April 24, 2016

A secular humanist critique of religion (2)


By Douglas Anele

Read A secular humanist critique of religion

Because of this, some humanists consider it necessary to label their own version as ‘secular humanism’ or ‘scientific humanism’ in contrast to ‘Christian humanism’ or ‘religious humanism.’ For our purpose in this discourse, we shall adopt Smoker’s characterisation of ‘humanism’ as secular or scientific humanism, that is, a positive human-centred philosophy of life based on rationalism that is either atheistic or agnostic, being concerned with life in this world, not with imaginary deities or a hereafter.

It is interesting to note that, according to the latest data from relevant agencies of the United Nations, Scandinavian countries rank among the best places to live on earth, and a vast majority of people living there have a secular humanist orientation or worldview. This is not surprising, considering that secular or scientific humanism is primarily concerned with the promotion of human welfare in this world and totally rejects the subordination of human dignity, happiness, and interests to the propitiation of supernatural beings believed to exist.

Because Nigeria is a religion-intoxicated country, most Nigerians today live on a daily basis tied to the apron strings of religious superstition, although they usually deceive themselves by thinking that their decisions are dictated by commonsense and experience. Gullible Nigerians accept without question the mumbo-jumbo contained in religious texts, believe in the efficacy of prayers and charms, and view with suspicion those that espouse atheism. Given the ubiquity of religion nationwide, it is very likely that less than one percent of Nigerians are secular humanists. In recent years, the number of atheists and secular humanists has increased, but many of them are unwilling to make their stance public in order not to jeopardise their economic interests and status in the society. Nevertheless, I believe that as time goes on, with good education and general improvement in the “human condition” nationwide, the iron grip of faith on the mindset of people which engenders subconscious desire for the illusory consolations of religion, would not be as strong as it is presently.

There is a tendency for people to believe that secular or scientific humanism entails a dry and hopeless worldview bereft of values because of its rejection of Gods and of eternal bliss in heaven. But nothing can be further from the truth. As indicated earlier, the Scandinavian countries where secular humanism is the dominant philosophy of life rank among the best places to live on earth. Generally, the Scandinavians are happier and more fulfilled than people in religion-dominated nations such as the United States and Saudi Arabia largely because they rely on their own productive powers instead of wasting emotional energy on prayers and faith in supernatural interventions or miracles. Now, one of the most enduring values of secular humanism is scepticism, the constructive and continual questioning of what we see, what we learn and what we claim to know. This is in line with C.K. Clifford’s postulation that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Flowing from the sceptical attitude is reasoned distrust of absolutes, especially when they have religious colouration. Christianity and Islam teach inappropriate antiquated ethical absolutism embedded in a “carrot and stick, fear and favour morality.” Humanists reject moral absolutism in whatever form it rears its ugly head. They insist, correctly, that morality is necessarily connected to human sociality. In this connection, Matt Ridley argues, in The Origins of Virtue, that humans are the most social of species and that our sociability evolved over time. Therefore, our moral sense, moral intuition or conscience does not have a supernatural origin; it is a human construct underpinned by our biological development. Humanists tend to espouse a practical, human-oriented utilitarian ethic, based on the conviction that there is no absolute rule or general principle that can guide people in all circumstances. In my opinion, it is much better and more rewarding to teach children at home and in schools the fundamentals of morality in its personal and social aspects than to compel them to recite the Ten Commandments or passages in the Holy Koran.

Because humanists do not believe in life after death, they have a very powerful motivation or incentive to make this life, the one that we are living right now, happier, more productive and fulfilling. This is one aspect where the two dominant religions in Nigeria have gone astray completely. Aside from the fact that belief in immortality of the soul has no evolutionary basis, the doctrine that this life is a mere stepping-stone to eternal life hereafter either in heaven or hell can engender irrational and cruel disregard of present suffering or deep anxiety regarding the prospect of eternal damnation in hell. On the other hand, humanism is a constant reminder that since this is the only life that we know, it is up to us to make something out of our lives in cooperation with others.

Over the centuries, humanists have subjected religion, particularly Christianity and the Holy Bible, to searching criticism. An important component of that criticism concerns the hideous atrocities committed by Christians in the name of God during the Inquisition and the Crusades. Now, when some Christians claim that their religion is superior to Islam because of the increasing frequency of atrocious deadly attacks by few mentally deranged Muslim fanatics, they forget that the seeming benign character of Christianity nowadays is partly due to critical interventions by humanists who boldly rejected belief in the inerrancy of biblical texts. Unfortunately, the task of textual criticism of Islamic scripture is still at its embryonic stages. However, with increasing globalisation and profound changes in how people communicate and exchange ideas triggered by modern information and communication technologies, educated Muslims would in future engage in critical reassessment or deconstruction of the core doctrines of their faith in response to the ugly face of Islam projected to the world by extremists.

I think that Christianity is the most criticised religion on earth because of its preeminent position among the world’s great religions and the extremely complicated labyrinthine history of the books that were eventually put together to form the Holy Bible. As a result, humanist criticisms of religion that would be discussed here are directed mainly against Christianity. Yet, these criticisms, mutatis mutandis, are applicable to other religions that have doctrinal affinity with Christianity. To begin with, the springboard of religion is the admixture of faith and fear, two psychological states that tend to negate rationality. According to the Holy Bible, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hence, faith is connected to hope: to have faith in something is to believe completely in the reality of that very thing inspite of insufficient evidence. Faith dampens the spirit of free critical inquiry by making believers cocksure about matters that would require painstaking investigation to disclose the truth. Thus, faith is an epistemological blind alley leading to cognitive dissonance. Fear, according to Bertrand Russell, is the basis of religion. It is the unpleasant worrisome feeling that accompanies the thought of being in danger or of impending terrible occurrence. Fear leads to cruelty, and cruelty to wickedness and evil. Neither an individual nor a group of people in the grip of fear can be trusted to respond intelligently or humanely to the challenges of life. That said, unquestioning acceptance of absurdities contained in religious scriptures not only breeds cruelty towards those that do not share the same faith, it promotes supplanting of the desire to find out by the will to believe.

It follows that religious education is inimical to the intellectual progress of humanity, because it teaches people that certain ideas no matter how silly it might be must be accepted as true ahead of evidence just because a certain prophet or messiah said so in a sacred book. As a corollary, religion tends to substitute convenient fairytales and pious falsehoods for truth. The notion of God as a loving father, the idea of original sin, virgin birth, redemption through crucifixion, the concept of a chosen people, the devil as the cause of our misfortunes – all these teachings are untenable considering what is known now about humans and the incredible world they inhabit. To be continued.