(Introduction to the forthcoming book)
More than at any other time in human history, superstition has given way to rationality as the primary means of understanding our lives and explaining the world in which we live. Before our species understood the germ theory of disease, illnesses and plagues were typically perceived as punishments from the gods. Similarly, before we understood meteorology and seismology, we interpreted events such as storms, floods, volcanoes and earthquakes as signs of divine disfavor. Our ancestors felt an ongoing imperative to make propitiations to spirits, saints, and gods to avoid incurring their wrath.
Thanks to scientific inquiry and the philosophical Enlightenment, humans have learned to think empirically; to study cause and effect, to test hypotheses and find scientific explanations for natural phenomena that filled our ancestors with dread. This has led to rapid advances in medicine, science and technology, ethical inquiry, and other breakthroughs that have steadily improved our lives. As rationality and empirical inquiry have spread worldwide, religious traditions have been reinterpreted, abandoned, or replaced with wholly natural forms of spirituality.
Our sense of the numinous outlasts our belief in the supernatural; by no means do those of us who are increasingly secular compelled to live dry, dispirited lives. The joy of an excellent yoga routine, the deep connectedness to all sentient beings (and self-transcendence) we experience in meditation, a sense of kinship with our fellow human beings—all these can be deeply spiritual experiences. Thus, the loss of traditional religion need not be perceived as a loss at all, but rather a great liberation—perhaps the ultimate emancipation of the human mind.
The trend toward secularism can be seen in the rise of the “Nones” (people who claim no religious affiliation) in North America. It is evident in the religions that are practiced (by some) more as ways of preserving community and passing on cultural norms than as supernatural faiths. It can be seen in the steady emptying of the churches of Europe that has been a steady trend since the early 20th century. Churches that once ruled by inculcating a dread of hell (along with the promise that they alone possessed the keys to heaven) have lost their hold on a great many people. Theocratic monarchies—long the norm in Europe—have given way to liberal democracies; huge life-affirming results have flowed from the personal autonomy that democracy enables. Even in the United States, easily the most religious country in the West, a fundamentally nontheistic worldview has lost much of the opprobrium it once incurred. Humanists and other secularists are becoming politically active and must now be taken into account as a voting bloc. They, together with the above-mentioned “Nones,” now make up 20% of the U.S. electorate; politicians can no longer afford to ignore or alienate them.
We by no means seek to convert the religious to humanism. Instead, we seek interfaith/secular dialogue and church/state separation, so that no one’s freedom of conscience is threatened. We realize that what we experience as an emancipation may present to others as a devastating loss. With that in mind, the secularization of others is not our goal. It is to enable the religious and secular alike to pursue transcendence and fulfillment in the manner that works best for them, free of persecution or coercion.
Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved