The prospect of appealing humanism

It’s become quite the rage for non-theist, anti-theist and (so-called) freethought movements to use public advertising — say, on buses or in the subway system; this is certainly true here in Washington — to make their case.

I just wish it was a better case, which to my Christian ears sounds a lot like “You can be good without having an adolescent’s view of God.” Far from edgy or patently true, these ads seem — well — smug or petulant, as if the image of the cranky, smug, petulant atheist didn’t get enough play.

And that’s all well and good if your goal is stronger church-state separation, say, but if the goal is to be an appealing option to inherited religiosity or brunch culture, it needs to have a story and a way for persons to identify with it.

In short, dust off a copy of the long version of Cosmos. While it’s three decades old, Carl Sagan et alia has done a better job than anyone I can think of to sidestep the question of God — the right approach — and posit the idea of being human in the “forty thousand generations” of human development, and then to place our world in the context of a fascinating and almost unimaginably large universe.

It’s still quite thrilling — and a meaningful humanism — and available through the instant view service of Netflix, if you’re a subscriber.

14 Replies to “The prospect of appealing humanism”

  1. I actually quite like the recent CFI ad campaign — unlike most previous atheist ad campaigns, that could be seen as disrespecting religious belief, this one just put the case that non-theists can be good people too.

    Michael De Dora has a good case for it, over at the Rationally Speaking blog:

    While he veers off a bit into the opposite assumption, as many atheists seem wont to do — I have a hunch that the more strident ones had bad experiences with conservative or fundamentalist churches while growing up — lumping all theistic positions together, the basic argument is quite sound.

  2. I had the misfortune of attending a meeting unrelated to religion with a bunch of local CFI staffers and I found them a bunch of self-reinforcing anti-religion blowhards. Hardly anything approaching inquiry. It certainly colors my view of the campaign.

  3. You know, I quite agree with your post. (btw I found you via the blog On Holladay). While I am a “believer”, I have no problem with people not believing in any deity. I DO however, have a problem with these people after offering their point of view, going on to denounce believers as inherently stupid and other insults. I also have this problem equally with people who believe in any form of deity and then denounce those who believe in a different form of deity or do not believe in any deity.

    Respect for other people does wonders I think. I’ll go and check out your link for Carl Sagan’s work. Just so I can educate myself a bit more 🙂

  4. Sounds like my experience at a college Secular Alliance — it is a bit annoying when people pick labels that appear inclusive but then proceed to have such a bias against religion that they don’t even realize they’re burning bridges (one *can* be religious and secularist at the same time, but not in their eyes).

    The latest CFI ad is surprisingly balanced, though. Rationally Speaking has an article on a previous ad campaign that even the site’s host, philosopher Massimo Pagliucci, criticized for being everything you described. Unsurprisingly, those responsible for that ad respond in a way that would make moderate theists and agnostics cringe — full of self-righteousness and hubris.

  5. Welcome! I look forward to your blog.

    Cosmos was quite the phenom in the early 80s and was often replayed in the U.S. on public television. There was even an accompanying book and record: I owned both and that’s how I was first introduced the Rimsky-Korsokov, the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir (a.k.a. Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) and Isao Tomita. But then it fell off TV and the video was out of circulation for a long time. That, and it runs 13 hours — I don’t like the “shorter” 5-ish hour “special edition” — so there’s an adult generation that likely wouldn’t be familiar with it, even in the U.S.

  6. To me, an additional appealing manifestation of Humanism is the more “old school” idealism of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society. Adler did not define his Humanistic thought in terms of being against something, but in terms of a transcendant loyalty to the Ethical Ideal. This approach provided early Ethical Culture with a non-Theistic point of common devotion, and a sense of shared community practice. The result was to be the ethical improvement of both the individual and society. Theism was not condemned, but simply not relevant. And in theory one could even be Theistic, while still practicing Ethical Culture.

  7. Derek,

    Thanks for sharing. That sounds not dissimilar with mainstream UU practice — where the reverential language is open to both theistic and non-theistic interpretation.

    Prosperity Gospel / the evangelical right, and the increasingly out-of-touch Catholic hierarchy, not to mention all the religious-based conflicts, unfortunately engendered an increasingly strident substrain of atheism — though I should mention that not every non-theists feel that way — I posted some thoughts on this issue last November:

  8. Scott,

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this bit on Rev. Michael Dowd’s web site:

    Thank God for the New Atheists!

    Dowd is the author of the book “Thank God for Evolution” and the web link above briefly discusses a sermon he presented on the so-called “new atheist” movement.

    As you can see from this short quote from Dowd’s sermon, he thinks that the recent spate of atheist writers are fulfilling the role of God’s prophets:

    “The New Atheists, by speaking boldly on behalf of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality, and in condemning superstitious, otherworldly religiosity, are, paradoxically, fulfilling the traditional role of prophets. Historically, religious prophets were those on the leading edge—those who saw what was real, sensed what was emerging, and then spoke their truth—usually a word of warning. Their message typically went something like this: ‘Align with reality—or perish.’ Prophets in this way facilitate cultural evolution. To use religious language, they do God’s work.

    Thus my central point: Few things are more important at this time in history than for religious peoples of all backgrounds and orientations to heed what the New Atheists are saying. To be clear: I thank God for the New Atheists not because I want everyone to be like them or think like them, nor because I consider them perfect vessels of divine wisdom. Rather, I am grateful because of how they are prodding religion and humanity to mature and because of how they are goading religious people (like me!) to get real about God, guidance, and good news.”

    Source –

    This quote comes from a sermon that he presented in an Oklahoma UCC church about eight months ago. The sermon text includes three “scripture” readings for the day from Exodus, Psalms, and one of Sam Harris’ books.

    So the gist of Scott’s blog post and the associated comments is that everyone here appears to be rejecting God’s prophets.


  9. Steve,

    Thanks for sharing. I actually don’t have a problem with atheism — you’ll notice that my comments actually defend the recent CFI ad for being very reasonable.

    I do have a problem with Dawkins et al (strangely, not with Hitchens — I really like his polemics), but the problem is the same that many moderate agnostics have, that Dawkins’ strident tone can actually be counter-productive. As a moderate religious person, aware that I take many things on faith and that these are not provable, I do see science as the most useful way to reveal the reality hidden behind our veil of ignorance; in cases where science contradicts articles of religious belief (obviously in case of, say, cosmology, but also on moral issues — e.g. homosexuality), I’d embrace the scientific findings.

    Religion should be a voice for ethics — likewise, the scientific community, by revealing the consequences of our actions on the environment or on each other (psychologically), also act as ethical correctives. Neither are infallible — scientists can sometimes have their own prejudices, and dogmatic religions are harmful — but we should strive to be in a position when both sides can have open, respectful discussions rather than trying to push each other out of the stage.

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