Thursday, May 19, 2005

Secular Humanism

There are two religious forces at work in America today that give Liberals cause for serious concern. First and most blatantly anti-democratic and anti-Liberal are the ultra-rightwingers, comprised of militant, evangelical, proselytizing, fundamentalist Christians. These people declare themselves answerable to no one but their own God and their own interpretation of what He wants. Second, there is the Roman Catholic Church, which as you all know by now has taken yet another step in the direction of "orthodoxy (strict rules)" and another step toward interference in the democratic processes of our country (telling people how to vote), but a giant step backward from what they call "relativism and modernism," what we civilians call "contemporary reality."

Catholics are not monolithic; they do not all hold equally to the same ideas, but Pope Benedict XVI is their spiritual leader, the one who establishes directions for the cardinals and bishops and laity, and he is avowedly a conservative promoter of a single Catholic orthodoxy to fit all the people of the earth. Fundamentalists are not monolithic, either, but fundamentalists universally do not listen to reason; they listen only to their scriptures and their God.

There are about seventy million Roman Catholics in the United States (24% of the total population) and perhaps one hundred fifty four million persons claiming to be Protestant Christians among whom about 25% whose religious affiliations would place them among the "fundamentalists," that is, about 38 million. This, of course, counts children, so half (about) of each number cannot yet vote. As a round number, then, fully one third of the people in our country eligible to vote are potentially available to vote their leaders' beliefs and to destroy our democracy in so doing. This is our problem.

The other two thirds of American voters either do not practice a religion in any meaningful way or they belong to religious groups and sects that have matured over time into more philosophical positions regarding the hard issues of modern life. These people continuously accommodate their beliefs to advances in scientific and medical knowledge, and they generally appreciate the freedom they have to believe or not believe what they want, understanding that this derives from a solemn agreement to be tolerant and to keep religion out of government and vice versa. The source of this agreement is the so-called "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to our Constitution, namely: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...."

Among these people, both religious and non-religious, you will find "secular humanists." Secular Humanism is not a religion. It does not take the place of religion. It is not meant to be understood as a religion, since it does not contain any theories, doctrines, "truths," or "revealed information" about supreme beings or the spiritual origins of mankind.

Secular humanism does not conflict with respectful religions; it is a "way of being" in daily life when it is important NOT to be outspokenly religious out of deference to people who do not or cannot share their religious beliefs. As the name implies, Secular Humanism is about human life on our planet and contains a core list of ideas among the most prominent two of which are: (1) that human rational processes and reason are sufficient to govern human life, and (2) the idea that life, especially human life, is precious and should be cared for rationally. This is the basis for a moral code very similar to the codes you find within a variety of religions. There should really be no surprise in that! There is no appeal to Ten Commandments or any other revelation from any deity for the moral code. It stands on its own internal logic, consistency, and rationality. Conservative Catholics, Christian Fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, and other closed orthodoxies cannot abide this. It strikes at the heart of their certitude and belief because it looks like an alternative to their dogmatic approaches.

If you were to go out to Google and look for "secular humanism," you would find that there is considerable disagreement among the various websites and, indeed, among secular humanists, about some issues, particularly issues about life—such as war, capital punishment, euthanasia, suicide, homicide, contraception, abortion, and related issues like infant care, elder care, Social Security, penal institutions and corrections, medical research, and so forth. Secular humanists have a right to disagree among themselves, but they have chosen to be rational about it, rather than seeking a revealed answer from deity.

It is the tradition of the European and American Enlightenment that best describes Secular Humanism. Ultimately, as all philosophers know, all assertions of fact or truth can be doubted. Rene Descartes showed this in his philosophy, and although we can doubt Descartes, it turns out to not be very profitable. All human ideas rest on some fundamental axioms or postulates which cannot be demonstrated to be always true. Nevertheless, there is a practical point to rationalism, which is that axioms and postulates can be agreed upon (or not) and then rational processes can be engaged. So, for instance, we believe axiomatically that we when we are conscious and feeling and perceptive we are capable of thinking logically, so that anyone observing the same evidence and understanding the rules of practical logic will come to the same or very similar conclusions. Religions cannot say this, because the revealed truths of their doctrines are not based on an accumulation of evidence, but rather on such things as gospels and scriptures which are declared to be directly from the deity, for which no rational evidence is given. It has to be taken on faith. It is not an axiom that is assumed; it is a whole fabric of theology.

Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and others of the Protestant Christian religions can also be secular humanists. Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Confucians, Shinto, Taoists, and many others also can be secular humanists, too. They do not give up their religion; they simply acknowledge that their religion does not provide answers to certain kinds of questions, or that the answers it provides are different from the answers provided by other neighboring religions and therefore likely to produce conflict. When either of these is the case, the secular humanist religious person invokes secular humanist's reliance on human reason as the best way toward a group solution to the problem.

As a general rule secular humanists believe in the progress of the human spirit, that is, that people can be better, especially if they are treated reasonably and provided opportunities. Secular humanists do not look to "evil" to explain bad human behavior; they look to real and rational causes. Sometimes these are hard to find. Charles Manson, for instance, seems to be a thoroughly bad person for no apparent reason. Secular humanists understand that there are reasons, even if we cannot discern them immediately. Sometimes the reasons for bad behavior are invisible defects in the person's brain, sometimes they are the result of childhood psycho-social traumas, such as being beaten daily by a adult. Sometimes it is both, combined with an accumulation of personal decisions that in the long run mount up to a formidable mess.

The point of this essay is to make sure that people understand Secular Humanism for what it really is, not what the people who fear or misunderstand it say it is. And, the point is also that in a society, which long ago decided that their government shall never make any laws establishing a religion (or by inference preferring any religion over another) or prohibiting the free exercise of (any) religion, sometimes you need a basis for discussion of moral and civic matters. Secular Humanism is that basis, for it is equally accessible to all persons regardless of their religion or decision not to have a religion. In other words, Secular Humanism is a good rational basis for the moral operations of a pluralistic society and its government as no religion can ever be!

Confident we are that human reason is one with the Force.