A New Leader . . . for Religious Humanists

Tom Flynn

Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Greg M. Epstein (New York: HarperCollins, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-167011-4) 250 pp. Cloth $25.99.

Nonreligious Americans divide into multiple tribes that sometimes overlap yet are undeniably distinct. By their spokespeople we may know them: atheists have seldom wanted for charismatic authors. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was brash and vulgar but unfailingly colorful; before her Joseph Lewis and Joseph McCabe wrote memorable polemic. In our time, atheism boasts a pantheon (pardon the expression) of more articulate and sophisticated advocates, most conspicuously the so-called four horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Secular humanists are ably represented by the numerous books of Paul Kurtz as well as engaging works by several other authors. The surprisingly vibrant community of secular-humanist Jews had, until his accidental death in 2007, a magnetic champion in its founder, Rabbi Sherwin Wine (to whom the work under review is dedicated).

By comparison, in 1997, religious humanists embraced an updated eighth edition of Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism. First published in 1949, it is still the “starter text” recommended by the American Humanist Association and humanist-friendly Unitarian Universalist congregations. Compared to other unbeliever “tribes,” religious humanists have gone the longest without a new author-advocate able to energize their movement while memorably articulating its goals. Until now.

Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University and, let’s be frank, a young man on the make. He’s an empire builder, a visionary, a charismatic ambassador. He’s on the cusp of taking religious humanism by storm, establishing himself as just the sort of driving figure this particular humanist tribe has long hungered for.

Good without God is friendly, accessible, engaging, breezy when it needs to be, and written more like a rollicking business or how-to book than a typical humanist tome. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that twenty-first-century people just growing curious about religious humanism (or in the well-established usage Epstein prefers, “Humanism” with a capital H) might actually read. I expect it to become religious humanism’s new standard text.

One needn’t be a religious humanist to delight in the book’s opening chapter—most of it, anyway. Epstein opens with a rapid-fire presentation of who the nonreligious are, why religious doubt is a responsible stance, and why nonreligious people have the same claim to goodness, compassion, and uplifting values as every other human being. It’s simply the best short introduction to unbelief I’ve seen, despite the occasional flash of hubris—Epstein justifies that claim of “a billion nonreligious people” by extrapolating across the global population every man, woman, and child in America who has ever identified his or her religious preference to some pollster as “none.” Those preliminaries completed, Epstein zeroes in more narrowly on his core religious-humanist audience.

So powerful, so pitch-perfect is all of this that I found myself responding to Epstein’s book much as I had when I first encountered Sam Harris’s The End of Faith in 2004. The End of Faith was an unexpected runaway train of a book by a then-unknown author; it articulated a certain kind of atheist position with a power no one had achieved before, despite flaws that from my own secular-humanist standpoint seemed glaring (see my review “Glimpses of Nirvana,” FI, February/March 2005). Good without God is another new author’s runaway train of a book, this time expounding religious humanism with unprecedented power, albeit with attributes that unbelievers from neighboring tribes may find troubling.

Perhaps we should expect nothing less. Nonreligious Americans don’t form a single tribe, and each tribe has characteristic preferences. Secular and religious humanists alike found things to dislike in Sam Harris and other New Atheist authors. (Secular humanist writers voiced these misgivings notwithstanding that Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens are past or current Free Inquiry columnists.) With Good without God Epstein attains something similar for religious humanism. He offers what his publisher’s publicity terms a “challenging response” to Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. Yet committed secular humanists, whatever their affinities or differences with New Atheists like Harris, may feel compelled to challenge Epstein right back.

In offering such a muscular statement of a religious-humanist position, Epstein unavoidably spotlights the beliefs that the “billion nonreligious people” of his book’s subtitle do not hold in common. Fair enough: there are real and characteristic differences between religious humanism (or Humanism) and secular humanism as advocated here at the Council. If you’re the sort of humanist who finds secular humanism vaguely off-putting—and a cautious mysticism and/or the delights of congregational life appealing—after reading Good without God you’ll be better able to articulate why you prefer religious to secular humanism. Likewise if you’re a staunch secular humanist—or, in many cases, an atheist—reading this book will wonderfully clarify just why, for you, religious humanism fails to satisfy.

Before I go further, I should attempt to define that amorphous phrase “religious humanism.” Religious humanists are first of all humanists—they attach primary moral and aesthetic interest to human concerns as opposed to those of supposed supernatural beings. Nonetheless, in various ways that don’t always travel together, religious humanists approach their lifestance in a manner that’s distinctively religious. I have defined 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.”* While eschewing orthodox religious beliefs, some religious humanists embrace a worldview that encourages or demands faith—that is, assent less than fully compelled by the evidence in hand. Let’s consider a sentence from a classic American Humanist Association membership recruitment mailing, circa 1990: “It [being a Humanist] means you believe humans have the intelligence and imagination to solve the problems facing today’s world, if they will but apply those abilities.”

That’s an attractive, even inspiring belief, but it can’t be justified on purely rational grounds. Secular and religious humanists can all agree with Paul Kurtz’s memorable formulation: “No deity will save us, we must save ourselves.” Yes, we must—if we can. Granted, we are all we’ve got, but there is no guarantee that our power will be sufficient; that is to say, the human project might fail. The challenges we face might defeat us. A strictly rational thinker can do no more than admit this, strive mightily, and await the verdict of history. To go beyond this, to form a certainty that humankind not only can but will prevail—that takes going beyond the evidence. That demands faith. Hence, it is on my definition a necessarily religious point of view.

Other religious-humanist formulations include the Teilhardian/Tiplerian optimism that sees humankind inevitably developing to the point that it steps into God’s seven-league boots, as well as that species of diehard Marxism that considers an egalitarian paradise sooner or later inevitable. Other human-centered thinkers may believe in a fairly literal kind of spirit, in a mysterious “life force” that irresistibly impels us toward new heights of order and complexity, or some system of karma that impersonally imposes multi-generational justice upon the universe. All these beliefs outrun the evidence and hence can be meaningfully labeled religious.

But this does not exhaust the catalogue of people who genuinely merit the label religious humanist. Another branch of this tribe has no visible attachment to extra-evidential beliefs; these religious humanists are simply enthusiasts for the sort of congregational community life that many traditional believers (not only Christians) experience in more traditional church, temple, or mosque settings. (Keep in mind that the humanist tribes consist largely of converts; most of us, religious and secular alike, bear the stamp of childhoods and often young adulthoods spent in relatively orthodox faith communities.) Religious humanists of this stripe cherish a local assembly of like-minded believers and its role in solemnizing such milestones as birth, death, and marriage, sometimes also mediating wider aspects of life that more secular individuals might prefer to fulfill outside their local “life-stance” community.

Only when we keep both these varieties of religious humanism in mind (and that a given individual can embrace one variety without necessarily embracing the other) can we fully appreciate the audacity of what Epstein attempts in Good without God. He seeks to establish himself as the champion of those religious humanists who embrace both the resort to faith and the delights of congregational life.

Here’s Epstein on faith: “Call Humanism a faith if you like—we should have no particular allergy to that word,” he declared early on (p. 10). “Myth doesn’t always need to be a dirty word for the nonreligious.” And here’s Epstein on congregational life: “People need community. . . . For most people, it takes a congregation. But it doesn’t necessarily take God” (p. 24). “What happens when you have a broken heart? . . . Anytime your hopes and expectations are dashed . . . you want to fall back on the ritual. You want to fall back on something” (p. 175). Epstein weaves these into a seamless whole in high style.

Yet many secular humanists will sharply disagree. Essential to their secular humanism is that, in Dan Barker’s phrase, they’ve lost faith in faith. Assent beyond the evidence is for them a core problem; it can never be part of the solution. And yes, myth is always a dirty word. That’s a key difference between secular and religious humanists. Likewise, many secular humanists fail to see the value of congregational life. For them, the genuine, aching temptation “to fall back on the ritual . . . to fall back on something” is instead a challenge to muster the courage to resist that siren song. Congregational life as a mediator of life’s milestones—to say nothing of a preferred locus for finding people to date, insurance agents, accountants, or members of one’s bowling league—ill squares with their sense of individualism and autonomy. They may not desire a like-minded parochial community to affirm their decision to commit to a loved one, much less to decide for them what it means when someone they have treasured is stolen by death.

I don’t raise these objections in order to take anything away from people who find religious humanism compelling. For them, Epstein has written an extended anthem, and I won’t be at all surprised if ten years from now he stands in the same sort of relation to the religious-humanist community as Adler does for Ethical Culturists, Wine for secular-humanist Jews, or Kurtz for secular humanists. The point is that religious and secular humanists are different; for all the things our communities genuinely share, in other ways they have been immiscible for decades.

As a closing acknowledgment of the genuine power of this book, I note that reading it has changed my own thinking. After reading Epstein’s vigorous advocacy for capital-H Humanists to immerse themselves into interfaith encounters (“interfaith includes the nonreligious too,” p. 164), I realized that my own participation in interfaith panels over the past few years was mistaken. Religious humanism may be a faith, but secular humanism is not. Thanks to Epstein and his clarifying intensity, I have withdrawn from the interfaith programs I used to take part in.

Whether you’re a religious or a secular humanist, Good without God richly merits reading. And I recommend it especially to individuals who aren’t sure what sort of humanist they are. After reading Epstein, your ambivalence may be resolved.


* Yes, I am aware that attempting to define the word religion is the next best thing to skipping through a minefield. In a sidebar to “A Secular Humanist Definition: Setting The Record Straight” (FI, Fall 2002), reissued as the Council for Secular Humanism pamphlet Secular Humanism Defined, I surveyed a daunting range of largely mutually incompatible definitions offered by scholars who ought to know better before advancing (and explaining) the definition of the R-word I have relied on since.

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).

Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Greg M. Epstein (New York: HarperCollins, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-167011-4) 250 pp. Cloth $25.99. Nonreligious Americans divide into multiple tribes that sometimes overlap yet are undeniably distinct. By their spokespeople we may know them: atheists have seldom wanted for charismatic authors. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was …

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