.”
This is the companion piece to the hatred of science as an expression of hatred of freedom. It is a baseless claim for the reality of a dead metaphysical source of values. Rather than repeat myself, I refer to previous criticism of this idea:
There is one passage, however, that reveals the essential problem at the core of her moral assertions:
“The secular humanist who endorses objective morality may be able to call on a standard, but he also believes that there is no ultimate punishment for evil. In his worldview, Adolf Hitler will never be punished. He will never face justice for his evil infliction of extreme pain on millions.”
Her implied belief in a need for cosmic justice in no way implies anything such thing actually exists. Instead, this is merely the psychological desire to remake the world as she would have it rather than take the universe on its own terms. It would be terribly frustrating for her to realize that no matter how strong her desire, such an invention is impossible. The strength of this need, however, is again the expressed hatred of freedom for others.
Nietzsche was exactly right that Christianity is the religion of resentment, and that resentment would, if it could, hold back the rest of humanity and refasten the chains that would bind us back to fearful primitive need.