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.

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.

  • Daniel Lafave

    How many churches really exemplify “friendship” either? When I was growing up, my parents were deeply alienated from the repressive policies of the Catholic Church, but they were also deeply alienated from the fellow church members, who weren’t friends to them in any sense. They went to church out of a feeling that it was what they were supposed to do, not even out of a feeling of affection let alone friendship. I learned a lot from that experience and realized the religion was a blind alley. You CAN find real friendship in “alumni networks, book clubs, amateur theatre troupes, folks volunteering together”. It’s actually a better friendship too because it’s because of something that you recognize in one another, rather than because Jesus says so.

  • linford86

    James — I’m really excited to read your next few posts! I’ve read the Humanist Manifestos and a few other things, but it’s always been rather opaque to me precisely what Humanism is. I’m looking forward to seeing what sorts of things you recommend to read.

  • smrnda

    I never really get this whole ‘what’s missing in humanist organizations’ deal. I’m an atheist – I am a nominal member of several organizations but none of them really form any sort of extended family for me; my closest friends are picked out of all sorts of places where I met them and though we share many values in common, we don’t all belong to Group X, so of course, someone could argue that each Group ABC XYZ is failing to be (in and of itself) a sort of extended family, but people build their own circles from people they encounter in many formal organizations and none at all.

    I think I actually get a way better deal than through a church – when I do stuff with friends, we just hang out, we aren’t together for an agenda – if you hang out with people from a Christian church, likely every get-together has some sort of agenda, be it Bible study or whatever else they call it. I’m not interested in a social scene like that – I dislike too much structure and formality.

    Have to agree that churches overstate their own social relevance. It might get some lonely people company on occasion, but how deep are these connections, how much do they affect life outside of church?

  • Laurence

    I found much more real friendship with my LARP group than I ever did with any religious groups.

    • Bob Jase

      There are times I miss rolling those d6′s.

  • Pingback: Humanism as community, not philosophy. | NonProphet Status()

  • Mogg

    One of my major issues with the church was the attitude that people in a church are automatically in better, stronger, healthier relationships with each other solely because they are all part of the one group with a higher purpose. I found this to be profoundly and distressingly untrue, and my true friendships ultimately came from completely disparate areas of my life. In any case, who says that any secular community group must automatically consist of people who are all great friends? That is not necessarily their purpose. Sure, you may find good friends by being part of a group organised around something you are interested in, but that’s just a bonus.

  • Baal

    I find Leah somewhat offensive. To wit (from her ReasonRally Wrap Up), “To become a community, the secular movement is going to have to develop more normative moral statements than ‘live or let live.’” This sounds to me like yet another embodiment of atheists are nihilist with nothing to offer trope. I understand that folks who deeply align with churches and religions as methods of social organization do not ‘get’ having your own self defined life where you pursue that which empowers *you*. So far as she doesn’t get how to have a meaningful life with out religious community, I not so respectfully ask her to bugger off. I suppose, I, as an outsider who doesn’t really get her preferred social organization, could tell her and her orgs how to change or express my frustration that only if she (and they) would do what I want them to, they’d be so much more compelling to other people.

    I find it rude and prideful to for outsiders to tell you how to go about your business. That’s not their business. Ethically, if you’re going to comment as an out-group person, you’re constrained to discuss the harms or impacts of the in-group. Your other ethical choice is to have a sort of open door where you announce to everyone your good news (and not just to a specific targeted group).

    I’m somewhat more interested in second point she makes. In order to be more accepted socially, atheists should stand for something. To which I first refer to my first point. For many many atheists, the entire point of atheism or adopting a naturalistic world view to to skip out on standing for something. Other atheists do want to stand for something and they are often vilified by the first group of atheists. Worse, the “stand for something” crowd seems to eschew existing secularist / humanist organizations. This is a problem. With out ties to the past or coherence that comes from existing over time, the “stand for something” crowd winds up either too much ideologically driven (A+) or too experimental (brights).

    Incidentally, I’m by nature in the “yep done with that (religion) going to go over here and live a meaningful life k’thanks” side of things. Thanks to you James (and also Dan Finke and a few others), I now see that we do need to answer the call for physical community. If nothing else, I’d like religion free zone that does day care and voting location kinds of things. Throw in a multipurpose room and some classrooms and you’d have a regular civic center (some town have these as part of city or county governance but they are far from universal).

  • Pingback: Can You Pick a Humanist Out of a Lineup?()

  • Bob Jase

    One of the reasons my wife gave for divorcing me back in ’92 was that I was preventing her from attending church, apparently my not attending was a wall for her. Afterwards she started out with a Baptist church her former sister-in-law attended. A few years later she quit because she found her fellow parishioners too self-absorbed, too shallow and just plain unwelcoming to lower class folks. Lucky for her we’ve stayed friends (though it wasn’t easyfor the first few years after the divorce). I even accompany her to confession at a local RCC church occassionally though I don’t indulge. So far I haven’t burst into flame.

    I think Leah is still trying to justify her present life by diminishing her past life.

  • Darren

    Over on Leah’s blog, I have been taking the tact that Humanist values are pretty much the values of the Enlightenment and that Humanists get shorted on the credit for this achievement due to its having been absorbed within the larger body of Western civilization.

    Not being a particular scholar of the Enlightenment(s) and having my own take on (Secular) Humanism, I thought I would pop over to this blog and ask if I am off-track with this line of attack.

  • ildi

    I remember reading an article about cults and the type of people who join them; turns out, people were more likely to join because they liked the people who were trying to convince them to join (i.e., looking for community), not because they necessarily bought into the belief system. Leah’s boyfriend is Catholic; of all the various forms of Xianity she chooses to convert to, it just so happens to be Catholicism? Coincidence? I think not…

    I was raised Catholic, and how any self-respecting woman could actively choose to join a community that puts women as second-class citizens boggles the mind. I mean, if you really are starting from the intellectual place that you find yourself believing in objective morality and dualism, how the hell does that get you to a belief in the Catholic version of it?

  • ZenDruid

    The humanist Deity is genderless. It has evolved, along with the skills acquired by the genus Homo, over the past ~1.8M years. It represents the works, hopes, dreams, ideals – and flaws – that are actualized through a modern population of seven billion. That implies a seriously broad range of behaviors, of course.

    My first basic article of faith is that every human was born with pretty much the same instincts, as far as survival is concerned. Everything else could be regarded as cultural. The development of a personality is contingent upon too many factors to list in a blog comment, but my point here is that we were born with the same ‘wetware’, and it follows that we came bundled with the same pre-verbal, pre-cultural ‘operating system’. [ OK, no more computer analogies.]

    My second and final article of faith is that the humanist Deity has enough foresight, wisdom, and moxie to have written Its word directly into the individual human consciousness. No Iron Age campfire stories are needed; no glib but insubstantial answers to the meaningful questions of life; and certainly no actors/storytellers who see fit to inculcate children with various reconstructions of primordial fear, imposed shame, and mandatory guilt.


  • GodIsNotDeadNorDothHeSleep

    For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.
    And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.
    That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by claw, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.

    I have learned for myself that humanism is not true.

    • phantomreader42

      Your god is nothing more than a figment of your diseased imagination. You have nothing to offer but regurgitated nonsense and lies.

  • James

    “Many Humanists are themselves woefully unaware of the deep roots of philosophical argumentation which give life to their lifestance…”

    Indeed. And what’s worse, many have never even heard of Humanism! I’ve encountered this among the members of atheist groups out here in LA, and was just discussing the phenomenon with a mutual friend of ours. Humanism has often been either quite obscure or referenced as a pariah in recent cultural history. The new wave of youthful secularists have been galvanized by the New Atheists, and like them are principally unconcerned with matters of philosophy. It’s all about biology, and anything that can’t be reduced to data sets is error. It’s very unfortunate. I wish more people would understand some basic definitions and recent history, at least. I really like this essay:

    Also, I would maintain that vibrant humanist communities are not only possible, but do exist, at least in the form of many (if not all) UU congregations, albeit with some helpful trappings and structures of traditional religion. The church setting is tough to get past for some people, but I couldn’t be happier as a UU Humanist.