Feeding Back

Tom Flynn

My last two op-eds generated unusually strong response, which I’ll acknowledge and answer here. Consider this my feedback to the feedback of others.

The Why of Ponzi

My December 2007/January 2008 essay, “Beyond Ponzi Economics,” focused on the population crisis (yes, there is one). I asked whether economic models exist that neither demand nor presume continual economic or population growth. Apparently this struck a chord among environmentalists, even sparking one blogosphere conversation involving prominent green author Bill McKibben. The bad news: no one could point to a body of economic theory capable of dispensing with continual, unsustainable growth.

An opinion piece in April’s Scientific American (as far as I can tell, not in-spired by my essay) confirms this disturbing finding and suggests why it is so. According to environmental science professor Robert Nadeau, the nineteenth-century architects of “scientific” neoclassical economics appropriated mathematics that physicist Hermann von Hemholtz had put forward in 1847 to describe what we now know as electromagnetism and thermodynamics. Before the nineteenth century was over, workers like James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann had made Hemholtz’s math obsolete—among physicists. Neoclassical economists still use those quaint equations, heedless of the several ways in which they fail to model the real world: they model the market as a closed interaction between production and consumption. Natural resources lie outside the system, valued only by the price at which market participants trade for them. They ignore resource scarcity, the pollution associated with resource extraction, and indeed any “biophysical limits to the growth of market systems.”

Nadeau charges that because “neoclassical economics does not even acknowledge . . . the limits of economic growth, it constitutes one of the greatest barriers to combating climate change and other threats to the planet”—presumably including overpopulation.

This suggests that, just as I feared, present economic theory offers few resources for near-future leaders seeking to promote a humane, orderly reduction in human numbers. I’ll give Nadeau the last word: “It is imperative that economists devise new theories that will take all the realities of our global system into account” (Robert Nadeau, “The Economist Has No Clothes,” Scientific American, April 2008, p. 42).

Atheism Pro and Con

My essay in the February/March 2008 issue of Free Inquiry, “Why the ‘A’ Word Won’t Go Away,” portrayed atheism (that is, the absence of theistic belief*) as a necessary but insufficient precondition for secular humanism. This engendered more blog discussion, as well as Nathan Bupp’s essay “‘A’ Dissent,” which appeared in the April/May 2008 issue.

“While a forthright religious skepticism clearly informs the humanist project,” Bupp wrote, “I would argue that this is not the point to be emphasized.” Judging from the response to my essay, a significant minority among secular humanists agrees with him. A larger group, including other secular humanists and many of the religious believers with whom humanists interact in society, disagrees.

What’s really going on here?

By way of analysis, let’s consider two oft-quoted and famously concise one-liners about humanism. Inventor Paul MacCready once quipped: “Secular humanists don’t believe in God and don’t steal.”

In Humanist Manifesto II (1973), Paul Kurtz offered a more serious, yet no less compact, summation of the humanist project: “There is no deity to save us, we must save ourselves.”

Note what is going on in each of these maxims: atheism (defined by the phrase in color) comes first. Kurtz’s aphorism even implies that the humanist project is not only secondary to atheism but logically dependent on it: it is because there is no deity that humans have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to save themselves.

For many secular humanists, this makes obvious sense. After all, if there was a deity to “save us”—or even credible grounds to suspect such a deity might exist—then we might not need to “save ourselves.” In that case, our struggle to develop autonomous and naturalistic moral values would be at best a bagatelle, at worst moot. In a culture where some form of theism is a default assumption, it is only after we accept atheism that the secular humanist project acquires pressing urgency.

To me, secular humanism is the best possible answer to the question: “There is no god, no heaven—now what?” Before that question can be answered, though, it must be asked.

Still, Bupp speaks for an estimable minority among secular humanists—among them Paul Kurtz himself, in many of his later writings—in viewing atheism as irrelevant, even a distraction. Why such divergence of views on what seems like a bedrock issue? I think the difference reflects, at least in part, each individual’s life experience regarding religion. Those who never took religion particularly seriously, or whose families or communities have been nonreligious for several generations, tend to take the absence of religious belief for granted. For them, it’s simply not a big deal. Members of this group—who tend to be prominent among distinguished academics and scientists, as well as among residents of Western countries other than the United States—literally can’t see why the break from religion matters so much to so many others.

Who are these others, for whom belief or disbelief in God is the biggest deal of all? First, there are those secular humanists who do view atheism as foundational to their life stance—in my experience, a slight majority among those who regularly attend humanist group meetings. Then there are wavering believers, some of whom will discard their former convictions and move toward atheism—also, one hopes, toward secular humanism. Finally, there is the far larger group of religious believers, from fervent to indifferent (80-plus percent of Americans). Members of all three groups see the “God question” as (1) important and (2) logically prior to the rest of the secular humanist project.

I’ll admit that members of this camp, myself included, have as much difficulty understanding how others could think the “God question” inconsequential as thinkers like Bupp find it puzzling that we consider it so important. We all need to be more cognizant of this diversity.

To those who by dint of their own background see atheism as a trivial issue, I would offer an amiable caveat. Please keep in mind that most religious believers, zealous and otherwise, do see the God question as pivotal. Half or more of current secular humanists have been recruited from this group, which also includes the vast majority of more-or-less-religious Americans, hostile or merely curious, with whom secular humanists interact. Whether moving from religion toward humanism or challenging an unbeliever across the water cooler, for these people, secular humanism begins with atheism. What we can agree on, I suggest, is that atheism is only the beginning.

Next issue, I’ll find some fresh applecarts to upset.


* Following George Smith in Atheism: The Case Against God, Gordon Stein in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, and Michael Martin in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, I define atheism etymologically as a–theism, the absence of theistic belief. Skewed by centuries of
derogatory usage, it is often assumed that atheism requires active denial of God’s existence; I disagree and number among the atheists all who for whatever reason hold no belief that a theistic God exists. Among other benefits, this defini­ tion supports the commonsense outcome that anyone who answers “No” to the question, “Do you believe in a loving, caring God?” is an atheist. That’s enough about that pie fight for this space!

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

My last two op-eds generated unusually strong response, which I’ll acknowledge and answer here. Consider this my feedback to the feedback of others. The Why of Ponzi My December 2007/January 2008 essay, “Beyond Ponzi Economics,” focused on the population crisis (yes, there is one). I asked whether economic models exist that neither demand nor presume …

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