Bill Cooke – Is Scientific Humanism Anti-Religious?

August 04, 2006

Bill Cooke, former international director for the Center for Inquiry, is a senior lecturer at the School of Visual Arts at University of Auckland at Manukau. He is a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and now serves as CFI’s Asia/Pacific coordinator. He is an acknowledged expert on the history of humanism and has written widely on the subject. He is author of the Dictionary Of Atheism, Skepticism, & Humanism, The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association and Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand among other books.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Dr. Cooke discusses the history of humanism, how it is different than religion, and whether or not humanism is anti-religious.

Also in this episode, Austin Dacey reports on the state of secularism in Bangladesh.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 4th, 2006. 

Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and now in Washington, DC, in addition to 11 other cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we examine some of the fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, we look at pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative and complementary medicine claims. Third, we’re interested in the intersection of secularism and religion in our society. We look at these three broad research areas by drawing on CFI relationship with the leading lights of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social thinkers and critics and renowned entertainers. Today I’m discussing the question is scientific humanism inherently anti religious? With New Zealander Bill Cook, who’s formerly the director of international programs for the Center for Inquiry. But first, CFI is Austin Dacey with a word about secularism in Bangladesh. 

On my second day in Bangladesh, I was being driven through the rice fields and banana groves outside of Kesher Poor. When our car passed some graffiti on the wall in a small village. My guide, Sridhar Kabeer, explained that it was an Islamist slogan proclaiming that the Koran holds the solution to every problem. We were on our way to address a gathering of citizens who are fighting the rising tide of fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Just before we arrived, we passed a long line outside a fertilizer shop. The country was in the midst of severe shortages of fertilizer, water and electricity. Yet despite the hopes of the Islamist sloganeer, average Bangladeshis were not trying to squeeze rice or water out of the Koran. They knew to bring their problems to the government and to leave their souls to religion. The response of the government, however, provided only comic relief as the prime minister denied the existence of the shortages in an address to parliament later that day, February 28, 2006. In the middle of my speech to a group of journalists and community leaders in Chona, the lights went out. Indeed, these are dark times for secular democracy in Bangladesh, with nearly 100 known militant organizations and perhaps as many as 64000 Wahhabis. Madrassas, only 20 percent of which are overseen by the government for the last 30 years. The country has been undergoing Talibanization. The previous day in a meeting at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs in Dhaka, I had appeared with Kabeer alongside professors, politicians, a former Supreme Court justice and a former ambassador named Wally R. Rockman. Ambassador Rockman, the author of one of the amendments to the Constitution, read aloud from his personal copy of the original 1972 version, which he described as poetry and said it brought tears to his eyes when he thought of what had become of it. As an American, I praised the 1972 founding document as even more secular than our own. While the U.S. Constitution made no mention of God and forbade establishment of a state religion, the Bangladeshi constitution went further to expressly ban religion based parties. The recent history of the Jamaat e Islami party makes all too clear the wisdom of this provision. The secular heritage of Bangladesh makes all the more heinous the campaign by a militant minority to turn the country into a theocracy. The title of the meeting in Dacca was a call for global unity of secular humanists to resist fundamentalism. I had come to deliver a message from secularists in the U.S. and elsewhere that the plight of Bangladesh would not go unnoticed. There is a network worldwide of people who are committed to the freedom of conscience and the separation of religion from government and who will stand in solidarity with Bangladeshis against the ocracy. My organization, Center for Inquiry Transnational, had sent me to South Asia to attend the inauguration of the center’s new branch in Hyderabad and to establish contacts in Bangladesh for the last 25 years. The Center for Inquiry has been a leading advocate for scientific reasons, freedom of inquiry and secular values in public affairs, with its magazines Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer right around the world. An early critic of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, the center has brought together activists and intellectuals from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Russia, Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The black rivers of oil that flow from the Gulf states and turn to poison in the years of young Bangladeshi madrassa, students do not observe national borders. So, too, must secular ideals cross national, religious and ethnic boundaries to resist intolerance wherever it appears. The question I was asked most often was why the U.S. persists in regarding Bangladesh as a so-called moderate Muslim government, in the words now infamous among liberal minded Bangladeshis used by State Department official Christina Rocca. No doubt some in the administration were moved by the short term strategic interest in being able to claim at least one member of the Organization of Islamic Countries as a backer of the war in Iraq. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether America’s own ambivalence about secularism at home is confounding its relationship with secularists abroad. Thanks in part to the propaganda of the religious right. Secularism has become a dirty word in America, conjuring up godlessness and a morality, as the journalist historian Susan Jacoby showed in a recent book, Freethinkers A History of American Secularism. Religious conservatives have constructed a revisionist history of Christian America that excludes the tradition of people like the founding father, Thomas Paine, the celebrated 19th century order, Robert G. Ingersoll, the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the civil rights activist A.. Philip Randolph, all of whom reached outside of traditional Christianity. For sources of American democratic values today, it would be political suicide for an elected official to self-described as a secularist. It is in the context of this political culture that we have to view the U.S. failure to push for a strictly non-religious government in Afghanistan and Iraq. Could it be that, like so many of our problems, America’s religion problems are being outsourced? While the U.S. government is often no friend to secular democracy around the world, I believe the American people are and will be friends to the Bangladeshi people, as they demonstrated in 1971 as the Islamist power swells. It is now more important than ever for Americans to support the resistance inside the country. This is not only a prudent step to avoiding a new generation of terrorists, but also a recognition of common moral principles. For while secular government may have come first to North America, secular values of pluralism and toleration go much further back in South Asia from the world’s most venerable materialistic philosophical tradition to the liberalism of the Mughal kings and the humanism of Persian literature and music like that of Leighann Lord Shah, the 18th century troubadour who wrote, Oh, when will we see a society that recognizes no racial distinctions between Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist? Back at the Press Club in Kona on the eve of the thirty fifth anniversary of the War of Independence, I was listening to veterans who were prepared to lay down their lives for secular democracy. I’ll never forget how after the lights went out, we were led down the darkened stairs and outside by a young organizer with a single candle. If the great promise of America’s ideals is to be fulfilled, Americans must walk with the Bangladeshi people as they take their proud country towards a bright, secular future. This is Austin Dacey, your philosopher in the street. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m pleased to be joined this week by Dr. Bill Cook, who formerly served as IFIs international director. He’s from New Zealand. Though he was born in Kenya, he has a real international perspective that he’ll bring to our conversation today. Dr. Bill Cook is senior lecturer at the School of Visual Arts at the University of Auckland at Manukau. He’s a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion Caesar and now serves acidifies Asia Pacific co-ordinator. He’s an acknowledged expert on the history of humanism. He’s an historian of philosophy and intellectual historian, and he joins us today to talk about the question of whether or not humanism is antireligious. That’s something we hear a lot. We’ll explore it today. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Bill. Thanks a lot. Very good to be here. So our cultural competitors, if I can use that terminology, those from the religious political extremist right in America, often criticize humanism as being anti religious, that there’s an anti religious bias in our culture that really the only thing you can no longer be is Christian. So goes their argument even that there’s a cabal of secular humanist out there who are actively organizing against religion. What do you have to say to that? 

Well, it works on such an impoverished understanding of what humanism is. Humanism predates the Christian religion by 500 years. 

See, that’s something new. They say that humanism was started relatively recently. You’re saying it predates Christianity. 

The interesting thing here is that they’re right and wrong at the same time. They’re right in that the word humanism was only coined in 1888. They’re wrong in that humanistic behavior. And humanistic thinking is about two and a half thousand years old. It’s clear that that Confucius and the Confucian tradition in China, the tradition in India that began with the kovacic as in the RGV cause and the significant elements of Buddhism and the Jains. And in Europe, the tradition that began with ancient Greece is humanistic. So the tradition was genuinely trons cultural. It began in three different major civilizations of the world at about the same time, about two and a half thousand years B.C. That is the word humanism was only coordinate in 08. They managed to get on very well without it for the better part of two thousand four hundred years. 

So these three humanist traditions, I guess, as we work toward a definition of humanism, these three humanist traditions, Confucian China, the kovacic movement in India are ancient Greece, pressor kraddick, Greece. These three humanist traditions, they developed independently, but they all shared commonalities. What were some of those commonalities? 

The commonalities were the recognition that that studying and learning was in some ways the most important thing that we were doing and that the conclusion that you reached was only one aspect of the whole studying exercise. So, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. And wonderful stories about Confucius, who lost his appetite for three months after hearing a beautiful idea being expressed to him. So the the core ideas of humanism across the different cultures that they arose from was the joy of learning and the joy of learning to not necessarily have a terminus in some particular body of thought, which was then immobile and impossible to change. That’s the core of the humanists experiment. The humanist project, if you like, over these three civilizations. It’s an ongoing argument that conclusions are tentative, conclusions are tentative, and the process of learning is probably more valuable in the end. The conclusions, yes. 

These three movements that you just mentioned. Were they religious people? Think of Confucianism as a religion. 

Well, that’s. It depends how you define religion, obviously. But it seems pushing us, I think, to call Confucianism a religion. There’s no priesthood. There’s no scripture. Confucius is a founder. But he’s not a founder of a body of thought that is immobile and invulnerable to criticism. Something you think of religion as being. Yes. Is he my PTSD and the religious studies, discipline and religious studies discipline now is moving more toward the narrower notion of religion as being limited to the three Judeo Christian monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are so many good reasons why it’s incorrect or misleading to look at that Hinduism. The Jains. Even Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and Shinto as religions. 

They either don’t have founders or they don’t have scriptures, or they don’t have a priesthood, or they don’t have a sense of somebody being in and somebody being out. Which is a very central part of the Western monotheistic traditions. 

I’ll try not to get sidetracked, but just to touch on that a bit. There seems consensus that whatever else religion is in agreeing with what you just said, whatever else it is, it has a supernatural component and that there are many world views or ways of looking at our place in the universe that aren’t supernatural, but that functionally they may share some commonalities with what we would all agree are religions. For instance, humanists get together every month at a meeting. They might have a a group leader functions as a priest. They might have, in quotes, sacred scripture, you know, an important box that everyone values and praises. But just because functionally it looks like a religion and quacks like a religion does not mean it’s a religion. This is a far too broad a definition of religion. If just because it looks like a religion, it is a religion is. 

I agree with that. It’s it’s fallacious to see humanism as a religion because religions in the narrowest sense that I’m speaking of in terms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam need all these things we’ve mentioned. Founder of scripture, a priesthood and critically, a sense of who is a heretic, as Spinoza says, there is no heretic without a text. Now humanism is able to meet. Humans are able to sit around and agree and disagree, go off and form different organizations. And we disagree intellectually. But within the religious traditions, there has to be a moral dimension to the disagreement. So when you disagree, you’re not just intellectually wrong, you’re also morally flawed. And this is a distinction that humanists never have made. So when we disagree with each other, it is an intellectual disagreement among equals. It isn’t. It is never has a moral dimension of the person that we disagree with being seen as somehow flawed by virtue of disagreeing with the the main story being told. 

I hear what you’re saying. I don’t know if I disagree. I have a question in humanism. Seems like a lot of us have moral points of view that we disagree strongly with our column, our cultural competitors. We may think that abortion, for instance, is Lycett, that it’s all right because a fetus morally is not a human being. And these are moral disagreements, not just intellectual disagreements. But I think what you’re pointing out is that the real distinction is that we don’t define others as heretical. We don’t exclude. We don’t put people on, you know, going to hell lists. We don’t have heretics. 

Yes, that’s right. So they can be very stern and deeply held disagreements within the humanist move. But there have been over issues of race, over issues of abortion, over issues of the proper relationship between church and state, not just intellectual disagreement, not just intellectual disagreements. Certainly not. And in fact, the most passionate ones have been the the bell weather issues, the symbolic issues, as they very often are in wider society. But that is right. The difference is that even when the disagreements are very, very passionate, the other person is still there with a with an argument that may be valid or not valid. But they cannot be seen as morally flawed. That, I think, is the critical distinction to be made here. 

Let’s get back to the definition of religion. I’m interested in talking about that more before we ask and maybe attempt an answer at the question whether or not humanism is antireligious. So to ask and answer that question, let’s first define religious and then humanism. We were getting it both definitions already. Religion around the turn of the century, the high court, the Supreme Court in America had a definition of religion that was far too narrow. It said religion is only faith in God. If you had faith and it was in a god, you had a religion for free exercise purposes, for establishment clause purposes, according to the Constitution. But that was found to be far too narrow because there are those in America who, according to the Constitution, should have free exercise rights but don’t have concepts of faith or of God. There are nature, religions, Native American religious traditions, you know, the great spirit or there are many gods, not just one, or they don’t have a concept of faith. There’s not really my understanding. There’s not really a concept of faith in Hinduism. You don’t have a faith in something. You you don’t work up faith between World War One and World War Two. 

There was a another definition of religion this time that the pendulum swung and it was far too broad a definition. This definition said that. Well, Paul, till looks at essentialist definition, religion. Religion is the object of your ultimate concern. Sounds good. You know, you could kind of sink your teeth into it makes sense, but it’s far too broad because it makes everything a religion. And a definition which includes everything doesn’t draw distinctions. It’s not useful. So, you know, if the object of your ultimate concern was getting up early in the morning, staying up late at night to sell automobiles. Well, you wouldn’t really say that. That’s your religion. Another very broad definition of religion around this time is the functionalist definition. We talked about that earlier. And this is the definition that religious extremists. That’s just, say, fundamentalists in America use today when they try to argue that secular humanism is a religion. The functionalist definition says that if it looks like a religion, it is a religion. But according to this definition and you had theorists arguing this back in the 50s and 60s, going to a baseball game is religious. Why? Because people stood up at the same time. There was a ritualized element. You began with a hymn. There were heights of passion. But obviously no one. I don’t think today would argue that baseball, except metaphorically, is the American religion. People around that time, you know, 50s, 60s also argued that Marxism was literally a religion and not just metaphorically a religion. People talked about state religions now. And I think you touched on this earlier. The consensus definition is that whatever else religion is and people can debate about all the fine points, whatever else it is, it has to have a supernatural component. So Zen Buddhism is not considered a religion. It’s considered a philosophy because there there aren’t supernatural claims. But there are kinds of Buddhism that, at least according this definition, terror, Vayda, Mahayana Buddhism, where the Buddha is said to have sprung from his mother’s side or I don’t know enough about Hinduism, but at least on in some kinds of Hinduism, there are supernatural elements. Obviously, there are more philosophical strains as well. 

So according to that definition, religion, at least we could say secular humanism is not a religion. Now for the harder question. Since it’s not a religion, does that make it anti religious? 

I don’t think that humanism is essentially anti religious. 

I agree with the notion that what is the core characteristic of a religion is a supernatural dimension and some sort of relationship to that supernatural dimension, which is either manifested through something like faith or some other practice. Humanism has had an ongoing dialog with notions of supernatural and the ways that humans have related to the supernatural phenomenon for more than two and a half thousand years. But it has generally been, as the word says, a dialog. There is no necessary need for the relationship to be one of conflict or where there is a great deal of bad blood on either side. There is a civilized or there should be. I should have to say there should be a civilized dialog going on. Humanism is not super naturalistic. It works from the naturalistic realm and it builds a body of of philosophy and and morality. Humanism is actually profoundly moral way of living. And that morality is based in nature. It is based on how we understand and how we see our relationship with the real world. So it’s not based on the supernatural and it’s not based on the supernatural. So. A humanist is going to share with many people who are super naturalists and one description or other, whether they be religious or not. A commitment to a life of passion, a life of moral commitment, a life of living with other people, of trying to make the world a better place. Most of the girls that that humanists would have a girls that would also be shared by their religious neighbors and their supernatural’s neighbors. The only real significant area of difference is whether the intellectual and emotional basis for one’s actions is a naturalistic oriented one or a super naturalistic oriented one. There have been more examples of civilizations working where all of these people discuss these and work through these interesting differences and and talk about what this means in their lives. Then there has been of conflict. 

Why do you think there’s so much conflict? Today? We hear from some political activists in America that the conflict is because of secularization, that the non-religious people are gaining ever more power and they’re stamping out religion, hence the conflict. 

Well, I think because the world is going in a more naturalistic direction. I think the fundamentalists are right to say that, Pete, that the world is moving away from God in the traditional. And I would have to say narrow way that this has usually be conceived in my Western monotheisms with respect to the Western monotheisms. So they are, I think, rightly seeing that the society is changing. They’re rightly seeing that every society is becoming more pluralist in the United States as a growing proportion of people who are neither Christian nor humanist. And they the religious fundamentalists, are feeling isolated and scared by the changes. And so, unfortunately, they’re they’re lashing out with polemics and drastic choices of either or, which can’t be said to be a constructive contribution to understanding the changes that we’re facing. 

Right. You could hardly blame the religious pluralism in contemporary America on secular humanist. Precisely. Let me ask you, do you believe in what’s called the secularization hypothesis, the notion that as society progresses, as technology becomes ever more widely used, as there are advances in science and technology, that religion necessarily is reduced for most people? The example for this is Europe. There’s a very small percentage of people in the United Kingdom, for instance, who say that they believe in God and regularly attend church. 

Yes, I don’t think there’s any question that secularization is a valid term to explain a real phenomenon that’s happening. Brian Wilson, an English sociologist, is interesting in this, where he speaks of secularization not as the process of secularization in society, but of secularization of society. And it’s happening at a deeper level, in other words. But as you correctly say, the fact that society is becoming more secular does not necessarily mean that it is therefore becoming any less religious. We’re finding that the growth in all sorts of New Age ideas, the diversification of types of spirituality, is endemic around Western societies and societies that are apparently secularizing. 

Yeah. Isn’t it true that in Northern Europe, where there’s a very low rate of belief in traditional monotheisms, there’s a widespread belief in fairies and the old Nordic belief systems that there’s even a there are a couple of reserves, nature reserve set aside for fairies and things like that. 

And I was absolutely delighted to read that in Greece, for instance, the High Court of Greece has decided that sacrifices to zoos and here can now be done on the Parthenon. Again, the first time since the early fourth century. Wow. So, yes, that’s an example. So, yes, secularization is really about a society becoming more secular. Now, the mistake that is often made is that a secular society is therefore a society that is non-religious or hostile to religion. This is completely untrue. 

What do you mean by a secular society? 

A secular society is a society where people, all people, whether they are religious, whether they have some supernatural elements of belief or whether they have a naturalist element of belief all live and work together in. They where the government shows no favor to any one type of belief. 

I see. One last question. I guess this calls into question what’s called the warfare thesis, that there is endemic to religion. The qualities of religion and the qualities of science. There is necessarily a warfare between them and that this is most pronounced in a secular society where everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe that that actually encourages more, more of this warfare. Do you believe that fundamentally science and religion, secularism and traditional ways of thinking about God, etc., that they are incompatible? 

Yes and no. Irritating. There is a fundamental incompatibility between a naturalist and a super naturalist world view because they work from completely different premises and they have a different range of conclusions. However, that is not the same as saying that the two should necessarily be at war. This depends on how the conflict goes about and how the dialog. Is undertaken between super people and Naturaliste people. So, yes, I think they are fundamentally at odds in their claims and in their arguments. But that it need not necessarily end up in conflict. It’s only a war if people make war. It’s only a war if people make war. 

Well, obviously, we’ve only scratched the surface. Nonetheless, I’m glad that you joined us on point of inquiry. Thank you. 

It’s a pleasure to be here, as always. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values by becoming a friend of the center today. Whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w that center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for another episode where we explore some of these hot button issues facing our society to get involved with an online conversation about the topics in today’s episode. Is Scientific Naturalism Inherently Non-religious? Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg, or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded by the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed forest by Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show include Thomas Donnelly, Sarah Jordan and Austin Dacey. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.