I was particularly struck by a book review this week from the August 15, 2011 issue.. (I buy them for ten cents each at the library, the way I buy most everything: recycled.) The book review is enticingly titled after the old Peggy Lee standard, "Is That All There Is? Secularism and Its Discontents, by New Yorker critic and Harvard professor James Woods. The book he is reviewing is a compilation of 11 essays on secularism and its place in the world today called "The Joy of Secularism 11 Essays for Living Now" (Princeton $35) by George Levine. But do yourself a favor and read Woods' review which you can link to here. It gained my rapt attention not only because of the quality of the writing and the well thought out theories, but because my A-hole brother-in-law Richard had just called me for the first time in six to eight months to tell me that my sister, his wife, and he were concerned that my blog was getting secular.
I wasn't even sure what that could mean since I don't practice religion, don't believe in a religion and have no use for religion, so how could I be getting "secular" if I never was religious? Do I understand the term correctly? I do believe, however, like many whole and complete, growing human beings who works to raise her consciousness and help mankind evolve as a species, that I am a spiritually centered person who, I hope, is always spiritually growing. I'll get back to this. First I want to bitch and gossip because I'm not a saint yet. I make progress not perfection.
I was so surprised by his out of character phone call that I immediately thought something had happened to my sister or one of her children or grandchildren. But he said no, that wasn't why he was calling. He wanted to know, he asked with an evil laugh, "Do you even read that blog?"
What does he think I'm going to say, "No I just work here?" I not only read it, but I meditate over the topic, content, light a candle or two on my desk for the people out there whom I hope will be helped by the post, and I pray and ask my higher power, whom I choose to call God, when I'm not calling her Cosmo, to please let me know what she would have me say not what my big ego wants to focus on, which is always me. I get answers. I get ideas, words, and sometimes things flow. I feel I have accomplished something for that day, and may have helped one person who was struggling, in pain or worried or depressed--whatever.
Richard was "commenting" by phone on my last blog posting which was about getting back to spiritual and recovery basics. There is no keeping me from talking about me, I'm sad to say, and I also just had to mention all the artsy fartsy things I've been enjoying doing like art journaling, scrapbooking and decoupaging. I mentioned that my first plan was to decoupage pictures of the planets, stars, galaxies, etc. onto the top of my coffee table. But when I laid it out I was underwhelmed. I followed my intuition and decided to go with fish of all types and colors. It came out very nice.
Anyhow Richard also wanted to tell me how great, awesome and miraculous a star is, and I agree. Does that mean that just because he is a fundamentalist reborn Christian I am not supposed to use pictures of nature's wonders in my art? Is it like how dare I think myself worthy of pasting pictures of planets and stars when I am only an unreborn non-Christian, non-religious person? Is that it?
Just then my daughter called from out of state and I wanted to talk to her, and frankly was less than enthralled in keeping this conversation in all its weirdness going. Before he hung up though, when I finally realized that he may have been sober and clean a lot of years but now in his sixties he was definitely smoking something and wetting his whistle while he was at it, and maybe throwing in some hard drugs, because he was out of his ever lovin' mind. He told me again about how worried he and Maureen are about my secularism, and that within two days I would receive a letter but it wouldn't be from him. I guess Jesus was going to write me a special letter on account of what a special friend he was to Richard. Either that or one of those crooked, sex-starved, dishonest creepy reborn hedonist like Jim and Tammy Faye Baker were coming back to life just to have a private word with me.
Is That All There Is?
Secularism and its discontents.
by James Wood August 15, 2011
James Woods, Harvard academic and literary critic at the New Yorker, offers a fascinating review of The Joys of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, a recent collection of essays apposite to Taylor’s claim. Edited by George Levine, the collection suggests that secularism is not a negation of meaning; instead, it has the potential to fill that spiritual lack that Taylor laments. The purpose of the collection is to “explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now.”
In more recent years, this decidedly lugubrious conception of secular society has given way to nostalgia for God and meaning from without. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his 2007 work A Secular Age, presents a nuanced position on secularism, suggesting that the rational-empirical turn that led to our secularization and disenchantment is both an achievement and a predicament. Yes, we have neuroscience and evolutionary psychology that explain life pragmatically. But, according to Taylor, the fact that we can no longer look outside of our phenomenal world for answers makes it hard to experience spiritual “fulfillment” in the same way that our ancestors did. Our increasingly reductionist world is making it easier and easier to explain away notions like altruism in a neuroscientific language that fails to account for its nobility.
About the Council
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Secular Humanism Defined
About the Council
Find a Local Group
Secular Humanism Defined
What Is Secular Humanism?Secular Humanism is a term which has come into use in the last thirty years to describe a world view with the following elements and principles:
- A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
- 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.
- A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
- A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
- 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.
- 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.
- A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
How Do Secular Humanists View Religious and Supernatural Claims?Secular humanists accept a world view or philosophy called naturalism, in which the physical laws of the universe are not superseded by non-material or supernatural entities such as demons, gods, or other "spiritual" beings outside the realm of the natural universe. Supernatural events such as miracles (in which physical laws are defied) and psi phenomena, such as ESP, telekinesis, etc., are not dismissed out of hand, but are viewed with a high degree of skepticism.
Are Secular Humanists Atheists?Secular humanists are generally nontheists. They typically describe themselves as nonreligious. They hail from widely divergent philosophical and religious backgrounds.
Thus, secular humanists do not rely upon gods or other supernatural forces to solve their problems or provide guidance for their conduct. They rely instead upon the application of reason, the lessons of history, and personal experience to form an ethical/moral foundation and to create meaning in life. Secular humanists look to the methodology of science as the most reliable source of information about what is factual or true about the universe we all share, acknowledging that new discoveries will always alter and expand our understanding of it and perhaps change our approach to ethical issues as well. In any case their cosmic outlook draws primarily from human experiences and scientific knowledge.
What Is The Origin of Secular Humanism?Secular humanism as an organized philosophical system is relatively new, but its foundations can be found in the ideas of classical Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicureans as well as in Chinese Confucianism. These philosophical views looked to human beings rather than gods to solve human problems.
During the Dark Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies were suppressed by the political power of the church. Those who dared to express views in opposition to the prevailing religious dogmas were banished, tortured or executed. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy and exploration, would consideration of the humanist alternative to a god-centered existence be permitted. During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, with the development of science, philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as "free thought."
The nineteenth century Freethought movement of America and Western Europe finally made it possible for the common citizen to reject blind faith and superstition without the risk of persecution. The influence of science and technology, together with the challenges to religious orthodoxy by such celebrity freethinkers as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll brought elements of humanist philosophy even to mainline Christian churches, which became more concerned with this world, less with the next.
In the twentieth century scientists, philosophers, and progressive theologians began to organize in an effort to promote the humanist alternative to traditional faith-based world views. These early organizers classified humanism as a non-theistic religion which would fulfill the human need for an ordered ethical/philosophical system to guide one's life, a "spirituality" without the supernatural. In the last thirty years, those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook have adopted the term "secular humanism" to describe their non-religious life stance.
Critics often try to classify secular humanism as a religion. Yet secular humanism lacks essential characteristics of a religion, including belief in a deity and an accompanying transcendent order. Secular humanists contend that issues concerning ethics, appropriate social and legal conduct, and the methodologies of science are philosophical and are not part of the domain of religion, which deals with the supernatural, mystical and transcendent.
Secular humanism, then, is a philosophy and world view which centers upon human concerns and employs rational and scientific methods to address the wide range of issues important to us all. While secular humanism is at odds with faith-based religious systems on many issues, it is dedicated to the fulfillment of the individual and humankind in general. To accomplish this end, secular humanism encourages a commitment to a set of principles which promote the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection.
For a detailed discussion of secular humanism, refer to the following books written by philosopher and Council of Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz and published by Prometheus Books:
- The Transcendental Temptation
- Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism
- Living Without Religion: Eupraxophy
- In Defense of Secular Humanism
"What is Secular Humanism" was written by Fritz Stevens, Edward Tabash, Tom Hill, Mary Ellen Sikes, and Tom Flynn.