Sunday, March 09, 2008

E2.0: Greg Epstein: Humanism - The Heart of Atheism

This is the 23rd in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The next speaker at the conference was Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University. Epstein used his time before the conference to support humanism and to claim that atheists needed to build a movement that was broader

Humanism a progressive life stance . . . that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and our responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.

He started his presentation with a claim that science can build hospitals (by this, I think he means that science can provide the intellectual foundation that serves as the foundation of the practice of medicine), but that science will not visit you in the hospital. That is to say, science does not have any heart. Humanism, according to Epstein, is the ‘heart’ of atheism.

I agree with Epstein on this matter. Atheism (taken to mean the belief that the proposition ‘god exists’ is certainly or almost certainly false) implies no moral conclusion. It says nothing about what we ought or ought not to do.

Theism also implies no moral conclusion. You can take the proposition, ‘god exists’ and tie it to any moral claim imaginable. Perhaps God created homosexuality as a way to keep the population from growing too quickly and wants us to celebrate this option as one tool for keeping population growth in check. Only, the ‘religionists’ listened to the wrong people and have spent the last several thousand years teaching the wrong lesson.

Like I said, neither atheism nor theism gets us anywhere in terms of moral conclusions. It’s the stuff that we add to atheism or theism that yields these types of results. It’s the stuff we add to atheism or theism that the ethicist (such as myself) has reason to be concerned with.

Life is difficult, Epstein says, and atheism tells us nothing about how to deal with this difficulty. Humanism goes beyond atheism to provide ways of dealing with life – with the happiness and sorrows of living, in the real world.

In order to do this, according to Epstein

We need a movement that is a little more diverse. We need a movement that is a little more inclusive. And we need a movement that is a little more actively inspiring.

On the issue of diversity, Epstein has a simple way to illustrate his point. He simply invites the audience to look around the room at the various attendees where the descriptions ‘white’ and ‘male’ apply to almost every speaker. (Note: I must confess that I have always had difficulty categorizing people as ‘white’ or ‘nonwhite’ except where it is extremely obvious, and I prefer it that way. There are several speakers that I would not know how to classify in terms of diversity. So, in a sense, I am somewhat at a handicap when it comes to noting the degree to which Epstein may be correct or incorrect.)

Epstein also points out that the conference does not display a lot of cultural diversity. In this area, Epstein describes himself as a ‘humanistic Jew’ (a Jewish atheist) as a term that links culture with humanism. Richard Dawkins has described himself as a ‘cultural Christian’, which describes a cultural or ethic tie that goes outside of simply atheism. Recognizing these types of ties is not tribalism, but does recognize that different people have different cultural ties – ties in terms of heritage, race, and age.

For another example of cultural atheism Epstein brought up Nobel Prize winning economists Amartya Sen, a “proud Indian humanist”, who is very strongly connected to his Indian heritage.

He is very much through and through a humanist, but a humanist who sees life through the lens of . . . somebody who was born in India and feels very much connected to his Indian cultural roots.

Epstein also speaks of Confucian humanism; “thousands of years of poetry, of music, of art, of philosophy.” He speaks of novelist Salman Rushdie’s “Muslim humanism” – a person who is aware of his relationship to a group that, among other things, preserved the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers while the Europeans were going through the dark ages and losing their knowledge.

Epstein distinguishes his call for diversity – particularly diversity in the sense of allowing for a diverse set of cultural humanisms – from being inclusive. The people that Epstein wants to include in this wider group includes people who believe in some supernatural entities. He speaks about being accepting of and working with some theists.

In saying this, he stressed that he was not advocating an attitude that Epstein attributed to Dennett in terms of being ‘faith in faith heads’. The term refers to atheists who are happy that some people are theists – who see theism as a good thing and who are happy that some people have faith. Against this, Epstein speaks more in terms of ‘polite disagreement’. He points out that there is as much disagreement within a particular religion as there are between religions, yet people within a religion are still able to form some sort of a family. People with different religions should be able to do the same thing.

I think we can find the type of model of what Epstein is talking about in science. Scientists in a discipline can find themselves in disagreement over some fact within that field of study. Some can believe that the Tyrannosaurus Rex was primarily a scavenger, while others believe it was a hunter. Yet, these people still belong to the same family. Members in neither group are willing to claim that the other is right or even that it is a ‘good thing’ that some people have this alternative view of the T-Rex. They state that their opponents are wrong. Yet, they still share membership in the same group.

So, humanists can become members in a wider circle of people who are interested in dealing with the joys and sorrows of human existence – celebrating or dealing with marriages, births, deaths, friendships, relationships, sickness, natural disasters, relationships, dreams, and the like – who do not agree with us entirely on matters of God’s existence.

Of course, I want to add (though Epstein did not mention this fact) that there are others that we have little reason to welcome into such a family – people whose religion drives them to take actions that actually cause (or fail to prevent) the harms mentioned above either directly (through violence) or indirectly (blocking the scientific advances that can cure disease and prevent disasters).

A final ‘improvement’ that Epstein would like to introduce into atheism is expressed in his question, “What can we do in the future to sing and to build.” He reported that atheists do two things very well – spoken and debated. He wants to add to this some of the cultural elements that we find in religious groups; architecture (the building of cathedrals) and singing. These, of course, are merely examples of what is actually request for a more inspiring humanist culture.

On this issue, I think that humanists do quite well. We simply do not recognize it. The reason we do not recognize it is because we do not attach a humanist label to our creations. Much of the art and dance that we create these days have nothing to do with religion. Yet, they are still inspiring. I went to see Stomp the other day. It was an extremely impressive performance (as I knew it would be). It does not promote humanism. It does not wear any conspicuous humanist tags. Yet, it is, in a very real sense, a celebration of what humans can accomplish here, in the real world.

It has exactly the type of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ that Epstein spoke of in the first two parts of his presentation. We are able to draw a circle around the group that values such a performance that includes more than just humanists. We may disagree with their interpretation of their events, but we can still agree to its value.

There seems, then, to be some tension between Epstein’s three criteria for a better humanism. He wants it to be more diverse and more inclusive. Yet, in the area of ‘inspiration’ – in its architecture, art, and music – he seems to be calling for something that is a little less inclusive. He seems to be speaking about cultural elements that have a humanist focus, to the exclusion of other interpretations. Because, if he speaks about a more diverse and inclusive form of art, we already have that.

This might be a good idea to have a distinctly (and exclusively) humanist art. The idea is worth some thought. Yet, it would benefit us to know exactly what it is we are thinking (and talking) about in discussing this subject.


Anonymous said...


Rarus vir said...

Another fine post.
Personally, I think we need to make headway in regulating what and who can teach theist's children. I think they shold be protected agaisnt organized teaching of unsupported dogma and unsubstantiated myth.
Supporting humanism with a broad base is fine, but let's not preach to the chior, we need to make REAL progress.