Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Why secular humanism can do what atheism can't

Atheism doesn't offer much beyond non-belief, can secular humanism fill the gaps?

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash
  • Atheism is increasingly popular, but the lack of an organized community around it can be problematic.
  • The decline in social capital once offered by religion can cause severe problems.
  • Secular humanism can offer both community and meaning, but it has also attracted controversy.

People aren't as religious as they used to be.

The decline of these traditional belief systems is a tragedy for some and a cause for celebration for others. There is an element of it that causes a problem for everybody, though. As the old religious ties that bind decline, the communities associated with them start to go too. This isn't to say that a neighborhood without a church will immediately start to decay into poverty, violence, and misery but that the social element of these organizations was essential to people and without it, we've got problems.

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam argued that Americans were starting to suffer from too much alone time and too little community connection in his book Bowling Alone. He wouldn't be shocked by what we see today.

Twenty-two percent of millennials say they have no friends, and the elderly are cripplingly lonely too. People aren't as involved in community organizations as they used to be. These things are terrible for both our health and communities. While the reasons for this aren't well known, the decline in social capital Putnam described probably has something to do with it.

While the decline of religious belief and attendance at mainstream churches in general isn't the only reason for this decline, the traditional place of religion in American life means that lower church attendance can be a destabilizing factor. Say what you will about churches, they were great generators of social capital.

But nothing in that theory of social capital demands that we go back to the previous model of generating said capital. New systems that create community can do the trick too. As old ideas and ways of connecting with others fall apart, new ones rise to replace them; among them is the famous and infamous philosophy of secular humanism.

What is secular humanism?

The people over at the Center for Inquiry define secular humanism as "A comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance." They further explain this by saying:

"Secular humanism is a lifestance, or what Council for Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz has termed a eupraxsophy: a body of principles suitable for orienting a complete human life. As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life."

The American Humanist Association has a similar definition, calling the life stance:

"A progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

How is this different from atheism?

Atheism means one thing and one thing only, the non-belief in any deity. It doesn't mean anything further than that. This is how you can get people as different as Joseph Stalin, Ayn Rand, and Carl Sagan to all fit into the Atheist category.

While people of all persuasions try to argue that this non-belief necessarily leads a non-believer to support other positions, these arguments fall short. If atheism did inevitably lead to other specific believes and values, the diversity of ideologies seen in the above three examples should be impossible.

There isn't even just one kind of atheism; there are several based on precisely what a person doesn't believe in and how they came to that stance.

Secular humanism, on the other hand, makes several claims. It advances a consequentialist ethics system; it affirms the values of self-realization, cosmopolitanism, individualism, and critical thinking; it places a value on social justice; and it praises a dedication to the use of reason and the search for truth.

These stances are ones that many atheists will support, but not ones that they must support. Many will reject them outright. In this way, while secular humanists are typically atheistic, non-theistic, or agnostic, not all atheists, agnostics, or non-theists are going to be secular humanists.

So, is Secular humanism a religion or what?

No, but this is a matter of some controversy in the United States.

The Center for Inquiry's editor Tom Flynn explains why secular humanism isn't a religion in an essay defining the life stance. He first defines religion as a "life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience."

He then points out that, "because it lacks any reliance on (or acceptance of) the transcendent, secular humanism is not — and cannot be — a religion."

While this might not be the end-all definition of "religion" for some people, it is a convincing one. If applied properly, it would rule secular humanism out on any list of religions. This hasn't stopped people from saying it is a religion though. Many people and organizations have argued and still argue that it is a religion out to convert all the youth in America and destroy western civilization as we know it.

Several court cases have considered the question of whether it counts as a "religion" for legal purposes. One judge in Alabama even ruled that secular humanism was a religion and subject to the same restrictions as other religions before ordering that schoolbooks promoting "secular humanist values" were to be removed from classrooms.

A higher court quickly reversed this decision. They didn't address the issue of whether secular humanism was a religion or not, but did point out how that was irrelevant to the case anyway. Other cases before that one had generally agreed that while some humanist organizations do things which are analogous to religious groups, like Sunday meetings, and might be entitled to similar treatment, secular humanism itself is not a "religion."

Does anybody famous like this idea?

Lots of them do, but there is a sticking point regarding the words used.

While some people like Isaac Asimov were self-declared secular humanists who were involved with organizations dedicated to the concept, others, like Bertrand Russell, really didn't want to be called "humanists" and either remained unaffiliated or were heavily involved in humanist organizations without claiming the title.

Kurt Vonnegut took up the role of Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, formerly held by fellow sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov. Charles Shultz, the creator of the Peanuts comic, declared himself to be a secular humanist towards the end of his life. Philosopher Peter Singer is both an atheist and a humanist and would fit the definitions we listed above, though he seems not to use the term "secular humanist" himself.

The American Humanist Association lists several others on their website, including Gloria Steinem, Jonas Salk, and Katharine Hepburn.

How do secular humanists, well, do things? Is there a community?

As it turns out, even people who don't think a god is telling them there is one way to do things like marriage, burial rites, coming of age parties, how to spend their Sunday mornings, or the like still think there is merit to doing something for these occasions. Organizations designed to do that are easier to start when you move beyond simple atheism and get people to agree on a few more stances.

Secular humanist organizations allow similarly minded people to have community, to celebrate life events, to discuss ethics and morality, and to enjoy many of the things that the religious do without having to compromise their beliefs.

You might also recall that I interviewed a humanist celebrant some time back. She explained a lot about what she does and why. There are tons of humanist centers similar to the one she works at around the country. This tool lets you see which one is closest to you. A quick check of their websites will show you what is going on in your area.

In a time when traditional belief systems and communities continue to degrade, and people search for new answers and places to belong, secular humanism offers itself as a modern philosophy that combines a comprehensive worldview with secularism and community. While its merits will be debated for some time to come, it will continue to offer the benefits once provided by the religious community to non-believers, secularists, and humanists for the foreseeable future.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast