Sunday, September 21, 2008

Paul Heelas - Even Godless Humanism Needs a Sense of the Spiritual

This article is from the New Humanist, and I think offers a much needed sense of balance to the whole secular humanist / atheist movement.

One might view this stance as a postmodernist, relativist, egalitarian worldview (Spiral Dynamics' "green meme"), but it seems to me to be a much needed antidote to the overly rational scientism of the "new atheists."

What lies beneath

Even godless humanism needs a sense of the spiritual, says Paul Heelas

Aimless People by Irene Fuga

Humanists take great pride in the secular form of their ethics. They welcome the replacement of religious edicts and god-given rights with an “ethic of humanity”, the sort of ethics embodied in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations 60 years ago this December. The bedrock is an appeal to the fact of human nature. Accordingly its language is secular and entitlement depends upon nothing more than the fact of birth. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and all human beings “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Now, historically, of course, such universals were located within the realm of the sacred, in the “golden rule” of Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. With the decline of this version of Christianity, the ethic of reciprocity has progressively lost its grounding in the transcendent. The difference can be seen in the comparison between the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – which states that “All men are endowed by their Creator” – and the UN Declaration of 1948 which has no such appeal to transcendent entities. The shift has been away from the claim that certain rights exist independently of, or prior to, the law by virtue of the fact that they are a gift from God and towards the law of legal positivism, namely the claim that rights derive from judicial decisions and legislative acts, extrinsic to the individual in that they are derived from the operation of the legal system itself.

But though the ethic of humanity occupies the same terrain as religiously inspired moral systems, it can lack the powerful appeal to personal emotional values that underpins religious injunctions. Too often institutionalised as a complex of rules, regulations and codes of practice within legal or quasi-legal systems, the secular ethic generally takes an abstract, formal, “cold” form. Significant values tend to get lost in a morass of technicality. Sanctions might force people to show respect to others in the workplace, for example, but are unlikely to do much to encourage anyone to feel respect, “from the heart”. The dictates of the law are not especially effective in transforming the obligatory into the authentic. Rather than inspiring commitment, the experience is frequently one of “Help! Not another damn cultural sensitivity regulation”. Money cannot buy your love; neither can the law demand it.

The barren, disembodied formalism of the law, the relative obscurity of formulations like those of the UN, the limited persuasiveness of scientific findings, and the relatively ineffectual role played by the vulnerability factor add up to one thing: in secular mode, the ethic of humanity does not serve as an especially authoritative source of ethical consciousness and action. Evidence that the ethic in secular form has not taken root as deeply as it could or should, as a “habit of the heart”, is demonstrated by the amount of contemporary transgression of human rights, by the banal ubiquity of prejudice, domination and inhumanity. Indeed, it could be argued that if the ethic had taken deeper root, the proliferation of legal or quasi-legal systems, which we use to address these transgressions, would not be necessary.

Good Karma by Irene Fuga

And this is where I believe a particular form of spirituality can improve the situation: a form which can do a considerable amount to assist ethical humanism; a form which can at least go some way to serve as a functional equivalent of what was traditionally in the hands of the religious sacred. I refer to the collection of practices, beliefs and activities known as “New Age”.

New Age spiritualities are routinely dismissed more or less in toto. The customary mode is scorn, such as that displayed by Natalie Haynes writing about her visit to the Mystic Arts Exhibition in the previous issue of this magazine. The na├»ve and misguided disciples of “woo”, as she disparagingly calls it, have nothing to offer the “good life” of the humanist. They are judged trivial, silly and replete with mumbo-jumbo, merely contributing to hedonistic, egotistical consumer culture in subjective wellbeing purchasing mode.

Such criticisms are easily made, and it would be foolish to deny that the world of New Age is well populated with charlatans and hucksters, making exaggerated if not outright fraudulent claims on behalf of their various gee-gaws and techniques. But this is by no means the end of the story, and in particular it misses out two vital components. The first is to do with the motivations of those drawn to New Age, the quality of their quest for knowledge and spiritual nourishment. The second is about the efficacy of faith.

What is the basis of the secular humanist ethic if not the quest for a good life, to live in a way consistent with an evolved sense of the universe and humanity? Why then do humanists rush so quickly to dismiss those who seek precisely these things in New Age?

Read the rest of the article.


1 comment:

Jason said...

If anyone should happen to glance by this four-year-oild post -- I'd love to know who painted those pics.