A Rational and Moral Alternative to Religion

Vic Stenger

 After two years as your president, and after a large number of essays on a wide range of topics relating to Humanism, I think it is time to summarize my view of what Humanism is all about. That summary is most succinctly given in the title above, but perhaps it needs a bit more elaboration.
First, I do not view Humanism as a religion but rather as an alternative to religion. This is a continuing debate, but my reasoning is simple. Words mean what most people take them to mean, and the word religion is associated in most people's minds with belief in supernatural, transcendent powers beyond matter. Most humanists would agree that no real evidence exists for these powers. While some would say, "anything is possible," I maintain that if thousands of years of human belief in the supernatural has still not resulted in any real evidence for a world beyond matter, than we can be pretty close to certain that it does not exist. When the probability for something is as low as is the probability for the existence of a spirit world, then we might as well forget about it.

This brings me to the statement that Humanism is a rational alternative to religion. Not only is it irrational to believe in a spirit world without the slightest evidence for its existence, the spirit world imagined by most of the world's great religions conflicts with basic logic. Take the Christian God. He can't exist! The Christian God is supposed to be all powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. At the same time, humans have the free will to decide how to behave and affect their own futures. Further, bad things happen to good people (and bad).

The Christian God is a logical contradiction, and logical contradictions don't exist. Obviously an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God cannot be logically consistent with the world we see with our own two eyes. If a God exists, he or she or it can't be the Christian God. It does not suffice to say, as Christians do, that mere humans cannot comprehend the mystery of this logical contradiction. That simply admits that God, as they define him, makes no sense. He's a square circle. (See "Atheism: The Case Against God" by George H. Smith for a complete discussion of the logical inconsistency of the Christian God). If Christians want to believe in God, then they should think of a logical one.

Humanism accepts the best evidence that the world is matter and nothing else. That is the only rational position that anyone can take - until the evidence warrants otherwise.

Humanism also accepts the evidence from history that the moral codes adopted over the centuries were not handed down from above, but resulted from human beings themselves freely choosing the way they want to live. We have chosen to live in communities, and communities require their individual members to make certain sacrifices for the benefit of the whole. And that's all moral rules are. They are unwritten rules of behavior that we freely decide to follow. Most of us do so because we want to belong to the community, to reap the benefits. Sociopaths convince themselves that they can reap the benefits without applying the rules to themselves.

Historically, governments have found religion to be a powerful tool for encouraging behavior that benefitted the community or, more frequently, the governors themselves. Threats of eternal damnation helped keep people in line. Recognizing this unholy alliance, the founders of the United States purposefully left the three letters G-O-D out of our Constitution.

Humanism believes in moral behavior, but expects people to freely chose that behavior without the threat of damnation or governmental duress. As with its expectation for people to think rationally, Humanism relies on each of us to make individual sacrifices for the good of all humanity - without the promise of some personal prize of eternal life. Because it makes no promises except freedom of thought, Humanism will probably never be as successful as religion. But it remains a place for those wishing a rational and moral alternative.