A Discourse on Humanism: Greg Epstein’s ‘Good Without God’

I am going to preface this review by giving you some insight into my perspective: I am an atheist, and have been for some time. One of my very early memories – from the age of four or five – is of laying in bed and contemplating the horrifying idea of absolute nonexistence after death. My church confirmation was full of resentment of mandatory prayer meetings and the use Jesus-related buzzwords in the effort to fool those around me into thinking I shared their beliefs. For most of the years after age thirteen I only went to church because sleeping in on Sunday would get me grounded from the computer that week. I spent a great deal of my subsequent teenage years alternately calling myself ‘agnostic’ and trying to figure out how to reclaim the belief in god from which so many people around me drew solace and comfort. I even considered attending divinity school, to see if I could find god there. By seventeen or so, I had given up the search, and resigned myself to viewing religion as something to be studied, as intellectually detached from Christianity as I was from Judaism or Islam. Subsequent classes at college only served to cement further my relationship with religion as an intellectual, historical, and literary fascination.

Despite my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) — primarily because of my general indifference to the idea of a belief system — I have not done a great deal of reading on atheism. I’ve had Sam Harris’s The End of Faith on my bookshelf for years and haven’t done much more than read the back cover. I’ve been turned off of the New Atheist movement because a lot of the prominent talking heads are generally kind of douchebags. Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccination, and in this post on Pandagon Amanda Marcotte talks about how, although atheism and feminism should go hand-in-hand, there is very little effort to combat the misogyny and minimal representation of women in the atheist movement.

Greg Epstein’s Good Without God is not about the New Atheist movement, but instead an exploration of the world of secular Humanism. Can we be moral without the carrot/stick of heaven and hell? Of course, he says. (Duh.) Epstein grounds his explanation of ethics and morality in rationalism: we are not good because god demands it and we’re afraid of going to hell, but because being Good (defined as respecting the dignity of other people and of oneself) benefits society and maximizes personal happiness.

Epstein explores the reasons behind humanity’s reliance on religion using neuroscience and history, among other things (including a particularly evocative art historical metaphor about spandrels using the archways of “causal reasoning” and the “theory of mind”) and he provides a thorough history of nonbelief, from Epicurous to Spinoza to Camus and beyond. Unlike the militant atheists — although he does mention the fact that fundamentalist religions are incredibly problematic and have a tendency to crop up inless well-educated populations — Epstein doesn’t blame people for having faith in god, and in fact argues that Humanism could also be considered to be a ‘faith’.

Epstein presents Humanism as a parallel to religion, which at some level bothers me. However, there are aspects that I find commendable. Chief among these is the SMART Recovery Program, a secular alternative to the higher power-focused twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ironically, Epstein’s book made me appreciate the New Atheists more than I had before. Both movements are intended for people who miss certain aspects of religion. Epstein’s Humanism is aimed at people who, although lacking a belief in a higher power, still feel the desire for a community of people who affirm their moral structure and “lifestance,” who need the rituals and the traditions but are divested from the concept of “god.” The militant atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins et al. are intended for people who miss the self-righteousness of religion. (Kidding. Kind of.) I agree more with Epstein’s pluralism, but I remain more or less indifferent to the whole situation, and prefer to stay in the middle.

This is a good book if you are conflicted about your relationship with religion and your disbelief in god. It is still a good book if you are a dedicated atheist without the need for an organized community structure, but has much less of an impact.

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2 comments
  1. Bill said:

    I think it’s perfectly fair to call secular humanism a “religion”. It has community, buildings, a path to personal fulfillment, a bit of hierarchy, charity, a moral code, a canon , even rituals. Religion, to me, is the set of cultural practices that surround a given set of beliefs. But naturalism isn’t a “faith”. Faith is an epistemological method & the lack of it is really what distinguishes empirical worldviews from supernatural ones.

    The main idea is: We can have all the good things religion gives us without all the metaphysical baggage traditionally associated with it. It’s just not necessary anymore.

    haha I think you’re right on with the “self-righteousness” comment. Guilty as charged. I prefer the term “evangelical atheist”. 1) Cause I don’t believe in mincing words. Let’s face it, I evangelize. 2) New Atheist seems so…contrived. 3) “Militant” = violence, and I don’t see how violence would be productive at this juncture.

    I see Epstein’s work as being an essential part of the broader anti-faith movement. Faith-based religion fills vital social and personal roles. There’s no denying this. It’d be both socially destructive and to a large extent impossible to reduce the role of faith in society without building new social institutions/personal philosophies to replace faith in those roles. Epstein creates & welcomes. Harris & Co. destroy & send people in Epstein’s direction.

    As for the rampant douchebaggery in the atheist movement…yeah…sorry about that. We’re working on it. I’d ask everyone to consider the amount of douchebaggery in any critical social movement before dismissing New Atheism.

  2. Bill said:

    Also, I think your personal struggle with the God business is illustrative of the need for work like Epstein’s. When you’re a kid, this shit is scary. I’ve been there. And it would’ve been nice to have an alternative more readily available to make the journey less traumatic. Nothing dogmatic, just: “There are many other people who don’t believe in God, and here are some ideas those people have that bring meaning to their lives.”

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