I just finished reading Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard.

The book's topic has a great deal of overlap with Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, or UU Humanist William Murray's Becoming More Fully Human, but frankly speaking: Epstein does it better.

For Epstein, Humanism is/should be a life stance that provides inspiration to overcome the challenges life throws our way, and motivation to make the world a better place.  Humanism is every bit a much about helping an addict gain control of their life and learning to practice compassionate dialogue and the golden rule as it is about challenging authority or keeping Intelligent Design out of schools.

The first part of the book addresses the stereotype of godless ethics. Epstein takes the "is-ought" problem seriously, and gives a very rich discussion of the foundations of Humanist ethics, which he ultimately based on what he calls "dignity."  In sum, he doesn't budge an inch: it's foolish for people to think that Humanists have any less motivation to be moral than believers -- and yet he takes the question seriously enough to develop a high quality response. 

The middle of the book develops the "what" and "how" of practicing Humanist ethics.  The golden rule is far from a cliché to Epstein, and instead is a topic that demands central and active emphasis in Humanism:

"While the golden rule may be simple, it is hard to follow.  Religious and secular people alike fail at it all the time, and then we wonder why our lives and countries are such a mess...

"Imagine if all the arguing we do over prayer in schools, all the time we spend saying 'God bless America' and 'one nation under God,' and all our bickering over which religion has things right were instead devoted to national days of the golden rule, and into seminars and sermons focusing solely on how we can learn to better relate to our fellow human beings -- with more love and compassion."

All in all, Epstein's religious outlook has more in common with Karen Armstrong than Christopher Hitchens. (Compassion is a particular interest of mine personally -- for the interested, I recommend The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute, Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf, and You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.)

The final portion of the book is dedicated to the notion of Humanist community.  Much of it will make UUs feel right at home -- though he does quote former UUA president William Schulz' suggestion that UUism, by subsuming much of organized Humanism, has done more to impede the development of a sturdy Humanist movement than to help it.  The book ends with a call for a grass-roots effort to build Humanist communities that support the full richness of the human experience.

"If you are a Humanist," he writes on the final page, "and if you've been inspired by this book, please know that that in itself brings me no special joy if 'Humanist' to you means merely 'one who denies the existence of the gods.'  Humanists must be known for their actions."

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Tags: Humanism

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Comment by Eric 'Siggy' Scott on September 8, 2012 at 2:25pm

Oh great!  Hirschfield is amazing. I really enjoyed that book, and hope you do too!

Comment by Bill Fogarty on September 8, 2012 at 2:19pm

As I read through your postings, and my response, I realize that the title of the Hirschfield book captures part of my attitude --- You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- so I have started the book -- it is excellent.  Thanks for the suggestions!

Comment by Eric 'Siggy' Scott on September 6, 2012 at 7:17pm

@Bill:  I hear what you're saying about labels.  The things Humanism affirms are so universal that there's little reason to be exclusive about it.  That's why I'm also comfortable in the "larger UU tent."  Religious liberals have largely humanistic concerns and advance largely humanistic solutions.  With that common ground established, it's not important to me whether my community publicly rejects the existence of the divine or steers clear of vague spirituality.

It did take me a while to see it this way, however.  Most skeptics/Humanists I know would love a community, but are so bemused/confused by the amorphous (and vacuous?) spiritual language UU's use that they assume they don't have much in common with them.  One or two visits, and they don't come back.  Sadly, there are few alternatives in most parts of the country.

Comment by Bill Fogarty on September 4, 2012 at 8:16pm

Thanks for this posting --- I got halfway through the book and put it down -- I liked it, but thought it was getting repetitive.  I will give it another try, and I also look forward to checking out your book suggestions.  I agree that Epstein's vision has more in common with Karen Armstrong than Hitchens, and in fact Epstein seems to be doing a good job in building a humanist community at Harvard.  I do think it gets tricky when we try to label people --- I guess I consider myself a humanist, but I feel sometimes we are being too excluding when we break down, even in the humanist community, into sub-groups (secular humanist? religious humanist?).  In other words, I feel at home with something broader -- and I do feel at home in the larger UU tent.  It is all a challenge sometimes, but it leads to being part of a great community!

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