13 August 2007

A Conflict we Cannot Afford

Lately, a movement calling itself the New Humanism has been challenging what have come to be known as The New Atheists for their argument and for their presentation. The charges most often levied against these alleged (and wrongly so) 'Atheist Fundamentalists" Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens is that they are too dogmatic in their beliefs, that the Atheist utopias they describe are impossible to achieve, and that their public relations need serious help.

The New Humanists prefer to push a friendlier, shinier view of Humanism. They claim to recognize that an atheist society as Dawkins et al. envision it is wholly impossible because even if you get rid of all the God stuff, people still want to keep their cultures, which are largely influenced by religion. Ergo, they say, in order to bring about a Humanist society, we need to have something positive (Humans!) rather than negative (not-God!) to base the system around.

Now I came very close to being sold by this argument for a number of weeks. As an anthropologist, I certainly recognize how much of any given religion's staying power is due to culture (that is to say, all of it), and so the idea of needing to have a positive thing people could rally behind made a lot of sense.

Except that it's impossible. Man can't invent culture - it just doesn't work. All of our attempts to engineer a culture broadcloth have ended in catastrophic failure. Even the most charismatic, inventive, and successful inventors of belief systems (Muhammad, Jesus, L. Ron Hubbard, etc.) have required the additional efforts of a large number of followers over a considerable span of time to take a world-view and a moral creed and mold it into a distinctive way of life. And even then, it survived largely because it as both a) radically new and b) was in drastic in-group/out-group opposition to the prevailing status quo of the place and time.

Is the difficulty of creating a single, universal, worldwide world-view with mankind, sui generis, at its center becoming clearer? As an example of the impossibility of this proposition, let's take the case of modern secular ethics. Yes: it is eminently possible to have morality without a divinity, this has been demonstrated more times than I would care to mention. But here's the trouble with morals: they are inherently boring - especially when they are completely in line with the prevailing zeitgeist (which, incidentally, will never be uniform throughout the entire world anyway). Can you imagine anyone getting excited by a member of the Humanist Clergy getting up on a dais and spouting such self-evident tautologies as "doing bad things to people is bad!" The only way people have so far been willing to stomach having morals preached to them is if there's a threat of hellfire or something equally colorful attached. Without a well-established cultural vessel for the message, humanist morals - true though they are - carry about the same emotional force as a rerun of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Fine for children, but tedious for adults.

Ironically, the man who led me most conclusively to this view is the late and greatly missed Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of organized Humanistic Judaism and a keynote speaker at the recent conference on The New Humanism at Harvard. In his opening lecture on the possibility of an "Abrahamic Humanism," he stressed over and over that the thing that keeps people coming back to their religions - even after they have partially or completely lost faith in the God hypothesis - is allegiance to their parents, to their ancestors, to their culture (I refer you to Blair's comment on one of my prior posts). Simply put, we are cultural animals, and people do not want to abandon their cultural forms because it's a huge part of their lives. It's comfortable for them, and except for the occasional freethinking housecat, people aren't going to defect from their religions wholesale and join a fledgling milquetoast generic 'Humanist' movement that has no real cultural oomph. What they'll join instead, Rabbi WIne seems to suggest, is a group that resembles their old culture but in which the God hypothesis is explicitly absent. Rabbi Wine managed to create an organized form of cultural Judaism that would be appealing to Jews who had lost their faith in God but were still Jews nevertheless. The same is true for other religio-cultural complexes, and the first step is to admit that the culture doesn't have to be thrown out with the God.

So what does this mean for the debate between the New Humanists and New Atheists? For my part, it is precisely because I agree with the New Humanist position that any successful world system has to have a strong, positively-inflected culture that I simply cannot put my faith behind their vision of a unified Humanist culture. Instead, the people who have the Humanists' best interests in mind are in fact the New Atheists. Rather than ask people to abandon their cultures in favor of a new (crappy) one, the New Atheists are asking only that we abandon our faith in the God hypothesis, which many people are already doing tacitly in their own churches and mosques. Only when we give these people a place where they can still be Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Sunni, Shi'a, and so forth - without believing in the supernatural will we be able to have a humanist world.


robin said...

Without a well-established cultural vessel for the message, humanist morals - true though they are - carry about the same emotional force as a rerun of Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood. Fine for children, but tedious for adults.

Um, okay, I like the gist of this post, but this part ruins it. Mr. Rogers is *not* tedious for adults. He is the kindliest, wonderfulest man ever and I lie awake at night wondering who is feeding his fish. And geez, Ben, you could at least get his name right.

Ben Cox said...

Spelling fixed.