Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein is making the rounds promoting his new book, Good Without God. Recently he was interviewed by Sally Quinn of the Washington Post as part of their Divine Impulses series (see video). Epstein makes the point that Humanism “has always been just a little bit dangerous to the powers that be”. He says that when people have been upset about the failures of their leaders, the leaders could always promise something better in an afterlife. I presume he includes those societies in which leaders would need to conspire with the holy men/women of the society to keep people content. This reminds me of the Sid Mier computer game, Civilization. In that game of leading a nation, religion’s function is to keep people content – to keep them from rebelling. I’m not sure of Sid Mier’s beliefs, but the game seems to support the notion that, without some better life being promised to them beyond death, people would rebel continuously.
I think there’s something to be said for the notion that Humanism often may not be advantageous to “the powers that be”. However, I think: (a) the elements of Humanism most a threat to them would be its emphasis on freethought, questioning authority, and healthy skepticism, rather than the lack of belief in an afterlife directly, and (b) many faith traditions could list elements within their belief systems which are anathema to the powers that be. To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t seem to get along with those in charge, and Buddha renounced his own royal status (whether the stories are literally true in every detail, many of the values espoused by the characters would seem credible reasons for the disdain of leaders in any time). Whenever a philosophy, faith, or tradition is at its best – whenever it espouses individual autonomy and renounces the things leaders use to control us, like fear and hate – then it can be said to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be.
This is a very politically-oriented take on Humanism, and it’s one that has predominated the movement, perhaps since its modern incarnation in the 1930s. One thing I attempt to do with the notion of the Humanist Contemplative, is focus more on the personal aspects of Humanism. Likely paraphrasing the Humanist Manifesto III, Epstein also said that it is our ability and responsibility to lead “ethical lives of personal fulfillment…” Note how the term ‘ethical’ is tied to the notion of personal fulfillment. The link between an ethical life and a personally fulfilling one is a central part of the many ancient philosophies I like to explore. Yes, we need the second socially conscious part, which is “…lives that aspire to the greater good”, but it must begin with the person in the mirror. My hope is that more Humanists will come back to that point by exploring how Humanism can be practiced individually in our daily lives, and it seems to be happening.
Epstein publishes the online magazine The New Humanism for which I have recently written. The name is a response to “The New Atheism” – folks like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others who have a more confrontational tone focusing on religious criticism. Rather, the New Humanism is about focusing on the positive values we seek to promote, rather than bashing others or over-emphasis on what we don’t believe. The subtitle to Epistein’s book is, “What A Billion Non-religious People Do Believe” and I admire that approach.