Human Exceptionalism: We Need Transcendence, Not Atheism

Wesley J. Smith

This isn’t a blog about religion, but among its many threads, we do discuss what it means to be human.  And part of that is the yearning for transcendence.

In the past, we have discussed what I call the coup d’ culture that seeks to replace Judeo/Christian moral philosophy and its focus on the unique importance of the individual, with a new value system to govern society, consisting of utilitarianism, hedonism, and scientism/environmental quasi-religiosity. Usually, with our intense focus on bioethics and all, we focus on utilitarian (implicit and explicit) tendencies. With Octomom (as one example) we come to hedonism.  Global warming hysteria (not the same as climate science)  is an example of the scientism/earth religion counter (or supplement) to theistic faith (as in Al Gore).

Brave New World was one of the most important novels ever written because Huxley so accurately predicted the flow of culture we are seeing today.  But his BNW minions didn’t believe in anything.  They had become, in a sense, automotons–with promiscuity and soma replacing richly lived lives.  I think he got that wrong.  Humans are incapable of not believing.

It is in this context that I bring to your attention an interesting column on Psychology Today’s Ethics for Everyone blog by  Michael Austin.  The post is in response to an assertion by Nigel Barber that atheism will replace religion.  Austin says it will never happen because human beings need transcendence.  From his post “Why Atheism Can’t Replace Religion:”

However, for many people, religion is not merely a way to deal with fear, uncertainty, and emotional difficulties. In my experience, many people follow a particular religious way of life because they believe that it is true. The problem with a market-based analysis of the future of religion, as well as the market-based practices present in many contemporary religious communities, is that religion at its best is not a consumer product. Rather, at its best religious faith calls for sacrifice, unselfishness, love, and a willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe, so to speak.

Yup.  Religion is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from every other life form in the universe (along with philosophy, ethics, etc.)  Once we fulfill basic biological needs, we search for meaning.

Beyond that, religion offers transcendence: It is also unclear how atheism is positioned to replace religion, in the following way. Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. But this, in and of itself, cannot form the foundation for a way of life. Only by forming and practicing positive beliefs and values can one build a coherent and meaningful life. So if something is to replace religion, it will not be atheism. Perhaps some form of secular humanism will accomplish this task. But here we run into another problem, namely, that human beings long for transcendence of some sort, as shown by the presence and prevalence of religious belief throughout cultures across time.

But surely, in our materialistic age, we can find a replacement.  Not really:

Barber claims that sports can replace religion. In one sense, I think he is right. The loyalty, community-identification, and limited transcendence of the experiences related to sports do fuflill many of the functions of religion for many people. However–and I am a passionate sports fan and participant–at the end of the day sports are incapable of doing the work needed to provide sufficient meaning, transcendence, and fulfillment in life.

Or to put it another way: The Giants won the world series this year!  Gee, that and $2.00 will buy you a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

Austin is quite right.  A big part of our exceptional natures is the need to believe.  We yearn for faith, we yearn for a proper philosophy, we desire to be part of something more important and bigger than ourselves that can’t be measured, folded, spindled, or mutilated.

St. Paul wrote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  People hunger for it.  The faith they adopt might not be in a theistic God, Jesus, Allah, or Krishna.  But the desire for faith will not be replaced with pure non belief (hello,  John Lennon).   It might be the techno-religions of transhumanism, a scientism of radical environmentalism, embracing the living Gaia, an inchoate New Age spiritualism that offers the hope for an  immaterial hereafter without moralism about individual behavior, or perhaps, a Utopian materialism that faithfully believes that if it can just drive “God” out of the human heart we can create a perfect world. (Just to name a few.)

We are exceptional, and one of the unique moral differences between us and animals is our search for Truth and Ultimate Meaning (in whatever form).  Richard Dawkins to the contrary notwithstanding, for most people, atheism simply can’t carry that load.

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