Beating Up on Lazy Anti-Humanism: Leah Libresco on Atheist Groups

Fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco (former atheist, now Catholic) yesterday responded to Susan Jacoby’s excellent recent article New York Times article“The Blessings of Atheism.” She first critiques the article, suggesting that while Jacoby speaks in general terms about the consolation which can be garnered from an atheistic philosophy, she “never talks very much about what kind of consolation she’s got on tap”, failing to give much specificity on this point.

This point I’m willing to concede: Jacoby’s piece is primarily concerned with making the case for more forthrightness among atheists regarding their positive values, not with providing a detailed account of the various forms of consolation an atheistic worldview might offer, so it is a reasonable omission. She is arguing that it is necessary for atheists to be open about the blessings their worldview rains upon them, not listing and categorizing the blessings themselves. Freedom from the problem of theodicy – a significant psychological comfort – is as exemplar of these blessings but is not meant to describe the totality of them. Her main point is that we must stand up, be unafraid, proclaim our values: we must speak, in my terminology, in Ingersoll’s Voice.

Where Libresco goes wrong, in my view, is when she expands her analysis. She first ideantifies a problem with atheist communities – a symptom – contending that secular groups and communities (she gives a range of examples: “alumni networks, book clubs, amateur theatre troupes, folks volunteering together, etc.”) “have a certain hollowness.” She suggests that many such groups “are founded on storge, affection” rather than “philia (friendship) as a meeting of the minds”.

She then offers a diagnosis based on these symptoms: “groups founded around atheism or humanism are likely to be a diverse mix of moral philosophies.  The definitions of humanism are always diffuse and bland enough to make room for everyone from Objectivists to Emma Goldman.”

And she ends by giving a prescription:

if groups focused on atheism are going to be sources of deep comfort for people in crisis, they probably need to factionalize a bit more.  If you want someone to help you make sense of the world, you need some level of confidence you both share some axioms in your epistemology and ethics.  And that’s a different and harder task than baking a casserole.

Again, I’m willing to concede part of the case here: I have visited many such groups and it is often true that communities based around atheism – in comparison to successful religious communities – are more “storge” than “philia”. Lots of affection, little true friendship. More like bridge clubs than churches (and I used to play bridge competetively in high school, so I know ;)). And I also agree that if we want to build to sort of strong, caring communities Jacoby is pointing toward we will certainly need to find ways to promote what she calls philia. So I believe Libresco correctly pinpoints a symptom of many atheist communities which requires our attention.

However, I think her diagnosis – her thoughts as to why this problem exists – is way off, and therefore that her prescription is problematic. The first problem with her diagnosis is significant but simple: I do not think she is correct in her assumption that the development of philia-communities  cannot occur around rather broad value commitments. In my experience as a researcher of moral communities “diffuse and bland” value-sets are actually quite sufficient for the development of close and intense moral communities

The non-denominational Christian churches which provide some of the most successful forms of philia-communities are characteristically quite diffuse and bland in terms of their moral philosophy, which is one reason they are capable of drawing together so many people from different walks of life. “Diffuse and bland” is quite a nice description of the theological content I encountered at Ted Haggard’s new church in Colorado, for instance, or New Hope near my house in Somerville (though the respective pastors would of course deny it). The reasons many atheist groups lack philia are sociological and institutional in nature, not because of some underlying deficiency in Humanist philosophy (this is a big point I’ll explore in greater depth in a later post).

Beating Up On Lazy Anti-Humanism

The second problem in Libresco’s analysis, I fear, is deeper and less easy to forgive: she seems to take a rather offhand approach to Humanist philosophy. This is evident in a post Libresco links to in the piece under discussion: “More Beating Up on Lazy Humanism“. This post is itself a rather lazy piece of scholarship. Its entire engagement with Humanist philosophy is a the “What is Secular Humanism?” page from the Council for Secular Humanism’s website. And this is literally the only piece of evidence provided to justify the idea that “definitions of humanism are always diffuse and bland”.

This is a strange way to engage with a philosophical tradition. It is rather like my dismissing the quality of Catholic thought on the basis of a description of Catholicism on Were I to attempt such an unfair move I don’t doubt that Libresco would be quick to point me to Aquinas, to  Assissi, Ockham, Cheserton, whomever. But I would never make such a move: it is entirely clear to me that there is a hugely rich tradition of Catholic thought on many topics and, while I am doubtless less familiar with it than she, I wouldn’t dream of hinting that it doesn’t in fact exist.

Yet it is distressingly common for intelligent, well-read critics of Humanism to act as if there is no tradition of Humanist thought, as if the Council for Secular Humanism and its website (or the Webster’s Dictionary entrance on Humanism, also quoted in Libresco’s piece) are the sole authorities on the subject.

Humanists must shoulder some of the blame for this: as I  am frequently at pains to suggest, we suck at conveying our message and educating people about our tradition. A lot of the material regarding Humanism tailored to a broad audience is truly terrible (though much the same could be said for Catholicism or Christianity in general). Many Humanists are themselves woefully unaware of the deep roots of philosophical argumentation which give life to their lifestance (again, many Christians, too, know nothing of theology and philosophy).

But responsible scholarship demands a more curious and engaged stance than Libresco’s post displays. There are, easily available, full, complex, and rigorous explorations of the Humanist worldview which, as a commentator on the topic, I believe it is reasonable to expect she should at least know about, if not know well. Humanism is not just a bumper sticker or a dictionary entry: it is a coherent and evolving tradition of thought and practice which finds expression in multiple cultures and time periods throughout human history. While much of what is available is quite lazy – just as much Christian messaging is lazy – not all of it is lazy. There are rigorous Humanisms, and they aren’t that tough to discover. Not all Humanisms are “diffuse and bland”.

Humanism certainly deserves a lot more clarity and attention to detail than its proponents often give it. But it also deserves the full respect and attention of those who reject it. And, in that spirit, I intend to offer in the coming days a series of resources for those interested in a more robust defense of the Humanist worldview. For the moment, though, a little more engagement on the part of our critics would be a good place to begin.

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Love, Lust, and the Bible: A Further Response to Matthew Vines
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.