I used to call myself the world’s worst atheist. It seemed that whenever I would get comfortable with disbelief, the rationale for believing would begin stalking me again. “Life is pointless,” whispered my pursuer, “without a supernatural context to endow it with meaning and value, and to provide objective standards for right and wrong.” So I would swing back to belief of some form or another, sometimes believing that it was okay to believe just because I was a person who needed to believe. For one brief period, years ago, I even swung all the way into biblical fundamentalism. If believing is important, I figured, then a person had better be all in.
Fundamentalism was a bad fit for me, however. The people were nice enough: they smiled, shook your hand, and regularly invited you to dinner. As I remember it, though, when it came to sense experience, life amongst central Pennsylvania fundamentalists was pasteurized beyond the aromaless. It left me hungering for a thick slice of aged Reggiano or something similar.
Growing up in a fairly large, Italian extended family, I learned that shaking hands was only for strangers. Friends and family didn’t shake your hand; they bear-hugged you, kissed you, and, if they happened to be older females, threw up their hands and screamed with delight the moment they saw you. Sensory experience was accentuated, not denigrated. Every home, for example, was so thick with cooking aromas that even the air in the backyard had a measurable caloric content. The churches, all Catholic of course, were gaudy but gorgeous compared to the Protestant sanctuaries, most of which had the aesthetic appeal of a high-school gymnasium.
The Bible-believers’ denial of the senses extended beyond home and church, though; they denied pretty much all of human culture. Pastors sermonized week after week about the moral life, but they did so without ever mentioning the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, renowned painters and novelists, or even the great theologians. How could anyone deeply interested in living a better life remain deaf and blind to the most beautiful and profound expressions of moral longing in human history? If the Bible had all the answers, then why were novelists and playwrights still immersing us in one new moral dilemma after another, each more perplexing than the last? Did living for Jesus mean that one had to behave as if the best that had ever been thought and said had never happened? Desperate to convince themselves that the Bible was all-sufficient, the fundamentalists only made their own lives hopelessly insular.
Back then, working to earn the credentials for my psychologist’s license, I was gaining an ever-deepening appreciation of the value of the scientific way of knowing. In sum, what I learned was that being human means being wrong most of the time. The truth is elusive, the supposedly hard facts shadowy and changeable, and we poor humans are not only limited and fallible but biased to boot. Just to add to the fun, with every gain in our knowledge we are left with the realization that the more we know, the more we need to know; our only consolation being that at least we know that we know less and less about more and more. Science, I learned, is not as concerned with finding the truth as with reducing human error. From random assignment to peer review, the scientific process is really just a system of checks against our multiple, persistent, and ingrained devices for getting things wrong, for seeing only what we want to see. Behind the whole enterprise is the dogged determination to never stop asking the empirical question, “How do you know?” And the best (though still imperfect) source for answering that question is… sense experience, of course.
For centuries in one field after another, religion has been giving ground to empirical questioning. For explanatory power we turn to science, no longer to religion. Religion is now seen more and more as a source of irrationality and divisiveness that has no place in human government. Nor do we need religion to give life meaning or purpose. Rejecting the childish, easy answers of biblical religion, we can take responsibility for making our own meaning and for living purposefully. In the meantime, we may well question whether God’s purpose in creating the universe could really have been to engineer fourteen billion years of suffering, death, and destruction just so he could have humans as his little buddies in heaven.
Morality is perhaps religion’s last bastion. If we do not need religion to make and keep us good, then we no longer need it for anything else. In fact, even if we should all agree that there is indeed a god who has given us absolute standards of right and wrong to live by, doesn’t that leave us exactly where we are right now, with all the moral dilemmas we have always had and with modern medicine creating new headaches for bioethicists every other day? As it turns out, evidence continues to accumulate indicating that Darwin was right: morality is rooted in our ability to form attachments. People who form healthy bonds tend not to like hurting others.
Disregarding sensory evidence, one is apt to believe any kind of nonsense. But the senses are not only sources of knowledge but of pleasure and of community, too. They also ground us in reality, because it is the surrounding reality that coaxed them into existence in the first place. To value the senses is to value life in the here and now and to celebrate, rather than run away from, our humanness. These are the values of secular humanism-values that, in more ways than one, restored me to my senses. Secular humanism is sensual.