Decomposing Humanism: Why Replace Religion?

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Decomposing Humanism: Why Replace Religion?

Interesting take on Humanism. I'm inclined to agree. Although I do think more attention needs to be paid to developing more complete replacements for specific facets of religion that are not yet currently addressed by secular institutions.


Decomposing Humanism: Why Replace Religion?

By Austin Dacey
October 29, 2009

Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it.

Sunday morning, secular humanist style. Photo by flickr user littledan77

Meet the latest critics of the new atheists: the old humanists. It is not enough, they say, to take a stand against religion—we must stand up something in its place. Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Just to show you how serious I am, I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions. Out of one, many.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

After all, it was something like this phenomenon that characterized the secularization of Western Europe. The dramatic drop in regular church attendance in Europe was not accompanied by a dramatic spike in the membership of organized atheism or humanism, which remains marginal. For post-religious Europeans, the point was to not show up anywhere once a week to seek absolution, but to stay out late on Saturday nights and sleep in late on Sunday mornings.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing humanists for getting together to fight for the ideals of a secular, open society. For the better part of a decade, I proudly worked for an organization (the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine) that does just that. But even there, I encountered tension between those of us who saw the Center primarily as a think tank and advocate addressing the general public in the marketplace of ideas, and those who saw it primarily as a congregation whose purpose is to gather up all the self-identifying refugees of traditional religion and offer them a secular alternative to everything it did for them. Compare: you might support Médecins Sans Frontières because you believe in their work, but you wouldn’t expect them to officiate your wedding. I always maintained that the point should be to make the mainstream culture more secular and humanistic, not to create a new secular humanist subculture.

Neither am I arguing against disorganized secular humanism, of which I am both perpetual student and ardent lover. For disorganized secular humanism is practically identical to the ethos of modern, liberal democracy. Here lies the real embarrassment of the fallacy of decomposition. When humanism is equated with organized humanism, an entire civilization is reduced to a fringe group of dyspeptic rationalists who gather once a year in hotel ballrooms (as Sam Harris observed a few years ago before a group of dyspeptic rationalists gathered in a hotel ballroom). According to this impoverished self-concept, humanist “literature” does not embrace the better part of all letters but instead only the relatively few writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Isaac Asimov who have turned up at conferences of the American Humanist Association to accept awards.

Apparently, in thinking about what might come after religion, it is hard for humanists to see beyond a kind of telecom model, in which a conglomerate bundles together all of these services, so that the same people who put us in touch with metaphysical truth also provide us with community and morality.

It is all the more ironic that this model itself is an invention of religion, a sort of meta-dogma. It is a vestige of the contingent historical fact that after giving up its dreams of theocratic control, Western Christianity contented itself with claiming for its territory everything that fell outside of the civil sphere of government and politics and the commercial sphere of market activity. Why else would learning, art, food, sex, and the meaning of life all be handled by the same religious monopoly?

The promise and the peril of the open, liberal democratic society lies precisely in the possibility of a civility and a solidarity untethered from any unitary philosophy or community—it doesn’t all have to hang together. The secular house has many mansions.

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Empathy is the replacement.

Empathy is the replacement. And I do not mean the utopia that even atheists fall for. One were we try to force others to only say nice things about others.

Empathy is the simple recognition that we are all individuals, but at our core we all need the same things and desire the same things. Even to express negative emotions. And the common empathy that we want to be safe in our environment while still having the ability to express ourselves.

The institutions we make up can be in the form of clubs, sports, politics, and to say those things won't be different is absurd in a world of 6 billion.

Atheism certainly isn't the only thing to life. BUT clinging to myth because a placebo may make one feel good, but has made countless lemmings and produced pleanty of dead.

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There are people out there who need some sort of


life rule book. I don't know why this might be. Perhaps they have RAM problems. They are the same people who say 'well, where did you get your sense of right and wrong then' when you tell them you're a non-believer. It's almost as if all that jesus-ishness sloshing around somehow splashes onto the sinners, allowing them to know right from wrong and enabling them to do good.

I think a Truman style TV show in which a number of children are introduced to a godless environment and we all sit back and see what happens could be instructive. Would it be like Lord of the Flies? And if so, how much of our conscience could we then say is a cultural more our parents and elders instill in us by example, reward and reinforcement as we grow?

It's obvious the right/wrong conscience thing comes from somewhere quite natural and is not the product of that magncellular neuronal monkey of a holy spirit riding the cerebrum bareback.

Perhaps by the time kids graduate school they should be required to have formulated their own life rule book as a 6-year high school project - it would be interesting to see if young people could do a better job than the biblical penny dreadful merchants of days gone by. 

I wonder what the kids would come up with and whether it would be better than the wretchedness of the new testament, where jesus washes people's feet while holding a petrol can behind his back?


P.S. I know, I know. He doesn't want to burn the bulk of the earth's population in a lake of fire - we make him do it! Ummm. Does mean he has no free will??



"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck

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Humans are only motivated by

Humans are only motivated by the expectation of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Religion understands this, that's why they invented heaven and hell.

Humanists think that individuals can be motivated by empathy, compassion and we all just have this brotherhood. What is the motivation? Why would anyone change to behave this way. All they are doing is setting people up to be taken advantage of by phony compassion.

What comes when relgion is replaced is pleasure. Using technology and rational processes to eliminate suffer and increase every individuals own hapiness. When this happens the world will have no more need for religion. So the idea is replace an imaginary heaven with heaven on earth. Just preaching to people to not be selfish as a humanist won't work because no one can not be selfish.


Taxation is the price we pay for failing to build a civilized society. The higher the tax level, the greater the failure. A centrally planned totalitarian state represents a complete defeat for the civilized world, while a totally voluntary society represents its ultimate success. --Mark Skousen

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Maybe you're right EXC


Just hand me my soma tablets and point the way to the feelies!

However, I can't agree. Humans are more than clumps of ions drawn helplessly to sensual pleasure poles.

We empathise, we sacrifice, we grit our teeth for the long haul. We refuse to accept failure. We give our lives for each other. We refuse to yield. We have inside ourselves, truly, a moral compass not installed by the contrivance of some fantastic god, but ground into us at a cellular level by the grand and inexorable natural processes that made us. The momentum of our evolution cannot be redirected by the interpretations of a cynical age.



"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck