Decomposing Humanism

Austin Dacey

Meet the latest critics of the New Atheists: the old humanists. It is not enough, they say, to take a stand against religionwe must stand up something in its place. Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than denying God but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religions critics to organize a replacement.

Just to demonstrate my seriousness, Ive christened this mode of mistaken thinking 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 arises to serve the same social functionsthat 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 and the concert hall. Stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also good books.

Witness the secularization of Western Europe since the middle of the twentieth century. The dramatic drop in regular church attendance in Europe was not accompanied by a dramatic spike in the membership of organized atheist or humanist groups, which remains marginal. For post-religious Europeans, the point was to not show up anywhere once a week to seek absolution but rather to stay out late on Friday 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 cant stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? Then 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 Ive heard him sing, and I think Ill stick to Arvo Prt, Edwin Hawkins, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. Its 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 that does just thatthe Center for Inquiry, affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, which publishes Free Inquiry magazine. 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 Mdecin Sans Frontires because you believe in their work, but you wouldnt expect them to officiate at 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 a perpetual student and an ardent lover. 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 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: 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 education, art, diet, 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 lie precisely in the possibility of a civility and a solidarity untethered from any unitary philosophy or community the realization that it doesnt all have to hang together.

The secular house has many mansions.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey is an associate editor for Free Inquiry and a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the book A Secular Conscience (Prometheus Books, 2007).


Meet the latest critics of the New Atheists: the old humanists. It is not enough, they say, to take a stand against religionwe must stand up something in its place. Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than denying God but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide …

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