What would it take for you to believe? It’s an interesting question to put to any atheist, and often the answer can come as quite a surprise…to them. Given that you are aware of the arguments for God’s existence and find them to be un-compelling, which of any of the standard religious experiences would manage to make a believer out of you? A voice from the heavens? “I would probably dismiss that as some sort of audible illusion. Probably thunder, or an airplane, that I’m mishearing and falsely interpreting as a voice.” A direct appearance, before your very eyes, of an angel, or even of God Himself? “Likewise, I’d think I was hallucinating. I’d probably ask myself what I’d eaten that day! Or who had spiked my drink!” What if the apparition came back day after day, and you knew there was no extraneous cause? “Then I’d think that I had gone mad.” Really, the answer is that for many atheists there is simply nothing that they could experience that could convert them from their position. And then they are surprised when they meet the exact same attitude in their theistic opponents!
So, considering this, a sentence caught my eye recently in the abstract for an article on ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ that I happened to stumble across; in talking about the contemporary debate between theists and atheists, “The challenge [for the militant modern atheist] is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.” This is followed by, “Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today.” The author is sensibly responding to the deficiencies of the particular variety of ‘militant modern atheism’, and is pointing out that they need to offer a little more, by way of an incentive to the believer that they wish to persuade to their position, than merely an almost aesthetic appreciation of the wonders of science. People need more, especially if they are not naturally inclined to see the world in the way that Dawkins does. People need religion, some might claim, or at the very least a functional stand-in for it. And yet, as I was browsing the Philosopher’s Eye, I also noticed the title of another article featured in the latest issue of the Philosophy Compass: “Caring in Confucian Philosophy”
Now, I don’t know a great deal about Confucianism, I have not studied it in any great depth, have no affiliation with it or upbringing within it, and so lay no claims to being an authority on the matter. But as I understand it, Confucianism presents a rather effective model of ‘secular humanism’. So too, I believe, can certain strands of Buddhism stand to be interpreted as similarly effective models of ‘secular humanism’, models that would appear to satisfy the previous author’s call to “develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism”. Perhaps this call has already been answered; well-articulated and convincing versions of secular humanism have already been developed, and are alive and well and living to provide satisfaction to millions of people.
The question, then, is not how to develop versions of secular humanism, but why those versions that already exist fail to be quite as convincing as they deserve to be. They are convincing enough for millions, why are they not convincing enough for billions? The challenge is not to come up with new versions in the hope that they will be convincing, but to assess what these versions are lacking in comparison to their theistic counterparts. The challenge, really, is to find out what it would take for a theist to believe in a version of secular humanism…has anyone asked?
Ann A. Pang-White