One look at 21st century religious extremism is sufficient to give today’s atheist an ego boost. As religious based violence, discrimination on the basis of religion, and radicalized religious doctrines become more prominent, it is undeniable that theism continues to be a source of global conflict. This phenomenon does not represent a change in historical trend. The impetus for some of the world’s most violent wars has been religious disagreement, and religious doctrines have historically been invoked as justification for violence.
This is not to say that it is religion that has solely wreaked havoc over the course of human history. Some of the most successful social justice movements have grounded themselves in religious thought, and religious gatherings oftentimes are catalysts for acts of admirable benevolence. The majority of great authors adhered to a religious sect and the idea of God plays a critical role in a myriad of revered academic works. In the 21st century, however, academics and intellectuals alike tend to turn their backs to religious dogma.
This trend has as much to do with modern empiricism as it does with the sociocultural evolution of religious practices. With the positivist era has come an ever growing sect of radical atheists. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others are only a sampling of those whose arguments against religion have become widespread. Their writings indicate that the world would be a much more pleasant place if all religious thought was immediately ameliorated. There is one sense in which this thesis is compelling. If religion is only continuing to radicalize itself, then it is tempting to just call it quits on the whole enterprise.
Immediate abandonment of religion is not the answer. I do not intend to argue that religion is inherently bad, nor do I intend to endorse Dawkins and Harris and argue that religious thought should immediately and forcefully be abandoned. Rather, I aim to lay secular humanism on the table as a viable option for upholding the moral comfort of religion while mitigating any potential for radicalization.
In order to see whether or not secular humanism presents itself as a compelling option, it is important to first parse out what exactly secular humanism is. Secular humanists argue that humans are capable of being ethical without needing to adhere to the doctrine of a God. They endorse western ethical theories and social justice practices and assert that ideology should never be accepted on the basis of faith alone. Secular humanists also believe that humans are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but rather that humankind is faced with a unique responsibility that entails us to be held morally accountable for our actions.
One of the best features of organized religion is its ability to provide moral comfort to its adherents. Going to church enforces ethical practices that teach attendees to govern their lives via a doctrine which is taken to be inherently holy. Knowing that there is a set of intrinsically good rules which bring good fortune when followed is not only useful, it is comforting. Furthermore, religions that assure us that deities above have well-intended plans for our lives can be soothing. Under those paradigms, bad luck can be explained away as a necessary pain en route to a much better end. As far as justifying life’s trials and tribulations goes, this is a far-reaching and easily adaptable method. Additionally, the communities provided by churches offer the kinds of social networks and support circles necessary for human happiness.
Secular humanism has the ability to serve all of these needs without the risk of being radicalized. Secular humanist sects promote the collective discovery of rational moral beliefs. These debates often require flushing out questions such as which character attributes are the virtuous ones and whether or not virtuosity is synonymous with morality. Making the study of morals academic does not necessarily sacrifice the comforting aspects that come with ethical study within church walls. Secular humanist leaders have the ability to give rousing, eloquent speeches just like their religious counterparts. It is important to note, however, that this does not entail simply replacing loyalty to church figures with reverence to secular humanist ones. Rather, for secular humanism to truly separate itself over the theism it purports to contrast, it needs to prioritize individual thought.
Much of what has been explained thus far reveals that secular humanism need not differ from organized religion in practice. Where it does differ is in the caution it places on ideologies accepted on faith alone. When secular humanists initially cautioned against adhering on the grounds of faith, their argument pertained to cases involving religious dogmatism. However, I take it that assent on the basis of faith does not have to solely entail loyalty to a deity. Followers of political movements are often inclined to endorse the positions of their leaders without analyzing those positions themselves. Even trivial cases such as using a certain face product because a celebrity has advocated doing so represents an assent on the basis of faith.
Regardless of whether I have successfully sold the merits of secular humanism, I cannot overemphasize the importance of thoughtful consideration prior to accepting any ideology on faith alone. In a socio-cultural climate filled with radical — and often unfounded — assertions by leaders both secular and religious, it is imperative to recognize our ability to rationalize. Though our leaders have influence over many aspects of our lives, there are some things they cannot control without permission. Our minds are one of them.