As the ranks of the true believers crumble, the ranks of the true humanists swell. Right? Not exactly. There are several stages between a firm belief in “the God of our fathers” and the disbelief of the complete humanist.
You can abandon your belief in a paternalistic, all-seeing, all-caring, almighty deity while remaining as convinced as ever that some form of superior intelligence was responsible for the creation of humanity as well as other life on earth. This “argument from design” commends itself to educated members of theist communities who find literal belief in their established religion to be incompatible with what they see and know about the world around them. They abandon the literal silliness but not the underlying assumptions. This group provides recruits for some of the more intellectually respectable attacks on Darwinian evolutionary theories, eg the Berlinski article I inveighed against in “The Boundaries of Faith”.
The next stage in the development of humanism is to accept that evolution is random, and that we are here not by design but as a result of a long series of serendipitous events. Usually this perception arrives at about the same time a person accepts Corliss Lamont’s ringing advice that humanity is itself its own savior and redeemer. People who have reached this stage internalize the root concept that God is a creation of humans, rather than the reverse. But many of them have not arrived at true humanism. They have yet to internalize the logical consequences of their appreciation of the human origin of the divine. They still are prisoners of the perceptual world of their peers in matters pertaining to ethics and truth. They still assume that there are eternal verities.
The true humanist goes the whole hog. If divinity is at root nothing more than the consensual opinion of a culturally identified group of people, so is every other mental construct which that group agrees on. What is true? What is just? What is beautiful? All of the criteria that answer these and similar questions are valid only to the extent the peer group says they are. And why not? If it is truly up to us, and us alone, to be our saviors and redeemers, surely it is up to us, and us alone, to decide what values we shall accept, and what directions we shall choose, as we strive to achieve that salvation, that redemption…And just as surely, it is up to each new generation to decide for itself how it defines those values and directions.
The Platonic ideal is a mental construct. It exists only in the minds of men and women. Subtract humanity, and it ceases to be.
There is indeed a “real” world out there, a universe that contains a planet we call earth with a marvelously complex biosphere, a world that exists independently of humanity. But we can only relate to that “real” world through our sensory perceptions; we can only consider it, analyze it, classify it, and cope with it via the constructs of our own minds. These constructs become the assumptions that govern our relations with the objective universe, as well as with each other. For us, this constellation of mental constructs is the “real” world.
Our “culture” is functional, and our society achieves a measure of stability, when two conditions are met. First, the mental constructs through which we interpret and deal with the external world must be such that our actions harmonize with that world in a generally effective fashion. Second, these mental constructs have to manage and lubricate interpersonal relations within the group in a reasonably successful manner. When these conditions are not met, cultures come under stress and either change or go under.
I am talking now about culturally defined groups, societies of people. When they come under stress, they change their ways of relating to the external world and to each other. They alter their mind-sets, their assumptions, their values, their philosophies and religions. The congress in which these changes are legislated and ratified is majority opinion, which I have defined elsewhere as “common sense”.
It is humanism’s destiny to succeed the old established religions. In time, humanism will gradually take over the controls and consciously steer humanity into becoming a global community that relates more harmoniously to the objective universe within which we live. But humanists can only see this clearly when they rid themselves of the outdated assumption that some mental constructs–any mental constructs–are absolute, unchanging, and beyond our control.
If you are going to be a humanist, go the whole hog.