Why the Rise of Secularism Is a Good Thing

Phil Zuckerman was asked by a journalist if he thinks the growing number of atheists and agnostics and the rise of a sizable secular demographic is a good thing for the country. He gives his answers in a column in Psychology Today and I agree with most of them.

1. We need more humans guided by reason rather than faith. We’re facing serious problems in the world today: global warming, increasing inequality, growing forms of fundamentalism, extensive human enslavement, international sex trafficking, impending genocide in places like the Central African Republic, corporation-led corrosion of democracy, violence against women, depletion of the rain forest, human rights violations, etc., etc. — and all of these problems can only be solved through rational understandings of their causes, solutions based on unbiased data and empirically-sound mechanisms, human creativity and compassion, international cooperation and willpower, and smartness, ingenuity, and know-how.

Ten million people praying ten millions hours won’t do shit. Pleading to magic deities and invisible gods, or beseeching the spirits of dead ancestors, or fondling rosaries and misbaha, or anointing with oil and lighting candles, or performing exorcisms and slitting the throats of goats, or driving away the devil and ostracizing witches won’t help at all. Not one bit. So the more people we have who live their lives without such notions or entanglements, the better.

We need a humanity that relies most readily and most heavily upon scientific understanding, rigorous/critical thinking, and utterly sound reasoning, not faith. Now don’t get me wrong: religious faith has its place; it comforts many who have nothing else to rely upon, and it infuses the world with a mystical, spiritual, or, at least, quaint vibe. But it doesn’t help address social problems. For that, we need clear thinkers who don’t look to imaginary gods for assistance.

But I fear this one is a bit too optimistic.

2. We need more cosmopolitanism and less tribalism/factionalism. Cosmopolitanism is the unflinching ideology that we are all one — that all racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and other such groups actually belong to one single whole: humanity. And we are all bound together by a universal human morality. Secular humanism is deeply rooted in, and intractably wedded to, such cosmopolitanism. And this cosmopolitanism lends itself to a universalistic, global orientation that cannot divide between black or white, Brahmin or Dalit, Hutu or Tutsi, Turk or Armenian, Arab or Kurd, Thai or Hmong, male or female, etc., etc.

Religion — as history as well as today’s newspaper reveal — often divides humanity, unnecessarily and often savagely. Religion, more often than not, establishes deep us-vs-them fissures. Religion is truly one of the greatest creators and sustainers of in-group/out-group orientations. Christianity divides the world between the saved and the un-saved, those that believe in Jesus and those that don’t. Muslims are dangerously divided between Sunni and Shiite, and many believing Muslims consider all non-Muslims as something different (usually much lesser) than Muslims. Many devout Jews consider all non-Jews little more than, well, insignificant white noise.

Secular humanists, on the contrary, emphasize that we are all human, and that’s why it is more readily and logically cosmopolitan than religion.

While I certainly agree with him that we need a world with far less tribalism, I’m not convinced that atheists and humanists are really any less likely to behave in such a manner. If you don’t believe me, try criticizing a well-known atheist, as I’ve done many times. Atheists are just as prone to tribalism and following the leader as anyone else.

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