Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?

For many years be­fore the Wright Brothers, peo­ple dreamed of fly­ing with magic po­tions. There was noth­ing ir­ra­tional about the raw de­sire to fly. There was noth­ing tainted about the wish to look down on a cloud from above. Only the “magic po­tions” part was ir­ra­tional.

Sup­pose you were to put me into an fMRI scan­ner, and take a movie of my brain’s ac­tivity lev­els, while I watched a space shut­tle launch. (Want­ing to visit space is not “re­al­is­tic”, but it is an es­sen­tially lawful dream—one that can be fulfilled in a lawful uni­verse.) The fMRI might—maybe, maybe not—re­sem­ble the fMRI of a de­vout Chris­tian watch­ing a na­tivity scene.

Should an ex­per­i­menter ob­tain this re­sult, there’s a lot of peo­ple out there, both Chris­ti­ans and some athe­ists, who would gloat: “Ha, ha, space travel is your re­li­gion!”

But that’s draw­ing the wrong cat­e­gory bound­ary. It’s like say­ing that, be­cause some peo­ple once tried to fly by ir­ra­tional means, no one should ever en­joy look­ing out of an air­plane win­dow on the clouds be­low.

If a rocket launch is what it takes to give me a feel­ing of aes­thetic tran­scen­dence, I do not see this as a sub­sti­tute for re­li­gion. That is theo­mor­phism—the view­point from gloat­ing re­li­gion­ists who as­sume that ev­ery­one who isn’t re­li­gious has a hole in their mind that wants filling.

Now, to be fair to the re­li­gion­ists, this is not just a gloat­ing as­sump­tion. There are athe­ists who have re­li­gion-shaped holes in their minds. I have seen at­tempts to sub­sti­tute athe­ism or even tran­shu­man­ism for re­li­gion. And the re­sult is in­vari­ably awful. Ut­terly awful. Ab­solutely ab­jectly awful.

I call such efforts, “hymns to the nonex­is­tence of God”.

When some­one sets out to write an athe­is­tic hymn—”Hail, oh un­in­tel­li­gent uni­verse,” blah, blah, blah—the re­sult will, with­out ex­cep­tion, suck.

Why? Be­cause they’re be­ing imi­ta­tive. Be­cause they have no mo­ti­va­tion for writ­ing the hymn ex­cept a vague feel­ing that since churches have hymns, they ought to have one too. And, on a purely artis­tic level, that puts them far be­neath gen­uine re­li­gious art that is not an imi­ta­tion of any­thing, but an origi­nal ex­pres­sion of emo­tion.

Reli­gious hymns were (of­ten) writ­ten by peo­ple who felt strongly and wrote hon­estly and put se­ri­ous effort into the prosody and imagery of their work—that’s what gives their work the grace that it pos­sesses, of artis­tic in­tegrity.

So are athe­ists doomed to hymn­less­ness?

There is an acid test of at­tempts at post-the­ism. The acid test is: “If re­li­gion had never ex­isted among the hu­man species—if we had never made the origi­nal mis­take—would this song, this art, this rit­ual, this way of think­ing, still make sense?”

If hu­man­ity had never made the origi­nal mis­take, there would be no hymns to the nonex­is­tence of God. But there would still be mar­riages, so the no­tion of an athe­is­tic mar­riage cer­e­mony makes perfect sense—as long as you don’t sud­denly launch into a lec­ture on how God doesn’t ex­ist. Be­cause, in a world where re­li­gion never had ex­isted, no­body would in­ter­rupt a wed­ding to talk about the im­plau­si­bil­ity of a dis­tant hy­po­thet­i­cal con­cept. They’d talk about love, chil­dren, com­mit­ment, hon­esty, de­vo­tion, but who the heck would men­tion God?

And, in a hu­man world where re­li­gion never had ex­isted, there would still be peo­ple who got tears in their eyes watch­ing a space shut­tle launch.

Which is why, even if ex­per­i­ment shows that watch­ing a shut­tle launch makes “re­li­gion”-as­so­ci­ated ar­eas of my brain light up, as­so­ci­ated with feel­ings of tran­scen­dence, I do not see that as a sub­sti­tute for re­li­gion; I ex­pect the same brain ar­eas would light up, for the same rea­son, if I lived in a world where re­li­gion had never been in­vented.

A good “athe­is­tic hymn” is sim­ply a song about any­thing worth singing about that doesn’t hap­pen to be re­li­gious.

Also, re­versed stu­pidity is not in­tel­li­gence. The world’s great­est idiot may say the Sun is shin­ing, but that doesn’t make it dark out. The point is not to cre­ate a life that re­sem­bles re­li­gion as lit­tle as pos­si­ble in ev­ery sur­face as­pect—this is the same kind of think­ing that in­spires hymns to the nonex­is­tence of God. If hu­man­ity had never made the origi­nal mis­take, no one would be try­ing to avoid things that vaguely re­sem­bled re­li­gion. Believe ac­cu­rately, then feel ac­cord­ingly: If space launches ac­tu­ally ex­ist, and watch­ing a rocket rise makes you want to sing, then write the song, dammit.

If I get tears in my eyes at a space shut­tle launch, it doesn’t mean I’m try­ing to fill a hole left by re­li­gion—it means that my emo­tional en­er­gies, my car­ing, are bound into the real world.

If God did speak plainly, and an­swer prayers re­li­ably, God would just be­come one more bor­ingly real thing, no more worth be­liev­ing in than the post­man. If God were real, it would de­stroy the in­ner un­cer­tainty that brings forth out­ward fer­vor in com­pen­sa­tion. And if ev­ery­one else be­lieved God were real, it would de­stroy the spe­cial­ness of be­ing one of the elect.

If you in­vest your emo­tional en­ergy in space travel, you don’t have those vuln­er­a­bil­ities. I can see the Space Shut­tle rise with­out los­ing the awe. Every­one else can be­lieve that Space Shut­tles are real, and it doesn’t make them any less spe­cial. I haven’t painted my­self into the cor­ner.

The choice be­tween God and hu­man­ity is not just a choice of drugs. Above all, hu­man­ity ac­tu­ally ex­ists.