Per the usual, William and I filmed another podcast earlier this week, but this one took on a distinctly different feel from the moment we started recording. For the first time, we did not settle on a single topic, but instead briefly explored a large number of interconnected issues relevant to atheism, skepticism, secularism and philosophy. This, in turn, got me thinking about what I would cover in this week’s article, and I similarly could not pinpoint a unique topic I wanted to discuss. In light of this, I wanted to briefly give my thoughts on what I feel is the natural relationship between atheism, human and skepticism – how they reinforce, define, and ultimately serve one another. I have talked elsewhere about how atheism, when properly defined, is an incredibly narrow descriptor. I have also written about the importance of skepticism to atheism and secularism. While I have touched humanism within these contexts, I have never really put down why I think these three concepts should be taken together. Atheism, skepticism, and humanism provide pieces to a philosophical framework that informs a vast number of topics that are critically important to our interactions with the world. I think of these three concepts as a sort of secular Holy Trinity that can ultimately help support and bolster secularism in the face of its opponents, which makes it worthwhile to consider how they can positively interact with one another.
Atheism and Skepticism
My personal journey to where I am philosophically was initially informed by skepticism more so than atheism or humanism, though I certainly was not old enough to have put a name to the way that I was approaching the world. I was always an inquisitive kid who was fascinated by science. I loved learning about how the world worked and I have been told that I was more than a little fond of the questions “Why?” and “How?” (to the chagrin of my parents, at times). This curiosity naturally led me to questions for which religion claims to have answers, but I was never convinced that these answers held any particularly important truths. Rather, I relied on non-religious explanations for the way the world is. I did not come to atheism via religion, but instead came to it as the natural consequence of an inquisitive and skeptical outlook on life. Gods simply did not fit into the explanatory framework as I understood it, so I did not go out of my way to make room for them.
I am inclined to think that skepticism is often the precursor to atheism, particularly for those who have accepted a religion as true at some point in their lifetime. The skeptical mindset naturally questions the validity of things, and if one undermines what are supposed to be absolute truths there are bound to be some consequences as few things can withstand the philosophical acid that is the skeptical argument. Those concepts that rely on certain truth are especially vulnerable to its corrosive effects. I do not think, however, that atheism requires skepticism. In a world where religion was not a social or cultural norm, atheism would likely be the default position. Skepticism would then become a sort of immunization to religious belief that would naturally protect a person’s atheism from the religion’s effects.
There is no reason that the two must be taken together, but it does seem that they naturally fit with one another. Religion is one of the few areas where people claim to have access to absolute truth, while skepticism generally precludes the possibility of such truth from the outset. An atheist is someone who is less likely to have the philosophical resources necessary to make pronouncements based on unquestionable truths. The required foundation simply is not there. Given this, it seems likely that a somewhat skeptical outlook is the natural follow-up to atheism, just as skepticism seems to be the natural precursor to many people’s atheism. Whether coming to atheism or simply maintaining it, skepticism is a valuable tool in any person's intellectual arsenal. However, while acknowledging the close relationship the two world views can can, there is nothing within the definition of either that mandates the inclusion of the other. They simply seem to be so accommodating to one another as to make their relationship a naturally occurring one.
This brings us to humanism and its relationship to atheism and skepticism. Humanism is a loosely defined set of principles and philosophies that emphasize the importance of humanity, individually and collectively. Because of this, humanism and atheism are natural bedfellows, in my opinion. Anytime we look down from Heaven (and its mythological denizens), we are confronted with the importance of the people around us. People are prone to dedicating massive amounts of time to their spiritual and religious endeavors, so when those objects of faith are taken away a refocusing on humanity seems like the natural next step. Since humans naturally have an interest in the well-being of one another, and religion seems to be one of the few forces out there capable of supplanting humanity as the greatest object of a person’s concern, a de-convert is likely going to find humanity filling the vacuum left by the departure of the divine.
Once God is no longer the ultimate end of our love and worldly efforts, humanity seems ready made to fill that role. We naturally care about one another and our identities are defined in large part by the people that come into and out of our lives. If our fellow human beings are now at the top of the list of things about which we should care, then humanism is, almost necessarily, a stance we are forced to adopt. To be fair, one could spiral into nihilism in the face of a godless existence, but for those who do not I cannot think of a better place to direct our efforts than our fellow wo/man.
If we accept that humanism is, at least in principle, a worthy stance to take, then I believe that skepticism is the proper framework within which to explore and frame our humanistic endeavors. I say this because, as I noted before, skepticism naturally tempers the impulse towards absolutes with its insistence that we acknowledge that we can always be mistaken about our view of the world. I believe that absolutes are a natural enemy of humanism, because rigid systems (ethical, moral, social, etc.) so often trample over some part of humanity in one way or another. I am also a firm believer that there are very rarely black-and-white situations in life, so any "Truth" that enables such a binary worldview is predisposed to hurt people; binary belief systems don't leave wiggle room for the multitude of human experiences. Keeping the skeptical argument in our back pocket offers us the ultimate trump card against the absolutist impulse that can infect most any philosophical framework. Just because a humanist outlook centers on the importance of humanity does not mean that those same humanist efforts cannot be led astray – perhaps to the inadvertent detriment of the very people we intend to put first and foremost.
Additionally, while skepticism can help prevent humanism from losing focus, however unintentionally, humanism can simultaneously help us from spiraling downwards into a skeptical and/or atheistic nihilism. While atheism and skepticism are very good at tearing things down, they are equally poor ways to build anything up, a purpose for which humanism is incredibly well-suited. This relationship of humanism to the other worldviews is critical, in my opinion, because it evens out the balance sheet. People crave meaning and direction in their lives, and while atheism is a useful standpoint and skepticism a useful tool, they are directionless without a positively motivating philosophical partner.
The Secular Holy Trinity
It is this self-reinforcing nature of these worldviews that I find the most dramatic aspect of their relationship to one another, and the best argument for why they should at least be considered natural philosophical allies. Each element of atheism, skepticism, and humanism is useful in its own way, but when combined the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This ability to become greater than the individual components gives us something that religion has successfully had for ages: the ability to define the world and motivate those who find themselves within it. If secularism is going to maintain itself in the face of increasingly vocal (and occasionally violent) opposition, it needs to have a justifiable and motivating framework through which it can advance itself. My purpose here has not been to focus on how atheism, skepticism, and humanism can be used as weapons against a philosophical enemy, but rather to demonstrate how naturally these worldviews come together to support the secular cause. It is my sincere hope that the secular Holy Trinity can find itself in a position to powerfully influence the way we all approach the world and those with whom we share it.
Featured photo provided by Flickr user cogdogblog.