With every passing year, America becomes less religious -- at least insofar as organized supernatural creeds go. Might the philosophy of secular humanism prove a suitable replacement for the sense of grounding principle, life fulfillment, and communal identity which theologies traditionally brought to most Americans? David Niose, former head of the American Humanist Association, shares his take on this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried.' SEE more episodes HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
COTTO: ‘Tis the season, which means it’s time to discuss religion, at least for untold millions of Americans, though that number is declining as the country grows more secular, obviously interest in supernatural creeds diminishes. What might replace religion as we have known it in this country? Humanism, secular humanism to be precise, is a prime candidate. Although just what sort of influence it will have — how powerful it will be — very much remains to be decided. David Niose is the former head of the American humanist Association. He joins us this week on Cotto/Gottfried to share his views on the future of secular humanism in American life. I’m your cohost Joseph Ford Cotto, editor in chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. My cohost Paul Gottfried Will not be joining us this week.
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COTTO: It’s no secret that America has been secularizing for some time, but over the last few years I think it’s really picked up speed. Humanism is something that a lot of people look at as a replacement for the, I suppose, moral guidance of traditional religion. What do you think humanism will do during the years to come, say in the next five years? What sort of role do you think secular humanism, to be specific, will play in our society? Do you think it will be more visible? Do you think it will be something that people sort of abide by, but at the same time they don’t know what to call it? Or might the situation be rather different altogether?
NIOSE: Well, that’s an interesting question. Of course, to some degree, it requires speculation. But I think there’s two fronts where you could see humanism playing a very important role. First of all, as society becomes more secular, I think secular ethics become necessary. If you are not relying on ancient theology or any kind of supernaturalism, then you really have to turn to a secular means for ethics. And humanism certainly provides that. The other thing that I think humanism provides is a vehicle if you will for searching for truth. Empiricism — the scientific method — I think as society becomes more secular people aren’t going to be turning to ancient books for truth. They are going to hopefully be valuing rational, scientific approach to searching for truth. So, I think those are two important roles for humanism going forward in a more secular society.
COTTO: Do you think that people are attracted to secular humanism because of its secular nature, or do you think that the I guess qualities of it, the moral underpinnings of it relate to them sort of in a way which religion might have at one time, but at the same time they’re able to look at secular humanism as a replacement for it on some sort of more plane?
NIOSE: I think it depends on the person and even on the social group. I think some people have gravitated towards a humanistic life stance without even knowing that the life stance that they embrace is a humanistic one. They’ve just gravitated away from religion, away from supernaturalism, and they have this kind of humanistic view of the world, but they wouldn’t even think of calling themselves humanist. It just hasn’t entered their radar screen. For other people I think actually finding something else to identify with and to embrace is very important, and for those people I do think seeing humanism as a substitute sort of for religion is important. So, it really does depend. People are not a monolith. There’s always an array of views and backgrounds and everyone’s different. Humanism plays a different role depending on the specific situation, the specific person.
COTTO: What do you think about humanism might appeal to people who like a traditional moral structure to guide their lives and I suppose society moreover? What do you think secular humanism offers that demographic?
NIOSE: Well, humanism provides a rational, realistic basis for morality. The conservative, religious wing likes to insist that if we don’t believe in a punishing god, we’re all going to just gravitate towards terrible morality — that we’ll all start killing each other and stealing and raping — and it’s really kind of funny if you think of it that way. People aren’t innately that way. There’s certainly an impulse within humanity to do immoral things, but there’s also a natural impulse to cooperate. We are social animals. As we become more intelligent, more enlightened we come to appreciate the value of that ethical tendency. And we create social structures that nurture that tendency. We create affluence so that in more affluent societies you’re less likely to see gross immorality — mass immorality, war and that kind of strife. So, I think humanism offers that. It offers a way of understanding why we as human animals can and will hopefully act ethically and create positive society, a better society, a better world. It’s hard to find a vehicle for doing that in this world, but humanism offers it.
COTTO: Some who are adherent to supernatural religions and dislike secular humanism four I think understandable reasons, they might say, “well, what is the ethical basis of secular humanist morality.” Or I think a more accurate question would be, “what is the moral basis of secular humanist ethics?” — I got that mixed up a bit — What would you say to them since there’s no supernatural god to guide secular humanistic thought?
NIOSE: It’s kind of what I was just alluding to. The people who ask, “why would we be good if we don’t believe in a supernatural god?” To that I would say the human animal has a moral impulse, it’s natural. The impulse to cooperate, to not hurt others, to not be a thief, to not be someone who harms and does all sorts of, what we would call, antisocial things. Most of those impulses are natural within the human animal. Now, the human animal also has impulses that would do other things, but this is not a struggle between an all-good deity and a demon who rebelled against that deity — this is the theistic explanation for these impulses. But if you really think about how silly that explanation is, and that the explanation really makes more sense from a naturalistic standpoint and we understand an awful lot about biology and psychology now, and we really can understand why these impulses — what we would call good and bad — both have had survival-value within the human animal. The human animal has had survival value with these impulses because these impulses have kind of moved us forward in an evolutionary sense. But at this point in our advancement we can really understand it all quite well. We don’t need a theistic explanation for why we act good and why we act bad. We understand — kind of. Obviously, we’re not all scientists, but we understand the basics. Even a layman can understand the basics. So, we can knowing that try to work for the kind of society that will really magnify those good impulses and encourage them and nurture them. And hopefully suppress the bad ones.
COTTO: Do you think that secular humanism will sort of I suppose, say adapt to a changing society? Or do you think that American society will adapt to secular humanism as time goes by?
NIOSE: Well, humanism is a worldview that is always willing to change its position. Unlike theistic religion I would point out. Humanism does not claim to have found that elusive absolute truth that all explanations must now conform with. So, humanism will certainly revise itself going forward, and I think that that’s one of the better qualities of humanism is that if it does get something wrong it will reconsider. Science is that way as well. Science asks to be disproven. Karl Popper pointed out that falsifiability is an essential element of science — that if you have a notion that you’re putting forward, if you can’t prove it wrong then it really is not a scientific proposition because you need to be able to show something is false. So, no — humanism would not expect society to bend to its well. No, not at all. Humanism would hope that the propositions that it’s putting forward and the ethical framework that it suggests, which to some extent is always debatable by the way. We can debate about what’s good and not good, and what’s evil and what’s not evil. So, it’s not like we’re hoping we can get society to mold itself to humanism. I think we want humanism to be a worldview that is embraced because it makes sense.
COTTO: Continuing with the subject matter of American society, even though America now is much more of a secular country than it was five let alone ten years ago, it still is more religious than the norm among developed nations. As a humanist, do you have any perspective on why this might be? Why our society and culture has been more hesitant to accept secularism and of course secular humanism as something normative or main stream?
NIOSE: Well, that’s a complicated question. And there are several different layers to it. But as for why American society is so religious, I think it really just has deep cultural roots in America. America traditionally has been quite religious. We were — going back in our history — many of the early settlers were kind of religious fanatics quite frankly. And we’ve had revivals periodically throughout our history. Every century — the eighteenth century saw a couple. The nineteenth century had at least one or two. One could argue that what’s happened with the religious right since the late seventies, early eighties, has been another revival of a kind of fundamentalism in American society. Richard Hofstadter wrote his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and more than about half the book is dedicated to considering religion as an American phenomenon, and how it contributes to a American anti-intellectualism.
So, it’s an historical phenomenon, it’s been a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon, and we continue to have religious freedom in kind of an extreme way. And many people have supposed that the first amendment’s religious freedom guarantee is keeping religion separate from government has actually allowed religion to thrive in American society in a way that it really hasn’t in societies that have had established religion.
COTTO: I think that’s a very good point that you just made about the constitution. I think it’s also — and I didn’t see this immediately, it was brought up to me a few years ago and over time I’ve really come to appreciate this perspective, I think it’s because of immigration. So many people who came here traditionally were poor, they were outcasts and that’s really the target demographic really for supernatural religions. So, I there was sort of a self-selected minority of people more religious than the average in the old world so to speak that came here and that’s at least one of the reasons that why America has traditionally been so religious.
NIOSE: That’s a very good point and kind of continuing with that thought I’d also point out that America historically has had very few governmental safety nets. So, those immigrants when they have landed in this country have relied quite heavily on the community church for the social support the families need, and that individuals need. So, churches in American society have played a role that’s a very important one to a lot of families, immigrant families. And you see this in many communities. The churches are ethnic. Even within catholic communities in the northeast it’s very common, other parts of the country as well, to have a community that has several catholic churches — the polish one, the Irish one, the Italian one. This is because these immigrant communities kind of migrated to these churches as the center of their social life when they got to this country, and that obviously makes them very powerful and makes them a very important part of our society, and to take it further it makes America what would appear to be a very religious society.
COTTO: It’s also worth noting that as the immigrants or the descendants of those immigrants assimilate, they become less and less ethnically religious, and across the northeast and upper midwest I presume that’s why you see so many of those churches and the schools that’s affiliated with them closing down.
NIOSE: Sure, sure. And it would be interesting to consider why in the bible belt, the south, that hasn’t so much been the case. Although, quite frankly it has been the case to a certain degree because even in the south the mainline churches have not done well. It’s been more kind of the mega churches and the fundamentalist churches that have. Somehow they have found a way of not just surviving but really thriving. You could argue it has a lot to do with racism and with politics, these social issues that are so important in the south, the churches are one means of gathering political momentum and organizing.
COTTO: It’s also worth noting that in the south as well as elsewhere the mainline churches in many cases were ethnic as well. The Episcopalians were the descendants of English settlers and the Presbyterians were the descendants of Scottish or Scotts-Irish ones. It’s not that clear cut today, but that’s certainly the way it started.
NIOSE: Yeah, certainly it was.
COTTO: I think that by and large though Southern religion which is evangelical or fundamentalist, whatever one should like to say, that’s more of a homegrown phenomenon than an immigrant-created one and I think it has to do with those revivals you mentioned, the economic as well as social conditions in the south as well as parts of the midwest throughout the centuries let alone years and that would really explain why you see what you see.
NIOSE: Certainly part of the explanation, yeah. I think a lot of it is political quite frankly. I think these churches have over the years managed to tap into racism and really kind of exploit that ugly aspect of our culture.
COTTO: If you look at the rise of the religious right which really took place in the seventies, the late seventies and of course throughout the eighties and nineties was very, very large, it seems that it was a replacement for I guess you could say racial identity, politics, people need something to rally around so it went from their race to their religion and that now continues among many different groups, not just southern whites. But it sure is an interesting historical phenomenon.
NIOSE: Yeah, it is. The rise of the religious right is really something that you could spend an entire show on. And there’s been a lot written on it. A lot of people tend to think that it has something to do with the abortion issue, but those who have really looked into it have concluded for the most part that abortion was really just a tool that the religious right used to mobilize the masses — that it was really, that the real spark that got the religious right going was more of a racial issue. But these pastors — Falwell and co. and all them — they knew that they couldn’t expressly stand up and say, “hey, we need a movement to fight desegregation, and we basically need a racist movement.” So instead, they used the abortion issue as their front and center issue and the gay rights issue. But not far from the surface, and really the issue that truly motivated them at the beginning of it all what is the racial issue. And specifically, if you look at the attempts to desegregate Bob Jones University. the Federal government removed Bob Jones University’s tax exempt status because it would not desegregate in some ways, I believe it was interracial dating that they refused, or it might have just been allowing blacks on campus at all. But anyway, there was a desegregation issue of some kind that caused Bob Jones University to lose its tax exempt status. And that just really ruffled the feathers of many of the leading pastors in the south. And they kind of put their heads together and said “we need some kind of a movement, political movement, to fight back against this.” And the moral majority was not far from there. Of course, when the moral majority was formed it didn’t talk about racism. They wouldn’t get much public support if they were public about that, so they used the abortion issue and the gay rights issue as their mobilizing issues.
COTTO: It’s worth noting that the American right has become secularized, greatly so within the last ten years, although I think it still has a long way to go. But at the same time on the left from what I’ve seen there’s been a resurgence of interest in religion, and it might have to do with multiculturalism, the ethnic identity among immigrants or whatever. Do you think that it’s possible that say within ten years the left might be more religious than the right on average?
NIOSE: I don’t think so. I don’t see that happening. I think the left obviously will always continue to work with liberal churches especially minority churches that understand the importance of minority issues and racial justice issues and economic justice issues. There’s nothing wrong with working with religious groups if they are on the right side of political issues. But I don’t see — I wouldn’t even characterize it as you did as a resurgence of religion on the left. I think it’s always been there, I mean since Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, there’s always been a religious left, but I don’t think that religious left is growing in any great way. There will be ups and downs, but I think the general trend will continue to be in the secular direction as humanity moves forward. It’s not surprising that there are more atheists on the right now because there are just more atheists, there are more secular people. So, it’s natural that the right will continue to see some growth of its secular segment as well. But the religious right which is the most organized political arm of religion will always be on the right. Those people aren’t going to come over on the left, obviously.
COTTO: I agree. I think that though we are a bit too close to it, but historians will look back at the loss of Roy Moore in Alabama as sort of the turning point at which the religious right no longer became a serious political force I guess you could say in and of it’s self. Though it still has considerable … like one constituent in American politics among many others rather than the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.
NIOSE: I hope you’re right, and I hope its power continues to decline. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to predict that it will. I see what’s happening in this country and certainly on the judicial side of things, things are looking very bleak I very hopeful for the religious right. So, it’s very hard to say, but I think in some form or another the religious right will be around for a while. Hopefully it will continue to decline in significance. But you have to concede that at least in the Republican Party it’s going to continue to be a very major sector — one of the two or three most important constituency groups in the GOP. Now, you could take what I said and say “yeah well the GOP will decline in power.” Maybe, but as long as the religious right is one of the major power-centers in the GOP, it’s going to continue to carry a lot of weight in this country.
COTTO: For the last question, this will be a very broad one, so it might take a while to answer. But if America were as secular humanist as it is supernaturally religious, what do you think the biggest change in society would be immediately? Like if you walk out the door in the morning, what do you think would be different in terms of how Americans treat each other, and how they view themselves and their role in the world?
NIOSE: Wow, that is a pretty big question, and I’ll answer it just off-the-cuff not having given it hours of thought. But I think if America were as secular as you were suggesting, you’d probably see public policy more a kin to what you see in countries that are that secular, such as Scandinavia for example, and much of Europe, Western Europe. You would probably see universal healthcare and serious safety nets, even a Wall Street that doesn’t quite flex the kind of muscle that it does in this country. I mean, nowadays Wall Street is like the tail that wags the dog in this country. So, I think if you had humanism really flourishing to the extent that you’re suggesting, you’d see public policy gravitate in that direction. That’s my quick answer. Ask me again tomorrow and having given it some more thought I might think otherwise. But that’s probably a good kind of knee-jerk answer.
COTTO: It seems to me that if humanism were to become that popular, it would take on many different shades. I think that there would be a sort of traditionalist humanism which probably would be popular on the right, a more progressive humanism which obviously would be popular on the left. I don’t know what would become of the political center but I think it would probably take on characteristics of both the left and right leaning humanists. But I think that more beyond politics, if humanism more predominant in society, people would probably not I would think carry around as many grudges as they do, because it seems to me that organized religion sort of perpetuates ill feelings toward other people in many cases as well as dread of the unknown and a deep fear of death, really.
NIOSE: Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think that’s a valid answer, and I would actually agree with that. I think that nobody would suggest that if we were a flourishing humanistic society that we’d be in some kind of utopia. Humanists tend not to be utopian. In fact, they see a lot of things from a public policy standpoint as not an effort to perfect society, but as an effort to remedy a problem which that may sound like kind of the same thing but actually it’s much different. There’s an element of pragmatism that comes into saying, “look, we’re not so idealistic that we think this is going to make things perfect here, and this is going to make things perfect here.” But instead looking out society and saying, “where are the problems? What can we do about them?” And kind of taking that pragmatic approach to life and society and it’s very levelheaded. It’s very practical. I could see a lot more of it if we were a flourishing humanistic society.
COTTO: That was an excellent discussion David, thank you very much for joining us. And thank you for tuning in everyone. See you next week.