Connections to Atheism and Humanism

A look at naturalism's connection to atheism and humanism.

The new atheism

One sign of progress is the increasing visibility of atheism and humanism. Although, as noted above, atheism is a fairly narrow and rather negative expression of worldview naturalism, it nevertheless is an expression. Attention drawn to atheism can bring naturalism into view as the parent philosophy, which can then recommend itself as the next positive and comprehensive step for atheists. As Richard Dawkins put it in an interview on the New Atheism with Gary Wolf in Wired (link is external), “…the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism.” Whether well-known atheists such as Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens will broaden their focus to advance an explicit, comprehensive naturalism is an open question. Such a development would of course be great news for naturalists, since the power of celebrity can move mountains, quickly. 

The new humanism

Also riding the coattails of the New Atheism are several brands of humanism, most of which take a broadly progressive stance on politics and social policy (although there are a few conservative libertarians in the ranks, see here (link is external)). The humanist cause is championed by organizations such as the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry Transnational, and most recently and visibly, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard directed by Greg Epstein. Their emphasis, unlike the New Atheists and very much in line with the Center for Naturalism’s mission, is on developing a positive secular alternative to faith-based religions. But like atheism, non-theistic varieties of humanism (therefore secular humanism) take science-based naturalism as their metaphysical starting point, so in promoting humanism these organizations necessarily promote naturalism. Indeed, the Center for Inquiry recently initiated the Naturalism Research Project (link is external), with one conference already under its belt, and explicit mentions of naturalism appear more often in its magazine Free Inquiry, as for instance in a recent article (link is external) by CFI director Paul Kurtz.

The humanistic implications of naturalism

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard will award its 2008 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism to Greg Graffin (link is external), a rock musician (he heads up the band Bad Religion) and anthropology professor. In a recent book (link is external) of email exchanges with theist Preston Jones, Graffin not only doubts God, but supernatural free will, and he draws out the consequences for attitudes and policies:

This is how I can feel compassionate toward criminals (even if I don’t excuse them) and why I vehemently oppose punishment (I favor rehabilitation and re-education), and I strongly oppose the death penalty…If we cannot consciously make sense of the stimuli it is no wonder we have the illusion of free will. (p. 94)

Here Graffin presents one of the humanistic implications of seeing ourselves as fully natural, caused creatures. Naturalism, by undercutting supernatural justifications for inequality and punitive social policies, lends support to progressive humanism (about which see here (link is external)). But again, it remains to be seen whether or not the humanist community will enlarge its perspective in the direction recommended by Naturalism.Org, that is, take on the implications of what it means for us to be completely natural creatures. Getting explicit about the global implications of naturalism for our self-conception can be a bit daunting, given the widespread assumption that human agents are, and must be, exceptions to empirically discovered laws of cause and effect in order to live meaningful and moral lives. It’s encouraging that Graffin, now in the academic and popular mainstream, has the guts to tell it like it is. 

Eschewing arrogance

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here (link is external) for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least here at Naturalism.Org, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries. Rather, we simply feel lucky and grateful not to be saddled with their beliefs (they feel the same way, of course). So, as much as we take naturalism as superior to supernaturalism, and as hard as we work to advance it (“meme (link is external)” it), we shouldn’t act morally superior to theists. Moreover, the naturalist understands that human variability being what it is, disagreements about worldviews will likely persist indefinitely, in which case the only long-term solution is peaceful co-existence in an open society (link is external). Demonization and belittling of those of different beliefs is therefore unadvisable, both as a strategy for conversion and as a modus vivendi in a pluralistic culture.