Hard Times for Rationality!
We live in a period of rapid technological and social change unparalleled in the history of the world. A significant number of trends, developments, and scientific discoveries have converged to create a situation today that many find confusing, others find threatening, and some even find thrilling.
Whether we're talking about global satellite/network communication, space travel, the information revolution, genetic engineering, new birth technologies, or exciting fossil discoveries -- science and technology are transforming the world's values more dramatically and more completely than organized religion has ever been capable of.
Let me explain:
In the early 1960s, the birth control pill became widely available. This brought increased attention and acceptance to contraception and family planning. It also reduced the pregnancy risk for those wishing to enjoy sex outside marriage and allowed women more control over their own bodies. In short order we saw family size in the developed nations shrink, sexual freedom expand, and the women's rights movement rise to social prominence. Today, majority values about sex outside marriage, age, family size, population control, and the place of women in society are very different from what they were prior to the sixties.
But the revolution isn't over. Today we have the new birth technologies: in vitro fertilization, sperm and egg banks, the ill-fated surrogate parenting, uterus leasing and soon, advance selection of the gender of one's offspring. Such developments force a whole host of new moral and legal dilemmas upon us -- requiring, once again, the development of a changed set of ethical standards. We will think differently tomorrow because of the technologies we assimilate into our culture today.
Biotechnology is another developing area. This includes genetic engineering, patenting of new life forms, cloning, and possibly trans-species hybrids (UK scientists have already asked the Government’s permission to go ahead with practical experiments in this field). With these developments, the features of each life form will become capable of modification. One benefit will be that genetic diseases, normally treated again and again in each generation of an afflicted family, will now be wiped out of the line altogether. Like some communicable diseases, some genetic diseases will be brought to extinction. With nearly the same license that we have manipulated machines in the past, we will soon begin to manipulate organisms. There can be no question that this will have an incalculable impact on our values about life and about the quality of life.
Recent developments in medical technology have already forced a plethora of new ethical issues upon us. In fact, we have come so far that professionals now disagree on when a person comes into existence and when a person actually dies.
How about that, eh?
Does human life begin at conception, at the appearance of brain waves, at birth, or some time after? What we decide affects our views concerning the freezing of embryos, the rights of such embryos, foetal adoption, a mother's prenatal care obligation, the atmosphere in the birthing room, and selective nontreatment of defective newborns.
Does human life end with the death of the heart, the death of the brain, or the loss of "significant life?" What we decide affects our views on hospice, living wills, and euthanasia. It also forces us to decide in the future if it is OK to use comatose individuals as "living" organ banks or, as some scientists advocate, harvest death-row inmates for their body parts. Medical technology is daily changing our values concerning human life.
Global satellite communication has made the world smaller and has increased public interest and involvement in international politics. We can now watch a war, or a democratic revolution, as it happens, and from both sides. And we can see how actions taken in one place affect the environment in some other. The slogan, "Think globally, organize locally" sums up much of the resulting politics. And through video/DVD recording and cable TV, individual choice in information gathering has been enhanced. No longer do people need to get their ethics, their aesthetics, or their politics from a common source. The existence of alternatives and options in almost everything has the potential to limit the influence of mass propaganda and bolster minority movements.
Then there are computers. Through desktop publishing (and blogging!), any computer owner can become a publisher. Home computer modems make possible individual information-gathering on a global scale. In short, private and individual choice is also enhanced through the computer, as much as is the power of individuals to be intrusive, invade the privacy of others, spread software viruses, phishing and so forth.
Space travel can change our goals. We may, in time, no longer be limited to this globe for our pursuits and interests. Colonies in space will, as have all colonies in human history, bring into existence alternative societies and novel ideas. Different visions of life's purpose will emerge.
Meanwhile, startling fossil discoveries of our evolutionary ancestors are giving us an increasingly clearer view of who we are and what we are about. The irony is that these discoveries are coming at a time when we are developing the capability, through genetic research, to change the very natures we are just coming to understand...
The conclusion from all this is clear. Technology changes society and changes values. We find ourselves today in the midst of an incredible transformation -- one that is wrecking havoc on our entire culture.
Because so many people cannot deal comfortably with the moral dilemmas raised by the new technologies, one reaction has been a backlash. This backlash is a repeat performance of past reactions to change. In every age where the old ways were uprooted by new technologies, there were those prophets of conservatism who sought to put the genie back into the bottle. During the industrial revolution, for example, orthodox preachers fumed from the pulpit against the new machines.
Congregations were told that God never intended his children to travel as fast as a steam locomotive could take them, and that people were in danger of losing their souls if they sneezed while aboard such a swiftly moving conveyance.
Today, not wishing to echo the cries of the Luddites, modern fundamentalist preachers utilize the new technologies to more effectively cry out against the changes in moral values that these same technologies bring. Few things are more ironic than listening to a preacher, broadcasting over satellite, condemning the rise of globalism -- or pontificating on cable TV or the Internet, as he complains about people making too many individualistic choices and "doing their own thing."
And these profound Bible bashers have given the new values a name. They call them Secular Humanist Values and they blame them on the atheists or the secular sector of humanity...
In the rush of history, if the past is any indication, these reactionaries will fail. The world will change, and they will either change with it (proclaiming that these changes had been advocated by them all along), or they will resist the changes and become entrenched in their own ways, living in their own communities, much like the American Amish do today.
And given that these changes have been proclaimed by them to be Humanism, Humanism will triumph. In fact this new century should really be the humanistic century. Certainly some of the values that naturally derive from certain new technologies are humanistic. Among those that I have mentioned or hinted at are: free inquiry, free choice among alternatives, individual liberties, increased opportunities for self-realization, a breaking down of mass propaganda and dogma, laws and ethics that take into consideration situations and circumstances, open-minded attitudes on human sexuality, global thinking, participatory democracy, and a greater appreciation for the power of the scientific method.
For these reasons, one should maitain an optimistic view of technology, as with using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life- span, significantly modify our behaviour, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.
The future is, however, filled with dangers. In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, overpopulation, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and biochemical disaster.
In short, there is no guarantee that a humanistic USE of these new technologies will prevail. That's up to us, and we have a tremendous job ahead. We have no time to wonder if Humanism and free thought will survive. It is our job to make sure that they survive, lest there be no future at all.
And that brings me to the specific challenges us free thinkers face right now, in the 21st century. With the end of the Cold War, as democratic change swept the globe, the ironic effect so far has been an incredible growth in religiosity, fanatism and irrationality. Let me share with you a few examples.
- Christianity Today magazine has dubbed the former Soviet Union "the most open mission field in the world," as evangelists and missionaries descend from the West to hold mass rallies and distribute staggering numbers of bibles and tracts. In this light, it's no surprise that the first ministry legally registered in Russia since the fall of Communism was Campus Crusade for Christ.
- But evangelicals aren't the only ones grabbing a market share of the old "Evil Empire." Mormon missionaries are at work there. The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon offered to fund a bolstering of the economy in return for special privileges. Full colour Hari Krishna posters now appear in Moscow's subways while devotees distribute "blessed" food. And Moscow has become home to five national UFO study groups, four astrology organizations, and the Russian Theosophical society.
- Jehovah's Witnesses reported 18,293 converts in Eastern Europe in a single year. Over 12,000 Armenians have been trained in Transcendental Meditation. Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy, Hawaiian Huna magic, Sikhism, Baha'i Faith, and Rastafarianism are growing in Poland. The Children of God have set up shop in Bulgaria, and Zoroastrianism is growing in Hungary.
- Despite the fact that most Czechs do not want their rejection of Communist tyranny to become an open door to religious dogma, all 2.3 million school-age children in former Czechoslovakia got The Book of Life, a retelling of the story of Jesus ending with a call to faith. This government-approved public school distribution was a project of the Assemblies of God, the denomination that brought America preachers such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart (I bet you getting real worried now!).
- Also with the Assemblies of God was Frederick Chiluba, the former Zambian president, who declared his country a "Christian nation," much to the chagrin of Muslims and civil libertarians there. The current Zambian president’s wife was a baptized member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, recently disfellowshiped (I wonder what happened there? Too strict?)
The effects of this activity are shown in the Scripture Language Report of the United Bible Societies, which claims that more than 80% of the world's people have access to at least a part of the Bible. You think this is good? No way: this has created the inevitable conflict.
- While Jews for Jesus has been busy converting large numbers of Ukrainian Jews to Christianity, the New York-based Jews for Judaism has been at work for the last few years to "expose and unmask the missionaries," and to train Ukrainian Jewish community leaders in counter evangelism. Clashes between representatives of both groups have taken place.
- Not to be outdone, now-deceased King Fahd of Saudi Arabia took the lead in funding the worldwide promotion of Islam. He ordered 6.2 million copies of the Koran to be printed and distributed in the United States, Europe, China, and elsewhere. Joining him were wealthy Muslims who wanted to help build more mosques and Islamic centres everywhere. Some disastrous consequences were evident in various countries, where fanatism caused dramatic incidents (to call 9/11 dramatic is to understate it).
Even international events have become a target, with extensive distributions of conservative Christian literature by tireless evangelical students, open-air church services by all and sundry, and performed gospel drama and dance in the streets.
And fundamentalist religious promotion continues unabated everywhere.
Have a quick look at America --- Recent surveys in the United States (still the most technologically advanced nation in the world) indicate that American students continue to score near the bottom of the heap in science, and that 47% of Americans in general reject evolution and believe in creationism! Canyabelievethat?
According to Emerging Trends, 95% of American teenagers believe in a god or universal spirit. Of those 16 and older, 32% say they have experienced God's presence. Teenagers who pray when they are by themselves number 75%; who read the Bible when they are by themselves, 44%.
Yet, contrary to religious expectations, the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of the young is at its lowest ebb in 30 years. Science magazine recently noted a "fall in test scores, the doubling of teenage suicide and homicide rates, and the doubling of births to unwed mothers."
There’s gotta be a rational alternative. We must provide one!
And it's not just traditional religious fundamentalism that deserves our attention. This new century won't be rendered a humanistic century merely because it isn't a fundamentalist century. Humanism is not the name for what you get when you don't have a dominant fundamentalism. There are many things that are neither fundamentalism nor humanism, such as mysticism and the New Age movement. With the assimilation of the new technologies, it could be these ideas that dominate instead of more rational ones. The Age of Reason, for instance?
Fashionable religions and therapies, in one way or another, play on the excitement of changing times to offer ever more outlandish concepts. Whether we're dealing with the pseudo-technologies of pyramid power, psychic surgery, or channelling; or the self-help strategies of meditation, aural reading, or Scientology processing, phenomena generically labelled "New Age" have affected the thinking of millions.
Again, this is nothing new. During the period of major transformation at the dawn of the Middle Ages, a mass of new religions sprung up to capture the public imagination. The same thing happened again during the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Exciting times bring exciting ideas -- and anxiety. And fast on the heels of anxiety are new therapies promising a cure. That's why we have a New Age movement in today's "age of anxiety."
But it isn't enough just to know this. It isn't enough to merely understand why such things happen, to say to yourself: "Holy mackeroly, that's too bad, I guess people really go nuts during changing times. It's a good thing I still have my wits about ME!"
What is needed is action. Humanism and rationality should thrive during changing times. The humanist alternative to traditional belief should be vigorously promoted in a way that answers the nagging questions in the minds of the people.
Consider the rapid and surprising growth of the New Age in the 90s. Contrary to the way many humanists think, the New Age is not merely some new superstition to replace the old. Though it certainly has its share of nonsense and foolishness, it also has some important parallels with Humanism and free thought. Let me list a few ideas that are commonly shared:
- 1. Rejection of the notion of a jealous and punishing god.
2. Rejection of the dogmatism of fundamentalist Christianity.
3. Rejection of religious angst and feelings of guilt.
4. Strong belief in the power and significance of human beings.
5. Acceptance of a concept of human evolution.
6. Interest in mental self-development.
7. Recognition of the joys in the here and now, particularly in relation to food and sex [e.g., check the OSHO sections on this blog].
8. Support for global and ecological thinking.
9. Flexible and excited interest in new ideas.
I could add more, but this will provide an adequate sampling to demonstrate that a significant percentage of “Westerners” is ripe for a number of the ideas humanists have been advancing for years. Many followers of the New Age turn to it not because they are inclined toward superstition, but because the New Age is the only show in town.
This, then points up the problem: the reason why most of those initially attracted to the New Age haven't found a better home in Humanism or free, rational thought.
In part, it's the absence of an effective publicity campaign by “Humanists” and free thinkers. But those who somehow do manage to stumble upon a Humanist, Freethought, or Atheist organization, often find themselves either in a den of anti-religious nay-sayers, or in a loosely organized and ill-defined political caucus. There is rarely much offered for the serious seeker of happiness and the good life.
As a result, the word "Humanism" more often conjures up in the public mind images of windy Manifestos, Bible bashing, and intellectuals lecturing endlessly about reason, science, and civil liberties. While Humanism indeed involves all of these things, it's also a philosophy of joy, personal fulfilment, and emotional liberation. It's a philosophy that can bring peace of mind and self-mastery.
But heaven forbid that we should ever tell anybody!
Is it our classified secret? Do we prefer to engage in purely intellectual discussion, to prove, for the umpteenth time, that mind-body dualism is a myth? [check the KINKAZZO BURNING blog on this, especially Do You MIND?" and Hey, Death Is Not The End!]
Yet, after we've proved it, do we do much with the information? Do we now more fully enjoy and celebrate our bodies? Our feelings? Our senses? Do we live our values like the New Agers do?
The reason the New Age promoters, the growing Yuppie mega-churches, and even the evangelicals have been able to benefit from changing times while we haven't is because we have too often looked down upon efforts to make our philosophy personally relevant and emotionally satisfying.
I think the time has come to get serious about applying Humanism and free thought to the basic needs of people: to healing the hurts, sharing the joys, and expanding the horizons.
This new century will be the humanistic century only if we change our ways, open up, and reach out to others. And our outreach must appeal to them not only intellectually, but also emotionally, aesthetically, sentimentally, and even physically.
It is entirely consistent with modern Rationalism to teach the good life as envisioned by Bertrand Russell, a life motivated by love and guided by knowledge, a life of reason and compassion.
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.
A zest for living, following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.
Let’s promote this sort of joyful living! C’mon, get your finger out!!
There are so many areas of life where an applied Humanism could make a real difference. And in doing so, it could begin to supplant the powerful influence of the New Age or any similar movement. It could begin to do for people what the New Age only promised to do.
Our guilt cultures and shame cultures must end.
We need a philosophy of liberation that can act as a counter to such Western tendencies. We need to find inner freedom.
You see, we needn't define our philosophy exclusively in abstract and intellectual terms. It can be an emotional thing as well. And, what's more, one shouldn't have to be an intellectual to be one of us, humanists.
Let me repeat that: One shouldn't have to be an intellectual to be one of us.
It is perfectly legitimate for humanists and free thinkers to promote a programme that would appeal to people of fewer intellectual interests. What would be wrong with a more emotional Humanism?
There are millions of people who are Atheists and Agnostics but who aren't intellectuals -- people who have liberal attitudes, but want some excitement, some emotion, some (dare I say it?) religious adventure.
And that's what the New Age offers, even now, in the 21st century -- religious adventure for people of tolerance.
Just think of the fun and exciting things New Agers get to do...
First, they get to go on a great journey of self-exploration.
Second, they get to make thrilling discoveries that can increase their happiness -- sort of like going on a treasure hunt through inner space.
Third, they get to participate in invigorating ceremonies and unifying rituals.
In short, for the New Ager, philosophy is fun!
Well, I think Humanism and free, rational thought can be fun, too. I think there are humanistic voyages of self-discovery. And I think there can be non-ritualistic ceremonies that express our ideals and principles.
I'm not saying this particular approach is for everyone -- anymore than a purely intellectual philosophy is for everyone. All I'm saying is that the humanistic movement can become broader without abandoning its principles. It can appeal to the non-intellectual or non-political individual without sacrificing any of its intellectually-discovered conclusions, or giving up its present intellectual activities.
So I say, yes, there can be a popular Humanism; a Humanism that reaches out to people where they are; a self-help Humanism; a Humanism that is fun, is exciting, is full of adventure and self-discovery -- and which doesn't require a Ph.D. or membership in Mensa.
If you think such an approach will get nowhere, consider this thought:
What if Christianity had only appealed to intellectuals? Would it be the world's most popular religion today? Or would it survive only in learned enclaves, easily overpowered by the far more popular forces worshipping the one and only crucified saviour, the dead and risen Adonis.
The Roman Catholic Church appealed to both intellectuals and more ordinary people. That is part of the secret of its success. The New Age is increasingly attempting the same. Our world view rests on firmer ground than either. All it lacks is popular support. But that popular support is there for the asking. All we need to do is apply our philosophy to the meeting of ordinary human needs. All we need to do is speak in ordinary language with an affirmative Rationalism.
And then we need to promote ourselves like crazy. Yes, promote ourselves! This is something else we don't like to talk about, yet it is vital if Humanism and Free Thought are to grow. I'm referring to marketing, something that is often viewed as a dirty word in humanist circles.
You see, to many of us, Humanism isn't supposed to prosper -- lest it cease to be truly Humanism. This is the failure mentality, the death-wish brought on by an unrealistic level of idealism that equates popularity with impurity. Fundamentalists don't suffer from this particular delusion. They market their religion like profit organizations market consumer products. This accounts for their incredible success all over the world, and all out of proportion to the truth value of their claims.
If Humanism and Free Thought are to have a place in the future, they will have to shed their fear of marketing and begin to directly and forthrightly advance their ideas in the world.
It's time to spread the "good news" about our way of life.
The changing world of modern technology is creating ethical issues that are breaking down the old consensus on values. A void has been created. This is our opening. This is our opportunity. The trends are in our favour if we will but seize the moment, ride the wave, and deliberately propel ourselves and our ideas into the future.
So, let's begin to think of the 21st century as our century, and the century of our children and grandchildren. Let's let humanistic values be our legacy to the future. Let's make them relevant to the daily lives of people. Let's make them fun. And let's promote them with all the vigour of our conviction.
We have nothing to lose but our minority status.
Be rational. Be human!