Norm Allen Jr.
Editor, The Human Prospect :
A Neohumanist Perspective
A publication of the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV)
There is much to be said about the so called New Atheism, both good and bad. This cultural phenomenon has been responsible for non-theists coming out of the closet in large numbers all over the globe. These atheists have challenged the popular idea that it is immoral to critique religions harshly.
However, atheism simply means “without a belief in god or gods.” Mere atheism can’t tell us how we ought to live. Just as mere faith does not make for a good Christian, atheism in itself does not make one capable of living an ethical life. That is the domain of ethics.
It is primarily the parent’s role to impart morals to children, but morals are also transmitted through culture. That is where difficulties often arise.
Many parents worry about the negative influences of pupular culture, including hardcore rap, Hollywood films, television, and the Internet. On the other hand there are positive influences such as Sesame Street, eductional Web sites, documentaries, and conscious rap music. Navigating the cultural minefield is a daunting task. Parents compete against powerful influences. Many writers, filmmakers, musicians, producers, and actors could not care less that they are negatively influencing children all over the world. This has led some critics to call them “cultural terrorists.”
This raises the issue of free will. How free are children to become what they yearn to be? They are under the influence of their genes, environment, parents, family history, national history, culture, teachers, peers, and social, political, and economic systems. Freedom seems to be a relative concept. Though we are “free” to make any choices, those choices are circumscribed by many unseen and unrecognized forces.
But society generally holds individuals accountable for their actions. It is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest to stay out of jail, but children should not be taught that morality is strictly about receiving personal rewards and avoiding punishment (in this world or another). They need to learn about the importance of sharing, kindness, generosity, sympathy, and empathy.
Children should also be protected from harmful ideas about morality. Many criticized Richard Dawkins for saying that religion is a form of child abuse. He was actually saying that teaching children to believe in hell is child abuse, and on this point he has much richly deserved support.
The great 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll said, “All of the meanness of which the human heart is capable is summed up in that one word – Hell.” Indeed, teaching children to believe in hell has caused many of them great mental anguish. Why should they be subjected to what amounts to child abuse in the name of religious traditon?
Christian apoligist William Lane Craig argues that without Christianity there can be no objective foundation for morality. Some ethicists believe there is no objective foundation for morality to be found anywhere.
In the book “Is Goodness without God Good Enough”, edited by Robert K.Gracia and Nathan L.King, Paul Kurtz debates this issue with Craig. Other writers contribute their thoughts on the debate. One contributor, Walter Sinnott Armstrong, a professor of philosophy and Hardy Professor of Legal Studies of Dartmouth College, sheds much light on the idea of an objective basis for morality. He advocates a morality based on avoiding harm to innocent people. He writes:
In my view, what makes it morally wrong to murder, rape, steal, lie, or break promises, for example, is simply that these acts harm other people without any adequate justification. I can’t help but believe that it would be morally wrong for someone to cause such unjustified harm to me., There is no reason why I would have any more rights than any other person. Hence, it must also be morally wrong for me to cause such unjustified harm to them. (p. 101)
In essence, this is Confucius’s Silver Rule put forth 500 years before Christ: Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. This rule is so simple that even a young child can comprehend it. Whether or not a harm-based morality is truly objective, this system is probably the best available.
Contrast this system to Craig’s Divine Command Theory, which requires obedience to the supposed words of god. The biblical god commands genocide (Numbers 31:17-18), sexism (Genesis 3: 15-16), slavery (Luke12:47-48) and other crimes against humanity. Under a harm-based morality, however, such actions could never be condoned.
There are other problems with the notion that the Christian god provides an objective basis for morality. For example, if morality comes from god then morality is subjective, because it depends upon the mind of god (or more properly, the subjective minds of biblical writers and other theists.) Conversely, a harm-based morality can be determined by anyone, theist or not.
Children should be presented with a harm-based morality, but moral dilemmas will still arise. A great example is the choice between violence and nonviolence. Leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. have advocated pacifism, as has the biblical Jesus. However, leaders such as Malcom X advocated the right to self-defence. Ingersoll said that “goodness should have the right to defend itself.” Ayn Rand said that if too many people turned the other cheek, thugs would rule the world.
A good moral system must always be used to carefully consider the consequences of ideas and actions. Moreover, children should be made aware at any early age that moral choices can be difficult. That is why it is important to equip them with critical thinking skills that help them to recognise racism, sexism and xenophobia. Reactionary religionists in particular consider “race mixing” to be a sin, at least intolerable.
However, secularists are not necessarily above bigotry. Indeed, many of those professing to be free from bigotry are bigoted to the core. As Alfred T.Kisubi and Michael A.Burayidi write in Race and Ethnic Relations in the First Person:
The conflict (over race and ethnicity) experienced by (children) is due to the fact that the parents practice verbal and actual xenophobia, while they preach ideal xenophilia . . . those children who have been given mixed messages in their lives will either conform to the power of their parents’ equivocation and preach xenophilia while they practice xenophobia or they will snap out of their parents’s hypocrisy and do what their conscience tells them, at the risk of (ostracism) or expulsion. (pp 59-60)
Children are always observing their parents closely. A good example will always accomplish more than mere lip service. Kisubi and Burayidi go so far as to say how children can best be raised to shun racism.
In the 1990s Kisubi belonged to the Eupraxopy (now spelled eupraxsophy) Center, headed by philosophy instructor Verle Muhrer of Kansas City, Missouri. (Eupraxsophy, a word coined by Paul Kurtz, is Greek for good conduct and wisdom in living.) Muhrer, a white man, advocates a conception of secular Humanism that emphasizes the importance of working-class unity among people from all backgrounds. He attracted blacks, whites, Latinos, and Native Americans to his gatherings. Kisubi had never experienced such unity in any of the gatherings he had attended.
Kisubi ande Burayidi write:
. . . we suggest that eupraxophy centers (community-based learning centers which offer educational opportunities for the public with the objective of instilling the values of love, self-esteem, and peaceful co-existence, as well as entreprenuership and functional literacy courses) be established in minority communities to teach self-love and self-esteem lessons to members of minority groups. (p. 121)
Eupraxophy centers can be run by the Urban League or the statutory Human Relations Councils. The centers can be located in offices of local Community Development Corporations or in churches. For the most alienated “hard-core” youth in the inner city, the education programs could be held by storefronts or on streets. In these eupraxophy centers, self-love and self-esteem lessons should not only be taught to minorities, but also to members of the majority group, who might not have had a chance to intellectually interact with minorities. The majority group could team up on neutral ground to discuss its similarities and differences with minority groups. (ibid.)
Eupraxsophy, for many reasons, is a great alternative to religion. However, non-religious children are in the minority. They will wonder why most of their friends believe in god, pray, attend houses of worship, and celebrate fun-filled holidays. Most of all, they will want to belong. They will want to experience the sense of community shared by their religious friends.
For these reasons, secular Humanists must continue to try to support secular camps and acknowledge the need for other secular programs for children. Informal studies suggest that non-religious women often talk about families. It is the responsibility of all serious Humanist leaders to continually strive to figure out ways to build a sense of community in which children are able to enjoy themselves and feel proud of their secular life stance.
One way to fill them with pride is to teach them about great Humanist role models such as Ingersoll, W.E.B.Du Bois, and Lorraine Hansberry. Moreover, they should learn about the many ways Humanist ideals have positively influenced the world.
Finally, we must stress to childen the importance of happiness in this world. Indeed, the happier people are, the more likely it is they will be able and willing to live morally. The goal of happiness and morality is not to please god. Rather, happiness is an end initself.
(Courtesy:The Human Prospect A Neohumanist Perspective Dec 2011 / January, 2012)
Norm Allen Jr. Editor, The Human Prospect :
A Neohumanist Perspective
A publication of the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV)
Do not do to others what you do not want done
Eupraxsophy, for many reasons, is a great alternative to religion.