Thursday, December 9, 2010

Would a Secular Majority Make a Better America?

NOSHA's president, Harry Greenberger, made this presentation to the Lakeview Community Unitarian Church here in New Orleans in November and we wanted to let everyone who couldn't be there that day read what he had to say on this important topic.


Would a Secular Majority Make a Better America?
By Harry Greenberger

All recent U. S. surveys have shown that non-believers and non-church-goers are rapidly increasing in numbers, yet are still below 20% of our adult population. When I made an outline for this talk, the last listed item was “conclusion” and I thought I knew what that conclusion would be. And I suspect you also think you know where this talk will end. But, as I present material assembled for this talk, you will hear many questions casting doubt as to where it would ultimately take me.

Where are we today vis-à-vis religion versus secularity?

Here are some descriptions of contemporary conditions.

At a recent conference of Free Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, Victor Stenger said “We are now probably only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems that are anticipated from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Such disasters are predicted to generate worldwide conflict on a scale that could exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars.”

Later he concludes, “So, the time has come to rise up against the unthinking, immoral acts that are brought about by religious views—to state the case for science, reason, and honest compassion. We need to demonstrate that a nation no longer dominated by religion will be a better nation and that we must work to achieve that goal no matter how long it takes.”

Atheists for Human Rights includes this paragraph in their list of principles: “Traditional religious morality is notorious for the astounding number of ways it hurts people. On a short list are: human sacrifice, slavery, subjugation and reproductive control of women, persecution of homosexuals, religious wars, cruelty to children, torture and execution of heretics, denial of end-of-life self-determination, and opposing every advance in science and medicine…”

In Michael Parenti's book God and His Demons the author writes, “Backed by moneyed interests, the right-wing Christianist media propagate free-market corporatism, militarism, and super-patriotism.” And he makes the accusation “…emotional extortion of money from the gullible for personal enrichment has been the hallmark of fundamentalist Christian leaders.”

Countering those negative views, we know of religious heroes—civil rights leaders, founders of universities and hospitals, Catholic Charities, etc. The comfort and solace that faith provides to believers in times of loss and sorrow can’t be denied. But zealous spokespeople warn against secularism. Televangelist Pat Roberson asserts that when a society is without religion “the result will be tyranny.” Ann Coulter says that societies which fail to accept God’s significance are headed toward slavery, genocide and bestiality. Bill O’Reilly advises that a society that fails to live “under God” will be a society of “anarchy and crime.”

Where will the recent “New Atheism” movement lead us?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently sponsored a billboard at Canal and Rampart Streets with the message "Imagine No Religion.” It might have added words from The Richard Dawkins Foundation: Imagine no “superstition, astrology, fortune telling, pseudo-science, voodoo, alternative medicine, or other …grandiose promises that are never fulfilled…Imagine a world where everyone has access to education, health care, and the freedom to explore and discover their world.”

Recent proposals for achieving this secularly improved society have developed a “rift” between confrontationists and accommodationists regarding the best strategies for advancing the secular, scientific worldview. Best selling atheist authors in the last few years, Richard Dawkins, Christoher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger aggressively promote activism for the public adoption of the non-theistic life stance, at the risk of offending large portions of the American society. The Council of Secular Humanism even promotes celebration of “Blasphemy day,” much to the chagrin of its founder, Paul Kurtz, who feels that the new angry atheists will set the movement back—not unlike the abrasive style of American Atheists founder, Madelyn Murray O’Hare

Greg Epstein, secular Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God, writes: “Atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration.” And, he adds, “Maybe if we allow the more aggressive ideas to gain a little speed we will see secularism being a stronger force in the community.”

On the other hand, where will today’s right-wing Christian movement, which now dominates the Republican Party, lead us?

While much of what is considered positive religious morality is adopted from much older classical ethics, it has been distorted from time to time. Newt Gingrich formed “American Solutions for Winning the Future” with the position that the Democrats are promoting a secular socialist America that violates what he deems to be the Christian or Judeo-Christian foundation of the Republic.  

This reflects the promulgated erroneous view that this country was founded on Christian principles, including the Ten Commandments. The Tea Party groups are seen to be primarily highly religious and anti-big government, women’s right to choose, gay marriage and adoptions, and church/state separation; and in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and Christian prayers and teaching of “creationism” in public schools. Many see their ultimate goal as a conversion of our republic into a theocracy.

So which is best course for America—the present status, where atheists will take us or where the Christian activists are leading?

Take a look at recent surveys of different countries

In an essay in the August/September 2009 issue of Perspectives entitled “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” sociologist Phil Zuckerman reported that “countries with the highest rates of happiness, life expectancy, literacy, income, gender equality, and education are relatively secular. So are the countries with the lowest rates of homicide, infant mortality, AIDS, and teen pregnancy.” Also covered in that issue is a David G. Myers article that cites a Gallop survey from 152 countries. “Countries, where most people say that religion is not an important part of their daily life and where most people have not attended religious services in the last week, tend to be countries where people report high quality of life. Folks in highly religious countries (think Pakistan, Uganda, the Philippines) mostly rate their lives well below the best possible life.”

Myers wrote further, “I extended this association between secularity and the good life by comparing U.S. states. The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen pregnancy and smoking rates.” However, the results regarding individuals provide a different picture. He writes: “National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey of 47,909 Americans since 1972, (reports) very happy people ranged from 27 percent of those who never attended a religious service up to 48 percent of those attending more than once a week.” “Although religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms, religiously engaged individuals, on balance, tend to be happier, healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

Reported in the November 20 edition of Times Picayune, a Gallup survey of over 500,000 Americans regarding their physical and emotional health and their work environment showed that the very religious scored 68.7% on the well-being index while the moderately religious and non-religious scored at 64.2%. Not much difference.

What measures of “good,” “better” and “best” can we justify?

Is it likely that the form of government might determine the level of individual wellbeing as documented for countries under communism, socialism, republic, democracy, dictatorship? But each of these can be either religious or non-religious, so what role does the government play? Are the ones allowing the most individual freedoms most inclined to produce general life satisfaction? How important is the concept of “Give me liberty or give me death?”

 How about Standard of living as it is generally measured to include necessities and luxuries.

Should we measure by the opportunity for individuals to achieve a high living standard or alternatively reach for “the greatest good for the greatest numbers”—e.g. Communism’s “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” If this requires a totalitarian government is that an acceptable cost?

Lastly, consider the quality of life, level of happiness (as reported in some of my prior cited surveys)

My inclination is for the “happiness” scales which are applicable in any of the forms of government, at various standards of living, and at a variety of levels of religiosity. Our Declaration of Independence proclaims the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right. But what is “happiness?” “America,” the national catholic weekly, reports, “The new study of happiness, or subjective well-being, is a growing interdisciplinary field…Any monopoly that religion or political philosophy once held as the preferred guides to Eden is over.” “Policy makers in developed and undeveloped countries are drawing on happiness research to increase the ‘gross national happiness’ of their populations.” However, there is a caveat to be considered before relying on these surveys, as  that article further reports, “Current secular critics will doubt whether happiness researchers have been able to avoid the problems of self-report, self-deception, response bias and social framing effects. Are the results and experimental interventions of happiness research reliable or valid by standard scientific norms.”

And one sobering thought about the role of happiness, is reflected in the final verse of a familiar poem by Thomas Gray published in 1923:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
  Condemn’d alike to groan—
The tender for another’s pain
  Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
  And happiness too swiftly flies
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;--where ignorance is bliss,
  ‘Tis folly to be wise.

Should this one concept invalidate an advocacy on behalf of reason and science?

And now for my Conclusion

I recognize that those with Ph.D’s, especially in study of philosophy, and others more learned than I will find my analysis of this question to be superficial and possibly naïve, but I am trying.

I’ve lost the source of the following pertinent quotation: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

The article I previously referred to in the National Catholic Weekly concluded with this: “And here we come to the theological crux of the matter. Is it possible to become positively transformed and virtuously happy without being empowered by God’s Holy Spirit given in, with and through Christ? Happiness and joy are promised to the virtuous followers of God’s precepts and to those who become Christ’s disciples through faith.”

(I am still quoting the National Catholic Weekly) “But does happiness seen as our loving relationship with God make other ways of happiness impossible, invalid or incomplete?” A Nathan Murillo article entitled “Why Religion?” opines, “The forces that propel and propagate religion are powerful indeed and are not likely to diminish in and of themselves. Perhaps there is only one force equal or greater than these and which offers the most likely challenge to religion: the truth of reality”

The previously quoted Myers article in the journal Perspectives equating frequent church attendance with “very happy” people, further wrote:  “…the data help us appreciate a spirituality that gives meaning to our lives, connects us in supportive communities, motivates morality and altruism, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.”

But he adds: “I hasten to remind people: these data do not validate theism. The benefits of faith are irrelevant to its truth claim. And truth is ultimately what matters. (If theism’s central claim is untrue, though comforting, what honest person would choose to believe? If true, though discomfiting, what honest person would disbelieve?”

Now here is my moot conclusion: A secular society, armed with the conviction that theism is untrue will be a better America because that awareness shall set generations free for their constitutionally provided “pursuit of happiness.”

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