Faithful and Free
4 - Alternative beliefs
Our own belief, we have acknowledged, is just one among many possibilities. It will be confirmed for us only if we have fairly considered some of the other options. That does not require us to prove everything else false, although error needs to be recognized for what it is. An attitude of openness is more to the point, with a readiness to recognize common ground, to accept new insights, and to discover our own errors. There is always more to learn.
Our next step will be to look at two popular alternative styles of belief about the-way-the-world-is. Sometimes these alternative beliefs are consciously and carefully worked out. Sometimes they are held unconsciously. We do not mean to suggest that in all forms they are incompatible with our own belief. But sometimes they imply a denial of what we recognize as truth, and then we have to stand up for ourselves.
The explosion of knowledge in the modern period means that no one can achieve a comprehensive understanding of more than a small fraction of what science knows. Scientists are inevitably specialists and, in areas beyond their own speciality, at best interested amateurs. Many workers in biological fields imagine themselves to be banishing transcendence by giving a physical explanation of all life processes. What they do not seem to have noticed is that physicists have lost enthusiasm for the claim that ultimate reality is material.
We find the term 'scientism' convenient to describe an approach that looks to science for a complete understanding of reality. It is typical of scientism that it picks up a theme from some branch of science - often from evolutionary science - and uses it as a universal explanation for the way humanity functions and develops. It may be claimed that the dynamic forces in human society all express the struggle for 'the survival of the fittest'. Or it may be argued that evolution follows an ever-rising curve which affirms present human achievement and guarantees the brightest of futures.
Our judgment on scientism in its various forms is negative, in the first place, because scientism is not science, and it claims a lot more than science can justify. It uses the prestige of science to give some unsubstantiated speculation an authority it does not deserve. Our second objection to scientism is that it is 'reductionist', cramping the richness of human experience within the confines of a narrow theory. It has an impoverished appreciation of human values. It is unable to do justice to all that it means to be human.
As a possible answer to the question about ultimate reality, scientism has a religious character. That is to say, what it offers is not proven knowledge. It is some form of belief that expresses or implies an understanding of ultimate reality. The validity of that understanding needs to be tested alongside alternative beliefs.
It has sometimes been argued that the way human society works can be explained in terms of evolutionary forces, especially in terms of the survival of the fittest. Ultimately (it is suggested) it is competitive self-interest that motivates everybody. Family and social life are based on an implicit 'contract' through which people barter services so as to get the best profit for themselves. Drawing conclusions for human relationships from the field of biological evolution is, of course, false reasoning. To make the idea stick, it would need to be shown directly that selfish competition is the underlying motive of all personal interaction. There is no possibility of proving such a thing. People may believe it if they will, but that is not knowledge.
It is unlikely that you will be attracted to the idea that all affection and love are actually no more than expressions of self-interest, and that the people you most admire in all human history have never managed to do other than serve their own ends.
We have suggested that one way of checking whether a particular belief shares in the truth is to see what creative possibilities it opens up. The idea that human nature is only a variation on 'nature red in tooth and claw', and that therefore it is essentially egoistic, is not at all creative. It has been used to justify cruel and callous political and economic systems. It fits ill with the growing concern for ecological issues, and the realization that the most urgent problems require true community solutions. A conception of ultimate reality that justifies selfishness as inevitable certainly does not appeal to us as a good answer to the question that faith asks.
Some people have seen evolution as the story of unstoppable development from lower to higher, 'from gas to genius'. They have drawn the conclusion that the world is, as it were, on an escalator, which will carry it to as yet unimaginable achievement. The future is unknown, but assured.
Again it must be said that the theme of a built-in upward direction in the evolutionary process is faith, not science. Charles Darwin himself explicitly rejected it. Science offers no assurance at all that humanity will not, even in the short term, succeed in making the planet uninhabitable, and thus bring its own history to an end.
Is a belief in the inevitability of progress a satisfactory answer to the faith-question? One difficulty concerns the meaning of 'progress'. While there is life, change and development may be inevitable, but are these the same as progress? The serious negative consequences of western technological advance, in ecological, social, and spiritual terms, cannot be ignored. Moreover, a belief in progress encourages many people to dream rather than to act. It makes them complacent about present wrongs, since they assume that the world system itself will eventually take care of such things.
The truth is that the world has no pre-set direction, either up or down. It will develop largely according to what people and societies decide to do. Hope for the future is no bad thing. But it cannot be based on an 'escalator' interpretation of evolution. It should arise from a belief that makes people commit their own energy to bringing good to pass rather than evil - a belief that is grounded in an understanding of ultimate reality that makes sense of such commitment.
On a cosmic time scale, supposing the world deals successfully with present dangers, the outlook is also gloomy. Billions of years hence, scientists explain, the universe will have 'run down'. It will have reached a chaotic condition in which life will be insupportable. Somewhere along the way this planet will either have reached a temperature near absolute zero or else burned up in the sun. The ultimate extinction of the human race is a certainty. (At this point we are not talking about any misuse of technology, and of course there is no connection with the predictions of the end of the world made by some religious groups.)
For many people pessimism is a much more realistic response than optimism. Their answer to the question faith asks may be that no positive answer can be given. But a vision of the unimaginably distant future should not be allowed to rob the present of all significance. And awareness of immediate dangers, however grave, should be a spur to action rather than an invitation to fatalism. There is little creative potential to a completely pessimistic faith.
In summary, science does not, in itself, even pretend to provide the answer to the faith-question. Scientism borrows the mana of science (and often enough misrepresents science), and thus gives a spurious authority to a number of different possibilities. We do not find any of these options either helpful or convincing.
Humanism is a viewpoint, an answer to the faith-question, that finds ultimate meaning, value, and purpose in humankind. In the form in which we wish to criticize it, it explicitly denies that the human person is answerable to any 'beyond'. It is therefore 'secular humanism'. Its only ultimate authority for thought and action is shared human experience and reason. Such humanism is generally hostile to religion, which it sees as dogmatically and irrationally enforcing external authority.
Our opening discussion of the role of reason in religion greatly softens the impact of this criticism as far as we ourselves are concerned. We are not by intention dogmatic, or opposed to reason, and we do not suppose that this is God's way either. Of course the humanist will want to ask why, if we are as reasonable as all that, we want to hold on to a belief in God at all.
The contrast is in part ethical. Private self-interest is almost universally acknowledged to be a less-than-noble ultimate basis for decision-making. The collective self-interest of humanity - which is as much as secular humanism can imagine - does not altogether escape the criticism that should be directed against all selfishness. Humankind as a whole still needs something other than itself and greater than itself to draw out its potential. In its finitude, it is not sufficient ground or guarantee of the faith presupposed by all human life and cultural endeavour. This can be illustrated in the area of ecological concern. Is discussion of human responsibility for the planet best carried out on the assumption that human interests are paramount? (We are thinking of concern for the integrity of Antarctica, for instance, or for the preservation of the Amazonian rain forest.) Is there not required some reality that stands above humanity, to assign to it its due place, and to require justice between humanity and the rest of creation?
Another aspect concerns the understanding of ultimate reality. Secular humanism has decided that this concept must not be allowed to reach beyond the range of what is human. Theism wants to begin by keeping the possibilities open, trusting the right answer to present itself to human exploration. At best, theism claims to have reached its belief in an experimental way. Perhaps (to be fair) humanism feels that it began on the same basis, and has simply arrived at a different conclusion. But its spokespeople do often give the impression of maintaining a dogmatism not so different from the dogmatism they resent in many presentations of religion.
In spite of the fundamental criticism we have spelled out, we have a great deal of sympathy with many humanist concerns. Humanists do not (necessarily) create a straitjacket for human thought in the way that scientism typically does. They are open to the variety and richness of human culture. They are sensitive to human wrongs and keen to affirm the best in human values.
We are as anxious as humanists that our answer to the faith-question should not detract from human dignity, or undermine human creativity. Humanism generally intends that its approach to the world and life-experience should be experimental - not prejudiced, but open to what is actually to be found there. That is our own intention also.
Humanists may even speak appreciatively of religion as something which historically has helped to create cultural values. Some regard themselves as Christians, and yet stop short of acknowledging God as ultimate reality. We have to part company with them at that point.