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The Role, Character and Actions of God – the Atheist/Secular Humanist Perspective

Speech delivered by Justin Trottier at the World Religions Conference, featuring representatives from Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Native Spirituality and Atheism/Secular Humanism. Bishop Ryan School, Hamilton, on Oct 18, 2009.

I’m very excited to participate in this important event, to represent the worldview of non-belief shared by approximately one quarter of Canadians.  What I first want to do is clarify that while I am here representing atheism, I’m also here to speak on the secular humanist worldview.  It’s crucial to make this point because while atheism is solely my position on the existence of god, secular humanism is a rich and deep system of ethics and meaning that provides a coherent framework for how I live my life.  The form of atheism I embrace is that held by the vast majority of atheists.  Rather than asserting the non-existence of god, the majority of atheists simply doubt or disbelieve in the positive assertion of god’s existence.  This may seem a trivial difference, but the emphasis on doubt and disbelief is crucial.  What it means is that we maintain the possibility of being proven wrong at all times, but until that should happen we live a life assuming god does not exist, which leads us to embrace secular humanism, a worldview that takes atheism as its starting point and seeks to build a framework for ethics built by humans from the ground up rather than descended from on high from god.  It also leads us to embrace the methodology of science as the only reliable way of acquiring knowledge of the world, as opposed to divine revelation.

I am the Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry.  This is an educational charitable organization which advances reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry.  We are also Canada’s leading organization representing atheists, secular humanists and freethinkers of all stripes.  I’ve therefore interacted and worked alongside many humanists and what’s interesting is that roughly half of them were raised in households by atheists or by secular parents.  The other half came out of a religious background – sometimes a rather liberal one, sometimes a very fundamentalist or pious one.  And of those who turned to atheism and humanism, some did so for purely emotional reasons (maybe the death of a loved one), some for purely aesthetic or philosophical reasons (maybe the realization that the myriad proofs for god’s existence are utterly unconvincing), and some from a scientific root (perhaps through a deep understanding of evolution or cosmology or some big science which demonstrates how the universe we see is a purely natural place).  I want to make the point that there is no one “atheist experience” or “route to atheism”.  In my case, I was raised Jewish, but rather secularly so.  Over time our family because less and less Jewish and more and more secular.  But even from the beginning, we never went to synagogue except for the odd high holiday, when it was socially expedient to do so.  I had a bar mitzvah, but the event seemed rather insincere as I was never encouraged to understand a word of what I was saying.  In high school, through a series of excellent teachers, I was led to engage in extracurricular science and philosophy readings, and through after-school clubs to engage in discussion and debate, and gradually I was led to embrace a scientific and naturalistic account of the universe.

During my final year at the University of Toronto I founded and served as first President for the University of Toronto Secular Alliance.  At the time, that was the second secular humanist student group at a university in Canada.  Now, 4 years later, there are roughly 30.  After graduating, I helped bring together a team such that we could establish the first home dedicated to humanists in Canada, located in downtown Toronto.  This became the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, the Canadian headquarters of an international institution.  CFI is engaged in public education programs to discuss issues in religious and secular ethics, the role of science in society, the examination of the paranormal, the effectiveness of alternative medicine,  social justice and human rights issues, as some examples.  We are also a political force for secularism, engaging in advocacy to defend the rights of non-believers, to promote church-state separation, to protect science education, and to fight for freedom of expression and of inquiry.

So what is secular humanism?  Well, firstly, it embraces atheism.  Now that means I’m in a tough position with respect to the framing issue of this conference on the “Role, Character and Actions of God”.  Namely, because I don’t believe in one.  So I’m going to re-interpret the question in various creative ways, and I hope you’ll find that acceptable.  The first re-intepretation I want to undertake is to answer the question “What is the role, character & actions of a person in the absence of god”? and the answer is secular humanism.

Secular humanism is not a religion, but rather an alternative.  It’s best described as a worldview, philosophy, or life stance that espouses reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as the basis of moral reflection and decision-making.  It focuses on the way human beings can lead good, happy and functional lives.  It consists of a flexible method of approaching questions in your life, rather than a series of absolute and unchanging commandments.

The method is based on the following principles:

  1. Beliefs should be tested:  All dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.  This makes it a great equalizer.  No one has divine authority, but each of us has reason and access to the tools of scientific inquiry.
  2. A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  3. A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  4. A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  5. A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  6. A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  7. A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

The Council for Secular Humanism, an arm of the Centre for Inquiry, says the following:
“Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of human nature, and that knowledge of right and wrong is based on our best understanding of our individual and joint interests, rather than stemming from a transcendental or arbitrarily local source, therefore rejecting faith completely as a basis for action. The humanist ethics goal is a search for viable individual, social and political principles of conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility, ultimately eliminating human suffering.”  Humanism, like many religions, adopt principles of the Golden Rule.

I think it’s important to make the point that it is not the case that religion and atheism exist as polar opposites.  Religions do not all neatly fall within a common small circle of belief, with atheists far removed and beyond it.  Rather, there is a worldview spectrum.  On one side might be atheism, and on the other monotheistic fundamentalism.  But between those poles, exist such middle ground concepts as polytheism, animism, spiritualism, nearly atheistic Buddhism, and other eastern religions that fail to emphasize the divine.  It’s crucial to the foundation of dialogue between believers and atheists that this nuance be appreciated, as well as the fact that on many issues of public policy we often make common cause.

It’s my goal by dwelling on this to throw away the comical and old fashioned notion that atheists have no morals.  In fact, countries with the largest number of secularists and voluntary atheists are some of the best places in the world to live – places like Sweden and Japan.

A second re-interpretation of our framing question might be “What is it about the role, character and actions of God that make him God? And that make him worthy of our worship?”  A creator god that stood back and had no interest in the affairs of mice and men (like deists believe for example), would hardly qualify for our worship.  But here’s the thing – in judging whether god is worthy of worship, we inevitably must employ our own human faculties to decide what’s right and wrong, and whether god follows these human ethical discoveries.

The issue here is what’s called the Euthyphro dilemma.  It gets its name from the Euthyphro, one of the dialogues of the philosopher Plato.  In this dialogue, Socrates asks essentially the following question:  “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?” If what is moral is just whatever is commanded by god, god could have as easily chosen opposite moral positions – murder is acceptable for example.  Most of us reject this.  But if on the other hand what is moral is commanded by god simply because it is intrinsically moral, then morality is different from and apart from god.  It’s something we all have access to and its something we can then hold god accountable to.  Rather than grounding morals, god is more often used as a social force to enforce the morals of a very human society.  This is often necessary since no one human has any real authority over any other human.

While we’re on the topic of the real role of god, perhaps a third re-interpretation is in order.  How about:  “The role and character of people’s gods as projections of their mentality and values at any given time in history, and the ways in which the nature of god evolves in time with the changing secular society.”   To make this important point I’m going to rely on work by Jared Diamond, the anthropologist who authored the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

Diamond’s central point is that religions evolve alongside society because each version of religion – and there are many stages religion undergoes – has adaptive value quite apart from whether it is true or false.  In stage 1, which characterizes the early animistic and pagan religions especially, religion seeks to provide explanations for the unknown – why do the crops grow?  why does the sun rise? – in a way that returns control to human beings.  In this stage, religions exist as bags of myths and stories that circulate freely.

In stage 2, religions become standardized and institutionalized.  A priesthood evolves.  This is because population densities rose in the ancient world in urban centres and a single religious identity and set of rules became necessary to bind strangers to each other.  Kings sought divine legitimization for their power by allying themselves with the priesthood.  They developed the notion that their ethical and political commandments embodied the will of god.  Societies which embraced this framework were more internally peaceful and outcompeted societies which didn’t develop the idea of a god-endorsing political framework.

In stage 3, religions themselves get into the business of teaching ethics.  This is the period between 800 and 200 BC known as the axial age.  It is in this period that many of today’s religions arose – Zoroastriniasm, Buddhism, Hinduism and Talmudic Judaism for example.  Interestingly, prior to this period, religions explained the unknown and offered ceremonial and ritual outlets, but were only indirectly interested in questions of ethics.  In the axial age, religions changed and evolved.  Suddenly your personal decision making had a part to play in the divine conflict between the forces of good and evil, as well as being responsible for your personal salvation and afterlife prospects.  Once again, this is tied to the increasing urbanization of society and the need to ensure social controls between cooperating citizens.

The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, in his book “Darwin’s Cathedral”, argues the same central point.  Religions and religious ideas that could build societies that  enjoyed enhanced group cohesion would outcompete and eventually replace other societies.  Winning religions needn’t be true.  Sometimes the concepts religions developed to enhance group selection were morally good – for example, education and literacy, and sometimes they were morally bad – for example, kill the unbeliever.  Here is the reason why religions can paradoxically teach both noble and destructive values, and why we need to find a way to embrace only the noble components by using our secular conscience to choose between competing aspects of religion.

The best example given is Mormonism.  Most of us here probably do not believe the claims of Mormonism, namely that its founder Joseph Smith found buried book of golden plates written by ancient American prophets which among other things, believe they are descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.  My point here is not to mock these beliefs, but to make the point that they don’t have to be true to be successful in the sense of a growing number of adherents.  Mormons also believe in devoting 2 years to proselytize at your own expense, donating 10% of your income to the church, and having lots of children.  These latter beliefs are far more important than the theological beliefs in the success of Mormonism.   I’m submitting that the role and character of god is to act as a force to legitimize non-divine beliefs that have very human group survival value.

I’ve heard it suggested by various liberal-leaning religious leaders that atheists could find a way to believe in god if they just turned the big “g” in God into a small “g”, and saw the concept as something new – for example, as a reflection of their own values or beliefs, or the very mystery of the universe (which is the way Einstein referred to god).  So let me look now at the role of god in this new view.  God might be a place-holder for the growing complexity the universe seems capable of.  The laws of the universe seem to allow for the universe to start with the Big Bang in which the universe was simple and homogeneous, and then to evolve over 15 billion years into the startling complexity we see all around us – stars, planets, galaxies, and the increasing evolution of complexity of life on Earth.  Or maybe I should embrace the concept of god as my own secular conscience.  That might help me connect with believers.  Or maybe god is just love, or is simply synonymous with my values – equality, curiosity, freedom.  I spoke yesterday at a conference for the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, an organization trying to do precisely that, to reinterpret the Christian religion as a series of symbols that reflect our changing values.  I’m sympathetic to this idea, but at the end of the day I feel it will only confuse the issue.  Most people don’t mean god in any of these ways and with the term carrying so much baggage and divisiveness, I’d much rather go straight to explaining what my values in fact are.  Those values are humanistic – not divine – and to lump them under the term god would confuse this and rob people of the appreciation that solutions to life’s problems can only be found in this in this world and through interdialogue with each other.

This is the crucial point: that our human institutions like democracy are founded not on notions of the divine, but quite oppositely on an understanding of our human strengths and weaknesses.  The democratic method includes values like fallibility, accountability to people rather than god, the use of evidence, experience and tests to see what works, but these are the values of scientific inquiry as well. It’s no accident that the democratic revolution and the scientific revolution both took place in the same period of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century.

So that’s why I’m here.  To me the scientific and naturalistic worldview is responsible for the greatness of the society we’ve developed, and an appreciation of reason and science, harnessed through compassion and humanist ethics, is what I believe in.