Friday, June 9, 2006

To be or not to be secular, a humanist, or a secular humanist

Given the subject matter of this website I thought it would be prudent to go ahead and share some answers to questions I have been asked about my views of "spiritual" and "secular"...

"What is spiritual and what is secular?"

By secular I mean the commonly used definitions of the term, which include "worldy, temporal, not overtly religious". It also means that which is common and enduring. It does not necessarily exclude the spiritual, as some may presume. I separate it from the spiritual here *only* to offer a distinction between people and ideas which are more focused on the principle of being non-religious and those which emphasize spirituality regardless of whether or not it is religious. As for spiritual, my view is that it includes "a contemplative attitude" and, a disposition to a life of depth, and the search for ultimate meaning" (as per Teasdale in The Mystic Heart). Throughout my writing it may become obvious that I do not regard these two perspectives to be antagonistic, much less mutually exclusive.
If we briefly take science as an example, it has both a secular and a spiritual component. On the one hand, it deals with the "worldly" and "temporal" and presumes methodological naturalism, which is decidedly on the secular side of things. On the other hand, it involves a "cotemplative attitude" and "a search for meaning".

Another area where I find both secular and spiritual elements is humanism. For those who believe "spiritual" is some kind of dirty word and that it has sullied the good name of "secular" humanism, place your head between your knees, put a cold cloth on the back of your neck, and take several deep breaths. Now let us continue. The affirmative aspects of humanist thought are spiritually loaded, with notions of inherent (though not supernatural guarantees of) human worth and the affirmation of the importance of freedom, dignity, and quality of life of all peoples.

Having expressed my views on the relationship of the spiritual to the sacred cows of secular thought, it is important to realize that the door swings both ways. As suggested in the original (and in my humble opinion the far and away best) version of the Humanist Manifesto from 1933, "the distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained". This does not suggest that nothing is sacred, at least not to me. Instead it refers to seeing the everyday world, i.e. what is generally thought of as the secular world in the word's more ancient usage, as the foundation of the sacred. It is a rejection of the dualistic idea that the physical world is inherently wicked or fallen and that purity can only be found by escaping it.

"Are you a secularist?"

Since that's a bit of a loaded question, here is a qualified set of responses:
  • If that means anti-religious, then the answer is an emphatic "NO!"
  • If that means that I am for the separation of church and state in order to preserve both "church" and "state", then the answer is "Yes."
  • If that means that I think religious expression should be prohibited on or near public property, then the answer is "No."
  • If that means I think that equal time, space, and protection should be afforded to all faiths and that the state should not favor any one faith or compel religious observance, then the answer is "Yes."

I think that those who might consider themselves "hardcore" secularists or atheists would not see me as being "secular", and I think the "hardcore" religionists, especially the hyper-exlcusionist conservative fundamentalists, would have a hard time seeing me as anything but. I think that says quite a bit about attachment, delusion, and the black-and-white tendencies not just of those ideologies but how the mind discriminates and defines objects.

"What is humanism?"

Humanism obviously places emphasis on--you guessed it--humans. However I do not embrace any anthrocentric philosophies of human superiority or dominion over other species. In the most general of terms, humanists of all stripes sees humans as responsible for the course of their lives. People are not born good or evil, but may choose to do good or bad things. Humanism recognizes human strengths and frailties but usually emphasizes optimism with regard to our capacity to better ourselves. Religions, philosophies, political parties, or personal creeds which follow this kind of reasoning could be considered humanist.

This can be contrasted with those worldviews that suggest humans are inherently evil or unable to make a real difference in the world without the miraculous intervention and supernatural assistance of a Divine presence. Hence, you may also often hear humanism associated with the term secular (i.e. secular humanism) as a tacit rejection of religion as well as reliance on/belief in supernaturalism. There are, however, forms of religion and spirituality which are nontheistic (not dependent on belief in or rejection of an anthropomorphic creator God who dolls out blessings and judgements based on your beliefs) but which could still be considered humanist. Certain schools of Buddhism are good examples. In addition some branches of theistic religions, while accepting the existence of (a) God, believe that we are the miracles and cherish that human potential (summed up in the phrase "We are the answers to each other's prayers"). These faiths share humanistic roots as well.

I would add, to be clear, that this does not mean that said forms of sacred traditions do not emphasize the need to embrace the unknown or to surrender to the possibilities of existence. Such transformative notions often include teachings such as no-self or other expressions of going beyond the personal ego, but this should not be confused with giving up the power to chose or think. This sublte distinction is often lost in sweeping critiques of religion and spirituality, and it is also blurred by those wishing to prey on the vulnerable with brainwashing cult tactics.

"What is the meaning of/basis of morality in humanism?"

I cannot speak for humanism. I would simply assert that that which promotes the inherent value of human life and well-being *is* the morally correct way to behave. This position suggests that any time we feel we must resort to violence or hurting others we have failed. The "greater good" argument can be very dangerous when placed in the hands of an interventonist miracle-working God because too many theists tend to accept God's will even if it is blatantly harmful and malicious. This is not limited to theism--some people will go along with terrible things so long as it seems to have explicit approval of their preferred authority, whatever or whoever, that may be (for example, the Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century). I would argue that we should never abdicate responsibility for our actions to a supernatural or secular figurehead or dictator.

Still, there are those who level the charge that nontheists, humanists or otherwise, spiritualists or not, are either amoral or have no reliable basis for morality. I will quickly address this assertion.
Many people of varying faiths and methodologies have independently come to the conclusion that one component of morality is a recognition that others are like us, that they exist as people and have the same kinds of feelings and needs. This empathy allows us to share joy, grief, love, hate, pleasure, and pain. The mechanisms in the brain that produce this phenomena will be sufficient to keep scientists busy for a long time to come, along with debates over how and why such features evolved. But it is a mechanism. And, like other mechanisms, it can be fooled. Observe people crying or cheering during a motion picture or television program, or even during a symphony. Something, the sound, the picture, etc, triggers the empathic reaction and we sympathize with the fictional person being projected on a flat screen. This mechanism seems to work as well in nontheists as in theists, though a certain minority of the population in general seems to have a defect in this mechanism. So, nontheists, atheists, and theists qualify in the first regard as having moral potential.

Nontheists and atheists, despite some depictions to the contrary, are not all (or even mostly) hedonistic anarchists who disregard the law and general rules of conduct. They are not rampantly unethical. They learned good and bad behavior from their parents and other adult influences when they were small children. The number of children from religious homes who end up getting In trouble should indicate that religion itself is no guarantee someone will end up learning the right examples from their parents. Nor are all theists hypocrites or snake oil salespeople. Hence all three qualify for the second criteria of moral potential.

Nontheists, theists, and atheists alike who are sane appreciate that their actions have consequences, and therefore all qualify for the third requirement of moral potential.
So what is all this moral potential? Basically, the qualities needed to make choices conforming to the general notion of morality. But morality is a choice. And most nontheists, like most theists, make the choice more often than not to behave in a moral fashion. The real problem is that morality itself is a slippery term. Some religions teach eating certain foods is immoral, or that it is only immoral on certain days. That certain behaviors are immoral, or only with certain people. That certain words are immoral, or only in certain contexts. Thou shalt not kill, unless you are taking the city of Jericho or stoning a heretic. Thou shalt not steal, unless you are looting an evil vanquished foe. Ideas of morality have purpose but may only make sense in certain circumstances. Attempts at general morality typically boils down to the Golden Rule—treat others as you would like to be treated. This does not mean that there is nothing more to morality, but this basic commonality does have significance. This dictum suggests that justice, dignity, and liberty are the ideals which are most robust and most fundamental to our common welfare. It puts the capacity for bettering or worsening the human condition squarely on our own shoulders. Nontheists and atheists are no less moral than any theist, especially those who claim that it is the fear of damnation or the reward of paradise that motivates them to treat others with love and respect and kindness.

"How does that notion of morality square with use of violence in extreme situations?"

Violence should be the last of all replies to a situation. When I speak of moral failing, I am not strictly talking about personal failures, but failures as a class, an office, a group of people on a bus, a town, a state, or a nation. It is collective. Whenever possible, we should hold dignity and freedom from oppression as our highest goals. But violence and threat of coersion should not be the preferred method of achieving those goals.

Those who wish to make up specific scenarios, be my guest, but it does not negate the correctness of choosing human life over something like what one thinks is a God's will. Believe it or not, people don't like bullies. If someone had begun beating a smaller person a crowd would have gathered to step between the bully and the abused. If necessary, he or she would have been restrained. In any case, my point is that it is better to realize that the responsibility for our actions is our own and cannot be abdicated to a higher power.

How does one choose between one human life and another? That question has never had a satisfactory answer. At that point several failures have already occurred. We can always make up stories. Here is one.
A well-known axe murderer has just escaped his guards after being convicted. He managed to get a weapon and two guards and one passerby are down. You think one guard is dead and the other two victims will be if they do not get immediate medical assistance. Brandishing the sharp bloody weapon and screaming about how everyone is going to pay, the killer turns his eyes to you and a little girl standing next to you. One of the guards is at your feet and his loaded gun is within easy reach. The maniac screams and charges toward you and the little girl. What do you do? Some extreme pacifists would do nothing. I think many of us, though, myself included, would grab the gun and warn the maniac to stay back. If he kept coming I would empty the chamber into him.

Now, does that mean that I devalue the maniac's life? No. Have moral failures on the parts of many people led to this tragic situation? Yes. I firmly believe that 90% of the violence (both physical and verbal) that goes on in western countries can be avoided if we recognized the value of human life and chose the most peaceful path possible. Sure, there will always be depraved individuals who will go so far (as in my example) as to make a dream of total peace impossible. But that does not make violence an acceptable solution. My answer to the scenario is a failure, but in that case by that point in the story all possible answers are failures. I resorted to choosing the life of one person for the lives of at least four. The only true "win" would have allowed all of us to live. Hence I see my position as a proper blend of pragmatism and idealism.

So was my solution to the above scenario a proper "Buddhist" answer? I don't think there is such a thing. There is a story about how in a previous life of the Buddha he was on board a ship and learned that one of his shipmates planned to sink the craft and kill 500 sailors. To save the lives of the sailors as well as the save this man from the negative karma of taking 500 lives the person who would one day be born as Siddhartha Guatama (a.k.a. the historical Buddha) he throws the would be murderer overboard and the man drowns. The man who would be reborn as the Buddha voluntarily accepted the horrible karma from his act of violence. In other words, even though we might be tempted to say that killing one man to save 500 is moral, in Buddhism even this seemingly justified act of violence has consequences for the perpetrator. There was no ideal situation, just choices with consequences.

"Is Buddhism really humanistic?"

In a basic sense I would say yes, but I would also suggest that it is misleading to simply equate the two. I guess I would say Buddhism has a humanistic flavor, but then, that's going with how I've described humanism here. Many versions of what some folks consider humanism would not be so compatible.

"Is humanism sans religion better than religions such as evangelical Christianity?"

When it comes to practical problems the answer is very simple. If someone digs a well in an area that allows people to have clean drinking water, that is a good thing. If someone builds a school so children can learn in safety and comfort, that is a good thing. I don't care if they are evangelical Christians, Mormons, Muslims, or devotees of Thor or Anubis.

I am not worried about the messenger as much as the message. Therefore I prefer the interpretation of Jesus wherein he is saying that the "Kingdom of Heaven" is here and now, that when you exercise self-control, or non-violence, or forgiveness, or compassion, that you are making Heaven on Earth. The same vein runs through Buddhism. Buddha gave up a life as a prince (the son of the King), left his father's palace, and ministered to the sick and oppressed and taught universal principles to eliminate human suffering. Some of the Pure Land schools of Buddhism also say that we can, through applying certain principles, realize the world is a Pure Land and properly value and nourish it.

I recently read a great book by a Buddhist Jodoshinshu priest and I think he does a wonderful job summarizing this kind of perspective:
Someone may say, "Yes, I believe in Jesus." That's fine, but what is the point? Someone else may say, "Mohammed is the final prophet." That's fine, but what's the point? Share it with me! Someone else may say, "I follow the Buddha." Yeah, that's fine, you have the freedom to follow anything, but what is the point? What is the bottom line? What is the Buddha teaching us?

People are getting tired and disgusted with religion. One reason this is happening is because religion becomes very exclusive. People talk about loving thy neighbor but practice only loving their friends; they bitterly criticize others with beliefs differing from theirs. But if people would look at themselves and consider What can I do with my life? then followers of each religion could live up to the principles of their religion. Each religion has beautiful principles to share with others. (pp.219)

To me Jesus Christ was a great spiritually awakened one who talked about God's love which is unconditional love. He talked about how all sentient beings could be loved. In Jodoshinshu Buddhism, one talks about Amida Buddha's compassion and wisdom which are an unconditional power to take in all sentient beings without any condition and without discrimination. This infinite compassion and wisdom breaks us out of the darkness of ignorance into infinite light and life. It is like the warmth of the sun which takes in all sentient beings without any condition. When one realizes this unconditional love or unconditional compassion and wisdom within oneself, one cannot help to experience a deep spiritual sense of confession and being sorry for the times we have caused trouble to others. At the same time, we feel a thankfulness and joyfullness of life. At such moments one experiences oneness with myself and non-myself. There, one's life is saved. It is nice to know we have been living in such unconditional love, unconditional compassion and wisdom of the universe whether we realize it or not, whether we care or not. (pp.225-6)
from Zen Shin Talks by Sensei Koshin Ogui

Wonderful. Simply wonderful. May peace and joy be with you.

So are you a secular humanist or aren't you?

Yes and no, both and neither.

No, really, are you or aren't you?

(How's that for a Ch'an response?)


  1. "Secular humanists suspect there is something more gloriously human about resisting the religious impulse; about accepting the cold truth, even if that truth is only that the universe is as indifferent to us as we are to it." Tom Flynn

  2. Thanks for the reply and the quote, I write about it a little here.


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