Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is something missing, without religion?

No, says Peter Watson.
While I was researching my own recent book, The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, I surveyed a raft of playwrights, poets, philosophers, psychologists and novelists who have been active since Nietzsche made his fateful pronouncement, many of whom did and do not share this view that there is something missing in modern life. Some did – Ibsen, Strindberg, Henry James and Carl Gustav Jung would all be cases in point. But far more did not see any reason to mourn the passing of God – George Santayana, Stéphane Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens, Stefan George, Sigmund Freud of course, and, not least, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Alfred Sisley and Gustave Caillebotte, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir were each very different in artistic style but they did have something in common. As the art critic Robert Hughes writes in The Shock of the New, “It was a feeling that the life of the city and the village, the cafés and the bois, the salons and the bedrooms, the boulevards, the seaside and the banks of the Seine, could become a vision of Eden – a world or ripeness and bloom, projecting an untroubled sense of wholeness.”
(continues at New Humanist)


But Alain de Botton's School of Life offers this:

Will the needs & desires (etc.) that "made us make up religion in the first place" really continue into the indefinite future, as a permanent fixture of our human nature? Or will we get over them?

"Humanism must go beyond aggressive atheistic denial"

A Q&A with Philip Kitcher, whose new book argues that secular humanism can be a fulfilling framework for life.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of books arguing against religion. But do any of these address the lived experience of atheism, and how human needs like the desire for meaningfulness can be met in a "godless" life? In his new book, Life After Faith, academic Philip Kitcher sets out the case for secular humanism, and explores potential replacements for the sense of identity and community that religion currently provides for many people.

Your book sets out to establish secular humanism as a “positive position”. Do you think that it has often been negative? In what ways?

I want to distinguish secular humanism from atheism. Atheism is plainly a negative position: it consists in denying the existence of God (or of gods). Many atheists, especially the “new Atheists” (of whom Richard Dawkins is the most prominent) concentrate on amassing arguments for the non-existence of supernatural beings. They believe (correctly) that it’s a bad thing for people to believe false doctrines – and consequently engage in a crusade to eliminate a particular style of false belief from the face of the earth.

I see secular humanism as a positive perspective on life, one that enables people to live full and richly rewarding lives without embracing any religion. So secular humanism has to go beyond atheism in two dimensions. First, it must question those religions that don’t commit themselves to deities, or that don’t conceive their central doctrines as literal truth. Second, it can’t stop when doctrinal beliefs have been swept away, but must offer something to replace the guidance, help, and comfort that many people find in religious life and religious practice.

Believing falsehoods is typically bad. Yet worse things can happen to people. Leaving them adrift and vulnerable may not improve their lot. So secular humanism must go beyond blunt – and often aggressive – atheistic denial. 

(continues at New Humanist

Monday, February 2, 2015

Militant atheist

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This cartoon fueled an interesting discussion in CoPhi. The next day, David Brooks' column* said in part: 
"It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light."

Brooks is right that atheism needs to do for SOME of its adherents what religion does for SOME of its, namely affirm and even "radiate." I'd just add the observation that in fact, for many of us, it already does so.

Brooks's column has generated some unsurprising heat, from philosophers and at least one Mennonite minister:

To the Editor:
Re “Building Better Secularists” (column, Feb. 3):
David Brooks says secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies, while religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.
Secularists don’t have to “build” anything; we can choose moral philosophies from what’s already well tested. If religious people think that their “faith” excuses them from evaluating the duties and taboos handed down to them, they are morally obtuse.
Does Mr. Brooks think that religious people are not “called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions”? Children may be excused for taking it on authority, but not adults.
Mr. Brooks writes, “Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him.” We secularists have no need for love of any imaginary being, since there is a bounty of real things in the world to love, and to motivate us: peace, justice, freedom, learning, music, art, science, nature, love and health, for instance.
Our advice: Eliminate the middleman, and love the good stuff that we know is real.
Medford, Mass.

The writer, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is co-author of“Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.”

To the Editor:
How presumptuous of David Brooks to instruct us “secularists” on how to live the moral life. We have to build our own moral philosophies? Nonsense. I learned mine from my atheistic parents and from teachers throughout my education (not to mention Aristotle, Kant, Mill and the many other moral philosophers I studied).
We have to reflect on spiritual matters? No, I reflect on the injustices in this world, why so many children in the United States go hungry, and why centuries of violence continue to persist in the name of religion.
In place of the religious spiritual life, we atheists may be enraptured by a Beethoven symphony, moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, enchanted by a Rembrandt portrait. We have to build our own Sabbaths? No, thanks; I’ll spend my secular weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a New York Philharmonic concert or rereading “A Theory of Justice,” by John Rawls.

The writer is a professor of bioethics in the department of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
To the Editor:
David Brooks says “secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” He overlooks the persecutions and holy wars that have resulted from communal religious fervor.
As a lifelong secularist, I doubt that the emotion-based communal moralism of religion is really something we secularists should emulate.
Providence, R.I.

The writer is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.

To the Editor:
David Brooks nicely describes the limitations of secularism, but he falls into a common misunderstanding of religion when he says “you either believe in God or you don’t.” But religion or faith is not that simple. God is not some idea that you believe is either true or false. Faith is not so coldly rational.
Doubt is a central aspect of faith. Yes, I believe in God, but I can never be certain. By suggesting that you either believe or not, Mr. Brooks accepts a fundamentalist view of religion. Doubters need not be secularists: Religious communities welcome them — indeed, we need them.
Highland Park, Ill.

The writer is a Mennonite minister.
* http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html