A few high school students from a local Christian Academy reached out to me recently, asking if I could answer some questions for them about Humanism for an apologetics class where their assignment was to interview people from different faith (or non-faith) backgrounds.
Here was my response, and basically my personal take on a “Humanism 101”.
As it’s geared more towards someone who may have had no prior exposure to Humanism it’s probably a bit basic for most readers of this blog, but hopefully a good primer/refresher on some of the basic principles of Humanism and secular morality.
1. What is the origin of the universe and man?
While there are still many unanswered questions about the origin of our universe, our current state of scientific understanding is that the universe began as a single point of nearly infinite energy about 13.8 billion years ago, which expanded rapidly in an incredibly short period of time and formed the early universe, which over time has become the universe as we know it today. While this process is now known as “the Big Bang“, that name is somewhat misleading since it was not actually an explosion, but rather an incredibly rapid expansion of space itself (and the energy within that space), kind of like blowing up a balloon. We also now know that the universe is continuing to expand, and will continue to expand indefinitely until–many billions of years from now–all of the energy within the universe has been expended.
Here is a good video of a talk by Physicist/Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about what we know about the origins of the universe, and how it is possible that our universe could have come “from nothing”:
As for the origin of man, all of the evidence in the biological sciences (biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, paleontology, etc) indicate that all humans today are descendants of a common ancestor which existed approximately six million years ago. This ancestor was a primate species which is now extinct, but from which we inherited many of the attributes that modern humans share today.
2. What is the purpose of mankind?
Humanists believe that a person’s purpose in life is what he or she chooses to make of it. Without a divine being to make that decision for us, we believe that we are free to pursue the things we find meaningful, and free to determine what gives each of us the greatest sense of purpose.
Here is a good (and short) video by humanist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on how he finds meaning in life.
3. What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it?
Much like #2, satisfaction is up to the individual to determine what provides the most satisfaction in their own life, based on their own personal desires and circumstances. However, I would also add that studies have consistently shown that almost all humans share in common certain things which provide us with the most satisfaction. These include:
-Being a part of a social and active community.
-Having meaningful relationships with others.
-Showing compassion for others and helping others in need.
All of the above are key parts of Humanism, much as they are for other religious communities such as churches. In those aspects, Humanist organizations are similar to religious churches, with key differences being that we do not have any rituals, holy texts, dogmas, or belief in the supernatural. Instead, we believe in an entirely reality-based worldview in which our actions are not driven by supernatural reward/punishment, but the desire to do good for the sake of making the world a better place.
4. What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world and why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s a common belief that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and that things are worse now than they were in the past. Yet the opposite is true in pretty much every way imaginable. Crime levels have plummeted dramatically, both in the U.S. and worldwide, over the past 50 years. The number of people dying in wars (as a percentage of the population) has dropped to their lowest levels in recorded history (and probably all of history). Economic equality, poverty reduction, education, and civil rights have seen (and are continuing to see) enormous strides. And despite the popular notion that our society is getting “dumber”, average IQ levels have increased dramatically throughout the 20th century all over the world, and are continuing to increase. And, of course, the number of deaths due to natural causes (particularly infectious diseases and famine) have dropped enormously even while the total world population has skyrocketed.
Of course, most people seem to be under the impression that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and wish we could return to how things “used to be”. One reason for this misconception is that we are now so much more connected to the outside world than ever before, with constant exposure to news media. And for a variety of reasons, news media tend to focus on negative news such as crimes, disasters, and tragedies, even when those things are actually relatively rare.
And, of course, the popularity of apocalyptic end-times theology, particularly in Christianity, plays a big role in this misconception as well.
To be clear, there are many things in this world which are extremely tragic, and many horrible things that we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. We certainly still have a lot of room to improve as a civilization. But the reality is that with rare exceptions (most significantly, environmental issues) the world is now better than it has been in just about every way, and continuing to get better all the time.
As for the question of why bad things happen to good people, the simplest answer is that we live in a world where people have the capability to commit evil acts, and according to Humanism there is no supernatural overseer (such as God) or supernatural entities (such as angels) to prevent them from doing so. Which is why it is especially crucial that we do whatever we can to help each other and try to make the world better, because if we (i.e. humanity) don’t, then nobody else will.
5. What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?
Simply put, the Humanist view of “right and wrong” is that it is wrong for someone to cause undue harm towards others (whether through action or inaction, or though the prevention of progress), and that we should strive to reduce the overall level of suffering in the world while increasing the overall level of happiness and prosperity. While this may seem rather obvious, Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews in that we do not believe in moral restrictions against behaviors and practices which do not actually cause any harm in the real world (for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage), or practices which may actually prevent harm (for example, birth control technologies).
Also, the Humanist view of morality is that our understanding of the world is constantly improving as we continue to learn new things about science, about society, about ourselves, and about ethics overall. As a result, the Humanist understanding of “right and wrong” is also something which improves over time, as our knowledge and understanding improve. In that sense we do not necessarily view moral truth as “absolute”, because we do not see morality as “fixed in place” and never-changing; instead, we look at morality as something which is ever-improving.
At the same time, that is not to say that humanists believe in cultural or moral relativism. So for example, we would not say that all perspectives and moral systems are equally valid, or that certain behaviors are unethical in certain cultures while ethical in others. Rather, Humanism sees morality is a human principle, and because all of us are human it applies to all of humanity equally.
And finally, another way Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews is in the motivating factors which drive Humanist morality. We do not believe in being good because we’ve been commanded to, or in order to please a divine creator, or in order to obtain supernatural reward (or avoid supernatural punishment). Humanism is the belief in being good for the sake of being good (and for whatever intrinsic rewards may come about as a result), and the desire to live in the best society that we possibly can.
6. Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?
With very rare exceptions (basically people who have neurological disorders of the brain), all of us naturally have a sense of right and wrong, and an innate sense of empathy that enables us to feel for others and desire to be good towards others. Studies of human babies, for example, have shown that these tendencies start being displayed at an extremely young age, before being taught right from wrong. And even several animal species show these behaviors as well. And all of this makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary theory: Humans managed to survive throughout the centuries and become the most dominant species on Earth not only because of our intelligence, but because of our innate desire to work together with others and establish cooperative societies, and that increases the odds of everyone surviving and passing on those qualities to the next generation.
7. What happens at death? (Where are we going when we die- How do we know and what does it look like, and if it is heaven- then how do we get there)
The Humanist view of death was probably best summarized by Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
While most humanists would love for there to be some way for us to continue existing after we die, we realize that there is no credible evidence that the afterlife exists. Most likely, being dead is simply going back to the same state as before you were born.
And because humanists believe that one life is all we get, we believe that every moment of life is precious and we should do everything we can to make a positive impact during the limited time that we have. And if there is any kind of “immortality”, it exists in the continuing influence of the things we did while we were alive and by our ideas (hopefully) continuing to positively affect those in future generations.
Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein
Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says; it’s actually a lot like a dating website, with photos of each person, self-written bios which read just like dating website bios, and a detailed search function, just like a dating website. And one of the parameters they allow you to search by is… religion.
So I decided to run some searches, curious to see how the percentages break down in terms of atheists/agnostics vs Christians vs. other religions. Before we get into the results (which were quite interesting), there were a few caveats regarding the data which became immediately apparent:
- Many of the “religion” options are obviously not mutually exclusive, with some of them actually going “three levels” deep (e.g. Baptists are also Protestants, and Protestants are also Christians). For purposes of what I’m interested in though, that’s pretty much a non-issue since all of the Christian denominations clearly fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”.
- Another category is called “Non-Denominational”, which–here in America at least–is often used (somewhat disingenuously) as a synonym for fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Which of course is only “not a denomination” in a technical sense; their core doctrines of Biblical literalism, strict inerrancy, salvation by faith, political conservatism, overemphasis on Paul, and underemphasis on Jesus are really just as much of a “denomination” as any other (granted you’ll find some N.D. churches which don’t fit this mold, but those seem to be in the minority). Either way, N.D. Christians are still encompassed within “Christianity”, so ultimately it doesn’t really affect the Christian vs. non-Christian breakdown (though I admit it’s possible that not all of the N.D.’s understood the term to mean “non-denominational Christianity”).
- Slightly more problematic is the category of “N/A”, which could conceivably mean anything from an atheist to a non-religiously affiliated theist, much like the “None/Unaffiliated” category that you’ll typically see on religious surveys. So certainly some of the “N/A’s” could be atheists/agnostics who reject the label for some reason or another, though it would be sheer speculation to guess how many that could be. However, as is the case with the N.D. category, the site allows for the specific options of atheist or agnostic to be selected for those who identify as such, and the numbers I’ll be comparing against also include the “Unaffiliated” category, so regardless of how many of the “N/A’s” may actually fall under one of the other categories, it will still be an apples-to-apples comparison.
- Obviously the people who have signed up to participate as prisoners are not a random sampling of the prison population, so this is far from a truly “scientific” analysis. Such is life.
So, on to the data. The first thing that jumps out: The percentage of atheists and agnostics is virtually nonexistent. Among the 8,353 male prisoners, only 33 identify as atheist and 81 as agnostic, making for a combined 1.3%. Among the 728 female prisoners, only three are agnostics and one is an atheist, for a combined percentage of about 0.5%. Overall, only .37% (about a third of 1%) of all of the prisoners explicitly identify as “atheists” (and interestingly, the numbers of atheists/agnostics in this sample, as miniscule as they are, are actually significantly higher than those from prior surveys of the prison population).
Here are the combined numbers in one chart:
So how does that compare to the general population? According to the 2012 Pew Research poll, 2.4% of all poll participants in the general population identified as atheists while 3.3% identified as agnostics. Those percentages have grown dramatically since 2007, when the numbers were 1.6% and 2.4% respectively. While it would be tempting to use the latest figures (and doing so would certainly be more favorable towards atheists/agnostics), obviously the participants in writeaprisoner.com weren’t all arrested/convicted after 2012, so a more fair comparison would be to use the older figures (such as 2007).
And when we look at the 2007 numbers, what we find is that “atheists” are under-represented by a factor of about 77% (in other words, only 23% as many atheist prisoners as you would expect) and atheists/agnostics are under-represented by about 69%. Christians, meanwhile, are also moderately under-represented, by about 24%. Perhaps no group is as under-represented as Hindus, however, who make up only .0044% of those on in the sample, despite making up about .04% of the U.S. population (i.e. under-represented by about 90%).
The difference then, comes almost entirely from those in the N/A and “Spiritual” groups, (and to a lesser extent Muslims) which are vastly over-represented compared to the general population (a combined 29% in prison vs. 12% outside). This is also consistent with other crime/prison studies which have also found that those towards the “middle” of the theistic spectrum tend to commit the most crime, while the highly devout (i.e. regular churchgoers) and the highly secular (i.e. “committed” atheists, and to a lesser extent those who identify as “agnostics”) commit the least.
It’s worth noting, however, that there is another likely explanation for the huge number of N/A’s among the prisoner sample. While the percentage of “unaffiliated” in the general population was about 12% in 2007, the demographics of the unaffiliated nationwide skews drastically towards younger age groups, which also tend to commit the most crime. So it’s not surprising (in fact, it would be expected) that you would also see a larger percentage of them in the prison population too.
Of course, this factor also makes it even MORE remarkable just how few atheists and agnostics there are in that same prison population, given how much those skew towards the younger demographics as well.
Bottom line: Despite the fact that 45% of all Americans claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, and despite the widespread belief that atheists lack any objective moral standards (or, according to some, any moral standards at all), these numbers further affirm what we’ve known for quite some time now: that statistically speaking, atheists actually commit the least crime of just about any demographic group (which happens to be the case not just in America, but globally as well).
The overwhelming consensus in secular circles seems to be no, that whether or not a supernatural and miraculous event occurred in the past is simply outside the purview of history, and history is literally incapable of establishing an event as being “miraculous” in nature. But is that really the case?
Imagine if we were to simultaneously discover hundreds of ancient documents, unearthed from all around the world, each one dated conclusively to approximately 2,500 years ago, and each document corresponding with one of the civilizations which possessed writing during that time (including ones which had no possible means of communication with each other). Each document is written in the native language of that civilization, and on each one the message is essentially identical: “On this day, every single person in our region received a psychic message, which said to write down these numbers, and said that one day thousands of years from now we would understand the meaning of the numbers”. And when you take all of those hundreds of number strings from the different civilizations and assemble them into one long string, it matches the digits of pi starting at the billionth digit…
Of course, there’s a big difference between the above scenario and the supernatural claims in, for example, the Bible. No number of historical attestations could possibly prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, right? Well let’s consider the following scenario. Instead of four grossly contradictory and plagiarized accounts written decades after the fact by anonymous sources (i.e. the Gospels), imagine if we had consistent, clear, signed accounts by known historical figures who claimed to be witnesses to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and each claimed to have spoken with Jesus afterwards firsthand. And imagine if, in these accounts, Jesus told them that while he was dead he visited God, who told him to provide each of his disciples with a different string of numbers, and each of these numbers were recorded in the documents, and when you assemble those numbers into one long string…
Such a scenario wouldn’t necessarily prove that Jesus was the Son of God or any such nonsense, but as much of a staunch atheist and proponent of naturalism as I am, if documents such as those above were discovered I would be more than willing to admit that something supernatural/miraculous occurred, based simply upon those documents alone.
Now to those who have read this blog in the past it should be rather obvious, but just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying any of this to suggest that we should give greater credence to the Gospel accounts, or somehow be more “open-minded” to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that it is possible–at least in principle–for “history to prove a miracle”, in the sense that it is possible to prove anything, through historical means or otherwise (in other words, not proof with absolute 100% certainty, but sufficient proof to establish a claim as true). And instead of just dismissing the “historical” claims of supernatural events in the Bible with a simple hand-wave, these hypothetical scenarios show just how high that bar should be in order to meet the evidentiary standard of historical proof for a supernatural event. And they show just how far the Bible’s gospel accounts fall short of reaching that bar.
“You can’t reason someone out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into.” I really could have included this in Part 1 as the very first entry, since this may well be the single most insidious, self-defeating, and quite simply wrong (and yet despite all this, maddeningly common) cliché in the entire atheist lexicon. Matt Dillahunty once served up as thorough an eviscerating of this cliché as one could possibly imagine, to which I have very little to add. But on a personal note, I will just say that I’ve spoken with hundreds of atheists about their “deconversion” stories, and I can count on one hand the number who were not “reasoned out” of religion, regardless of what their initial reasons for believing may have been.
“It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than for him to enter the kingdom of heaven”. While not as egregious an example as the “slay them before me” passage, this is also an example of a Bible verse that’s often unfairly taken out of context when attempting to point out the absurdity of the Bible, or simply to make the claim that the Bible says the rich cannot enter heaven. After all, the passage immediately following it makes clear that it’s intentionally describing a physically impossible scenario in order to make the point that even seemingly impossible things are possible “with God”. There are plenty of actual errors, absurdities, and contradictions in the Bible. This isn’t one of them.
“If there’s a god, why does he allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” For many atheists (and theists), this is the big one. Even Bart Ehrman–who has perhaps done more than anyone else to educate the public about the Bible’s countless flaws and contradictions–cites the Problem of Evil as the main issue which led him away from theism. But the Problem of Evil is only a disproof of the traditional Judeo-Christian notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, not all “gods” in general. And such a god concept is no more probable than a “god” which is apathetic (or even evil), or a god which has limited power. If anything, the traditional god concept is inherently LESS probable (if not impossible) simply due to the logically contradictory nature of having mutually exclusive attributes, which renders the Problem of Evil something of a moot point. In other words, while we have plenty of reasons to disbelieve in the existence of gods, just because God may be an asshole (which the God of the Bible certainly is) doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The problem with invoking this phrase to dismiss religious claims is that it implies that the claim in question has “ordinary” evidence going for it, but simply lacks “extraordinary” evidence. But that’s FAR too generous when it comes to most religious claims, which typically fail to meet even “ordinary” standards of evidence (and in many cases lack any evidence whatsoever beyond an unsupportable claim of divine revelation).
For the rest of the series:
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”. What are the four Gospels of the New Testament? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of course. Which matches their order in the Bible, and matches the order they were written in according to the Catholic church and Christian tradition. The only problem: It’s wrong. And not only is it wrong, but the fact that it’s wrong is surprisingly devastating to the credibility of the gospel accounts and the Bible overall. And yet, despite this, you will often (if not always) hear even atheists referring to the gospels in the “stock” order, thereby perpetuating the myth of when they were actually written, and obscuring–however slightly–precisely what the church has tried to obscure.
In actuality Mark was written well before Matthew (which copied extensively from Mark), yet Mark has no birth narrative; it mentions nothing of Jesus being born of a virgin; it has the fewest miracles, the least-grandiose miracles, and presents the most “human” characterization of Jesus. Even the way Jesus speaks in Mark is dramatically different than in the later gospels. And perhaps most damning, Mark does not even contain a “resurrection” of Jesus per-se (Mark ends at the discovery of an empty tomb, and mentions nothing about Jesus appearing to anyone afterwards; of course that didn’t prevent early Christians from tacking-on a resurrection story to Mark, many years after it was written).
All of these issues are far less problematic if Matthew was written first, and if Mark were simply a condensed account of the “original” gospel… which is precisely the excuse that Christian apologists claim. But for Mark to be the first gospel account, and for it to leave out such critical details? That’s much harder (and probably impossible) to explain without acknowledging that those elements were later fabrications.
“I have better sources of morality than a 2,000 year-old book”. I’ll often hear people emphasize how ridiculously outdated the Bible is by referring to it as “2,000 years old”. But not only is that not accurate, it actually does the Bible a favor by obscuring the fact that the Bible’s origins do not even come close to coinciding with the events that it purportedly describes. In actuality the books of the New Testament were written beginning approximately 50 CE (decades after Jesus’ death) and were finished at some point in the 2nd (perhaps even 3rd) century. The books were then collected into what we now know as “the Bible” at some point well into the 4th century.
Obviously calling the Bible a “2,000 year old book” is much easier to write and say than “a collection of books written somewhere between 2,800 and 1,960 years ago which were collected for the first time in their current form about 1,650 years ago”. But the use of the “2,000 year old” shorthand suggests that the Bible goes all the way back to the lifetime of Jesus–as if it provides a contemporaneous account of his words and deeds–as opposed to being separated from them by at least a full generation. And by doing so, the Bible’s critics are unintentionally implying a greater degree of legitimacy to the Bible than it actually deserves.
For the rest of the series:
References to immoral/evil acts committed by characters in the Bible. Even the most ardent Christians will admit that the Bible contains a lot of fucked-ed up people doing really fucked-ed up things. But just because the Bible describes individuals doing fucked-ed up things doesn’t mean it necessarily endorses those acts (polygamy, adultery, murder, incest, etc). On the other hand there are plenty of stories where the Bible clearly DOES endorse some of the most depraved acts imaginable: mock execution, offering one’s own daughters to be raped by a mob, slavery, and mass genocide. Those are the stories we should focus on instead.
“Why couldn’t God just…” As a general rule, when atheists raise objections to the Bible in the form of a question, it’s not that they lack knowledge on the subject; it’s they have too much knowledge to not see through the bullshit. And in most cases it’s not that they “don’t know the answer”, there simply is no answer. But the problem with rhetorical questions is when people don’t take them as rhetorical. And the problem with non-rhetorical questions is that they imply a lack of knowledge and/or a lack of understanding on the part of the person posing them, even when the complete opposite is the case. That makes it easy for Christians to dismiss “questions” out of hand, and plays right into the stock Christian responses of “God works in mysterious ways” or “the mind of God is beyond our mortal comprehension” or similar such bullshit. Phrasing objections as statements—instead of as questions—prevents this issue.
“Atheists can be moral too”, or “You don’t need God to be good”. Both of these statements are absolutely true, but saying we “can” be moral implies that as a general rule we’re not, and saying that you don’t “need” religion still suggests that religion might make us better people than we already are. Yet the truth is that when compared to the religious, atheists are statistically more “moral” than virtually any other demographic group, often by the very same metrics that the religious emphasize most. For example in the United States, on a per-capita basis, atheists commit less crime, have lower rates of divorce, have lower incidence of teen pregnancy, lower rates of STD’s, higher levels of education… And the same holds true when you break it down worldwide; the nations with the highest rates of voluntary atheism have the least crime, the lowest corruption, and (with the sole exception of the United States) the highest standards of living in the world. By virtually any objective metric you can think of (sadly, with the exception of charitable donations), atheists are more moral than the religious, not less.
For the rest of the series: