Editor’s note: The version of Part 1 appearing in the February/March 2015 issue was edited, but below we present the entire four-part article online just as the author submitted it.
It’s a very nice bunch of folks — we, in this community, who identify with (and, yes, celebrate) the principles Paul Kurtz set out to promote when spearheading the founding of CFI, its affiliates, and the corresponding launch of Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer.
Kurtz’s work was especially great for me.
Back in 1982 I was a just-escaped from the delusions-of-Mormon-belief young man. Not so many months prior I’d been, as they say, dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through. All my ancestry stretches to the early days of Mormonism, and my entire clan likewise stretches laterally —so far as the eye can see and in every-which direction (siblings, cousins, second and third cousins, etc.) — in deep partaking of the happy and delighted mode which constantly declares: “This-is-the-glorious-Mormon truth,-and-aren’t-we-fortunate,-special-and-wonderful-to-be-part-of-it.”
During all my formative years I had not been so remarkable as to make myself into anything different. Indeed, if I’d prior stood out even moderately, it would only have been in the sense I may possibly have been a little above average in the enthusiasm and intensity of my Mormon dedication.
I’d done the two-year mission, and with great valor. I’d completed my undergrad work at BYU, then proceeded to and through the affiliated law school. It was while in the course of the latter that certain elements of my integrity would not allow me to overlook, or make continuing excuses for, facts that did not equate. I’d prior made a commitment to put reality first, and if continuing Mormon belief (most dear to me as it was) could not be consistent with that, it was it that had to give, and not my commitment.
Thus, by the time I graduated law school and moved to California (as a wet-behind-the-ears young attorney practicing antitrust litigation in downtown Los Angeles), I found myself re-born: freshly made to a life without religion and all its conceptual supports. I rather needed to get some grounding regarding what this new stance meant. Somehow, I got an advertising mailer inviting me to join with other “unchurched Americans” and subscribe to Free Inquiry. A subscription to Skeptical Inquirer followed soon after. It’s hard to describe, as I began devouring these periodicals, how much it meant to discover I was not a lone pioneer. Instead, there was a group of awesome individuals who’d forged similar paths before me. They were veterans, knew their stuff, and were welcoming. That I managed to stumble into this association was nothing short of wonderful.
Over the years since, though I’ve managed to attend but few CFI-connected events, I have constantly felt part of this community. I have constantly felt cheer, comfort and courage to know I am not alone. There are others like me.
More particularly, there are others who are good, as I am good. I will explain.
Though it was not self-evidently obvious as I departed the faith, it was not long before I began to understand what made me different: what distinguished me from those determined to remain behind. Though I wish I could claim so, it’s not that I was manifestly smarter than those remaining (okay, I was indeed smarter than some, but certainly not all). Rather, I began to realize the difference was one of priorities.
Initially, I’d assumed others would naturally have ranked their priorities just as I had (i.e., it’s what’s authentically true that matters first, and allegiance to Mormonism arises solely and only if, under this highest priority, Mormonism happens to be found as true). Over time, I discovered this assumption had been woefully naïve. It became evident, indeed, my ranking of priorities was and is unusual. I care significantly more, than most, whether my beliefs accurately accord with what’s real. Over time I’ve found I don’t care just a little more. I care a lot more. Those others who stayed behind, I by and by realized, did so because they treasure their theistic belief more (in particular, the pleasures and comforts it brings) than they care about its authentic-truth content.
To state it another way, for those others, belief comes first. To afterward claim it’s true is at best a secondary luxury. More typically, it is an imperative that must be served for sake of the belief itself.
I am not like that. Positively, my first concern is what’s true – authentically, and genuinely true. To me, this matters infinitely more than what the belief happens to be. It is the imperative. I don’t care how great the emotional benefits or penalties may otherwise be, as flow from holding a belief. Well, I care, but in any final analysis such factors do not count. Ultimately, I am bound and determined they must have zero relevance in the final decision governing how I will believe. The only criterion that shall ever matter, to me, is whatever is the best and most-reliable indicia what most likely is real. Nothing else may count in the consideration. I refuse to permit it.
This is why I found myself identifying with the community of folks intertwined with Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. All you guys and gals seemed to be very much like me, in this regard. In a nutshell, we do not wish to believe in rubbish (I could easily pick a much less kind term). From the first time I began reading these publications until today, I have felt this is the commonality that binds us. We like to see what’s real. It is our preference, and our commitment. We do not wish to have our minds confused and fuzzed up, if we can help it, with beliefs supposing things are other than as they genuinely are.
I want to say something else. We are, in this regard, better than others. Yes, we are. No doubt, it’s politically incorrect to say this. But it’s true. Please, for consideration, test this for yourself.
Compare two persons.
Person A wants his views about stuff to be accurate, regardless of whatever is the personal cost in so concluding. Given this, he is determined to respect all evidence, and, indeed, constantly does his best to collect and weigh all — fully, fairly and honestly. * He is always ready, moreover, to alter even his most cherished conclusions, should the evidence recommend it.
In contrast to Person A, Person B is determined to maintain at least a few particular conclusions, no matter what. These will involve matters he finds dear to his emotional and/or societal comfort. Most particularly, they are conclusions he is determined to maintain regardless of authentic truth content. Because of this determination, Person B has no interest in what evidence genuinely declares, on such matters. He will, indeed, flee swiftly from evidence that threatens to potentially contradict, while selectively seeking (and habitually exaggerating) any such supposed evidences as might be contorted to seemingly confirm. Thus, Person B develops expert proficiency in methods that abuse and distort reason. Whatever corrupt expedients as may be needed to foster and maintain confidence in spite of verity lacking, these are his tools. Indeed, they are deployed not merely for conviction-building and maintenance, but also to erect a strong pretense of justification.
I think there can be little doubt which of these two persons, A or B, is higher-minded. Which is more noble. Which is more praiseworthy. Which is more rare. And, yes, which is more moral.
I do not mean to suggest there are no variations in degree between the two types. Certainly, though some few folks may fit extremely far on the B side (think of the pathological self-liar, for example, who has so deluded himself as to be harboring an illusion regarding nearly all
that surrounds him), most of those partaking in B-type behavior do so in lesser degrees. Thus, B-Type practitioners range along a continuum, stretching from the total-delusion paradigm to those who partake with such narrowness and moderation as to suffer relatively small effect. A good many, at least, fall significantly toward the more moderate side.
Regardless, there is that “little bit pregnant” thing, and I submit where we choose in any degree to prefer what’s comfortable and emotionally-pleasing in belief (as opposed to what’s accurate), we have in that degree made ourselves into “drinkers of the Kool Aid” (in Kurtz’s language, we have yielded to the “Transcendental Temptation”). We have become part of a camp that is different and apart from those who are always determined to be Category A, and without exception. We are not teetotalers. We are not, and in this sense there is indeed something of a rigid-border dichotomy: between those who embrace Category B practice in any degree, versus those who embrace none of it. Between these two, the divide is distinct and broad.
It is interesting and sad that, across this broad division, those who “partake” in even a small degree find themselves on the same side as the totally-deluded and pathological self-liar.
So, how do we, in this community, fit the distinction?
Most clearly, pointedly and bluntly, we are the teetotalers. By purity of intended principle at least (if not always perfection in practice), we are pure and complete Persons A.
I readily confess to potential imperfections in practice, because we are human. Though we may be very determined (and as a matter of high principle) to keep our preferences from biasing our reception and judgment of evidence, it’s possible we sometimes fail. It’s possible, indeed, we fail much more often and more severely than we’d guess as likely. The difference, though, is we have that determination as our guiding principle. We do our very best in the effort to make our conclusions yield to all relevant evidence (as opposed to making evidence yield to our conclusions). We do it because, genuinely, in our heart of hearts, we really want to see what’s real. It’s our first and foremost desire.
More particularly, this is our primary, real and salient distinction, as contrasted against that “great other” mainstream. It is we who genuinely and consistently seek reality over fantasy. It is we who bear this underlying preference for, eagerness to embrace, and, yes, even determination to submit to, what’s real. In a nutshell, it is this germ of virtue in us that makes us each part of this particular Paul-Kurtz-founded community.
Certainly, we are not alone. The same preferences that spontaneously arose within us (and incidentally drew us into this community) arise among others who’ve not officially joined us. But, upon encountering one another, they recognize us, and we them, as fellow travelers. Regardless, as well, our kind is a minority.
So, let’s go back to me, and 1982. How terrific it was for me, then, to find others like me, and, yes, to begin learning some new terms, as applicable in this for-me-new world. Most particularly, I began learning some new labels, for things I’d not prior had labels for. Or, in some cases, I developed an enhanced meaning for labels already in my quiver. Labels can be good things, particularly when they foster understanding.
I learned, for example, most of us within this community call ourselves atheists. It’s for the simple reason, on reviewing all applicable evidence, we see no more reason to think the gods as described by contemporary religions have a greater likelihood of extending beyond the imagination than did the gods imagined by ancient Greeks. So, we don’t participate in any such theisms (at least by way of according their most sacred imagined objects any deference within the pantheon of things we think are real). By virtual definitional fiat, it means, unlike the majority who are theists, we are instead atheists. It’s a very simple distinction, and a significant element of description.
We also tend to find we are empiricists. It is because, on reviewing the various bases persons use to justify belief, we have tended to find all but one seem to have zero efficacy, so far as their ability to accurately distinguish real from illusory. The only method that seems to genuinely possess such efficacy is the method that rigorously compares ideas to experience, to assure there is a good and perfect match (with determination to reject ideas where a mismatch compels it). This is, very simply, a reasonable definition for empiricism, so it’s logical we should ascribe to ourselves a label that honors this principal.
Likewise, we generally find we are materialists. When empiricism is your method, you tend to find that reports of stuff from “other realms” (spirit matter and such) never really check out. We did not design it that way. It’s just what we tend to discover.
Interestingly (and this is perhaps the more magical of elements) we tend also to find we are humanists. Part of it is not surprising. When you remove all imagined “gods” from your focused center, there’s an obvious logic in moving one’s focus back toward humans. But, even so, it’s at least conceivable one could remove focus from any imagined heavenly menagerie and, in reaction, formulate a negative, pessimistic, perhaps even hateful outlook toward humans. It seems those in our group have done most oppositely. Rising all but spontaneously from within ourselves, we have discovered hope for a much improved human condition, a yearning to labor for betterment, and optimism there is such nobility within our species as to perhaps achieve it.
These are but some of the labels our group has found fitting to itself, yet so many of us have wanted something – yes, a word, a label – that, and as compared to all the above, more specifically and particularly defines us.
There have been proposals. Our great hero Paul Kurtz invented the term “eupraxsophy,” suggesting it as a fitting description for our general endeavoring stance in life. By implication if not otherwise, I think he further suggested we might perhaps call ourselves “eupraxsophers.” Unsurprisingly, this never gained traction.
Another proposal (which did gain at least initial traction) was that we might call ourselves “brights.” That term has likewise failed, and I need not review its debilities.
Instead, I want to suggest a term that, after thinking very long and hard over these many years, I think is truly ideal for our stance:
Why this word?
I’ve already described the element I believe is our group’s largest commonality. It’s the factor that I think principally defines us. Above all else, we are people who are very determined to assure our views, regarding what’s imagined to exist “out there,” are indeed an accurate depiction of what genuinely does exist out there. In other words, we are very determined to assure our conclusions are, in this sense, genuine. Because this is our objective, we are likewise determined to assure our conclusion-adopting methods are ingenuous (as opposed to permitting them to become disingenuous, as happens for the Person-B character-type as above-described). Because this is our real and major distinction, “genuism” describes who we are, perhaps better than anything else.
And it’s not bad for extended use. Indeed, it’s quite excellent. What do you call a person who practices genuism? Easy. He or she is a genuist.
I like being a genuist. I think it’s a great description. It positively describes who and what I am.
Moreover, the implicit comparison to others does not in the least assert I am smarter than they (more particularly, that I am in any manner equipped with superior mental horsepower). It simply describes a choice I have made as to where my priority and values shall lie. In that
very respect, as well, it rather commends the choice (and resulting values/priority change) to others. This is rather in contrast to the word “bright,” where it is impractical to suggest to others they might choose to simply “ratchet up” their innate mental horsepower.
Yes, it may be asserted that where we claim the term there is an implication others are not ingenuous (or are less ingenuous) in their epistemological preferences. However, is there really any news in that assertion? The bulk of those others openly advocate closing their eyes to evidence (what else is their celebrated “faith” all about, after all). So, the implication states a truth that, on any reasonable examination, those in the opposing camp cannot reasonably deny, regardless.
It is also true the term might be read to imply moral superiority in our position. However, rather than being a fault, I think this is a great virtue. Certainly, the other side is constantly claiming moral superiority for its stance (indeed, doubting our side could even have a basis for morality, while simultaneously assuring we are bound for an eternity of torment owing to nothing more than our depraved disbelieving state). I think it not a bad thing, at all, to counter with an implied assertion of: “Hey, guess what, we are the moral ones.” Beyond that, how can you lead others toward a better and more moral stance absent a willingness to assert: “Yes, the reason you should prefer this stance is because it’s morally superior.” Perhaps outright advertising of the virtue — indeed, openly celebrating it as a virtue — would help it gain in popularity.
I also love the term genuism as a discussion starter. Tell someone you’re a genuist. Don’t think you’ll get a question? Of course you will. In answer, you’ll have superb opportunity to explain you subscribe to a philosophy that is fundamentally opposed to Pascal’s Wager. This philosophy recognizes there often are indeed emotional, social and other benefits in adopting beliefs without regard to their genuine truth. It recognizes many humans (indeed, most) choose to go that way. A genuist, however, is a person who deems any such benefits as unworthy of even the slightest weight in choosing what to believe. He deems the only matters of worthy weight to be things that genuinely indicate what most likely is, indeed and genuinely, real.
What a great opportunity!
And how good it should feel to be a genuist, dedicated to genuism.
I believe it has been this group’s stance and practice all along, but we lacked a good title for it. I believe this is it. I propose, from this day forth, we should pervasively adopt and use the term “genuism.”
Implicitly, this simple word enables an affirmative and specifically-descriptive statement regarding what we are (as opposed describing only a minor element regarding what we are not, as does the term atheism). It separates us from any who may be atheists, but did not become so in consequence of a genuistic stance (e.g., one who rejects theism simply because it’s what’s socially popular among peers, as opposed to because it’s what personal evidentiary analysis compels). It likewise and on its face distinguishes us from those who, like us, are humanists, but nevertheless retain prima facie unreasoned epistemologies. Unlike the word bright, it implicitly invites those who are presently not genuists to perhaps become so. Finally, it openly (even it may be argued fiercely) advertises the high and noble morality in our stance.
I like it. I like it a lot. I hope you will too.
* For economy of words in this series, I use masculine pronouns when referencing an imaginary or non-specific person. Though I love the English language (in particular, I adore the richness of its vocabulary), I lament its lack of gender-neutral/single-person pronouns. If gender-neutral pronouns were available (and without butchering normal grammar), I would use them instead. I ask the reader to please interpret my masculine pronouns as having gender-neutral intent.