We had just gotten home from a trip up to Oregon and I was helping my wife unpack everything and then the kids needed this and that and then one of our cats had a plugged-up urethra and was moaning something heinous and I had to return the rental car before they closed and of course we still needed to get to the — and then the phone rang.
It was a journalist. He wanted to know my thoughts on the growing number of atheists/agnostics in the country and worldwide. Did I think this growth of secularity was a good thing? Why?
I said, “How the hell did you get my home number?” — and hung up.
Well, OK, not exactly. I told him that I was dealing with all kinds of mayhem and couldn’t talk at the moment but that he was free to e-mail me and I’d respond when I had the chance.
And now things have calmed down. So here’s my answer:
Yes, the growth of atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, humanism, and other various manifestations of secularity in both the USA and around the world over the past 25 years is a decidedly good thing, for the following reasons:
1. We need more humans guided by reason rather than faith. We’re facing serious problems in the world today: global warming, increasing inequality, growing forms of fundamentalism, extensive human enslavement, international sex trafficking, impending genocide in places like the Central African Republic, corporation-led corrosion of democracy, violence against women, depletion of the rain forest, human rights violations, etc., etc. — and all of these problems can only be solved through rational understandings of their causes, solutions based on unbiased data and empirically-sound mechanisms, human creativity and compassion, international cooperation and willpower, and smartness, ingenuity, and know-how.
Ten million people praying ten millions hours won’t do shit. Pleading to magic deities and invisible gods, or beseeching the spirits of dead ancestors, or fondling rosaries and misbaha, or anointing with oil and lighting candles, or performing exorcisms and slitting the throats of goats, or driving away the devil and ostracizing witches won’t help at all. Not one bit. So the more people we have who live their lives without such notions or entanglements, the better.
We need a humanity that relies most readily and most heavily upon scientific understanding, rigorous/critical thinking, and utterly sound reasoning, not faith. Now don’t get me wrong: religious faith has its place; it comforts many who have nothing else to rely upon, and it infuses the world with a mystical, spiritual, or, at least, quaint vibe. But it doesn’t help address social problems. For that, we need clear thinkers who don’t look to imaginary gods for assistance.
2. We need more cosmopolitansim and less tribalism/factionalism. Cosmopolitanism is the unflinching ideology that we are all one — that all racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and other such groups actually belong to one single whole: humanity. And we are all bound together by a universal human morality. Secular humanism is deeply rooted in, and intractably wedded to, such cosmopolitanism. And this cosmopolitanism lends itself to a universalistic, global orientation that cannot divide between black or white, Brahmin or Dalit, Hutu or Tutsi, Turk or Armenian, Arab or Kurd, Thai or Hmong, male or female, etc., etc.
Religion — as history as well as today’s newspaper reveal — often divides humanity, unnecessarily and often savagely. Religion, more often than not, establishes deep us-vs-them fissures. Religion is truly one of the greatest creators and sustainers of in-group/out-group orientations. Christianity divides the world between the saved and the un-saved, those that believe in Jesus and those that don’t. Muslims are dangerously divided between Sunni and Shiite, and many believing Muslims consider all non-Muslims as something different (usually much lesser) than Muslims. Many devout Jews consider all non-Jews little more than, well, insignificant white noise.
Secular humanists, on the contrary, emphasize that we are all human, and that’s why it is more readily and logically cosmopolitan than religion.
Again, don’t get me wrong: many religions certainly seek to unify humanity (Bahai’ism is especially insistent on the one-ness of all humanity), and many secular movements have been far from humanistic or universalistic (hello Pol Pot) – and yet, the bottom line is that we need more humans who are not tied to the tribalism, particularism, and sanctimonious “we possess the Holy Truth and you don’t” embedded in most religious systems.
3. We need more humans who embrace the “here-and-nowness” implicit in atheist/secular consciousness. For those of us who don’t believe in heaven or hell, spiritual realms or magical kingdoms, past lives or planet Kolob, this world and this time constitute reality, in toto. This planet is our only possible home. This time is all we’ve got. Such an orientation fosters a deep attachment to and appreciation for the things of this world, and a hearty love for other people and other life forms sharing this blue orb along with us. Those who believe in or yearn for other realms (like the celestial kingdom) do not care as much about this earthly realm, which they see as merely transitory at best, or merely illusory, if not downright fallen. Such beliefs are certainly not helpful, and may in fact be quite harmful.
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As a direct product of human culture, human psychology, and human experience, religion contains much that is noble, altruistic, just, and inspiring. It reflects many of humanity’s best aspirations and hopes. And the rituals, music, holidays, social bonding, family traditions, and all around heritage that one finds within religion are often wonderful, enriching, and enjoyable. But the actual tenets of faith of most religions — the supernatural beliefs, the gods, the messiahs, the prophets, the miracles — the sooner these wither and fade, the better. And so the fact that we see this happening today, in varying degrees, is a really good thing.