Category Archives: Humanism

Happy Carl Sagan Day 2013

There are so many videos of Carl Sagan’s inspirational and life-changing narration about the Pale Blue Dot. Here are two of my favorites.

The first is a recently released crowd-sourced video from the skeptic and nonbelieving community. Carl Sagan certainly has a way to bring people from all walks of life together, and that makes me so happy.

The second is a breathtakingly beautiful production from the Sagan Series.

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My Secular Friends, Be Awesome Anyway

vastness

How does Fermilab help with the defense of the country?

WorthDefending

This is Water: One of the Best Commencement Speeches Ever

So much of our lives revolve around monotony and dead time. But it’s not about you. David Foster Wallace reminds us to consider the richness of our surroundings and to understand the value of a true education.

What is your goal for the relationship between humanity and religion in the future?

First of all, I want to state what my goals definitely are not.

I don’t want to stop you from enjoying a transcendent experience at church or synagogue on the weekends. I don’t want the world to stop reading religious texts or to extinguish every last trace of the Bible or Koran from material existence (What other kind of existence is there anyways?).

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(How atheists really want to spread their views. Not.)

I don’t even necessarily want people to stop identifying as Christians or Muslims or whatever, even though much can be said about what identities we should hold primary, and whether those considerations put primacy on individual choice, or whether society has a role in directing people’s energies towards a more harmonious, tolerant whole.

And there are many different reasons why my goals wouldn’t matter to you even if you are religious. If you think of religion in a vague, academic sense as Durkheim did (in the categorization of the sacred and the profane), then pretty much anything is religion, and you’ll still have it. If you think of God as something that goes beyond theism in the Paul Tillich sense (God Above God, faith as ultimate concern), then your religious beliefs are solid (I think) even if all my goals become reality.

And yes, I understand that for many traditional theists, my demands are outrageous, even offensive. So here it goes.

1) All religions have to lose their supernatural claims.

This means a full embrace of science. If you think Jesus literally rose from the dead, that’s not going to cut it. If you think maybe, just maybe there was a real Garden of Eden, that’s probably not going to pass either. You can’t believe that prayer actually does something. (I’m not against people praying though, oddly.) The reason is that we’re tired of humanity having to spend energy to fight claims that seem really trivial at first, but somehow cause parents to watch their children die in front of them, make people think that creationism is actually worth teaching in the schools, or take the existence of heaven and hell way too seriously. Removing actual supernaturalism from religion makes adherents more likely to not descend into a state of extreme denial of reality.

2) Religion has to give way to secular ethics.

I’m willing to compromise on this, but not by much. You can use religion to explain why you feel passionately about a moral issue, and why this religious motivation inspires you to be an activist. But humanity shouldn’t take religious arguments for why something is right or wrong seriously. We should stop fooling ourselves into thinking that debates over whether homosexuality or slavery is right or wrong belong in the sphere of people arguing about the proper exegesis of the Bible. We have much better ways to settle issues like that. It’s called the body of secular ethics (notably utilitarianism) in modern philosophy.

3) Religion has to give way to secular politics.

It’s similar to ethics. But no quote I’ve found has been as good as this one:

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4) We should promote general religion over specific religion.

I think there’s a a need and a good that specific religions provide. Just as pro-lifers say they want to promote a “culture of life”, I think there’s a case to be made that promotion of civil religion, the kind that emphasizes common values and universal humanistic truths, is important. How I want this civil religion to play out I have not fully decided, but I don’t see why it can’t take many forms to promote the spiritual and psychological health people in general. One need not have the fantastical visions of Alain de Botton to find a practical way to keep the good parts of religion or to recognize that there’s something valuable in promoting those good parts in a reasonable, *socialized* manner.

Example

I believe there was once a commenter on this blog who asked that if I wasn’t content with Christians holding the position that “homosexuality is a sin and therefore gay people must be celibate,” what he could possibly do without leaving Christianity. My answer was that Christianity needed to change, drastically, just as it had done so in the past with all the schisms and scandals in the Church. I also noted that there are many LGBTQ-affirming Christians out there, and that it wasn’t a practical impossibility to change one’s position.

Of course, I pretty much got yelled at online for suggesting that Christians fundamentally change the Word of God, or at least the orthodox interpretation of such revelations.

Unfortunately, that’s kind of my demand. And if you’re not happy with it, then I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy the work that this secular movement is going to do to fundamentally change the culture and ethos of this country.

I am an Atheist, and this is who I love …

Post #1 for SSA’s Blogathon! Consider offering a small donation to help empower secular students and provide safe places for secular students in schools around the country!

I *love* a lot of people, some famous and some not. But I think the questioner is asking me to narrow down a list of people that are above and beyond even a high standard of awesomeness, and have me explain why. Here we go.

As you might expect, Carl Sagan has always been one of my favorite people. Not only a great scientist, but an excellent communicator of science to the public. Not only a great communicator of science, but a dreamer who cared about the political and social realities of our time and offered a vision about the future transcended our present location in time and space. At a time when the Cold War seemed far from over, he condemned the “obscene” number of active nuclear weapons on Earth and framed it in the context of existential risk and survival in the vast Cosmos. He talked passionately about the need to protect our fragile environment from the dangers of climate change. He warned us against the costs of religious or political divisions. And he directly addressed a lot of social issues, like the prohibition of marijuana. He died in 1996, convinced that we are not alone in the Universe.

The next person on this very short list is Bayard Rustin. He was a civil rights activist, a socialist, a Quaker, and a gay rights advocate. He agreed with MLK and Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, and he worked to organize the 1947 Freedom Ride and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He traveled to California and worked to protect property rights of Japanese Americans during WWII internment. Although he identified as a member of the Communist Party during his early life, he eventually became disillusioned with the movement.

copy of bayard rustin

It wasn’t his communist history that got him in trouble as much as his open homosexuality. His political opponents, many part of the more conservative parts of the Civil Rights movement, labeled him as a pervert and a corrupting influence, and many historians say that his legacy suffered as a result. It’s a shame that he’s not more well-known these days.

There’s a great documentary about Rustin if you want to learn more.

God Help The Outcasts

First of all, I apologize for the long break in blogging. It was due a combination of some coursework (which has ended), a pretty bad flu (which I have recovered from), and a very busy period in my full-time job (which has passed).

There have been many comments in the past alleging that I dismiss religious sources of inspiration too easily. Of course, I do proudly admit to a lot of that. I find a lot of modern religion boring, trivial, uninspiring. Even the supposedly moving sermons of pulpit pop stars like John Piper or Mark Driscoll really don’t move me much at all. But there are quite a few pieces of religious music or art that I find simply transcendent.

The most beautiful parts of religion include not just the practical, concrete aesthetics that are sometimes associated with it (like choral music or gothic architecture), but the moral impulses that religious people feel arise from it. Although such people may disagree, I believe those impulses reflect the depth of our human emotional lives and the greatness of humanism rather than the truth of any particular religion. It wasn’t too long ago that a friend showed me this video of an old Disney song:

You might not believe me, but I love it. The song talks about relating to an common experience of being outcasted, of being “hungry from birth”. The mere fact that the song references God should not interfere too much with its message of service to the least among us (“the poor and downtrod”), of selflessness (“I ask for nothing”), and of equality (“I thought we all were children of God”).

I must be kidding, right? Don’t I find that the idea of a perfect God who lets evil happen in the world appalling?

No, I’m not kidding, and I do find the Problem of Evil deeply disturbing and still yet to be resolved. More importantly and more obviously, I don’t think there’s a God out there who can help us, who can fix the deep problems facing our world (including the problems of natural and social inequality).

But thinking about what kind of society we would want if there were in fact a loving God is not futile. It creates a Platonic, idealistic version of the society we want supposing that we had infinite love and power, and challenges us to fulfill that vision pragmatically. For many, it offers something beautiful and perfect to comprehend, and compels them to do great things that change the world. I am not inspired by exactly the same thing, and still am outraged by the kind of grotesque immorality, judgement, and anti-intellectualism I get from elements of the Bible Belt crowd, but I think I understand, at least to some limited extent, the complexities of religious inspiration.

Needless to say, I think humanism isn’t just compatible with this kind of idealistic thinking; I think many people are excelling at it, putting to good use their finite time as conscious beings to build the kind of world they want. The Pathfinders Project, a yearlong humanist service trip focusing on humanitarian projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, is a great example of this. So are the many secular organizations that do work all kinds of important work every single day for urban communities, for immigrants, for LGBTQA people, for sexual abuse victims, for the mentally ill, and so on.

It’s amazing, and I only wish we’d be inspired, in whatever ways we can, to do more.

What Are You Thirsty For? This is What I’m Thirsty For

There was a time at the UChicago campus when the InterVarsity Christians set up a tent outside and politely asked people, “What Are You Thirsty For?” as part of a larger national evangelism campaign. I think it was a very sincere effort to spark conversation about what people wanted in life, and how it connected to Christianity.

Well, I wasn’t asked, and who knows what I would have said, but I’m going to try to answer anyways.

This is what I’m thirsty for.

-I’m thirsty for a world of humanism, a world where old, narrow allegiances and ideologies give way to an appreciation of the well-being of all forms of sentient life and a true effort to minimize suffering, paying special attention to the poor, the disadvantaged, the outcasted, and our animal cousins.

-I’m thirsty for a world where people will learn to understand the benefits of thinking skeptically and the dangers of not recognizing their cognitive biases, a world where science, like a candle illuminating the dark, occupies its rightful place in the public discourse.

-I’m thirsty for a world where traditional and oppressive forms of morality that restrict ordinary human actions or identities, especially sexuality and gender, be discarded in favor of a more liberal system that affirms the true freedom and equality of all people.

-I’m thirsty for a world where real practical solutions, built from the technological intelligence of humankind, work to improve the quality and length of life, instead of a world that draws false hope from ancient fables that talk about a afterlife that we know not of.

-I’m thirsty for an ethical system that is reasonable and proportional to the welfare of people and the severity of moral transgressions, a system that rejects extreme and eternal forms of cruelty, rejects moral justification of actions based on supposed divine commands, and rejects the extreme belief that human beings are depraved and therefore need to feel guilty and repentant about every little imperfection that they have.

-I’m thirsty for a culture where disbelief, dissent, and skepticism is respected as a good, rather than discouraged or blamed as the workings of a supernatural demon.

-I’m thirsty for true inspiration instead of unfounded hopes, true inspiration that comes from seeing people of all religious backgrounds who do great and brave things, or from understanding the majesty of this enormous natural universe where we are floating on a speck of dust revolving around a random star in a random galaxy out of hundreds of billions. It is this cosmic view of life that I am also thirsty for an end to the conceited worldview that manifests itself in fights over politics, land, and religion.

-And finally, I’m thirsty for learning and growing, and for taking the risk all the time of thinking for myself, rather than resigning myself to an unalterable theistic authority that supposedly rules over us all.

That’s what I’m thirsty for.

Humanists, what are YOU thirsty for?

One Life: An Atheist Appeal to Make Your Life Extraordinary

Yes. This is the only life you’ll ever have. Listen to this message, and enjoy and cherish your wonderful existence in the Cosmos, which is “all that is or ever was or ever will be”.

Check out this email I received today…

I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you at school as well as I would have liked. Your Facebook posts are generally amazing. Your very public atheism may well have contributed to me recently telling my parents I don’t believe. Thank you. You’re a good guy and a role model.