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.

Women and babies

I’ve been working through a body of feminist work in ethics for my dissertation that goes by the label of “care ethics”. It’s a subfield of study that got jumpstarted in the early 1980s, when the American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a damning critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on human moral development in her book In a Different Voice. Work on “care” in subsequent decades took the notion in two very different ways. According to Gilligan, and to philosophers like Nel Noddings, “care” is primarily a psychological orientation. It’s a disposition to be responsive to others, to care about them, to think about social life relationally, etc. And, very importantly, it’s allegedly something women are better at than men. According to other philosophers (Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Margaret Walker, and many other feminists), care should be thought of as work, as something people (of whatever gender) do. Whether you frame things in terms of psychological care or in terms of practical care makes a big difference, it turns out.

One of the reasons feminists prefer the practical conception of care over the psychological conception of care, as far as I can tell, is that the psychological conception of care seems like a recycled version of the claim that women are more “naturally” suited for tasks like childcare and so forth. They’ve been wary of that claim at least since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (which documented the dissatisfaction of white, middle-class housewives with their dull, mind-numbing and “care”-filled lives).

One of the (many) things I do in my dissertation is look at the debate in care ethics over how to think about care. And so I’ve tried to reconstruct the argument for focusing on practical care (how care as work is distributed in our societies) rather than psychological care by assuming that women are more caring than men, and seeing what follows from that.

The argument runs as follows.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

(2) here justifies the femininity of care work in our world. But clearly, the argument as it stands is invalid. We seem to be missing at least one premise. Something like:

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

By “work” I mean simply to include the work entailed by a practical conception of care. The argument thus becomes:

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

This new iteration of the argument from a psychological conception of care to a justification of the femininity of care work is still incomplete however. It assumes a straightforward connection between a person’s psychological orientation and that person’s ability to perform a task (well). We must consequently interpose yet another intermediate premise.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1a) Psychological care consistently drives effective practical care.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

On this iteration, the argument is valid, as best I can see. Is it sound?

Given that I have granted the truth of (1) for the sake of the argument, the soundness of the argument hangs on the truth of (1a) and (1b). Very briefly, I am skeptical that psychological care consistently drives effective practical care. Psychological care may well be a factor in driving effective practical care. It might move a person to try harder to care practically than someone less so motivated, for example. But other factors might be equally or more important in the effectiveness of practical care (effort, or experience, for example). Be that as it may, (1b) is more problematic than (1a), and its dependence on (1a) makes it more problematic still. Even if we grant that women are more “caring” than men, and that this psychological disposition makes them more effective practical carers, there may be a variety of reasons for distributing care work more widely. For instance, the presumption of women’s sole or primary responsibility for care work might prevent the achievement of other goods (as Friedan argued). The lives of men might be enriched by a greater responsibility for care work (as social workers and social theorists have long argued). The lives of women might be enriched by less responsibility for care work. There is no reason to suppose that men are incapable of caring in the practical sense (such a claim would be plainly false [full disclosure: I’m a stay-at-home dad]). And many women express a desire for greater male involvement in care work. These are all good reasons, on my view, for resisting the inference from (1) to (2).

Whether women are “naturally” more caring or not, they are certainly more than just that. And men are not “naturally” uncaring. Feminists have concluded that the distribution of care work is something to be discussed, to be negotiated, to be adjusted, according to the needs and desires of both women and men. Logically speaking then, the psychological conception of care functions to bolster patriarchal distributions of care work only in conjunction with further, problematic, premises.

Of course, the psychological conception of care, in its association with women, is problematic to say the least. Complex human behaviors cannot generally be traced straight back to biology without reference to culture (perhaps with some exceptions). I’m an evolutionist, so of course I think it’s possible that human males and females have certain characteristic cognitive differences. But I also know that one of our evolved traits is an amazing cognitive flexibility, which accounts for the possibility of wide cultural divergences. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no precisely formulated and cross-culturally replicated analysis of care that conclusively shows that human females are more caring than human males by biological nature; although I grant as a matter of course that women in Western culture (and many other contemporary cultures, no doubt) are taught to be more “caring” than men. But then I also see feminism as a movement to rectify the gender imbalance in that cultural lesson.

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?

Nationalism and humanism

To be a humanist, as I understand it, is to be concerned with the well-being of all human beings (at the very least–all sentient beings at the most). As a humanist therefore, I’m no fan of patriotism. I understand that patriotism can be ironic in a way–not unlike the team spirit of some sports fans who, in their more detached moments, view their allegiance to this or that team as grounded in ultimately contingent facts. But patriotism often has not been ironic in this way. And, I want to suggest, ironic patriotism isn’t really patriotism. Ask any true patriot.

So tomorrow being the Fourth of July, I’m looking forward to time off work (mostly for my partner, who has a ‘real’ job). I’m looking forward to time with family. If we catch fireworks, that’ll be nice too (actually, I think they’re tonight). But I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the nationalistic fervor that often accompanies this holiday. And I submit that people with humanist leanings should always accompany their whole-hearted celebration of life, family, food, and even national history, with a wary sense of the way in which patriotic mythology functions to hide from us the ugly truths of this nation’s past and present.

So happy Fourth of July! And remember, you’re not a unique and precious snowflake. And your country is mediocre at best. And yet, may both you and your country improve.

And yes, that includes me too.

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?

Meritocracy with decency

A lot of the huffing and puffing from the political right in the U.S. these days has to do with the idea that a progressive income tax “punishes success”. And I suppose I understand why someone might look at it that way. But the rhetoric is way overblown.

Most liberals, myself included, think that what makes sense for the U.S., at this juncture in history, is meritocracy with decency. What is a meritocracy? A meritocracy is a system in which people who work harder are given more. Work twice as hard? Make twice as much money. It’s not a bad idea. A meritocratic system is different from a completely egalitarian system in which some income (say) is guaranteed regardless of how much or little one works. From a meritocratic point of view, the radical egalitarian system disincentivizes effort and success. Why work twice as hard if you aren’t going to get twice as much?

There’s plenty to say about all of this. The first thing that comes to mind is that, for some at least, rewarding work is its own reward. Money, from this perspective, is an external good. People who are really driven by their passion don’t work for external goods–they work for internal goods: the rewards that are intrinsic to whatever it is they happen to be good at.

But forget about that. It seems to me you can keep the basic insight of the meritocratic system (that there should be some way of recognizing the differences in effort and talent between people) without significant harm. The question we need to ask is not whether or not meritocracy is desirable. Let us assume it is. The question we (here, now) should be asking is, is our current economic and social system a meritocracy?

Plainly, it is not. I’m too lazy to troll the internet for precise statistics, but I know that, however hard most CEOs work, it does not justify the pay differential between them and their lowest paid workers. In fact, low paid workers are frequently very hard workers. But their hard work is radically undervalued in our economy. The work of certain others, on the flip side, is radically overvalued. Let’s go hardcore meritocratic and assume some people are ONE HUNDRED times more productive than others. Fine. Let them be paid one hundred times more than the others. But that is not the system we have right now. The system we have right now is a system in which certain individuals, simply in virtue of good luck, good connections, and an ability to work the system, make TENS OF THOUSANDS of times more than hardworking people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

What we have is not a meritocracy. A meritocracy would be huge leap forward. And if we kept the income gap between hardworking, productive, and intelligent people, and lazy, unproductive, stupid people, at a reasonable size… we’d have plenty left over to make sure our meritocracy was decent. So that even the lazy, stupid people didn’t have to starve, or get sick and die.

A meritocracy with decency. Shouldn’t we be able to get on the same page about the desirability of that kind of system?

In our political climate, I suppose, probably not.

Thoughts on Good Friday

Today is “Good Friday”–the day Christians all over the world remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m an atheist, as you may know. So I have no interest in the metaphysical stories told about Jesus. But I do have an interest in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The notion of the “historical” Jesus is fraught with difficulty, and I know that. But I think those who argue that Jesus never existed (so-called “mythicists”) are on shaky historical ground. The simplest explanation for the data we have is that there was a historical Jesus, and that the stories told about him got blown out of proportion for very understandable, human reasons.

Jesus was not unique. He has come to be seen as unique for a variety of reasons, but the basic trajectory of his life is one that shows up in memorable characters throughout the cultures of the world and of history. I’m a philosopher, for instance, and we philosophers trace philosophy back to one Socrates–a man executed by the state for his alleged atheism (he dared to question the stories told about the gods) and for being, basically, ‘uppity’ (shaming statesmen and other important people by revealing their supposed ‘expertise’ to be mere pretense). In a different religious context, Socrates might’ve been Jesus.

But he wasn’t. Jesus was Jesus. And Jesus of Nazareth was uppity. He railed against the religious and economic authorities of his day. His message was that God didn’t need the centralized Temple system to interact with his people (we might say he was a religious democratizer). His message was that God was against the religious elites, and on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden. He was murdered by the state for inciting class resentment, for hosting an unauthorized protest in the Temple (the religious and economic heart of Jerusalem), and for blasphemy (he claimed to speak for God).

That is what the crucifixion was about. Another revolutionary murdered by the state because he challenged the oppressive status quo. Yes, it was in a religious context, and yes he appealed to his religious traditions (specifically, the prophets) to make his case. But that’s the fundamental picture.

So what are Christians the world over doing? Most of them (with a few exceptions) are feeling sad that their naughtiness (“sin”) ‘required’ (for some reason) divine suicide. That’s it. It’s a pity party. So they’ll congregate and go on and on about how awful they are–try to feel really really guilty about… whatever. The vast majority of them will never connect the dots. They’ll never see that Jesus of Nazareth was anti-authoritarian. They’ll never realize he would have organized Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring. They’ll never imagine that he would have blown up (empty) bank buildings like Tyler Durdin in Fight Club. That he would have been a striker, a Marxist, and a “divider.”

But the only way you can not realize those things is if you’re more preoccupied with your religion than with economic justice; if you’re more preoccupied with genuflecting before tradition than with questioning it; if you’re more preoccupied with your own goddamn “soul” than with the shitty lives forced upon the global poor and the local poor by our societal striving for profit.

So forget Good Friday. Unless what you’re remembering isn’t that Jesus died for your sins so you could go to heaven, but that Jesus died because he had a clearer moral vision and a stronger political will than most of us today.

What is economic justice?

I should begin by saying that I don’t think that “justice” is something out there, beyond humanity, waiting to be finally grasped and comprehended. Justice, on my view, is just the situation that obtains when everyone’s happy with how the social order is structured (more or less). The devil’s in the details, I know, but the basic point is that economic systems, like governments, like morality, and so on, exist to serve human beings. And they should be evaluated according to how well they do that job. I take it this is fundamentally a humanist perspective.

So to talk about economic justice, we need to talk about different approaches to structuring our economies. I should note, incidentally, that the economy is invariably tied to the legal order, and also has consequences for the values expressed in the culture. It’s all tangled, if you will, so any focus on one piece of the puzzle has a tendency to mask the other pieces. But hopefully you can see how it all hangs together.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to economic justice. Let’s call them (1) the proceduralist approach, and (2) the consequentialist approach. The proceduralist approach views an economic order as just if the procedures by which goods are allocated meet certain standards. The consequentialist approach views an economic order as just if the social order produced by that economic order meets certain standards.

Contemporary free-market advocates tend to be proceduralists. That is, they think that what matters for justice is the freedom of economic agents to choose how to spend their money and their time. As long as contracts are entered into freely (that is, without coercion or compulsion), and as long as goods are exchanged freely, the demands of justice have been satisfied. They get quite sophisticated and fancy in fleshing this basic idea out, but I take it that’s the gist of it. If at the end of the day some people end up with lots of wealth and others end up with very little, the proceduralist has nothing to say about the matter as long as everyone played by the rules. If people work at my factory and make me super rich, they can’t complain about my wealth and their (relative) poverty because I haven’t stolen anything from them, and no one forced them to work at my factory. They can quit any time. If they want to be as wealthy as me, they should open their own factory.

The consequentialist is not necessarily an anti-proceduralist. What the consequentialist thinks is that the proceduralist’s notion of “freedom” (and of human agency in general) is abstract and underspecified. If, for instance, the small businesses of a given town are put out of business by the arrival of some big box mega store, is it really fair to say that workers are “free” to work or not work at the big box store? Is it fair to say that shoppers are “free” to shop or not shop at the big box store? Surely, the proceduralist will say, shoppers are free to shop or not shop at the big box store. If they hadn’t wanted to shop at the big box store, it could never have put the local small businesses out of business! Notice however that this reply assumes shoppers are perfectly rational and perfectly informed. The fact of the matter, however, is that we are rarely perfectly rational and perfectly informed. Quite the contrary.

Consider Sue the smoker. Sue is an intelligent human being who picked up an unhealthy habit in college (say). She wants to smoke, but is having trouble quitting. The proceduralist might tell us that, since Sue has in fact continued to smoke, she really wants to smoke. But most of us would be uncomfortable saying this without qualification. Sometimes we don’t always do what we want to do. One of the ways Sue might help herself quit is by recruiting some help, either in the form of nicotine patches, an accountability partner and co-quitter, or perhaps something else. One way to make behavioral change is to publicize one’s intention to make that change, and then lean on the resulting social pressure to conform to one’s stated intentions. So Sue could start a blog about quitting smoking. Or tell her Facebook friends she intends to quit. Or ask somebody to call her first thing in the morning when she usually has her first cigarette. Whatever. The point is just that all of these things are manifestations of Sue’s desire to quit.

So also, I submit, governmental regulation, unionization, and other collective exercises of agency can be (though I concede that they are not always) one way of writing our best selves–our truest and best desires–into law. Maybe we find it hard not to shop at Target, or Walmart, or whatever, but in our more reflective moments we realize the harm caused by such corporations (depressed wages, outcompeted local businesses, environmental impact, etc.). We might as a result work against such corporations, by refusing to shop there, by encouraging workers to unionize, by voting not to allow their stores at the city council, etc., etc., etc.

The consequentialist cares about the kind of world produced by an economic system and is therefore willing to tinker with the law to protect important interests, incentivize certain activities and disincentivize others, and so on. We try a certain set of laws, see how they work–if the lives they lead to are truly worth living–and then we adjust accordingly. Proceduralists are wary of this tinkering mindset, and tend to fall back on their intuitions about what “freedom” is, and so on. But this is an insufficiently empirical mindset. If we care about the quality of the lives we lead, we need to take certain risks. Most importantly, if something isn’t working (exhibit A: the U.S. economic system), we need to actively try and fix it, by whatever means necessary.

Just a thought.

Democracy and atheism: two peas in a pod

The problem with traditional religion, on my view, is its epistemology. (As I’ve said before, here, here, and here.)

The legitimacy of a claim comes not from its being grounded in Scripture, the will of God, or whatever, but from being grounded in experience. Of course, what it means for a claim to be ‘grounded in experience’ is a matter of some debate. But debates about what counts as expertise in what field shouldn’t obscure the fundamental fact that traditional theism has been discredited, and with it, any claim to authority over any area of life. Knowledge about how the world works beyond the sphere of human existence can be gained only by running careful experiments on that world, over and over again, and scrutinizing the results from every imaginable angle. That’s what the physical sciences aspire to do. And knowledge about how to live life can be gained only through experiments in living. The results of these experiments are compiled in the various human sciences, and in the writings of reflective individuals from all walks of life, the world over.

This empiricist epistemology, in my opinion, has radical political implications. Think of how natural it is for a hierarchical religion predicated on ‘special revelation’ from God to (some) humans to fit into a hierarchical political structure. The position of the people at the top, in such a system, is a function of their closeness to God. If you have a special line to God and others don’t, after all, why not use it to run the world? And if you already are running the world, what better way to justify it than by claiming God’s seal of approval?

But if you reject special revelation, you reject with it the idea that religious people have some sort of special insight into how to create good or just laws. It turns out they’re just people too. As far as I can tell then, atheism fits hand in hand with some kind of democratic ideal. This isn’t to say that everyone is equally intelligent, or has the same insight into life or economics, or whatever. But it is to say that no one has any occult knowledge handed down to them from God. That doesn’t level the field completely. But if you’re coming from a theocracy, it goes a long way in that direction.

More to the point, it empowers ordinary citizens to demand justification for whatever laws get passed. Lawmakers can’t hide behind an aura of ontological superiority, or behind their ‘God said so’s.

There are, I will readily concede, many other ways in which lawmakers can maintain unfair and unequal power structures without appealing to God. But taking God off the table has the virtue of bringing the justifications of lawmakers into the sphere of verifiability and falsifiability. That is all I mean to emphasize.

This is, I think, part of why the U.S. Republican presidential candidates this year have made a big deal about traditional religion. They can’t make the case against gay marriage or against global warming (or against whatever else they’re against) from science or from practical wisdom. And so instead they engage in all sorts of religious posturing, claiming God’s blessing on “traditional” heterosexual marriage, on the Earth (because, you know, God promised Noah he would never flood it again), and so on. And they claim that they’re being persecuted–that there’s a “war on religion”.

Well there is no “war on religion” in the U.S. But I for one think there should be. (When I say “war”, I’m speaking metaphorically, for the record–as in ‘war of ideas’.) The private (‘revealed’) reasons behind conservative religious policies must give way to public reasons, available for all to scrutinize. This is a profoundly atheistic (or, if you prefer, “secular”) perspective. It is also fundamental to achieving our democratic ideals in this multi-faith, multi-cultural world.

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.