Decomposing Humanism: Why Replace Religion?

Meet the latest critics of the new atheists: the old humanists. It is not enough, they say, to take a stand against religion—we must stand up something in its place. Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Just to show you how serious I am, I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions. Out of one, many.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

After all, it was something like this phenomenon that characterized the secularization of Western Europe. The dramatic drop in regular church attendance in Europe was not accompanied by a dramatic spike in the membership of organized atheism or humanism, which remains marginal. For post-religious Europeans, the point was to not show up anywhere once a week to seek absolution, but to stay out late on Saturday nights and sleep in late on Sunday mornings.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing humanists for getting together to fight for the ideals of a secular, open society. For the better part of a decade, I proudly worked for an organization (the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine) that does just that. But even there, I encountered tension between those of us who saw the Center primarily as a think tank and advocate addressing the general public in the marketplace of ideas, and those who saw it primarily as a congregation whose purpose is to gather up all the self-identifying refugees of traditional religion and offer them a secular alternative to everything it did for them. Compare: you might support Médecins Sans Frontières because you believe in their work, but you wouldn’t expect them to officiate your wedding. I always maintained that the point should be to make the mainstream culture more secular and humanistic, not to create a new secular humanist subculture.

Neither am I arguing against disorganized secular humanism, of which I am both perpetual student and ardent lover. For disorganized secular humanism is practically identical to the ethos of modern, liberal democracy. Here lies the real embarrassment of the fallacy of decomposition. When humanism is equated with organized humanism, an entire civilization is reduced to a fringe group of dyspeptic rationalists who gather once a year in hotel ballrooms (as Sam Harris observed a few years ago before a group of dyspeptic rationalists gathered in a hotel ballroom). According to this impoverished self-concept, humanist “literature” does not embrace the better part of all letters but instead only the relatively few writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Isaac Asimov who have turned up at conferences of the American Humanist Association to accept awards.

Apparently, in thinking about what might come after religion, it is hard for humanists to see beyond a kind of telecom model, in which a conglomerate bundles together all of these services, so that the same people who put us in touch with metaphysical truth also provide us with community and morality.

It is all the more ironic that this model itself is an invention of religion, a sort of meta-dogma. It is a vestige of the contingent historical fact that after giving up its dreams of theocratic control, Western Christianity contented itself with claiming for its territory everything that fell outside of the civil sphere of government and politics and the commercial sphere of market activity. Why else would learning, art, food, sex, and the meaning of life all be handled by the same religious monopoly?

The promise and the peril of the open, liberal democratic society lies precisely in the possibility of a civility and a solidarity untethered from any unitary philosophy or community—it doesn’t all have to hang together. The secular house has many mansions.