In Closing

Judith Walker, Tom Flynn

We would like to thank all of our contributors to this feature for their assistance, most especially our Honorary Chair, Daniel C. Dennett.

This three-part feature has examined the links between secular humanism and philosophy, along with the future of academic philosophy in the United States, from a rich variety of viewpoints. Actually, “rich variety” is an understatement; some contributors to this feature have argued that secular humanism is not necessarily connected with naturalism or that we must guard against embracing naturalism too tightly lest we tumble into the abyss of scientism. Yet others probed the distinction between methodological naturalism and its more ambitious sibling, philosophical naturalism, contending that naturalism’s more muscular form best suits the secular humanist agenda. Still others shed light on ways in which philosophers and scientists can work together, each discipline exploiting its distinctive strengths to enhance the growth of knowledge while equipping us to guard against all-too-human error.

With the discussions at an end (in this feature, at least), we two coeditors continue to uphold philosophical naturalism as an indispensable component of secular humanism. To us, secular humanism buttressed by a naturalistic philosophy underwrites a fully satisfying alternative to worldviews based upon any form of theology, religion, or “religious” experience.

Secular humanism is not a religion. It is in part a world view, in part a methodology. Yet in terms of the human needs it can meet, secular humanism does many of the things worth doing that historical religions have done in times past. But it avoids many of the things not worth doing into which, all too often, historical religions have leapt headlong. Dogmatism, superstition, the fantasy that individual conviction or even certainty can trump reality as regarded by multiple observers—these are the landmarks of religion’s “dark side.” The intellectual toolkit that secular humanists rely on to avoid that odious terrain has its roots in philosophical naturalism.

Philosophical naturalism informs, guides, and strengthens secular humanism. To us, that is a connection to be celebrated.

So, by way of review, are secular humanists naturalists? Yes! Secular humanists seek to construct the good life in an undirected universe in which no higher mind observes, much less directs, the blind play of physical forces—a universe in which “spiritual” entities or energies have no place. Moreover, we recognize that this view of life is, at least for now, inherently a minority worldview, inevitably embattled. Too many know they would feel more comfortable if naturalism were untrue; too many others just don’t know any better.

We should never forget that we stand continually before adversaries who will try to overturn our viewpoint if they can. That’s why we believe that when secular humanists present themselves with any hints of nonnaturalism or anti-naturalism, negative consequences result. Those who interact with us can be misled into thinking that we accept the supernatural after all, and that therefore our arguments for a naturalistic worldview need not be taken seriously.

Of greater concern in today’s climate, portraying humanism in a less-than-fully naturalistic way can play straight into the hands of the John Templeton Foundation. Since 1987, that organization has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to sell such doubtful narratives as that science and religion can be deeply compatible, or that certain psychological phenomena are best understood by presuming that an otherworldly or “spiritual” spark undergirds them. In that pursuit, the Foundation has striven to change the way disciplines from science to philosophy view religion. It provides immense financial incentives to academics willing to speak or write fondly of faith and woo. In academic philosophy, where big-ticket foundation grants were previously rare, those financial incentives may be not merely immense but overwhelming.

Make no mistake; mostly under the radar, the Templeton Foundation is striving to overturn the naturalistic consensus in philosophy and—if it can—at least to bend the consensus away from naturalism, even in the sciences. The hope is to build a deceptively soothing, “open-minded,” ostensibly philosophical amalgamation of science and religion, subtly redefining even the word naturalism to include religious language and concepts. This is nothing less than an attempt to turn the clock back toward mysticism and ultimately supernaturalism. Along the way, Templeton plays a clever, obfuscating game that sometimes veers into ethically questionable territory.1

What might be Templeton’s long-term strategy? We think it is girding to compete hard for one of our own markets, the “Nones.” As demographer Ryan T. Cragun revealed, the “spiritual but not religious” population appears to be growing much faster than the number of secular humanists who take their naturalism straight.2 Elsewhere, Cragun and CFI Board Member Barry Kosmin wrote: “The religious are claiming territory that should belong to the humanists.”3 Templeton strategists may hope that they can exploit the division between secular humanists on the one hand and congregational humanists and religious Humanists on the other, pulling the latter back in toward faith by portraying religion’s ideas as falsely equivalent to those of science. We should see it as part of our secular humanist agenda to guide Nones and less-secular humanists toward full secularism and naturalism.

As we said in our introduction to Part 1 of this series: yes, we care about philosophy, and we have one. It is a philosophy with a thoroughgoing naturalism at its heart.

We secular humanists are advocates. We defend and promote an outlook, a method, a way of viewing the world that is (as the saying goes) utterly without invisible means of support. We need to “come out” as atheists and humanists and naturalists. (The Center for Inquiry’s Openly Secular campaign has done some excellent organizing work along these lines.)

Armed with our naturalistic philosophy, we gratefully enlist the support of academic philosophers and other educators who can help us. We are also proud of our intellectually curious readers, ready and willing to take action to defend their positions and civil rights. It’s great to discuss all of these issues among ourselves, but that’s only the beginning. We also have a responsibility to communicate in every area of our daily lives that naturalism—not supernaturalism—provides a philosophical framework (a sense of coherence, as Rebecca Goldstein would say) for everything that we could (or should) ever need or want from a comprehensive, fully satisfying worldview.

That worldview is secular humanism. We care about reason and science, without in any way undermining our understanding and appreciation of other disciplines and endeavors so long as they don’t contradict the best of what reason and science can teach us. We won’t sit back and let another theological Great Awakening define our age.

In spite of inevitable threats and controversies, we know where we stand. Immodest as it might sound, we are building a good and beautiful lifestance with the truth.

 


Notes

  1. See Tom Flynn, “The Corruption of Philosophy?” in this issue.
  2. Ryan T. Cragun, “Finding Humanists in Survey Data,” FI, August/September 2017.
  3. Ryan T. Cragun and Barry Kosmin, “Repackaging Humanism as ‘Spirituality’: Religion’s New Wedge Strategy for Higher Education,” FI, June/July 2011.

Judith Walker

Judy Walker has degrees in sociology, anthropology, and law. She has served as an Assistant Colorado Attorney General representing Colorado state institutions of higher education and in key positions in development for the University of Colorado. She is currently a CFI Institute fellow specializing in philosophical naturalism and a former CFI board member. Her work has been published in Free Inquiry magazine and other philosophical and freethought publications.

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).


If philosophical naturalism is as important as secular humanists think it is, we need to be ready to rise to its defense.

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