Religion 2010 Wish List


This isn’t about how all religions are very nice chaps, really, or that–ideally–all religions promote peace on earth, good will toward men, and women, in their own very different ways. Not even the religion that copyrighted that slogan in the New Testament after stealing it from Virgil’s fourth eclogue (where it’s assigned to the Muses of Sicily) has been able to follow the advice of the angel choirs.

No, this isn’t about how religions are greatly misunderstood by nearly everybody who feels less than passionately about religion, how they inevitably fall short, like David the King, of what they really and truly and essentially are. I have no idea what any given religion essentially is and much less an idea what religion in general essentially is. I have theories, of course.

But I do know that religion is slippery when confronted with its sins–ranging from blowing up fellow worshipers or abusing children in rectories and laundries, to grabbing one more snip of land before “peace talks” (I love the phrase: so standard we overlook how insipid it is) can resume in Israel. Convenient too that any “religion” can say (with deference to the greatly overrated and entheogenic Huston Smith), “You must mean the other man’s [sic] faith.”

Religion alone seems able to convince ordinary people that there is no point at which abuses and sins become definitive and not exceptional: imagine judging a serial rapist by saying that he’s simply failing to live up to his ideals and that, for all appearances, he’s really a very nice chap.

Down with ideals and on to concrete proposals in this tenth year in the third millennium of the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ awaiting his long delayed coming. (What did you think AD meant?).

It is time for a list of things religions must give up, forswear, abandon and forever repudiate in order to be what they want to be–or say they do: mechanisms of peace, justice, compassion and love of humanity.


1. Abandon the mythology of Genesis. God did not make the world in 6, 8 or 1000 days or 1000 days of years. Stop squabbling over Hebrew syntax and what you think the Biblical writers meant. They meant what they wrote and they were wrong. We know far too much about how things really came about to believe any of the nonsense written by a Hebrew-speaking priest of the sixth century BCE who thought things came about by a direct act of his hereditary deity.

2. Abandon any suggestion that you are doing science when you teach creationism. “Mysteries” are not taught in schools. Science is not about the unexplained but about the way we can best explain things. If you want students to learn about creationism, teach it in a junior year mythology class alongside Greek and Roman literature.

3. Stop trying to convert people. Do you hear me you evangelical jabberwockies? Yea, the day is coming–yea it approacheth, when the converts will stop listening because you have no idea what you’re talking about and no one in Malawi can eat the biblical bread you promise when the maize crop fails again.

4. To Our Catholic Brothers and Sisters: Abandon the liturgy you stumbled into in the 1960’s. It sounds like the 1960’s. If you must continue it, make your priests wear balloon-sleeve transparent yellow shirts with flouncy cuffs, paisley ties, and flare-bottom jeans. Maybe a striped pancho for special feasts. If you sound like an era, look like an era. And also with you.

5. To the Anglicans: Good job of putting all divisive theological issues aside, especially those based on that uncooperative tome called the Bible. Now stop counting theological success and rectitude in the number of gay and lesbian bishops you ordain, admit you’re agnostics who like to dress up and have a good time with it.

6. To all fundamentalists: Blessed art thou among Christians, for even though you will surely not see God and the Kingdom, and even though your personal morals are as shoddy as everyone else’s, you probably really believe what you say. Now, go back to school, learn a little science, and take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake. Oh, and please stop mucking up the airwaves with your prayers and singing and sales pitches. It keeps me from watching the real shopping channels–the ones where I can actually order something that comes in a box, something that I can really be disappointed with when it doesn’t fit.


1. Give up the idea that the Quran is the most beautiful poetry ever written, the most perfect Arabic ever set to ink, the closest we can approach God in the scheme of time. Are you inhaling this stuff or just smoking? You have two hundred poets whose Arabic is better, any one of which could have won in a slam-down with Gabriel.

2. For all I know, Mecca is a lovely place. But get a second archaeological opinion on the Kaaba and especially that Neolithic outcrop, the jamarat, where people get trampled to death every year at the Haj trying to throw one last stone at the stone devils before curfew tolls and they have to board the bus. (Most recent tragedy, 2006: a stampede killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more.) –-Better now that the pillars have been hidden from view behind a wall, but still a pretty dubious ritual. My suggestion: learn to throw rocks at your politicians and hateful, firebrand illiterate mullahs who keep you from being nice chaps, really.

3. Let your women get an education. Admit that the most ordinary housewife who chooses to wear hijab to keep her husband and eldest son happy is smarter than the average imam. Don’t cut off people’s legs for adultery. Stop the stoning. Stop saying that cliterodectomy is un-Islamic, or rather shout it out and mean it. Don’t throw battery acid in girls’ faces for consorting with boys en route to school. Stop torching the schools.

4. If you think everyone in the religious world is evil and that you alone possess the key to truth, maybe a nice debating club would provide sufficient technology and less loss of life than your current plan. You really are making a lot of enemies this way—I have to be honest.

5. Stop promoting fallacies and false history. Medieval Arabic science was truly remarkable. Philosophy and medicine especially, and physics, not to be sneezed at. Now teach the real reasons the Islamic star ceased to shine brightly–dynastic feuding, internecine violence, a vilification of secular and scientific learning that continues today–and no fair jumping ahead to the Crusades or the colonial period for your answer. In general, the crusaders were far too stupid to pick up anything along the route to Jerusalem except diseases and by the time colonialism comes into view Islamic learning had been in eclipse for five hundred years.

6. Stop whingeing about how people who “blaspheme” or defame Islam are the “source” of violence within Islam. Here is a cart.

Notice that the horse is different because the thing on legs pulls the thing on wheels. Is this analogy unclear? See 5, above re: learning.

7. Stop blowing yourself up and calling the killing of your friends and neighbours “martyrdom.”

Nobody else is doing this. You are. In general, I don’t have an opinion on the wisdom of cultivating religious doctrine through suicide bombing, but I tend to think it’s counterproductive and immensely stupid, don’t you?

If the early Christians had tried this against their pagan persecutors in the marketplaces of the Roman world there’d be no one left to tell their story. If this had been the tactic of the medieval bishops against the heretics and Jews, guess who would have come out on top?


1. There are no chosen people. There are just people. It is depressing, isn’t it? We all want to be special.

2. Stop trying to sell archaeological crap to the gullible west and Alabama Baptist yokels. You did not find Jesus’ family tomb. You did not find a neighbour’s house in Nazareth and probably not even Nazareth (Show me the city limits sign). I know that $1,000,000 comes rolling in every time you get a story on the cover of Newsweek, but you and I both know that this schlock is going to be available at Remainders ‘R Us a year from now when no one is looking.

3. Do your construction teams ever take a vacation? If I had been raised to think (as every Palestinian has been raised to think) that Israeli bulldozers are as aggressive and hateful as tanks I might see you as invaders and occupiers. I know you need to find room for the swimming pools (God wouldn’t want his chosen people wandering around in a desert, now, would he?), but give it a rest.

4. I know I will be slapped for saying this, but you really must get over the Holocaust. Yes, of course, I believe 6,000,000 Jews were slaughtered for no reason except their beliefs. Yes, I believe it was the greatest sacrilege against humanity of the twentieth century, not counting Hiroshima. But I think the best guess is that between 62 and 78 million people died in World War II, and in one way or another all were victims of the same racist ideology. Perspective is always nice, and at some point you will need to confront the fact that history is unkind to the monuments of persecution and tragedy. At a certain point, the cry for justice sounds a lot like the God of the Bible who screams for revenge.

5. Stop winning so many Nobel Prizes. It’s so embarrassing it’s not even funny. But your comedians are.

And to All?

1. All of you need to relinquish belief in heaven, hell, eternal reward, and eternal punishment. And of any God who participates in such abusive game-playing. These things do not exist except in your head. To the extent any of your conduct–towards virtue or towards killing infidels who don’t agree with you–is motivated by eschatology, you are living a dangerous fantasy and teaching your daughters and sons it is true.

2. All of you need to grow up a little. Some religions more than others, some people within each tradition more than the rest. It’s no wonder that some of our best minds since the nineteenth century have compared religion to infantile delusion and childlike behavior. Sorry to say, most of the people who see religion this way have been semi-believers or unbelievers.

But who’d deny that the Taliban behave like two year-olds with guns rather than like men, whether they are beating girls or blowing up Buddha statues in Bamyan. The robust beards are only masks for the deep sense of masculine insecurity they mistake for obedience to God’s will. Their wives will know better.

3. Value secular learning. I do not know whether the truth will make you, or me, free. I do know that religious truth is normally a shortcut for the intellectually lazy, crafted and sustained by preachers who like one-book solutions to the manifold problems of a complex world. There are no one book solutions, and if there were, they will not have been written in antiquity.

Both the Bible and the Quran have served that purpose in their time. ButTruth in the sense religions try to frame it–as dogma or superior knowledge–isn’t worth a confederate dollar. Knowledge of history, science, and the things of this world will get you a lot farther down the road to true salvation than religion will. Embrace it.

4. Don’t rely overmuch on “interfaith dialogue,” the corporate certainties of the religious world, the merging of fantasies in favour of a grandly mistaken worldview and the substitution of “dialogue” for serious reflection and discourse. As religions grow less confident in the twenty first century, at least in terms of their ethical and explanatory value for human life,they will turn again to the arena of martyrdom as a proving ground for faith above reason. Do not be fooled.

Postscript on the Holocaust, December 29, 2009

I knew I would be held to the fire for using a phrase like “get over” in relation to the Holocaust. I have been. What I meant of course is that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of holocaust victims and survivors will not be able to sustain the horror of the event: history erodes not only the intensity of a moment but often its significance for people born long after the moment is past. Jewish friends and relatives agonize over this very pattern; it is a loss of sensitivity familiar most of all to Jews. I am worried that creating an idol of horror-of making the holocaust a religious symbol rather than a human catastrophe (in part, of course, religiously-motivated and supported and with a long history in European civilization), will make it transcendent and incomprehensible. Hollywood and holocaust-themed memorials and museums may play a useful role in pricking memory and consciousness, but their proliferation also betokens what the historian Robert Hewison once called the “imaginative death of reality.”

Human beings did this. It has to be come to terms with at the human level and not preserved as another idol of the tribe. “Getting over” is not the best way of saying “come to terms with, comprehend, move forward,” but that is what I meant.

New Ethics and Atheist Newbies

The Necessity of Atheism?

Pardon my cough when I see titles like Good without God being hailed as “trendsetting.” Not only is the title overworked and the subject matter stale, but the author manages to get through the entire discussion without so much as tipping his hat to the theologian who pioneered the debate almost a generation ago, Cambridge University’s Don Cupitt.

To be fair, it is possible the author never read Cupitt. American learning is almost as parochial and inward-looking as it was in Emerson’s day when the sage, in his exceedingly dull 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, tried to argue that American scholarship (still the object of ridicule in Europe) would be concerned mainly with “Nature.” So, we in this nation, especially perhaps scholars, are part of a proud tradition of not paying attention to foreign scholarship and are more prone than Europeans to claim squatter’s rights to ideas developed by others, elsewhere, often long ago.

Whatever the case, to write a book about ethics without God and not to cite Don Cupitt’s The New Christian Ethics strikes me as plainly negligent, to the point of being out of touch with the topic. A bit like writing a book on the history of the Statue of Liberty without mentioning Frederic Bartholdi.

This out-of touchness is something I have been battling for years. The problem with Atheist Newbies (as good a beginning of a carping sentence as you could want) is that they are too little aware that the battle they think they are fighting was fought over a century ago, fought by theologians in liberal trenches (not atheists in foxholes) and for better or worse won by the forces of reason—if not exactly the battalions of unbelief.

I suspect that is why they spend so much time battling old believers–ranging from DMS’s (Dead Medieval Scholastics) to MILFs (Multiple Illiterate Leadheaded Fundies) because for the most part their work shows no currency with the serious strands of contemporary theology, social ethics, or even of philosophical dialogue with theology. This isolation from theology also nurtures a strong tendency among the Newbies to assume that they were at the station ahead of theologians who had actually caught the train days before them.

Of course there is no need to keep current if you have determined to win against the religious losers and claim that there are no other intellectual positions worth fighting against. It happens to be true that a great deal of modern theology is not worth bothering with. But that is doubtless true of books in general. Not to know the history of theological Destruktion since Kant, Coleridge and Schleiermacher ruled the waves is simply to claim poverty as privilege.

Which brings me to Don Cupitt. Cupitt was the unwitting source of my greatest disappointment many years ago when I was offered a place to read theology at Caius College, Cambridge, and decided to go the City of Dreaming Spires instead.

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

To be blunt, there was no one quite like Cupitt at Oxford, though a few came close. In 1988 he published a modest volume called The New Christian Ethics. The book was a follow-up to his highly controversial, absolutely marvelous little book called Taking Leave of God. (1980).

Taking Leave of God had taken what theologians sometimes call a non-realist position: God is a conglomerate of expressions about god, but not the same as any individual expression nor any total of these expressions. In this sense, God is not “real,” and so any idea that this God has given moral commandments to the human race is untrue.

Like a lot of non-realists, I prefer to say that God is not real instead of saying “I do not believe in God,” or more confidently, “There is no God.” I have no idea whether there is any god that equates to any idea or expression of god. How could I? When I say “God is not real, “ I simply mean that there is not now nor has there ever been a being equivalent to the descriptions of the divine being in sacred scripture and Christian (or any) theology. I am not saying that Christian theology is deficient and some other person’s theology is “right.” I am saying that while I cannot rule out the possibility of God, I can rule out the historical descriptions of him and the rules of conduct thought by some religious people to emanate from him. It’s odd how close this is to atheism, but the atheists I know are the last to admit it.

The idea of the unreality of God gets us beyond the existence question in a healthy linguistic way, because it means that there is no way to experience the reality of God in the way we experience the reality of the world. We know that the historical, traditional descriptions of God are man made. We know this as fact.

The commandments of the Bible and Quran are man-made as well. They are ideas that were used in antiquity to flesh in the idea of God as lawgiver and sovereign over the customs and conduct of human beings. Almost certainly, they are the work of a professional class–priests, prophets, royal sycophants and bureaucrats.

With the collapse of the biblical-realist idea of God, which happened in theology beginning in the nineteenth century, the idea of “divine command” ethics was washed away as well. For many contemporary theologians it does not matter that a great many errant and usually unrefined voices still defend the “reality” of God, the basic soundness of the biblical view of God, or the general “wisdom” (if not the details) of divine command theory. It should matter however that these voices are evidently the only ones of any interest to Atheist Newbies and matter as well that the most vocal critics of religion don’t really seem to care about making the careful distinctions that would, if ignored, sink them as experts in any other field–especially the sciences. The moral is, it is easy to be a critic in a field in which you’re an amateur.

However, the most important thing about Cupitt’s ethics is that he regards the end of realism (the end of the belief in the reality of the God of the Bible) as a turning point in human history. Rather than setting up a straw-man opposition between the “truth” of science (and any ethics emanating from “scientific reason,” whatever that is) and the falsity of religion (with its God-driven, rule based, non-negotiable edicts), Cupitt sees the end of God as a challenge that confronts everyone: the atheist may consider herself free of it, but her obsession with continuing to play with tin solders contradicts her freedom. The Christian, Jew, Muslim on the other hand must begin by acknowledging that the challenge has not been met, and that they may still be infatuated with ideas they have never taken the time to question or examine:

The end of the old realistic conception of God as an all-powerful and objective spiritual Being independent of us and sovereign over us makes it now possible and even necessary for us to create a new Christian ethics. It is we ourselves who alone make truth, make value, and so have formed the reality that now encompasses us.”

Cupitt’s position is far more radical than it seems—radical precisely because he is not saying what I take the Atheist Newbies to be saying–that is, if they are arguing a kind of ethical détente between believers and nonbelievers consolidated in the paralytic slogan, “It is possible to be good without God.”

Cupitt is saying that it is not only (or primarily) the atheist who must learn to do without God-based ethics. Believers do not have the option to choose a reality of godly proportions and christen his commandments as the divine will as a cover and support for their morality. He is saying that everyone, including believers, must learn to be “good” without a God who is not real in the first place, who has never spoken—and not just not to atheists–and certainly not to the modern mind.

This is optionless ethics, where an atheist will find no opportunity to exchange the fixed certainties of religion for the discovered truths of science as an alternate source of ethical reassurance.

“There is no bedrock and nothing is fixed, not my identity nor my sexuality nor my categories of thought, nothing… There is no external measure or value or disvalue– and therefore our life is exactly as precious or as insignificant as we ourselves make it out to be.”

In his work, Cupitt has always been clear that there is a strong religious argument against religious ethics and against the objective existence of God. Religious argument against God? Yes, certainly. It shows through vividly in those faiths that profess an absolute loyalty to an absolute ruler who reigns from the heavens. In Christianity and Islam, the idea that God exists primarily to tell us what to do, knows what we do, and reacts by punishing and rewarding what we do, is prominent if not primary. It is not only repressive; it so limits the idea of the freedom of human beings that this sort of God cannot really desire choice as part of his plan for salvation: salvation would necessarily (and actually does) mean salvation from the structures he imposes on his own creatures.

Cupitt dismisses with a stroke of the quill the turbid debates of two millennia concerning freedom and bondage of the will and says that they are a conceptual overwrite of a scriptural tradition that precludes them—inveigled in from philosophy, planted in Eden, but with no convincing root system. “An objective God cannot save anyone. …The more God is absolutised, the more we are presented with the possibility of living under the dominion of a cosmic tyrant who will allow nothing, and least of all religion, to change and develop.”

The unreal God of the Christian tradition is nothing more than humanity setting limits on its own self-understanding by projecting such a tyrant and his rules as restrictions on human freedom. Nowadays, Cupitt argues, “the nature of language dictates what can and cannot meaningfully be said of anything, God included.”

As to the thesis that it is possible to be “good” without God: The more radical proposition is that a morality based on choice and freedom is only possible once the reality of God has been sacrificed to a deeper understanding of our own humanity.

How Christianity is the Perfect Religion

Love Incarnate?

I confess to having a seasonal defective disorder about this—Christmas I mean.

I am frankly tired of news about religious extremists plotting world takeover from septic tunnels, watching deals between “good” Taliban and “pro-western” Pakistanis brokered and shredded within months by toothy politicians, depressed from smiling over my gin when MSNBC reports that a pilotless drone (no, a different entity from the United States Senate) has killed a “top level Al-Qaida leader.” (No, not bin Laden. Certainly not—but someone who knows someone who met him once. Maybe at a barber shop.)

Bored enough even to yawn at the last report of a horrific car, market, bus, mosque or school bombing somewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Weary to the point of dizziness at the latest decisions to send in another doomed-from-the get-so cadre of troops to “finish what we started” [sic] in Afghanistan. Innocence betrayed by the allure of travel to distant lands?

At a lower level of cynicism, I am lulled to despair with the conflict over whether Jews in Santa Cruz should or should not have a right to display a fifteen foot high menorah in the “downtown area.” It’s a cluster of candles for God’s sake, but more to the point: don’t you have a back yard?

I am sick of the Vatican being forced into the position, yet again, of apologizing for randy priests and abusive, sexually repressed nuns who couldn’t keep their paws off innocent children in their care. It is disgusting. It is so disgusting that we need to consider seriously if any other social community, unprotected by the fiction that religion operates for the good, is even capable of doing the things that religion does—and does by pointing to a Higher Authority whose function it is (apparently) either to forgive it or condemn it but does nothing to prevent it by putting its holy temple in moral order.

Magdalene Asylum

The commonplace concept of God in all three religions is so miserably and wretchedly puerile that it sends me searching for my dog-eared copy of The Future of an Illusion on an annual basis. May the Kingdom come (and go) soon.

So I ask myself, what went wrong, or what’s gone missing? All of these religions had mystery once upon a time. And without overstating the terrors that take shape when religion is taken literally rather than mystically religion unclothed is a dangerous thing. The poet Matthew Arnold warned a century and a half ago of the danger of taking myths, mixing briskly with the hazards of unformed religious passion and ignorance of literature, and turning them into dogma. For Arnold, the great devil of nineteenth century religion in the English tradition was making postulates out of poems.


Who could have foretold that the literalism and plain-talk we expect in twenty-first century discourse would constrain religion to take its own propositions seriously, and worse, act to defend them in absurd and violent ways. But that, I submit is what has happened.

Maimonides. Avicenna. Meister Eckhart. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī Rumi, and more to date (d. 1937) Muhammad Iqbal and Thomas Merton, alas, are not the future of religion.

I have always found it odd in one sense that many of the great philosophical mystics were also great intellectuals, especially it seems logicians and mathematicians. Origen and Ibn Rushd, in their respective pockets, saw theology closely aligned to true wisdom, in that higher sense the neo-Platonists were so fond of talking (and talking) about.

So let me talk about it.

I have said a sufficient number of times (so that anything beyond this time will be mere repetition) that the “cure” for all the bad religion we see around us is not “good” religion or the “right sort of” religion or (above all) declamations that what we’re witnessing “isn’t really religion” but some sort of satanic parody of religion. All such talk is an invitation for conflict under the banner of dialogue.

Religion is not purified by scraping away the mould to see if any edible bread is left. A cure—and yes, that is the word I want–depends on seeing the violence inherent in religious literalism and heeding the call to myth, mystery, and poetry.

When it comes to religion, words speak louder than actions. All forms of biblical and Quranic literalism are invitations to moral terror not because the precept you happen to be reading at the moment is “wrong” but because the one you read next might violate both conscience and commonsense. Violent because you cannot know what verses stir the mind and heart of your friendly local mullah, priest or rabbi. Picking and choosing what the experts believe the laity need to hear–the way most preachers have practiced their faith in public over the millennia–may be a tribute to the power of discernment, but it teaches the congregation—the occasional Catholic, the wavering Muslim—some very bad habits.

It can lead to a constricting of moral vision, the abuse of little children, butchering or disfiguring wives and daughters, the killing of the tribe of Abraham by the children of Abraham. Words do this because they have the power to be misunderstood. And because taken as a bundle, the texts of the sacred traditions are a muddle of contradictory and sometimes terrifying ideas that commend everything from peace on earth to extermination of the unbeliever in their several parts.

It is the kind of tangle that attracts knot-tiers and exploiters and anyone who needs the money of the poor to be rich. Most of the methods developed to study and examine the narratives of the world’s religions “scientifically” in the last two centuries have helped to provide contexts for texts, have shone light on the community within which texts developed—ranging from Syria to Medina—reminding us above all that the ancient words are no different in provenance than modern words: that is, they are human words and need human interpretation. The words are not above us, they should not be considered immune from our assessment and judgment. Any doctrine of inspiration that teaches otherwise is potentially if not actually malignant and insidious.

I could quote Rumi, or Ibn Rushd, or a poem by Alama Iqbal to make my point. They were all great hearts and deeply committed to their vision of religious truth. Taken in another direction, they might have been vicious—because mysticism has often led to esotericism and fanaticism. (Religious language is funny that way.) Origen and Peter Abelard lost their testicles and hundreds of Anabaptists in Munster in 1535 their lives not because they lacked imagination but because they had special visions of how to take the kingdom by storm.

So let me take refuge instead in the myth we find embedded in the story Christians like to read at this time of year.

The Christian myth is that love was born into the world in human form, divine nonetheless and (as the story winds on, without prejudice to the order of composition of the gospel elements) capable of suffering, and destined (as in the ascension myth in Luke) to regain his heavenly estate. True love, recall, does not undergo change, does not “alter when it alteration finds.”

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
(Christina Rossetti, 1885)

People who hate the gory images of crucifixion and the metaphysically blinding element of the resurrection narrative, tend to like Christmas anyway. They like it even though they may very well reject every other part of the Jesus tradition. What they like “about” it may not be Christian at all, and may well be more ancient than the ancient ideas that quietly undergird Luke’s and Matthew’s poetic fables.

Socrates it’s easy to forget, was no fan of “poetical myths” “Those which Hesiod and Homer tell us and the other poets, for they composed false fables to mankind and told them [Republic, 377d]. These are “not to be mentioned in our city” [Republic, 378b]. It is easy to forget this because Plato himself was unable to exile Homer completely from his city. What he worries about is the propensity of “myth” (poetical or philosophical) for misunderstanding and the natural tendency among the uneducated, the young and the intellectually dull for getting the myths wrong—missing the point.

Fragment, The Republic

In the Ion [533c], Socrates explains that some people are closer to wisdom and interpretation than others. Call it knowledge—as later Platonists and their sympathizers did. There is a power, Socrates teaches, which descends from the gods to certain men and to others who, like Ion, use the works of the inspired. “It is, he says, like a series of iron rings the first of which is attached to a magnet so that the power of the magnet passes on to all in the series.” Think God, think angel choirs, think wise men, think shepherds. “Those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of the gods: and that poets are only the interpreters of the gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by a peculiar deity who corresponds to the nature of the poet.” But it stops with the interpreters, the users. The force is not with everyone.

Christianizing Plato is a perilous business, but it did not stop the church fathers and later writers from trying and getting it poetically wrong in their determination to be theologically right. The life of Jesus for many of the interpreters was simply an allegory of divine love, the way in which love (truth) became incarnate. The way love “came down”—in the beginning, for John, “at Christmas” for Rossetti. Certain writers saw this, to be fair, more philosophically than others. The Gnostics did not need a manger or a virgin mother. The most arrogant of the mystics sided with the ancients in thinking that this love was simply a gift of inspiration given to men of learning and ability. Love, philia, is the general term that Plato uses when he wants to convey attraction. It is usually a one way street: the image of iron rings and magnets drawing the things of this world to the things of an unseen realm by a mysterious power that is divine—god-originated..

Perilous though it is, I think that Christianity was unique in democratizing love and in making love available to even the lowliest, the most ignorant, the slaves and sinners. Even the pagan haters of Christianity hated it most for its non-exclusivity, its lack of a membership code. Plato would have hated it, too, and would have insisted that, had there been any, Christians should be barred from his city. Later philosophical Platonism had next to no social dimension. Christianity did.

Christian mythology took the principle of attraction and the connection between God, conceived as love, and forgiveness, considered intrinsic to goodness, and extended it to a human race that had lost its compass and its ladder. Everyone could be perfect because everyone could be attracted.

Do I believe this is literally the state of humanity? Do I think that we should tell our children these things irrespective of SAT scores? Do I agree with Plato that amateurs need not apply and that the secrets of the myths should be “locked in concealment”—the path taken by most of the Platonically-based mysteries and even for a while among certain Christian groups.

What I believe is, there are no mysteries in mangers.

What I Think I Am

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”


I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Yahweh on wheels (coin)

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that. Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t. Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.” What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science. There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help: This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises. The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation, but in any event, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical. That much we can know

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it. I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

Who will save us?

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil. Being a realist means we can’t do or know everything–with a tip of the hat to my scientifically progressive friends whose promethean visions I find engendered with a kind of cultic spirituality that makes me squirm. Science after all, like religion, was created by us. One of our tasks is to learn and teach its secrets and take it away from the priestly caste it has created.

When I hear the chorus of scientific naturalists moaning that hoi polloi are dim, that the secret to intellectual salvation comes through a door locked by secrecy and formulas the laity are unable to cipher, I’m always reminded of the ancient hierophants who guarded their own secrets closely and made sure they were passed down only through a priestly elite. And even though I know–theoretically–that science does not encourage secrecy in that sense and is–theoretically–democratic in its outreach, in practice it has been very bad in wholly communicating and exegeting its mysteries beyond the gates of MIT and Caltech. In other words, is it only religion we must blame for the scientific illiteracy of the masses?

But in the end, I am a humanist. Humanism incorporates the rest of it, the unbelieving, the realistic, the pessimistically hopeful. It also includes the aesthetic, and this can be something of a dilemma at this time of year–which, by the way, I am happy to call Christmas and not “the Holiday season” or “Winterfest” or “Solstice.” Winter is not to be feted but avoided. Saturnalia (the Roman Solstice holiday celebrated on December 17th) was just like its replacement, Christmas, a religious holiday in honor of the birth of a god, though a lot more fun.

And I have a weak spot. I love religious music, especially at this time of year. Bach and Handel spun the most amazing cantatas and oratorios out of the Christian myth. They are irreplaceably wonderful. Beyond that, the sheer melodic simplicity of “Silent Night” (perhaps the best song ever written) and the shivering loneliness of “In the Bleak Midwinter” stir the poet in any human soul. “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” Think of that the next time you’re shoveling out.

I don’t believe that Jesus, if there was one, was born in a manger, but I think the idea of pure, naked, vulnerable–even unwelcome–humanity as expressed in religious nativity art and poetry is humbling and moving. And I think the end of the same story, as an allegory of our humanity, naked and vulnerable at the end, is not a contradiction of dignity but an acknowledgment of mortality.

It is something we will all have to do eventually–face our end, I mean. For the humanist that confrontation underscores our belief that a human life is what we’ve got to work with. That we do not seek our rewards, satisfactions or compensation in some unplotted and mythical kingdom.

It is an intelligent, humanistically compelling thing (as philosophers used to remind us), to see the art of dying as the other side of the art of living well. Humanists need constantly to remind themselves that non-belief is not the same as living well or facing death courageously. I think, personally, that mangers and crosses are as relevant to my humanity as the visions of Apollo and the pleasures of Dionysus. Use the myths wisely, but use the myths.

Of Love and Chairs


A longer version of “The Importance of the Historical Jesus,” excerpted from my book The Sources of the Jesus Tradition (due out this summer) is at Bible and Interpretation:

In the case of the “Jesus-question,” there is no point at which the theological imagination does not shape the subject matter. Love comes before the chair, feelings and impressions before the “facts” have been put into place, and interpretation before detail. No matter what element of the Jesus tradition comes first, that element—as scholars for the most part today are willing to acknowledge—comes to us as an act in a religious drama, not as a scene in an ordinary life….

Adapted from: The Sources of the Jesus Tradition, to be published in August 2010 (New York: Prometheus Books,ISBN-10: 1616141891)

Good without God? Not the Problem

Reprinted from Spinoza’s Lens (2007/8)

Being good is not the same as being ethical ,or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Be a good boy, Beaver

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti–a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying,

“And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.

These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people.

For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs–emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

The God of the book religions, regardless of theological attempts to transform him into a God who loves the social agendas of the twenty-first century, is not a god who would understand the phrase “unconditional love.”

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, “You look at Israel and you have to wonder if maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. –A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors–re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative.

But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep-deprived (Ps 121.4). This God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

The young Marx

Religion functions through its dominant image of God and his punishments to make people “good” in the same sense servants, dogs and disobedient wives were made to be good in the ancient world. A later era would use the word control mechanism to describe this kind of incentive.

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.


Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.

What about Diderot’s story, the one about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story from Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because human beings, the true makers of religion, have changed their minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian-ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death.

As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels–plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male–slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless, after the master has had sex with her, he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

Sarah, Abraham, and his concubine Hagar

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair.

Cronus Devouring His Children (Goya)

The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as officious. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate explanation for what we routinely call “inhumane acts.” –Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school or the court house wall above the judge’s bench.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “prescriptive dissuasion.

If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.”

If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are really expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary–not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the convenient “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can. Would you want to be good without the Bible: No, because even without the dominance of a sacred text, “goodness” stems from authority rather than conscience and reflection: good dog, good wife, good Nazi, good Jew.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, perhaps even virtuous. Pray that nothing–no power or text on heaven or earth–will arise to make us “good.”

Interrogating Tradition: A Prospectus for Humanist Studies*

*Lecture given at Goddard College, October 30, 2009 launching the Goddard Humanist Studies Initiative.

In 2004 I became chair of the department of Religion and Human Values at Wells College in upstate NY, not far from Ithaca where I now live. I was intrigued by the name of the department: most colleges and universities of any size and distinction have departments of religion, or departments of religious studies, or in some cases, Harvard to name one, programs in the “study of religion,” but a department of religion and human values–how intriguing, how mysterious. What’s going on here I wondered. I asked a colleague how the juxtaposition occurred and she told me that once upon a time the idea had been to organize teaching around the conversation between the ideas and ethical practices that we normally associate with the world’s religious traditions, and those that emanate from the secular realm.

Over time new faculty came and went, the department chair who had proposed the name became a born-again Jungian and absconded, leaving her legacy behind her along with a patchwork of courses that looked very much like any other religious studies program I had known. As I proceeded to rework the curriculum, I kept coming back to the original idea and tried to sort out in my own head what was wrong with it.

The problem was that if you call something “religion and human values” it assumes that there are two independent and perhaps antagonistic streams of thought and action that grow up quite separately from each other, one mired in an interesting but fundamentally mythic or discredited worldview, the other socially responsible, scientific, rational and relevant.

But those of us who think of ourselves as philosophers, historians, social scientists or artists know that it isn’t that simple. Religion isn’t a “knowledge pool” and secularism doesn’t spring like the ever reasonable Athena from the head of all powerful Zeus. The relationship is more complicated and is more evolutionary and erratic than symmetrical.

Having spotted the problem in a curriculum that didn’t live up to its name and probably never could, I was still intrigued by the fact that if we simply dumped the name human values we would lose something of importance. Philosophy as an academic profession cared more about technical philosophy and had spent the last fifty years trying to become a science. Religious studies had bought phenomenology hook, line and sinker and now considered itself primarily a descriptive field, wedged somewhere between literary studies and anthropology. True, our best colleges offered thematic writing seminars and various opportunities to look at topics and issues from cross-disciplinary angles. But where in the college and university curriculum would “human values” get a fair hearing? Where would students learn that at a macro level, they were the beneficiaries of a long struggle for humanistic and secular learning—something the modern university quietly embodied but failed to express.

In 2006, I became a vice president of the Center for Inquiry, tasked with building up its educational offerings. I brought the “Wells conundrum” with me to the job. In fall of the same year I flew to Miami for a meeting with a donor and a dean at the University of Miami to see whether an alliance could be forged between the Center and the University with the specific purpose of creating a program in human values or humanist studies. The dean, who remains a close friend, was direct, skeptical and helpful: He said in so many words that the modern research university is an industrial, money-making entity. It is interested in rankings, faculty development, growth, and visibility. In short, it has to be competitive with institutions that look just like it.

Moreover, he said, how is a program in humanism any different from what the college or university does every day in its scores of departments, research programs, centers and consultations? Isn’t the promotion of reason and science not only among the goals a university aims to achieve but the foundation of a good university’s existence?

I have to say, I was slightly stunned. Stunned because the answer to the question (yes) is actually strongly implied in the premise. The assumption is that the modern university is humanistic, secular, committed to science and reason, or at least to certain values that make its work possible and its product worth paying for. The further assumption is that whether you are studying Romance Linguistics or Creative Writing, biochemistry or technical theater, you are the beneficiary of this implied humanism.

So I said to the dean that nowhere in this industrial competitive model is the working assumption made clear to students. For the students, the supermarket is all about choice and the product is groceries. Increasingly it is the aggregation of disaggregation and the role of the university or college is to provide maps in the form of distribution requirements and maximum variety rather than a learning prospectus. What they are missing is any careful reflection on why education is valuable to begin with, why the products of human culture are worth studying, why we need to think of the past as more than a series of ancient embarrassments that we need to fix, or why the future is not necessarily a smooth sea called scientific progress leading to a better world.

Unfortunately, unless human values, the study of the secular, and an explicit humanism can be brought forward as integral to whatever the overworked phrase liberal education means, the most visible, well programmed, highly ranked university or college in the world will not be doing its job.

I had come a long way from puzzling over the phrase to recognizing that the poor dear Jungian who tried to slot it into the curriculum had been onto something.

But what?

The term human values has been around for awhile. The Princeton University Center for Human Values was founded in 1990,

“through the generosity of Laurance S. Rockefeller ‘32, to foster ongoing inquiry into important ethical issues in private and public life and supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values throughout the curriculum and across the disciplines at Princeton University.”

Partly this was done, if you examine the history of the Center, to provide the sort of integrating counterweight to the movement of disaggregation I was just describing. The problem, however, is that the Center was conceptualized as a research and “special events” agency, and research centers devolve quickly, even with the best of intentions into restaurant menus: lectures on fascinating topics that soon begin to mirror the private interests of big-name speakers.

Without saying that this has what has happened at Princeton, I invite you inspect the most recent lecture schedule posted on the website. What you will find are lectures on “Economic Freedom within the EU,” one on “Bioliberation,” and quite a few called “title to be announced,” strongly implying that the status of the speaker outweighs any systematic effort to link topic to vision.

I am tempted to say Let Princeton be Princeton, but rather like the situation at Wells College, there is a tendency to use the term human values so generously that its key markers—humanism and secularism are hardly mentioned at all.

What Mark Schulman, the president of Goddard, and I began discussing over two years ago now is the possibility of creating a degree program where these markers are front and center-not embedded in a general studies program, not lost among the shelves of the educational Wal-Mart, not used as a counterpoint to religion or a synonym for science or just another way of talking about ethics.

But before that discussion can take place, a little positioning “beyond Princeton” is necessary–on the premise that it’s better to avoid Alice’s situation in that famous dialogue with the Cheshire cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?,” Alice asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” says the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” replies Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat. For purposes of what comes out of this dialogue, direction and definition matter because we have some idea of where we would like to end up. Otherwise, as Cicero said, “Stercus accidit.”

In the first place, human values are cultural. They may lead to the writing of books, including ones considered sacred, but they do not emanate from those books.

They are not revealed but developed. The basic principle in the human sciences is that we make culture and live in it and through it. The human values are the ones that we bring with us to this process.

Because we’re in culture “like” a fish is in water, there are key elements of our life that we don’t question, analyze, or think very much about. (The story about not telling a bee it can’t fly is a case in point). We value life, we value the continuation of life—not just our own but the lives of others and the life of the planet and the environment that supports it. And we know that most other values we can name originate in that primary valuation and that the various specialized cultures (agriculture, horticulture, techno-culture) support different parts of our existence in different ways.

But we’re not fish and we’re not bees. Human values are the values that make us human. The question of human values, as we examine the various discrete cultures that touch our lives is whether there is anything that rises above the specialized value-systems that emerge in relation to the demands of each community. If all systems of culture are need-driven, if (as we think) needs differ from culture to culture, and if we are the makers and managers of culture, isn’t the fundamental value competition and everything else piety? An impressive number of thinkers have thought so.

I am not asking that question just to say No (too pious) but to say that that’s the kind of question that would arise in this program. It is the kind of question that arises for a humanist–for someone interested in interrogating and not merely analyzing tradition.

What a humanist studies program will look like will depend on its incorporating core questions about the human past, the human condition in the present, and a vision for the future. That’s not just a cliché way of thinking about a curriculum as an obligatory three-part soul but a way of thinking about its objectives. It describes three dimensions or areas of interrogation:

1) Human achievement. Take this, broadly speaking, as the historical or social-historical dimension. Humanism is not a glorification of the human past and the accomplishments of great people. The Great Man theory of history had its heyday in the 19th century and educational programs are still recovering from the model and the assured conclusions concerning what constitutes greatness. When politicians in Washington or Moscow “invoke” national mythologies or impose patriotic categories on contemporary issues, it’s the archaic-categorical version of history they invoke. Since human values is a critical and question-provoking field, the emphasis for a student is to develop skills in analyzing and interrogating a whole range of artefacts—different expressions of material culture, ideas, ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions and social experiments. It is multidimensional and layered rather than linear and chronological.

Historical study—which would include everything from archaeology to political studies and the history of ideas—suggests that we value memory: we write things down. We pass things on—everything ranging from nursery rhymes to myths, prejudices, superstition to battle stories and folk wisdom and techniques of war. The cultural world is composed of these memories in various forms—books, poems, art, cemeteries, ruins, myths, rituals. What do we value about the past that makes memory significant? How does the study of human achievement and memory integrate our knowledge or, in some sense, help us to understand the kind of creatures we are and the challenges we confront? Are we capable of reaching a deeper understanding of human achievement than we get in the average lecture on the Crusades, or the nineteenth century novel, or a power-point on the Battle of Marathon? The interrogation of the past, to be straightforward about this, is not the memorization of data but an experimental approach to a shared global history.

2) Human Responsibility. Just as we value the past, we have also valued certain forms of behavior. During our time on this planet, we have obeyed the customs and taboos of the tribe, the rules of priests and kings, and the commandments of various gods, and the ideologies of secular states. If one thing has characterized our behavior in general right up to the present day, it is that we have seldom thought of ourselves as the sources of these norms and regulations, and we have just as often been their victims as their beneficiaries.

It is easy to understand this procession from god-given to legislative as the swell of progress from fear to understanding. And that is certainly a theory that many secular people cherish. But just as we can point to the creation of social networks and the creation of cities as a chapter in the history of human achievement, we also have to point to war, class division, sex and gender inequality, and economic exploitation of whole human populations as failures of secular idealism.

That is to say, while we are ethics-making creatures, we are also often recidivist in the way we approach the question of responsibility. If responsibility is a human value, how can we approach it without a systematic knowledge of various political, theological and philosophical attempts to ask the question that Aristotle subsumes under a discussion of happiness and the good life for the human animal? What would that systematic approach look like? What sorts of questions would we expect a student enrolled in a humanist studies program to be asking, and how would those questions be translated into action, leadership, and the education of others?

Many humanists just now are talking about the Good-without-God craze, but I happen to think that the entire campaign is capital misspent. If there is a real correlation between human good (that is, the good for human beings) and human goodness, the God-question doesn’t arise at all. It should not dominate the interrogation of human responsibility for humanists since the question of “how ought we to behave” cannot be defined antithetically to settled dogma and metaphysics that put human beings in inferior positions. Put a bit more cynically, and epistemologically: how does the humanist know he is good without God?

3) Finally, Human Imagination. Yes, the vision thing. The utopias and dystopias, Star Wars and Heavenly Reward. I tend to think that the only difference between the vision of a science fiction writer and the vision of the author of the Book of Revelation is that the latter is conscious fraud (well-intended perhaps) whereas a lot of science fiction is studiously non-fraudulent and honest.

But human imagination encompasses a wide variety of forms, and incorporates both the proposals of science and theories about our ability to imagine the future—apocalyptically, rationally, or idealistically. It may be true that we can’t depend on the Congress of the United States to imagine a universal health care plan, but historically human beings have imagined worlds without war and wars between worlds. Imagination has been used to warn, excite, scare, destroy, and to reveal possibilities that would have seemed impossible if we were simply the pawns of history and the victims of the past.

We have not only imagined creator gods but a creatorless universe whose beginnings are subject to various imaginative solutions. And we need to recognize that the sciences and not just the arts rely on this value and that it worth exploration in its own right. That sentiment is encapsulated in Einstein’s famous comment, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” A certain psychological bias, familiar to humanists, may raise a flag on this value: after all, we have imagined all sorts of things, ranging from heavenly patriarchs to savior gods to a world without Jews to monsters in the deep.

But the fact that we have envisioned a full range of possibilities and have expressed it in art, literature, science and religion doesn’t diminish the need to interrogate the value. We need to encourage an awareness in the student of human values the central role of the imagined world because as Carl Sagan commented a generation ago, “imagination will carry us to worlds we can never see but without it we will go nowhere.”

These are the categories through which I think a coherent program in humanist studies can be developed. They are broad not because generalization is a good thing but because the purpose of such a program is to stress the unity of areas of discovery that are atomized in the departmental nature of the modern university.

You’ll notice that throughout this treatise there is a strong emphasis on the interrogation of tradition. I have refrained deliberately from using the word skepticism because “skepticism” is a habit of thought whereas interrogation is an active and constructive skill. Today especially skepticism is simply identified with what is not believed, what is capable of being disproved or debunked. Education needs to do more than train the seven year old not to believe in the preposterous or to look for card in the magician’s left hand when the right one is in motion. Interrogation is the constructive assessment of what is given to us in every area of knowledge and its motive force is curiosity and the desire for truth–which is the end of knowledge.

Painting Building at Goddard College

Ideally, all higher learning should emphasize interrogation, but it is difficult to move beyond canons, bibliographies and the accumulated structure that defines the modern university and college to that further horizon. Francis Bacon did it in the Novum Organum of 1626 when he challenged the grip of scholasticism and church authority on university training at Oxford and Cambridge, the reliance on authority and tradition and the dark suspicion of new forms of learning—especially experimentation.

Goddard’s program in humanist studies will not break the grip of specialization, but it will offer a humanistically critical approach to sources and authorities. We want to give students who are not content with compartmentalized learning and information a chance to be humanists in two senses: widely read and literate in a variety of disciplines, and highly critical of received opinion and tradition through developing the art of interrogation.