The Religion of Freethought
Copyright (C) 1999 by Dr. Tim Gorski -- All Rights Reserved
Presented at the November 7th, 1999 Sunday Service of The North Texas Church of Freethought
When the NTCOF was launched nearly five years ago, we had no idea if it would work. We had a lot of misgivings, not the least of which were doubts about using the word "church."
But when we looked around at the flourishing churches of the faith-based religions, it seemed to us that there were good reasons for their success. We questioned the common assumption of unbelievers that they owed their strength entirely to the stupidity and gullibility of their members. It seemed to us that there was something else. We guessed that it was the organizational form of churches that addressed a deep and abiding need and desire of most human beings for a supportive community. And we wondered if unbelievers could do better.
We resolved to adopt the church model, of free public gatherings funded by voluntary contributions. But instead of peddling fear and superstition, we determined to present a variety of educational, inspirational, entertaining, and humorous material that affirmed and promoted a thoughtful facts- and reason-based approach to life and its challenges. We hoped that this could be the basis of a positive form of community that would advocate for an atheist and rationalist view on "religious" issues and questions. And we hoped most of all that it would be a productive and satisfying experience for unbelievers like ourselves.
You have shown, and are showing, that this can be done, because we're doing it. A Church of Freethought can be everything that any other church is, without the superstition.
Yet a church is a religious organization.Does this mean that Freethought (and by that I mean the principles and ideas presented here at the NTCOF) is a religion? I think in a very real sense it is. And I think that we unbelievers have got to get past the simplistic idea that this word, religion, and everything having to do with it, is an unmitigated blight on the human race. I want to get us started on this by persuading you that religion isn't really the enemy. Rather, the enemy is religious superstition and religious faith. The enemy is the arrogant response to fear and the unknown that insists that proud ignorance is knowledge, that blind obedience is freedom, and that impenetrable confusion is wisdom.
What is religion, anyway? Such questions usually send people scurrying for their dictionaries. And dictionaries are fine things. But they are not holy scripture. They are guides to the usage of language, and field guides at that. They reflect how people use words, rather than instruct them on how words must be used. That's why dictionaries are always having to be revised and updated.
The Third Edition (c)1996 of the American Heritage(r) dictionary (which is part of my Microsoft Bookshelf(r)) lists four definitions of the word "religion:"
1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe and/or a personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
4. A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Now I agree with those who say that none of these definitions can be applied to atheism. For atheism is no more and no less than a simple absence of belief in god(s). It's no more a religion than any isolated, naked idea or doctrine that any given religion may accept or reject.
But "a cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion" certainly applies to Freethought. In fact, it's a fairly good description of the project of relying on facts and reason, and the values that facts and reason themselves rest on, in all aspects of our lives.
I think it's no stretch to say that even the third dictionary definition of religion, "a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of" spiritual leaders, can be applied to Freethought. We haven't made it all up, after all. The ideas and ways of thinking that we support and defend have been previously supported and defended by many people that we justifiably regard with respect and admiration. Just in the last two hundred years or so we have had, for example, Voltaire, Paine, Jefferson, Darwin, Huxley, Ingersoll, Twain, Rand, and Russell. These people, and their predecessors, not only considered all aspects of the human condition, but suggested and advocated ways of thinking and behaving that they thought would be most satisfying to the human spirit.
Yet all of these dictionary definitions of religion - every one that I have ever seen in any dictionary, in fact - are deficient. For none of them explain the meaning or the purpose of religion. For this you have to go to books about religion intended for children. One that I have begins by saying that,
"In ancient times, people tried to explain the world around them ... " [Religions Explained: A Beginners Guide to World Faiths, by Anita Ganeri, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997]
We all know this, of course. But how well do we understand what it really means?
It means that religions of all kinds grew out of the efforts of human beings to make sense of the world and their place in it. If anything is the distinguishing characteristic of our species, it is probably this ability to ask questions - maddening questions, at times - and our insatiable appetite for answers. And there is nothing wrong - indeed, there is everything right - with that.
In the early days of human prehistory and for a long time after that, "explanations" involving supernatural spirits seem to have satisfied just about everyone. There doesn't seem to have ever been a primitive culture that was not superstitious. It may be that there are or were physiologic reasons for this having to do with brain function. [As has been suggested by Julian Jaynes in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.] Or perhaps other factors contributed. We know that the weird and often inexplicable experience of dreams have always puzzled people. We also know of the widespread use by many peoples of naturally occurring hallucinogens and other mind-altering substances. And chance events undoubtedly played an important part as well.
It seems clear that the rudiments of what we now recognize as science and its methods were a part of this as well. At first this would have amounted to ideas and principles no more complicated than coming in out of the rain or peeling fruit before eating it, things that other animals do without giving it any thought. But it soon took the form of ways of making clothing, constructing shelters, and elaborate methods of palatable and safe food preparation. We could go on from there, but the essential idea is that people recognized that doing things in a particular way - performing a ritual - could achieve a reproducible result.
We are so used to making the distinction between science and religion that it is easy to forget that this distinction did not always exist. Being used to the proven benefits of scientific technology compared to which religious practices appear absurd and worthless, it is also easy to forget that religion, like science, was contrived as a way of addressing human needs and desires. Isn't that what sacrifices, prayers, and salvation are all about? Isn't it about rituals and magic words that are intended to have an effect on supernatural forces and bend them to the will of human beings? How natural it must have once seemed, since there were obviously ways to manipulate natural materials to make them useful, to suppose that there must also be ways of manipulating supernatural powers and beings to make them serve human ends.
Now since magic rituals don't work, it doesn't matter which god(s) are invoked or how many of them are worshipped. So it was natural for the numbers of gods and devils to dwindle. One god is better - from the standpoint of conceptual efficiency - than ten or a hundred gods. Monotheism, far from being some great mark of progress in religion, is just the simplest case of supernaturalism. (And, yes, we know that believers cheat with trinitarianism and Saint This-and-that while saying that they only believe in one god.)
No god(s) are best of all, of course. But the viability of atheism came gradually. It took a long time for scientific and technological progress to finally begin to dispel and finally supplant the supernatural as a credible explanation for the most stubborn observable phenomena of the world of observable facts that all humans share. Consider the situation just 200 years ago. Intelligent people like Thomas Paine and Voltaire preferred Deism to atheism. Since then, the germ theory of disease, evolution, and the elucidation of the molecular workings of living organisms, as well as advances in physics and cosmology, have made it possible to finally discern the outlines of a completely naturalistic objective world.
So why hasn't religion disappeared? Why hasn't it died out altogether and been replaced by science? Perhaps it's because religion plays a role that science and philosophy cannot.
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura created quite a stir recently when he opined that, "religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." [in an interview in Playboy magazine, November (?), 1999]
But think for a moment about this. Is it not true that we sometimes resort to what is arguably self-deception in order to survive or to find some satisfaction in life? Don't we often get up in the morning with completely unrealistic expectations about how well things will go and how much we'll get accomplished? And don't we take the same liberties in assessing ourselves and our abilities? Has anyone ever screwed something up badly that they didn't expect, at the outset, to be able to get through without any big problems? How could we possibly get through life without putting a disproportionate emphasis on the positive?
As for crutches, they can be quite useful at times. How are they any more shameful than bicycles, or automobiles, or even shoes for that matter? We should be proud of crutches. They're made by human beings for the use of human beings. No god(s) ever did so much as supply us with a single Band-Aid.
And how about "weak-mindedness?" Does anyone here feel completely confident in their ability to figure anything out at a glance, to be right every time about everything, and never to make a mistake? It was Socrates who said that, "All I know is that I know nothing." Is it fair to say that Socrates was "weak-minded?"
Mr. Ventura's celebrated "gaffe" on the subject of religion should put us in mind of another famous expression of religion as, "the opium of the people." This phrase is seldom understood, in part, no doubt, because of the long-standing and ongoing War On Drugs. People reflexively assume that the comparison casts religion as a dangerous and addictive drug and those who promote it as no better than dope dealers. Besides, the phrase comes from the writings of Karl Marx, a godless communist. So it is assumed that it must have been meant to disparage religion.
But this is not entirely so. The truth is that opium is one of the oldest and most important medicinal substances known, and Marx surely knew this. In his day and today, morphine and its derivatives are widely used by physicians all over the world. And even though there are many more drugs available now than in 1844, when Marx penned the famous phrase, modern medicine without opium is unthinkable. But here is how Karl Marx himself put it:
" ... religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man, who either has not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. ... Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d'honneur, it's enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. ... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation. It is the opium of the people." [emphasis in the original; from Karl Marx's Toward the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1844)]
Karl Marx's most celebrated social, economic, and political ideas have been proven spectacularly wrong, and at great cost in human lives and treasure. But I think he was right about the essential nature of religion.
Marx was only wrong in supposing that "the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man" could be dispensed with in the case of someone who had "found himself." For who has "found himself?" What sort of person is it who has learned and grown enough? And why should anyone not want to go on finding themselves over and over again in new experiences and new insights? Isn't that the most rewarding part of being human?
Marx was wrong in supposing that the only "world of man" is "the state, society." For the world that people are most interested in is the world of their own individuality. Everything outside of our own minds is valuable only to the extent that it sustains and contributes to the security of and our satisfaction with our own personal sense of being and worth. Like trees that create themselves out of the soil they are rooted in, the air and water that they are exposed to, and the sunlight that their leaves capture, we human beings make ourselves out of our own natural abilities, our experiences, and the lessons that we learn from others.
Marx was most of all wrong to insist that religion is a "fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality." For while it is true that "the human essence" has no objective existence, as I have readily admitted in the past, this doesn't mean that it has "no true reality" of any kind. Here we are, after all, still oppressed creatures, while Marx's historical inevitability remains a figment of the imagination. We still live in a heartless world. And though we know superstition is a noxious poison, there are going to be times when a little opium is useful.
Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has been pushing what he calls "Non-overlapping Magisteria," or NOMA. This is the view that religion and science can peacefully coexist by confining themselves to their own "respective domains of professional expertise." According to Professor Gould, religion's task is, "the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives." ["Nonoverlapping Magisteria," in Natural History, March 1997] I think Gould is very nearly right. But not quite.
As I have argued before, the distinctive character of religion is that it deals with that part of the human experience that lies outside of the objective world where science has proven incomparably effective. But the "supernatural" world that faith-based religions teach is not "out there" somewhere. We know that gods and devils and ghosts and karma are not necessary to explain any part of the world that we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Rather, the "supernatural" world that is and ought to be the exclusive preserve of religion is the subjective human experience of the "in here."
I don't see any other way of making sense of it. After all, if, as Gould says, it is religion's place to determine, "proper ethical values," then people like the Pope ought to be writing the laws and telling everyone how to behave. Nor is it any use to say that perhaps Gould meant only personal, individual ethical values, like whether eating meat on Fridays is a sin or not. Those aren't values, but choices. If it's not wrong to eat meat on Friday - or to drink liquor, play cards, or have an abortion - then whether you do those things or not is a matter of personal choice and not of morality.
Religion is unnecessary in figuring out what is harmful to people. So you don't need religion - not even Freethought - to know that striking someone, or robbing them, or murdering them are crimes that ought to be prohibited. Indeed, I think the world has had enough of superstitious ideas that lead well-meaning people to suppose that torture, murder, and genocide can be beneficial when it's "the Will of God." Likewise, scientific methods are perfectly capable of investigating what sorts of brain structures and biochemical transformations account for states of mind that are called "spiritual." For these are all "outside in" sorts of issues that have to do with our shared experiences of objective reality.
But these very same issues also have an "inside out" element to them that affects our individual, personal, experiences of subjective reality. So, for example, we can say that theft is generally wrong because it harms others, because it's disruptive to social order, because it's illegal, and even because we are evolutionarily predisposed to think of theft as being wrong. Those are all very good explanations. But from the perspective of any of our own personal subjective experiences, they only explain why stealing is, in general, not a good thing and why other people shouldn't steal from us. None of them explain why we, as individuals, shouldn't steal whenever we want to - assuming that we would not get caught. That is what religion is needed for, because nothing else can supply answers like these.
This is exactly the sort of thing that we have been considering here every month for nearly five years. We've discussed at length why, "being good for goodness sake," is an obligation of rationality, and a far more secure moral compass than the doctrine that there are god(s) who decide what is right and wrong. We've discussed what the meaning of life's joys and pleasures might be, and we've considered practical and positive ways of managing life's trials and tribulations. We've celebrated births, solemnized marriages and we've pondered the enormity of death. And through it all we have, I think, experienced a sense of community. For we are more alike than different in a society in which few question the religious faith in which they were raised, much less basic assumptions about the relationship between thought, belief, and how we ought to live our lives.
There is one more thing that makes Freethought a religion. As we know, we can erect quite a magnificent system of thought and behavior on the principle of reason. But, as I have pointed out previously, there are no facts or logic that can justify reason itself.
This should be clearly appreciated. Even the simple law of identity, A is A, that a thing is what it is and is not what it is not, is not logically necessary. In a way, it has already been falsified by the discovery that quantum particles like electrons are not particles at all, and yet they are still particles. But we refuse to give up something as essential as the law of identity. So we say that electrons and similar entities are mathematical probability waves for the location of particles.
The only thing that can justify reason is, as I have also previously argued, an act of will - of faith in the sense of deciding to believe something just because we want to believe it. Now this something - Freethought's only article of faith - is one that people scarcely ever think about: it's the idea that it is possible to systematically make sense of our experience, to organize and simplify everything of which we are or can become aware. Nevertheless, it is a non-falsifiable (for you fans of Karl Popper) self-validating principle of a distinctly religious flavor. By the lights of Martin Luther (1483-1546) it might even be said that this will to comprehend is equivalent to a deity. For it was Luther's contention that:
"Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God."
Must we therefore conclude that Freethought ought to be considered as being on an equal intellectual footing with all other religions? Not at all. For Freethought is about being truly faithful to the fundamental belief that we can discover something intelligible in our experience. We don't climb up the edifice of facts and reason that rises from it and say, at some point, "Well, that's enough of that, now I'm going to start believing in all sorts of other things that are in fundamental conflict with the principle that I started from." I suppose it could be said that people who do say this are the real infidels. For they are the ones who are not keeping faith with the essential element of what lies at the root of all human understanding.
I want to conclude with a plea that you seriously consider these ideas. Bear in mind what you are doing when you use the term "religion" as an indiscriminate generic reference to irrational and dogmatic supernaturalism. You are buying into the idea that, excepting only the tiny region carved out by scientific knowledge, the human condition belongs to superstition. You are abandoning morality to gods and devils and heaven and hell. And you are allowing it to be believed that the special protections afforded to religion in the First Amendment are reserved for believers alone.
We cannot allow those things to happen. We have got to make finer distinctions. Not to do so is to smear every honest and rational effort to answer "religious" questions, including our own.
We have to make it clear that our perspective on "religious" questions is as deserving of respect as anyone else's. As we say so often, Freethinkers simply believe in one less god than most other people.
We have got to stand for the idea that right and wrong are not about anyone's arbitrary decisions - not even god(s).' Anything else is the law of the jungle.
And we have got to determine not to sacrifice our legal rights and protections simply because others have allowed the word "religion" to be fouled with foolishness that we find intolerable. Otherwise we may find that atheists will be considered second-class citizens, or non-citizens, and it won't be simply the opinion of former President George Bush.
This is absolutely central to what the North Texas Church of Freethought is all about.
There are those who already regard our use of the word "church" as a capitulation to the forces of superstition. In reality, our intent is to understand the functional essence of religion, to free it from the absurd and the oppressive, and to recast it as a rational way to address the problems of the human heart and soul that science cannot. This is a truly radical project. It is not for the faint-of-heart. But I ask you to join me in pursuing it.