Naturalism and moral living

Moral skeptics argue that morality is a sham. According to Richard Joyce’s version of moral skepticism, for example, morality is essentially an illusion foisted upon us by our genes. We’ve evolved to view certain social norms as having convention-transcendent authority (when, in fact, there is no such thing) because thinking about things this way made us more altruistic (“nicer”) and ultimately helped our ancestors make more babies.

I think of skepticism as an incompatibilist stance on the relationship between moral living and naturalism. Having a naturalist worldview, on the moral skeptic’s view, is incompatible with ordinary moral living.

Depending on whether a skeptic recommends fictionalism or abolitionism about moral language, we can think of the options as soft or hard incompatibilism, respectively. The hard incompatibilist views naturalism as completely incompatible with ordinary moral living and the ordinary use of moral language, and recommends abolishing its use (come what may, perhaps?). By contrast, the soft incompatibilist views naturalism as, strictly speaking, incompatible with ordinary moral living and language use, but thinks it best for most of us to continue thinking and speaking in such terms, lest the social fabric unravel.

Opponents of skepticism (who are not also realists) tend to fall into what I call an easy compatibilism. Easy compatibilism is the view that (of course!) naturalism and moral living are compatible. The stance is typically justified with a sophisticated, and largely non-cognitivist account of moral language. Ordinary moral discourse can go on, business as usual, because it simply serves to regulate social life. And so the adoption (or not) of a naturalist worldview is, for the most part, irrelevant to moral life.

In contrast to both incompatibilist and easy compatibilist views, I favor a critical compatibilist account of the relationship between naturalism and moral living. The idea is that the examined life and the moral life need not part ways (contra the skeptic), but that their reconciliation is more work than is sometimes assumed (for instance, by the easy compatibilist).

I’ll give the principal contours of this view in my next post.

The importance of being visibly pro-choice

In the U.S., I think it’s fair to say that the abortion debate, whatever else it is, is first and foremost a legal debate. That is, it is a debate about whether or not aborting a pregnancy (“killing an unborn child”–pick your terminology of choice) should be legal or illegal, and/or under what circumstances. It is possible to regard the abortion question from a moral point of view and to judge that, for example, abortion is probably morally wrong (say) but should still be legal. I know some people who believe this (more or less). I understand that that stance makes it hard for a person to call herself “pro-choice”. But if a person believes abortion should be legal, in our contemporary context, I think it’s absolutely imperative for that person to self-identify, out loud and in public, as “pro-choice”. Here’s why.

(1) Just a few decades ago, massive strides were made towards making abortion safe, legal, and widely available. And yet we are, at present, making massive strides in the opposite direction. So if you think abortion should be legal, even if you personally don’t like it, even if you personally would never have one, or whatever, even if you think it’s wrong, your (legal) stance is currently being defeated. You need to fight back.

(2) Pro-lifers have been excellent at organizing themselves. They are loud and visible. They have succeeded in making people uncomfortable talking about abortion in neutral or positive terms. They have inundated our cultural meme pool with their framing of the abortion question (which emphasizes the fetus above all else, so that the woman who is pregnant somehow disappears, or appears only contingently related to that fetus [or zygote/blastocyst/embryo/whatever]). Pro-choicers have become invisible.

(3) As a result of the invisibility and stigma associated with being pro-choice, the excellent (winning, I’d say) arguments of the pro-choice position have become invisible as well. Most pro-lifers do not know why a reasonable person might think abortion should be safe, legal, and widely available. But in fact pro-choicers have two excellent lines of reasoning for their position. The first emphasizes the difficulties (economic, physical, emotional) of unwanted pregnancy; the second emphasizes the biological facts about developing human beings in utero.

In brief then, however else you think or feel about the question(s) of abortion, if you think abortions should be legal–that is, if you think pregnant women should, legally speaking, be free to choose whether or not to carry on with their pregnancy or to abort–then you are pro-choice, and the rest of us (and all potentially pregnant women across the country) need you to speak up.

Pro-choice and proud.

Black and white thinking

Imagine if you were a movie critic who could only describe movies as “good” or “bad”. You’d probably feel like a two-year-old. Which is fine when you’re two. But adults use bigger vocabularies than that. Not everything is either “yucky” or “yummy”.

That’s the feeling I have as someone who “does ethics” when people insist on reducing our rich moral vocabularies down to “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad”. I do use those terms on occasion. But I’ve got a whole host of other ones in my arsenal, and you do too. I’m happy to call Moonrise Kingdom “good” if I’m short on time, I suppose. But in calmer moments, other words come to mind. “Funny”. “Quirky”. “Brilliant”. And so on.

In a variety of contexts, I’ve called myself a pacifist. I’ve called myself a vegan. Those labels are shorthand for some of my moral commitments. But I don’t think violence is always and everywhere “wrong”. And I occasionally consume (some) animal products. This confuses people. I suppose I could steer clear of the labels. But this would only trade one kind of confusion for another. People would get the impression I don’t think there’s something wrong with the military-industrial complex. With agribusiness. With how we treat other sentient beings. And so the labels at least have the virtue of getting the ball rolling, of communicating a moral stance on an issue. My moral stance is typically more complex than the label itself, but labels are always misleading at the edges. And so I continue to use them.

Black-and-white moral thinking is, on my view, a holdover from moral infancy.

It is also the kind of moral thinking encouraged by certain religious traditions (not all). And so an added benefit of offering a sustained critique of religion is the possibility that richer moral thinking might be cultivated. Think about it. If the will of God is what makes something “right” or “wrong”, then “right” and “wrong” are truths that float out there, so to speak. The religious believer insists on calling something (abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.) “wrong” because that allows her to communicate the absoluteness of God’s edicts. Fancy versions of religion temper this urge with the acknowledgment that it can be hard to discern the will of God, of course. But that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue, namely, the fact that God has a black-and-white moral will that can in principle be apprehended.

From a humanist perspective, we owe it to ourselves to grow up. To grow out of black-and-white moral thinking. To grow out of religion. It’s just us. We have to figure out how to get along. I’d be nice if we could get along well. Figuring out how to do that is hard enough. It will be harder still if we insist on restricting ourselves to binary moral categories. The world ain’t so simple.

Homophobia and the oppression of men

Men sometimes resent feminism for being primarily about women. And feminists (mostly women but also some men) are quick to point out the ways in which the emphasis on women fits the facts: masculinity continues to carry with it social privilege; femininity, not so much. But feminists also insist that rigid gender norms (e.g. the assumption that certain behaviors and forms of dress are “for” men and others “for” women) hurt women and men. So I thought I’d say a little something about the oppression of men.

Many straight men despise homosexuality or even the hint of homosexuality. This is why the label “homophobia” gets at an important truth: rejection of the social acceptability of same-sex attraction is often (not always) rooted at a deep, nonrational, visceral level (see my discussion here). In the small town where my in-laws live, my long hair invites odd comments, even though my gender performance is mostly, boringly even, masculine. If I wore heels, had a more “feminine” figure, spoke with a higher-pitched voice, didn’t have facial hair, and so on… I would honestly feel unsafe. I would feel unsafe in my in-laws’ town. I would feel unsafe outside certain bars. At night. Out running. And probably in a variety of other situations too. I would feel as unsafe as many women feel, every day of their lives (perhaps more so?–I don’t know).

Let’s be clear, it is one thing to be non-conforming–to be goth, punk, or whatever, even to walk around barefoot–and it is quite another to be gender-non-conforming. Walk around barefoot or dressed in black, and you will probably get strange looks and funny or rude comments. Some businesses might even kick you out. This is especially true in non-urban settings, but city dwellers have their prejudices too. But cross-dressing takes it to a whole new level. So rigid conceptions of masculinity are enforced to a greater degree than other social conventions. Of course, being a gay man is not the same thing as being a man dressed like a woman. But being a man dressed like a woman nevertheless invites (in our culture) homophobic violence. And gay men who aren’t “visibly” gay in virtue of their gender performance are still only safe in such contexts to the extent that they refrain from “acting” gay (flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop, say, or holding hands with their partner).

And so the conception of masculinity that prevails in American culture is rigid. Stifling. And, as far as I can tell, what keeps the box so narrow and confining is homophobia. I don’t think it’s misogyny, at least not in any clear way, because straight men have their ways of appreciating women (provided they act straight enough, I suppose). But if a man acts or talks or dresses like a woman, all homophobic hell breaks loose.

Well, as a humanist, I find narrow conceptions of masculinity oppressive, stifling, and wholly unnecessary. And I’m a straight, cisgendered dude. The oppressiveness of this box is all the more evident, I suppose, to men who are less conventional than I am.

So let’s all do humanity a favor. Let’s chill out about gender norms. Deal?

Dietary advice

It’s hard to know where to turn for dietary advice. The U.S. government had its pyramid for a long time. Now it’s got that funky plate. Various self-proclaimed healthy living folk advocate for a wide variety of diets: low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, no-carb, high-carb, super-high-protein, meh-protein, etc. Is soy good or bad? Butter? Dairy? Red meat? Seafood? Legumes? Gluten?

I have dietary advice of my own to give. The diet I eat is mostly vegan, but I’ll write about that some other day. The point I want to make here is more important.

There’s an important continuity between how one ought to approach eating and how one ought to approach ethics. It’s tempting to look for a reliable authority and then to depend on that authority in every way. The trouble is this. Authorities give conflicting messages, and adjudicating properly between them essentially requires one to become an authority. And most of us simply don’t have the time (or the desire) to spend 20 years studying nutritional and biological science. Even the people who do aren’t always the most helpful.

As in ethics, so with eating: it is probably wise to listen to at least some authorities, and to inform oneself about the justification they claim for their views. Personally, I look to see if the claims of a self-declared culinary guru are grounded in social scientific studies that examine the long term outcomes of types of diets (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, “Asian”, etc.). I’ve found it less helpful (and more confusing) to read about studies that isolate particular nutrients to observe their effects in artificial settings. The body’s response to food is more complex than that. (To use a buzzword, the reductive studies typically need to be counterbalanced by more “holistic” studies that take into account both the whole of an individual’s diet and that individual’s social setting.)

Ultimately however, we need to move beyond authority. Part of a healthy diet, for most of us, is eating a diet we approve of. That is, we have to own the diet. It does me no good to eat lots of red meat, for example, on the advice of some “health expert”, if I have strong ethical qualms about eating meat. The qualms are not the whole of the story, but they are a part of it. The point is to be experimental: find out what you like, what works for you, and what you feel good about. Self-monitor: how do you feel after a cup of coffee? Before? Can you tell how low blood sugar makes you irritable? Do you feel the need to nap in the early afternoon? After certain kinds of meals but not others? Learn how your body works and how it interacts with its food. Try new things. Keep the good, leave the bad.

What is the point of eating? Are you trying to lose weight? Gain weight? Get healthy? Healthy like who? Do you want to run a marathon? Or just not feel like crap when you get up in the morning? You have to decide what your goals are. The point is that you should take responsibility and think about your diet.

The days are gone, for most of us, when we had the option of not thinking about what we eat. The reality for most of us is that we have at least some choices. Microwave dinner? Popcorn? Pizza? Eating out? Carry out? Chinese? Thai? Crockpot? Lentils? Chili?

Try out a variety, see what works. It’s the only way.

Do the same for everything else in life.

Legislating morality

A country or state’s laws serve to coordinate human life. Make everybody drive on the same side of the road, and you’ve made good headway on getting people not to crash into each other.

But laws do more than coordinate people. They bestow status on certain activities and practices, and not others. They show what citizens (or at least the legislators who supposedly legislate on the citizens’ behalf) value. Donations to charity are tax-exempt because donations to charity are a good use of private money–one it makes sense to subsidize in a way (unlike the purchase of a television, say).

This is what this whole marriage law controversy is about. Marriage, whatever else it might mean to religious folk, is a civil institution. It is a legal construct. It is used to coordinate and simplify certain aspects of life (inheritance, visitation rights, child custody, etc.). But it also and especially codifies a value judgment: marriage is a societal good.

There’s no way around it. Almost all legislation expresses a moral vision. The question is thus not whether we will “legislate morality” but rather which “morality” we will legislate.

This means we have to get on the same page about what it makes sense for us as a society to value.

And the only thing I can think of that it makes sense for a society to value is the well-being of its citizens. The vulnerable should be protected. Freely made contracts should be enforced. Our streets should be safe. The environment that sustains us should be kept clean. Meaningful lives should be readily possible to everyone who wishes to live such a life. Meaningful work should be relatively easy to come by. Government should be transparent. Information should be as free as is reasonably possible. Etc.

If a law does not contribute to the well-being of citizens, or if it contributes to the well-being of some citizens by arbitrarily harming other citizens, it is therefore not a good law.

Whose well-being, I ask you, is served by North Carolina’s Amendment One?

Heroic aspirations

I don’t know if this is universal or not, but I have heroic aspirations. I think many of us do. We want to be part of a story of overcoming. We want to fight for a cause. At least, I do. Maybe you do too.

Leave it to the evolutionary psychologists to hypothesize why that might be. We’re story-telling animals, and we seem to like it best when the stories are epic. This is part of how we find meaning. How we make meaning for ourselves. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I wish I had something more profound to say about this, but I don’t think I do.

What I have is causes that I think are worth fighting for. Formally speaking, they’re all tokens of the type “stand up for the defenseless”. They’re all about using power for the sake of the powerless. They’re about standing to bullies, to cruel people and practices. They’re about dreaming of a future with less suffering and more joy than the present. They’re my contributions to the project of diminishing misery, wherever I find it, and to the project of magnifying happiness, or at least the possibility of happiness.

My causes? Here are the top five.

(1) Fighting misogyny. Standing against the assholes who would belittle and beat women. Striving to stand against and correct my own inner douchebag.

(2) Fighting homophobia. Resisting the policing of stupid gender norms according to which men can’t cry, feel, or empathize, and according to which women can’t think, can’t be strong, can’t contribute more to the world than their sexual appeal to heterosexual men. Celebrating the beauty of nonviolent love, whatever its object.

(3) Fighting cruelty to animals. Making visible the unnecessary suffering of our fellow sentient creatures. Breaking through artificial limits to empathetic concern for non-human others. Appreciating the awesome complexity and beauty of sentient life.

(4) Fighting superstitious sanctifications of tradition for tradition’s sake. Revealing the errors of religious and magical thinking. Empowering individuals to make their own decisions responsibly.

(5) Fighting the economic magnification of human productive differences. Rejecting the supposed necessity and ineliminability of poverty. Critiquing acquisitiveness, greed, materialism, and, yes, rich people–at least tho ones who refuse solidarity with the poor.

These are my causes.

What are yours?

Moral anarchy

In political theory, anarchism is the view according to which all authorities are illegitimate. Anarchy in this sense is to be understood not as chaos, but along etymological lines: “an” = no; “arche” = ruler. It seems to me the schools of thought I’m drawn to most in ethics could be categorized similarly, as a kind of moral anarchism.

Moral anarchism, as I see it, as the rejection of moral authority outside of oneself. Now of course, an “anarchist” in this sense would do well to recognize the wisdom and the insight of others. So too, the moral anarchist need not see him or herself as a moral island, disconnected from others. But there is an important difference between recognizing the insights of others and submitting oneself to the will of another. That’s probably not the only way to think of how “moral authority” might work, I suppose. But play along for a bit, and I hope you’ll see where I’m going with this.

Submitting to the moral authority of someone else–whether one’s parents, one’s friends, the Pope, or whoever–is on this view abdicating responsibility for one’s decisions. There are many contexts in which we can get away with this. But the result of such decision making (or lack thereof) if it becomes a habit is living a stunted life.

A rich and full moral life, on the anarchist view, is a life you take responsibility for. You can’t redeal the cards you’ve been dealt. You’re stuck with your looks, your talents, your sex, your race (barring surgical alteration, of course), and so on. But you can play the hand you’ve got with all that you are. The anarchist view here fits in with atheism, because it takes for granted that this is all you’ve got. It’s this one, single hand, and then the show’s over. Are you going to go big, or are you going to go home?

Are you going to let someone else live your life for you? Or are you going to live your own life?

Do you have the courage to forge your own path? Or will you be a sheep, a lemming, your whole life?

To be clear, the challenge we face is not whether to run off into the wild or live a tame, “civilized” life with other people. Assuming the hermit lifestyle doesn’t appeal to you, or isn’t realistically feasible for you, we can take for granted that you’ll be around other people regardless of how you live. The question isn’t whether you’ll live in community. The question is how you’ll live in community. Whether you’ll allow tradition and “how things are done” to swamp your existence, or whether you’ll own the values you want to own and disown the ones you want to disown. Even if you’re an all-out conventional person, there’s a world of difference between going with the flow and owning the flow.

To be a moral adult, on the anarchist view, you have to own who you are.

So. Are you an adult?

Guilt is useless

In traditional moral (and religious) systems, notions of guilt, shame, and what one ‘deserves’ figure prominently. And there’s no question that our psychological constitution allows such notions to get a hold of us, so to speak. But what I want to suggest is that a humanist moral system must view such notions as unnecessary. Even harmful.

What underlies guilt, shame, and practices of retributive punishment is the idea of what one deserves. In philosophical circles, we call this “desert”. (It’s pronounced like “dessert”, not like what the Sahara is.) But it turns out the notion of desert is really problematic. One of the reasons it’s problematic is because we’re terrible at allocating it. When I play cards with my in-laws, for example, I’m very quick to accept responsibility for my victories, and very slow to accept responsibility for my losses. I attribute my victories to skill–to ME–and my losses to bad luck. I don’t do this consciously mind you. I just feel great about myself when I win (as opposed to thanking my metaphorical lucky stars).

It turns out it’s not just me, and it’s not just cards. Some studies have shown (if my memory serves me right) that middle and upper-class individuals are very likely to attribute their successes in life to talent–to personal skill and hard work. Whereas individuals from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to attribute their successes to social support (their parents, their friends, their scholarships, etc.). I can only hypothesize that this is because the delusion of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is harder to sustain when it’s so obviously false. But in the right kind of environment, your brain gets away with making you feel great about yourself about matters of luck.

Think about it: you did not make yourself. You did not choose your personality, your parents, your siblings, your social class, your color, your sexual orientation, your nationality, or any of the things that have provided the parameters for your life. More importantly, you didn’t even choose to learn the lessons you first learned. The experiences which set you off on the course you’ve embarked on were essentially made for you by your environment. You’re a cognitively complex animal, of course, and so now you’re making your own decisions. But both the software you’re using to make those decisions and the hardware that’s running the whole thing are ultimately the product of forces that pre-exist you. Even your skill is ultimately a matter of luck.

It’s easy to let this line of reasoning overwhelm you. But it shouldn’t. You are who you are, even if in some sense you are “just” the product of a particular human culture. Falling back on traditional notions of an immaterial “soul” or of “free will” won’t help (although I should note that our neural flexibility grants us a pretty radical degree of freedom–we can recreate ourselves at will). We should rather embrace the role of luck in making us all who we are.

Luck tends to undermine desert. Maybe there’s a way to reconcile them. I’m not sure. But I think the pervasiveness of luck means, at the very least, taking the notion of desert with a grain of salt. Concretely what this means is that we should stop feeling so much better than people who don’t have our station in life (and maybe work for a less stratified social order). We don’t deserve our station. Perhaps we are witty, talented, or whatever. There’s no point in denying it (humility is overrated). It’s just important to remember that we did not ultimately make ourselves witty, talented, or whatever. Likewise, the poor, the addicted, the crazies of the world–they did not make themselves who they are. They are in some sense–as we all are–victims of fortune. Perhaps a little compassion is called for (not in the sense of being “deserved” of course, but just in the sense of making the world more livable).

Just as we should be compassionate to others who have not had our fortune, we should give ourselves a break. Instead of beating ourselves up emotionally (through guilt or shame) when we fall short of whatever standards we’ve been holding ourselves to, we should acknowledge that we are imperfect animals. If we are not yet who we want to be, it is not shame or guilt that will get us there. There are simple steps one can take to reprogram oneself in the desired direction without all the self-hatred.

Consider finally how we should approach having hurt someone. When I do something, whether intentionally or unintentionally (usually it’s the latter), to hurt someone, and that hurt becomes apparent to me, I apologize. The same psychological tendencies that make us trade in notions of desert and guilt and shame will tend to make us shy away from admitting wrongdoing. Desert makes us cling to ego. But as a humanist trying to live shamelessly, I don’t have to cling to my self-image (which is of course not say that I don’t sometimes do that). I can acknowledge that I am still a work in progress. And that frees me up to say “I hurt you, I dropped the ball, I’m sorry.”

On this point, humanist insight coincides with the best of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. The practical point is just that clinging to one’s ego has a tendency to hold one back–to make us engage in self-justification. We justify ourselves to protect ourselves from guilt and shame. But guilt and shame presuppose that we ‘deserve’ bad things when we do bad things, and that we ‘deserve’ good things when we do good things. I don’t deny that we should socially reward pro-social behavior and disincentivize antisocial behavior. What I deny is that the soul-crushing emotions that internalize those social incentives should be nurtured. We can and we should outgrow them.

Where morality comes from

I’m sometimes criticized for picking philosophical fights with the wrong kind of religion. I’ll say something unqualified along the lines of “religion is bad”, and I’m reprimanded for equating religion with its worst elements. No doubt there is something to that critique. Christianity is not monolithic. Neither is Islam. And Judaism certainly isn’t. And yet I want to insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with religion as such. What gives?

What’s wrong with religion is its epistemology–where it says knowledge comes from. Traditional theism (and I’m thinking here, as elsewhere, of the Abrahamic religions) is based, if it is based on anything, on the assumption that God gives us knowledge. Whether it’s through the Bible or the Koran, through a certain tradition, through mystical inspiration, or whatever. The fundamental point is that God reveals truth to us.

Most empirically-minded folk have realized that religion cannot give us scientific truth about the world. The cosmology and biology of the Bible, for instance, are false. Only fundamentalists and other strong conservatives deny this. Nevertheless, religious moderates and liberals insist on viewing religion as a vehicle for ‘special revelation’ of moral truth. While the Bible can’t tell us about DNA, they say, it can tell us about who we are and how to live.

Exhibit A: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has repeatedly given voice to the widespread Christian belief that it is God who gives us our rights (see here).

This contrasts sharply with the humanist view that morality is a system of norms negotiated in realtime by social animals with a wide variety of internally and interpersonally conflicting desires, values, and so on. On the humanist picture, it’s just us. We’re mucking about as best we can, coming up with ideas, rules, or whatever, that minimize violence, discomfort, humiliation, and other things we don’t like, so that most social interaction can be a positive sum game (as opposed to a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss, or a negative-sum game where everybody loses). We’ve come a long way, but we’ve also got a long way to go. And the way we make progress (again, on the humanist view) isn’t by consulting a divine list of dos and don’ts, nor is it by consulting with mediums, with the ‘Holy Spirit’, or with some ‘holy’ book or other. We make progress by becoming better listeners and by engaging in actual conversations with people who are harmed by our current social arrangements and then taking those insights and using them to write our best selves into laws, customs, and culture. It’s hard work, and there’s honest debate about how accommodating it’s realistic to be, but that’s the stuff of real life.

Religion comes in–and it’s religion of all stripes, mind you–and says “God says” or “the Holy Spirit says” or “the Koran says” or whatever. And sure, it’s nice when “God says” to legalize gay marriage, or “the Koran allows” women to vote/drive/etc. But just because alleged divine revelation coincides with our best and most humane insights doesn’t mean the claim about divine revelation is any less problematic!

Perhaps a sensible person might say: “but what about religion viewed not as a receptacle of truths, but as a way of life?”

And I’ll be honest–that sounds great! Imagine if Christianity weren’t about believing the right things, but about living in certain ways–living the Golden Rule, caring for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, living simply and nonviolently… that would be great! And there are versions of Christianity that incorporate those insights. I’m told there are versions of Buddhism that aren’t about anything other than self-examination and self-knowledge (coupled with the claim that, the closer you get to know your ‘self’, the more you realize that everything you thought was you turns out not to be). So surely, religion can be a lifepath, rather than a dogmatic system.

But now it’s your turn to be honest. How many practitioners or theologians do you know who say: “our religious tradition has some insight into living–take it or leave it”? The Mennonite theologian Gordon D. Kaufman ended up saying something like that (viewing ‘God’ as the impersonal force[s] of creativity at work in the world, Jesus as an unusual ‘creative’ person, and Christians as those who found themselves drawn to Jesus for whatever reason), and most religious people thought of him as an arch-heretic. Why? Because his ‘religious’ views were fully compatible with naturalistic, atheistic humanism. Instead of replacing (partially or completely) a scientific worldview, Christian insight into living, according to Kaufman, could complement it. So Kaufman gave epistemological priority to science, rejecting everything in the Christian tradition that was incompatible with it. If all, most, or even just some religious folk thought of religion that way, I’d totally be on board. But guess what? It turns out that religious folk insist on coupling their particular tradition’s insights with additional claims, like “and everybody else got it wrong (or less right)”, “this information was revealed to us by God”, and so on. And that just reintroduces the epistemological problems all over again.

So for me it all boils down to this: where does knowledge come from? As an empiricist and a pragmatist, I say: from experience, properly scrutinized, and checked against the experience of others. This means that knowledge about the world comes from running experiments on the world with good hypotheses and a methodology that incorporates the hard-earned lessons of the history of science. It means that knowledge about how to live comes from living and talking about living with a wide variety of people (and when I say talking to people, I should note that reading about the experiences of others can be one way of coming very close to this where it’s not feasible to host a live conversation). And that’s pretty much it. I’m not aware of any other reliable sources of knowledge.

To recap: my unqualified judgment that religion is bad, unhelpful, or whatever–that it needs to be outgrown–is grounded in my observation that traditional religion has an untenable epistemology. Traditional religion views knowledge (or at least some forms of knowledge) as coming from God. This has the distinct disadvantage of making it unclear how to check that knowledge against reality, and how to correct it if it starts to be apparent that what we thought was true isn’t. Humanism doesn’t fix all our knowledge problems–we still have to do the hard work of experimenting (with our world, with our social structures), but at least it avoids the kind of epistemic dead end religion celebrates.