a talk given to the Concord Area Humanists at Wright Tavern in Concord, MA December 6, 2010
1. Hope and/or Rationality
I'm going to begin by reviewing a few facts about people who believe in the supernatural or paranormal.
- People who believe in mental telepathy nonetheless make long-distance phone calls.
- People who believe in levitation nonetheless buy airline tickets.
- And while there are some well-publicized exceptions, the vast majority of people who believe in faith healing will nonetheless take antibiotics when they have bacterial infections.
Now, sometimes examples like this are used to claim that people are hypocrites, that most religious people, in particular, don't really believe what they claim to believe. When push comes to shove, they'll take the antibiotics. "Yes, the Lord will provide and protect, but I'm also going to buy insurance and put money in my 401-K."
That's not where I'm headed. Instead, I want to draw this lesson: When there's a proven, evidence-based way to get where you're going, the vast majority of people will take it. That's part of human nature, and it's why we've survived this long.
But there's another part of human nature: We don't give up easily. If the best rational analysis says that we're screwed, then we'll just keep going irrationally. Because we won't just lay down and die. That also is who we are and why we've survived.
So if you are lost in the desert with a group of people and you point out that the lake they are walking towards is a mirage, whether or not they believe you depends on what you say next. If you go on to outline a reasonable plan for getting back to safety, and if you make it sound credible enough, then your compatriots might listen to you. But if your entire point is to dash their hopes, they won't.
Just last month I heard about a study done by two Berkeley psychologists. They exposed two groups of people to information about global warming. Both groups heard the same dire predictions of the heat waves, droughts, floods, famines, and so on that will happen if we keep doing what we're doing. But the first group then heard about all the steps we can take to head off those disasters. The second group got a no-hope message, that it is already too late.
As you would expect, the first group came out of their session more hopeful about global warming, the second more despairing. But there was another difference: The first group, the hopeful group, was more likely to accept the reality of global warming. The hopeful prognosis made the dire facts more believable.
Why? Because human beings have an instinctive resistance to despair, and an instinctive attraction to hope. Evolution built us that way, and it's not hard to see why. People who keep struggling -- even irrationally, even with a wrongheaded view of the situation -- sometimes stumble out of the trap they're in and go on to have descendants. People who give up, don't.
Now you would think that if any religion or philosophy could align itself with what we know about human nature, it would be Humanism. But in fact we often don't. Too often, we act as if exploding other people's illusions were an end in itself: "You may think you're going to heaven, but you're not. You may think that some Higher Power is looking out for you and will step in to save you from harm, but really you're on your own. You may think Someone guarantees that ultimately the forces of Evil will not prevail. But you're wrong."
In short, our message to the believers often amounts to this: "Everything that keeps you going, everything that makes your life palatable or adds zest to your existence -- it's all a mirage, a fairy tale. There's nothing to it."
If that's the end of the message, is it any wonder that we get so few converts?
2. The Sun vs. the North Wind
In one of Aesop's fables, the Sun and the North Wind argue about which is stronger. So they have a contest: Which of them will be able to get this threadbare old cloak off the shoulders of a traveler?
"This will be easy," the North Wind thinks, and with a quick gust he almost snatches the cloak away. But the traveler grabs it at the last instant and pulls it back around his shoulders.
"Well, I'll blow harder then," the Wind says. But now the traveler is wrapping the cloak tightly around himself, and the harder the Wind blows, the tighter he hangs on.
Eventually the North Wind is exhausted and it's the Sun's turn. The Sun shines down on the traveler, and before long he is so warm that he takes the cloak off on his own.
Now, why does the Sun win? Because the North Wind is looking at things on the wrong level. To the Wind, it's all just physics. If he can get more force on that cloak than the traveler is using to hold it, he can blow it away. But the Sun understands that he's dealing with a person who has motives. If he can understand why that cloak is important to that traveler and make it unimportant, then the traveler will set it aside on his own.
Too often, we take a North Wind approach to promoting Humanism. If I just blow harder, if I make stronger arguments against religion, if I raise the level of my rhetoric and announce to my believing friends that God is Not Great, that we're at The End of Faith (and that's good), that they are suffering from a God Delusion and consequently need my help Breaking the Spell -- in short, if I heap more and more ridicule on my friends' illusions and superstitions, then I'll finally rip that cloak away from them.
And what happens? They grab it tighter. If you defeat one of their justifications for religion today, tomorrow they'll have another one. If in the morning you convince them to give up one dysfunctional superstition, by evening they'll have adopted another one that is even worse.
Why? Because we're arguing at the wrong level. This is not the kind of debate you can win by blowing harder. Religion is about people and their needs and what motivates them. They hang onto their beliefs because they are cold; and the harder we blow, the colder they get.
3. Solar Secularity
Successful arguments for secularity don't work that way. Telephone companies do not waste their advertising budget explaining that mental telepathy doesn't work. No doctor has ever told me not to pray for better health. "You want to pray? Knock yourself out. But take your antibiotics, because they work. If you take your antibiotics, you will get better."
Reasonable solutions replace superstition not because people suddenly realize that superstition is unreliable. People have always known that superstition is unreliable.
In spite of all the stories of miracle cures, even the most ignorant parents know that sometimes you pray over your sick daughter and she dies anyway. Doctors don't need to belabor that point. The parents know. But they need to be told that there is a better way. Someone needs to convince them that if their daughter takes this pill, she will live. Someone needs to tell them that children who are vaccinated don't get sick to begin with.
Convince them of that, and superstition doesn't have a chance.
Similarly, you don't need to convince your believing friends that the afterlife is uncertain and that the prospect of joy in Heaven is poor compensation for the reality of suffering and injustice here on Earth. They know that. You don't need to tell them that some of the most convincing priests and evangelists are charlatans, or that the most publicly righteous people sometimes turn out to be monsters behind closed doors. They know that.
You don't need to tell People of the Book that the Book is confusing, and that they often have to tie themselves into knots to avoid seeing its contradictions. You don't need to tell oppressed people that God's deliverance sometimes takes centuries to arrive and sometimes doesn't come at all. You don't need to tell them that blowing themselves up is an improbable road to success, that it will bring sadness to their families and most likely help no one. [A questioner challenged this point at the end of the talk, so I'll elaborate: Even groups that defend suicide bombing and claim it transports the bomber straight to Heaven only take up the practice as a last resort. People who have any other viable military or political strategy do not blow themselves up. That tells me everything I need to know about their true assessment of its effectiveness.]
They know all that. As much as they may argue with you when you point these things out, they know. That's why winning those arguments changes nothing, because they already know.
What they don't know is that there's a better way. Convince people of that, and you will change them.
In short, it's pointless to tell the traveler that his cloak isn't keeping him warm. He knows better than you do how cold he is. But that's not going to convince him to take that cloak off. What works better is to say, "Are you cold? I have just the thing. It's a better way to get warm."
4. Humanism and Progress
Now that I've told you something about believers, let me tell you something about Humanism and its history. Times and places where religion was becoming more humanistic have in general been prosperous and showed rapid progress, like Holland in the 1600s or England a little bit later.
We like to tell that story as cause-and-effect: Humanism leads to progress and prosperity. And that's true, but the reverse is also true: Progress and prosperity lead to Humanism. Wherever people have rational hope that they can solve their problems and improve their lives, it's not hard to convince them to liberalize their religion and expand the secular sphere to take in more of life's issues and decisions.
Consider the United States in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution. In New England trade was booming, industry was developing, population was rising, jobs were plentiful, wages were higher than anywhere in Europe, and if you could save up enough capital to get you through the first year, you could go west and claim land of your own. Particularly among the educated classes, life was hopeful and opportunities abounded.
And in this setting, Calvinism evolved into Unitarianism. Even the religious conservatives of the era are only relatively conservative; their beliefs were liberalizing more slowly. Those Puritan-founded churches that didn't turn Unitarian remained Congregationalist, and are now part of the United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's denomination.
Contrast that with what was happening among the slaves in the South. They lived hard lives with little reason for optimism. Small-scale rebellions were harshly put down, and because slaves were largely illiterate and tied to one plantation, their prospects for organizing a large-scale rebellion were dim. If you knew of no whites who would help you and had no place to go in the North, you had little chance of escape.
What came out of that environment was the deep religiosity you can hear in the Negro spirituals.
Go down, Moses,
Way down to Egyptland.
Go tell that Pharaoh
To let my people go.
Deprived of any rational hope, they irrationally identified with the Old Testament Israelites, and they hoped irrationally that someday the God of Moses would deliver them too -- if not in this lifetime, then by rewarding them in Heaven. With that hope, they endured. They held out -- day to day, year to year -- until processes they could not have foreseen set their descendants free.
That's how people are. That's how evolution made us. Given reasonable opportunities, we will take them. But if we are cut off from any reasonable hope of a life worth living, we will find some other way to keep going. We are a persistent species; that's how we survived.
5. John Dietrich's Idealistic Humanism
Real Humanism -- not just liberal Christianity or reformed Judaism, but full-fledged God-is-optional Humanism -- took off in America in the 1920s, the Roaring 20s.
It is hard to put yourself back into that mindset today, because it was a time not just of booms, but of real live reproducible miracles. There were horseless carriages and machines that flew men above the clouds. Glowing devices would sit in your living room and pull voices out of the ether.
One of those voices was John Dietrich.
Dietrich's sermons were so popular that his church, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, had to rent out a theater on Sunday mornings to fit everybody in. He called his message Humanism, and in many ways it resembled what is taught as Humanism today. But the tone of it was very different.
Dietrich preached a Humanism of the Sun, not a Humanism of the North Wind.
For one thing, Dietrich could not be bothered to argue whether or not God exists. Dietrich's Humanism wasn't about theology, it was about responsibility. So if you wanted to form a concept in your mind and call it God, fine. If you wanted to sing about your God, fine. But Dietrich insisted that you recognize this: All those things people have been praying to God for down through the centuries -- if humanity could just get its act together, we could do them rather than pray about them.
"To become a humanist," he preached, "does not merely mean throwing off the yoke of the old religion; it means assuming personally the responsibility that heretofore was supposed to rest with God."
Imagine yourself in the 1920s and let me recreate Dietrich's message.
Have people been praying for centuries for God to feed the hungry? It's an age of steel plows and tractors and threshing machines. Every year we get more grain for less work. There's plenty of food, and there's going to be even more in the future. Just figure out how to distribute the Earth's bounty, and humans, not God, will feed the hungry.
Have people been praying for God to heal the sick? It's an age of vaccines and nutrition and sanitation. Every year, science learns more about the human body and the diseases that afflict it. Turn that knowledge loose, apply it everywhere, devote ourselves to learning more, and humans, not God, will heal the sick.
Have people been praying to God for justice and peace? Injustice and war don't come from angels or demons; they come from people, and it's up to people to end them. Every year we learn more about social, political, and economic systems. What if we harnessed that knowledge to the insight that we are one human family sharing one beautiful, bountiful planet and all hoping to thrive in the same ways? What if all the resources wasted on weapons could be applied to things that actually make life better? What if people could express their heroism by devoting their lives to justice rather than sacrificing them to war?
He preached: "Burn that one truth -- that it can be done -- into the mind of the race, and the work will begin."
And that work -- at least as Dietrich told the story -- was the most meaningful, most interesting, most satisfying thing you could be doing with your life.
His Humanism had come not to snatch something away from you, but to give you something so valuable that you would drop the useless baggage you'd been dragging around. Dietrich recognized that there is no need to denounce people's unbelievable hopes -- they, better than anyone else, know just how hard it is to keep believing in those hopes. Just give them believable hopes, and the fantastic ones will fall away on their own. Why would you base your hopes on an unseen world, on an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, if you could base them instead on things that you see happening all around you?
6. The Disillusioning 20th Century
It would be nice if I could just tell Humanists to start preaching Dietrich's sermons again, but I can't. The rest of the 20th century was hard on Dietrich-style optimism. There was the Great Depression and then the most destructive war in history. That war ended with the atom bomb, which put down once and for all the idea that progress and science are entirely beneficent forces. After the war we discovered just how bad the death camps were, and that made people wonder whether folks like John Dietrich had underestimated the depths of evil in the human soul.
Worst of all, a lot of Dietrich's ideas about science and reason and social progress -- as well as his point about the uselessness of traditional religion -- were echoed in the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. In many ways that connection is unfair, because Dietrich's highest principle -- that each person is an end in himself, and that no one should be treated just as a means to someone else's ends -- was exactly what Communism needed and didn't have.
But in another way the connection is fair. Communism made the world skeptical of utopian plans. We all know now that people who diagram the perfect society on a blank sheet of paper can do horrific things, things that a person bound by tradition would never imagine. Even Ivan the Terrible was not so terrible compared to Stalin.
And that's why today the people with the most radical plans to transform society disguise themselves as restorationists. The Tea Party claims to be restoring the vision of the Founding Fathers. Bin Laden wants to restore the Caliphate. Christian Dominionists want to prepare the way for the return of Jesus.
In short, we 21st-century people have lost our faith in the limitless potential of blank sheets of paper.
In addition, I think Dietrich underestimated the ability of the Powers That Be to co-opt new insights into people and social structures. It is just as easy -- and in the short run more profitable -- to make better propaganda than better education. Social insights that might produce better human beings and a more just society might also produce better sheep and a more controllable society.
You don't have to look far to see that happening. Just look at the election we just held. Look at the quantity of corporate money spent and the lies and distractions it promoted.
So if we can't go back to the 20s, where do we go?
Well, the first thing I want to point out is that the easiest thing for the Powers That Be to co-opt is our cynicism and skepticism. If North Wind Humanists come together in small groups and congratulate each other about how bright and tough-minded we are, if we see ourselves as the elite few who can face the cold, hard Truth -- the Powers That Be are fine with that. That's no threat to them.
But the Humanism of the Sun, Dietrich-style Humanism, the kind of Humanism that raises worldly hopes rather than dashing other-worldly hopes -- that is a threat. That is something that could catch on and change the world.
The Humanism of the Sun has got to be optimistic. It's got to be idealistic. It's got to be inspiring. Because humanity is a hopeful species, and you are never going to channel human energy without hope.
7. Hope and History
Now, where can we find that hope and idealism and inspiration? Let's start with the easy part: Dietrich's basic insight still holds. It is well within the power of humanity to answer the vast majority of prayers.
In spite of everything we've done to it in the last century, this is still a rich planet. No external force or natural limit prevents humanity from living in peace, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving every child a good education, recognizing everyone's human dignity, and making sure that everyone has access to the information they need to actively participate in their own governance.
What's more, that vision is still inspiring. It still stirs the blood, if you can bring yourself to believe in it.
But that's the problem, isn't it? Humanists are realists. We believe in facts. And doesn't the evidence tell us that the world going to hell in a handbasket?
In a lot of ways, it certainly is. Endless wars, global warming, the exhaustion of natural resources, the long-term inability of our economy to generate good jobs, antibiotic-resistant germs, the increasing separation between rich and poor, and (what is most disturbing to me personally, because as a political blogger I run into it every day) the corruption of our national discourse. We can't even talk about most of our real problems any more. Even as we come to the end of the hottest year on record, the percentage of the American population that believes global warming is a hoax is going up. Even as staph and tuberculosis bacteria evolve to defeat our best drugs, we face increasing demands to teach children alternatives to the theory of evolution.
Yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. How can Humanists in good conscience go to people with an optimistic message?
My answer is that if you study history, if you really put yourself into the mindset of past eras, you realize that world has almost always been going to hell in a handbasket. Times and places where progress is obvious to the casual observer are very exceptional. And yet, somehow, when you take the long view, good things happen. Slavery ends. Jim Crow ends. Women get the vote and eventually equality under the law. Apartheid ends. Fascism falls. Communism falls. The prospect of a civilization-ending nuclear war recedes.
And it never, ever looks like it's going to happen until just before it does. The forces of goodness always seem ephemeral compared to the entrenched institutions that support the current corruption. Look at today's European welfare state through the eyes of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. Think of all the vested interests of their day who profited from the desperation of the poor. How could they possibly have been defeated? And yet they were.
Or go back a little further. Dietrich talks about humanity taking responsibility back from God. Before the Enlightenment, the official rhetoric said that God was responsible for choosing a nation's rulers. Kings ruled by divine right, by the will of Heaven. Against that orthodoxy, men like Locke and Rousseau argued that government was a human responsibility, that government was created by a social contract, not mandated by the Almighty. Obvious as that is now, you can't imagine how airy-fairy it must have sounded when it was new. "Lovely idea, but the King is the King. We have always had kings. Be grateful that our King is so benevolent as to let you prattle like this."
It has always been that way. And yet, good things happen.
Partly it's just the illusion of size. Whatever is big enough to be obvious is probably already in decline. The rising mammals always seem insignificant compared to the declining dinosaurs.
But the deeper reason is that the ultimate source of goodness in the world is the conscience and compassion and empathy and loyalty and honor of the individual human being. And those qualities are always hidden until someone evokes them.
They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?
It paid a lot better to be a thug for J. H. Blair. It always has. But somehow enough miners stood together to make a union. How did they do that? Who could have seen it coming?
How many times in the last several decades have we seen oppressive governments fall when unarmed people by the tens of thousands flood out onto the streets and refuse to be intimidated by soldiers -- until the soldiers just give up?
It always looks impossible until just before it happens. Because the force that wins the victory is hidden inside the individual human being. And it stays hidden until somebody evokes it, until somebody who has faith in the goodness hidden inside everyone else takes the risk of saying in public what everyone is thinking in private. Someone puts the question to society, and then you either have to watch someone else's goodness be stamped out, or you have to risk bringing out your own.
And that's how good things happen.
8. Humanistic Faith
Now, if you've been keeping your head and you haven't let yourself be carried away by idealistic rhetoric, you may have noticed that I just committed a horrible heresy: I just told a group of Humanists that their ultimate success depends on having faith in hidden forces.
I don't see any way around that. Any effective Humanist message has to be optimistic. And any honest optimism about humanity has to depend on believing that human beings have it in them to be better than the society they currently live in, and better, in fact, than they often appear to be in everyday life. Good things don't happen because the events in the headlines proceed inexorably towards goodness. Good things happen because the most unlikely people find it in themselves to be heroes at the precise moments when heroes are needed.
I know of no way to measure or quantify that hidden power of human goodness, but it's what everything depends on. For me, and I suspect for you, it works best to think of that hidden power as a natural phenomenon, just part of what human beings are.
But I can foretell the future enough to say this: If you start talking about this hidden human goodness, some people are going to want to call it God. For example, I think that's what Forrest Church was talking about when he said "God is our name for what is greater than all and yet present in each."
So what do we do with that? What do we do when something seems a little mysterious, maybe, but not at all supernatural to us, and somebody else wants to call it God?
9. Humanism's Uncompromisable Core
And that brings up the final question I want to consider: What is the essence of Humanism? What is the line that we can't let be crossed, that central thing that if we don't stand for this, we stand for nothing?
A lot of people will tell you that the essence is atheism. There is no God. If someone starts talking about God, we need to show them the door, because there's no place for that here.
I think that's a mistake. It diverts us away from changing the world and turns us back towards metaphysical arguments that accomplish nothing and help no one. Also, I think we wind up separating ourselves from people who ought to be our allies.
I put the essence of Humanism where John Dietrich did: The responsibility for the survival and the flourishing of the human race in this world lies with human beings. It's up to us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to make peace, and to establish justice. And it's up to us to gather the facts and make the plans to carry out that mission. That is our responsibility and it is our highest responsibility.
To me, any one who recognizes that responsibility is a Humanist. And if they symbolize human goodness with the word God, if some of them want to talk about a God who is a cheerleader and an inspirer, if they want to imagine a God who stands on the sidelines and roots for us to fulfill our responsibilities ... then I say we let them. If they want to sing songs about such a God and use his or her name in invocations and benedictions, let them. The essence of Humanism has not been compromised.
But anyone who serves God to the detriment of serving humanity, anyone who makes God a commander rather than a cheerleader, anyone who trades off well-being in this world for some other kind of blessing in some other world, anyone who prays for divine solutions instead of working for human solutions -- that person is not a Humanist. To me, those are the lines we can't cross without losing ourselves.
Finally, if the essence of Humanism is a set of responsibilities rather than a theological position, that tells us how we can work with others and who we can recognize as allies. Because human vs. divine responsibility can be judged issue by issue. John Locke was not an atheist. But he believed that the choice of rulers was a human responsibility rather than a divine one. On that issue, I could work with him without compromising my integrity.
Before we break for discussion, let me sum up where we've been: Humanism should not just be nay-saying and skepticism. Exploding people's other-worldly hopes is not only pointless, it is unnecessary: Put forward believable worldly hopes and unbelievable other-worldly hopes will fade away on their own.
For that reason, a Humanism that matters, a Humanism that can catch on and make a difference the world, has to be idealistic rather than cynical. It has to be visionary rather than curmudgeonly, optimistic rather than pessimistic.
And unless you are so lucky as to find yourself living in one of those rare times and places where progress is obvious, you're going to have to postulate beyond the visible facts. Because what is declining is always more visible than what is rising, and it's always easier to project selfish and self-interested motives into the future than to imagine the kind of creative heroism that again and again seems to come out of nowhere and push humanity forward. Cynicism works against us. We need not to puncture people's faith in God, but to raise their faith that humanity still has the ability to overcome its vested interests, that (like our ancestors) we can make real progress towards justice and compassion and dignity for all.
And finally, theology is a distraction, and arguing against God pulls you into that trap just as surely as arguing for God. Humanism is about humanity taking responsibility for its own fate and its own flourishing. Anyone who accepts their share of humanity's responsibility for itself should be considered a Humanist in good standing, and anyone who accepts humanity's responsibility for some particular issue is a worthy ally on that issue.
"This," preached John Dietrich, "is the faith that the world needs today. It does not need an ecclesiastical religion, it does not need more priests and prayers and holy books, it does not need literary essays on academic subjects; but it does need the never-ending voice of the prophet going up and down the land, crying, not as of old, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," but "Prepare ye the way of mankind, and make its way straight."