The Great Debate?

So, a while ago I heard about the proposed debate between Dr. Phil Zuckerman and Dr. David Marshall over whether Secular Humanism or Christianity is the best basis for a society. Now, when I first heard about this — admittedly, from atheist sites with the posters and commenters expecting that the case for Secular Humanism would just win — my thought was that Zuckerman’s stance would be relatively easily defeatable, but that Marshall would not do a good job of doing it. Well, the video is up, after a bit of controversy over that, and well, my opinion is that Marshall, in the debate, didn’t do all that well, so far so in my opinion that I don’t really think there’s anything that he’s said that’s really worth talking about, but that Zuckerman’s points, well, weren’t.

Look at his first point. He talks about the Treaty of Tripoli, and how it said that the United States was not a Christian nation. He goes on and on about that for a while, and then talks about democracy, makes that a secular value … and then shoots himself in the foot by having to point out that democracy is not an explicitly Christian value. Well, sure. But even if it was derived from Christian values, that would not only still work out for Marshall, it’s actually what he argued. Which is probably why Marshall was so surprised at having to oppose democracy; for him, democracy follows from Christian values, even if they don’t talk about democracy itself. At one point, Zuckerman also comments that you have to base a decent society on democracy and not on other systems, but gives no reason to think that, except by pointing to a couple of systems that weren’t democratic and didn’t work out so well. The one that stood out was about Stalinist Marxism … but while Stalinist Marxism didn’t work, that wouldn’t mean that, say, Marxist Marxism simply couldn’t, and couldn’t because it was democratic as opposed to all of the other philosophies and political and economic views it had. So, at this point, he simply hasn’t addressed Christianity at all, and starts off from saying that you probably could build a good society on it, but that if he had to choose, he’d choose secular humanism. This first point doesn’t in any way say why we should prefer a secular humanist perspective.

In the rebuttal, his argument is, well, actually worse, and he continally shoots himself in the foot by talking about a lot of points and then giving us great reasons to think that they really don’t matter. He lists all of the demographics that are the most Christian, and the ones that are the least Christian, and then points out that the ones that are the most Christian are the least well off … and then says that he isn’t saying that being Christian is the cause of them being in that condition, which is good, because when he starts from African-Americans that would be a thunderingly stupid argument. But then we have to wonder what the point actually is. The only argument he can be making is that Christianity does not, in and of itself, produce prosperity and happiness. Great … but who was arguing that? No one would argue that if you dropped a Christian society into a desert and another one onto a fertile grassland that they’d be equally prosperous. What the debate here would be about would be if whether you dropped a secular humanist society or a Christian society in the desert which of them would likely be more prosperous. That, at least, is something that Marshall and Zuckerman could actually argue over. Zuckerman in no way presents that, or any case for that. Add in that people in poorer conditions will likely be drawn to the hopefulness of religion and that it focuses more on the afterlife than on the present, and so it’s easy to see why people who have terrible current conditions would be drawn to religion and its promises, flat-out explaining that “other thing” that Zuckerman wanted to look for.

And, unfortunately, that “this world vs other world” focus is a big part of secular humanism, according to Zuckerman. His big push for why he prefers secular humanism to Christianity in this is because secular humanism is about making the “now” better, because that’s all we have, while Christianity focuses on the afterlife, and what comes later. Of course, that means that if your current life is really bad and you have no way of fixing it, then you really should just end it. Hence, our desert problem. Or, you can go Stoic and treat those specfic cases as indifferents: nice to have but not what makes a life worth living … but then you end up without the motivation that Zuckerman wants to improve things, and that he says Christianity doesn’t really have. Although, of course, that’s a bit of a strawman, as Marshall points out, because Christianity does indeed put a big focus on improving things now, and can be reasonably said to say that improving things in the here and now is part of the path to the good afterlife; you may not need to do good works to get into heaven depending on the strain of Christianity, but a person worthy of heaven certainly will do good works.

This leads to the other problem that Zuckerman runs over. Sure, if I know that this life is all I have then I will certainly be motivated to make this life as good as possible … for myself. Zuckerman adds in “and my loved ones and for everyone”, but rationally speaking I would only do that as long as it makes my own life better. Thus, in order to prevent me from screwing over everyone else to get the best possible life for myself, we need a set of punishments that make it so that doing that isn’t actually going to get me the best life possible. Sure, one can argue that people, in general, often avoid hurting people “just because”, but that isn’t going to stop people who don’t have that sort of code, nor is it necessarily the rational attitude to have if one starts from the secular humanist starting point.

Which, then, leads to the biggest problem here: what is the basis for secular humanism? Zuckerman compares what the Bible says about slavery with what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says about slavery, and says that the latter is better. Sure, let’s give it that. But if someone says that slavery should be legal and allowed, Zuckerman cannot appeal to the Declaration to justify that view as being wrong or unacceptable. It does fall into what humans can agree on, and falls apart the instant there’s disagreement. At least with the Bible you can turn to “God says this”, which at least to Christians would justify the statement, and then if there is disagreement it’s over what God really meant, and not over this fundamental difference in moral principles.

Which, then, should show that despite Zuckerman considering secular humanism to be properly “pluralistic”, it is at least as impositional as Christianity would be. It needs a certain set of assumptions to get off the ground, which ends up being pretty much everything that it considers to be moral, or at least anything serious. How could secular humanism handle a society that is secular and claims to be humanist, but thinks that slavery is okay? Or thinks that women are inferior to men? Or vice versa? What justifications can it give for thinking those specific issues fall on their side as opposed to the other side, especially if they are dealing with a society with radically differing ideas? Sure, this is difficult for all moral views, but it’s something that’s glossed over here. At least, again, Christian societies can claim that even those who disagree are all God’s children and so worthy of respect. Humanism, I suppose, could claim that they’re all humans and all deserving of having their views heard and respected … but then, would that mean that if a subculture accepts slavery that secular humanists have to allow it?

Secular humanisms principles tend to be exactly like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a list of principles that most of the people writing the document and the cultures they come from tend to accept. They don’t necessarily follow from any overarching moral principle, and so are indefensible if they are applied to cultures that don’t accept them, which can lead to moral impositions on people who simply don’t accept them, in the name of “doing what’s right”. Yes, Christianity did the same thing, but the big push from secular humanists is that they can avoid those sorts of problems … but, so far, I haven’t seen any reason to think that, at least logically, they can.

Zuckerman did not give, in my view, any real reason to think that secular humanism is, in and of itself, the sort of thing that can form the basis of a society, let alone a good one or the best one. His arguments are not strong, he demolishes them himself most of the time, and at the end of the day he ignores the elephants in the room about how secular humanism could function and even what it is. Not a particularly good defense of secular humanism, in my view, leaving me still looking for one.


6 Responses to “The Great Debate?”

  1. Munoz Huerta Says:

    Our instincts are tuned to agree into actual social consensus: Whatever is average to our immediate social context is most probable to fit within our view of life. Secular humanists are mostly young metropolitan first world atheists trying to make a club for their life views.

    Why o you say both stances are indifferent to Soticism? Isn’t Christianity largely based on Stoicism?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, in regard to the Stoics, the idea was that in that specific case, where you’ve living in a life that isn’t pleasant and that you can’t make pleasant, the Stoic answer is to consider things like food, water, life, love, etc indifferents, which means that they are things that are nice to have but aren’t real goods, and so your role is to bear those lacks and still strive to be virtuous. This is indeed similar to the Christian view, except that the Stoics don’t advocate any kind of afterlife to hold out for, unlike Christianity. So, Christians would say that your reward will be great in heaven for remaining virtuous in tough conditions, which Zuckerman dislikes because, to him, it doesn’t give much motivation to improve things in the here and now. The Stoics would provide him a secular way out my challenge about you choosing to die rather than remain in a bad situation that you can’t fix by treating those things as indifferents … which would ALSO give little motivation to fix things in the here and now. So there’s no easy way out of that case. As you say, in a comfortable world it is easy to talk about making the world a better place, but it’s not so easy when you don’t have one, and it isn’t clear that humanism can provide the sort of staying power and determination to do or be good in tough times that, say, Christianity or even Stoicism can.

  2. Crude Says:

    Two questions.

    First: what did you think Marshall did wrong overall in his defense? what was his failing?

    Second: can you recommend literature about stoicism? I more and more am thinking Christian (well, Catholic) stoicism, if compatible with Aristotilean views of virtue, is something that may well compel me.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’d probably have to watch it again to get detailed points, but from what I can remember his big push through most of it was saying that Christian societies did good things. Zuckerman himself conceded that but went on anyway, and the obvious response is one that humanists have used for quite some time: you don’t need to be Christian to hold those same ideals, and moreover Christian ideals are good to the extent that they are humanistic, and bad when they deviate from that. So the claim itself was fairly weak, and he did at one point in the Q&A demur that he was a historian and so was only looking at it from a historical perspective, but didn’t even really defend that perspective well. He didn’t say anything incredibly stupid, but didn’t say anything really interesting or strong either, in my opinion.

      As for the Stoics, I’ll look some up when I get home. I like Seneca myself, and have some translations of that, but there are differences between the Roman Stoics and the Greek Stoics that confuse the issues a bit. As for the compatibility with Aristotlean virtue theory, I wrote an essay comparing them a while ago, but think I might have lost it in a hard drive crash, but they are pretty similar in terms of overall view — which is only to be expected — but shake out differently in practice, meaning in what the virtues actually are. The key thing for the Stoics is the very strong idea that Virtue is all that matters and everything else should be sacrificed to it, up to the point of death for you and loved ones, making it a pretty harsh philosophy at times. Seneca, it seems to me, moderates that a bit by having a different view of the indifferents, arguing that it is just as problematic to treat the indifferents as Vices as to treat them as Virtues. They also want to actually eliminate strong emotions, but again Seneca is a bit more moderate on this, arguing less against having strong feelings but more against trusting them or acting on them.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I found my paper, and just created a new page for it here:

      As a comparison between the Stoics and Aristotle, it should be of interest to you, and has probably my favourite sources in the Bibliography.

    • Crude Says:

      Thanks for the reply – I’ll have a look.

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