Recently, the Reed Secular Alliance had the opportunity to interview Greg Epstein, who will be speaking about his book, Good Without God at Reed on November 19th. The talk will take place this Thursday in the Psychology Auditorium at 7:30 pm. There will be plenty of free food. We hope to see you there.
RSA: What is your contribution to the discussions about religion and society in the beginning of the 21st century?
Epstein: I wrote the book to introduce Americans—particularly a younger generation of Americans—to Humanism. I like the formal American Humanist Association definition of Humanism that you’d find in the back of my book, from the document “Humanism and its Aspirations,” but a short definition of Humanism is “good, without god.” Humanism is about doing good for our own sake, for the sake of our loved ones, for the sake of all human beings, and for the sake of the natural world that surrounds us and sustains us and is in grave danger. It’s about making this world better in the here and now, before we die, not for the sake of reward in heaven but because Humanists believe in life before death. We are imperiled right now by multiple wars, by continued nuclear proliferation, by global climate change, and by completely unstable economy, to name a few. We need massive solutions to these sorts of massive problems. Most people think the only way to motivate us to find such massive solutions is a narrow religious frame of reference. We need to show the world that there are secular alternatives that can work and need to be given a chance.
That said, I didn’t write the book as an answer to the question, “can you be good without God?” Of course you can be good without God. But that’s not what the book is about. Because if you think we can’t be good without God, that’s not just your opinion. That’s not just some brainstorm that crossed your mind. It’s prejudice. It might even be discrimination. I mean, no one in his or her right mind would ever say, “Oh, you’re a Catholic. How nice—is it possible for you to be a decent human being, too?” We wouldn’t ask whether it’s possible to be a good person and Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist. We don’t ask whether you can be good and a Democrat, or a Republican (at least, usually we don’t). So since we know that there are now millions and millions of people living without belief in a god, it’s time to reject the question of whether we can be good without God.
However, the question why we can be good without God is much very much worth asking. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. Those are the questions I’m addressing in this book. They are the essential questions of Humanism.
RSA: What are your criticisms of the New Atheists, and why do you believe that Humanism offers a better solution to the problems of the 21st century?
Epstein: I respect a lot of what Harris, Dawkins, and others are trying to do. But Harris has said, “Science must destroy religion.” Dawkins has likened religious education to child abuse. Hitchens has said we need to prepare for war with religion. And recently Bill Maher upped the rhetorical ante, if that’s possible, by saying that “for humanity to live, religion must die.” Such statements aren’t helpful. Humanism isn’t trying to erase religion. It’s an embracing philosophy. We’re not saying we’re any better, even any more reasonable, than religious people.
Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious, and we’re happy to admit you can also be good with God. We just want to be considered as equals in politics, in culture, in society. We believe in pluralism, in interfaith cooperation, in religious literacy, but it’s not okay to talk about those things anymore without talking about Humanism. President Obama has been very good at this—including Humanists in the public conversation. He’s one of the most Humanist presidents we’ve had in generations.
RSA: How does your position as Humanist Chaplain give you unique insight as to what young people are searching for philosophically and spiritually?
Epstein: I don’t think that my position gives me any unique insight. Humanists like me (and you, I’m betting) don’t believe in such things as special positions that make certain people wiser or better than others. Being pope of Humanists at Harvard or elsewhere, or being able to provide all the answers to anyone’s questions of life and death are not in my job description.
I would say, however, that because I am in my position I get to talk all the time with young people who would never accept the revealed dogma of any religion, yet are still searching for some sense in which they can genuinely feel their lives have a meaning, a worthwhile purpose. I frequently meet young people who would rather walk on broken glass than walk into a Church or house of worship that purported to tell them how to live, yet are still looking for a community they can be part of that goes beyond what a sports team or political movement would have to offer. Humanism, as a philosophy of life and as a community, helped me to find answers to these sorts of questions and I think it can be an important resource for others.
RSA: The subtitle of your book is What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. Do you feel that Humanism can accurately represent what those billion people do believe? Do you see Humanism as a meaningful life-stance that can appeal to the one billion people who are not religious?
Epstein: All the major recent studies of world religious beliefs, despite using different methodologies, will tell you that there are approximately one billion people who define themselves as nonreligious or secular. In America, there are approximately forty to fifty million nonreligious people, with the percentage of the nonreligious having gone up in every single state in the past twenty years. And there are even higher numbers among young people–one in every four or five Americans aged 18 to 25 is nonreligious today. This is beyond a trend. It’s a revolution.
Now, we all know what these people don’t believe in. But for the longest time, there have been no books, no major works that examine and explain what these billion nonreligious people do believe in. If you look closely, most of us are believers in Humanism. We believe that this one world, the natural world, is the only world we will ever know, and this life is the only life we’ll ever have, so we have to make it as good as we can.
Some people complain that there are actually a lot of nonreligious people who say they believe in some form of a god. True. But “Do you believe in God?” is actually a totally meaningless question. Because in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to mean. If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if saying you believe in God means you believe in nature, or the universe, or love, well, of course Humanists believe in those things, but we don’t feel the need to call them God. We believe God is the most influential literary character ever created. But the real point is that there is no magical, supernatural force that is going to help us love one another or take care of one another or save the planet from war or climate change. We have to do those things for each other
RSA: What part of Secular Humanism would you believe is the most valuable for Reed students to take away from this interview and from your talk?
Epstein: I hope Reed students will get increasingly involved in building a positive, life-affirming Humanist movement on campus and beyond. I understand you’re a senior, Leslie, so in many ways the greatest gift you can give your campus this year is to turn your own group over to talented, passionate, if less experienced young leaders as you move on to the next, non-college stage of being a Humanist leader. And those new leaders continue your good work with the Secular Student Alliance, perhaps looking out for ways to rally Humanists to take the lead in community service projects from cleaning up parks and homeless shelters to doing microloans to the developing world on Kiva; they should also be taking the lead in organizing interfaith projects with religious groups who support Church-state separation and protecting the environment—and who have to understand that they have to no right to exclude Humanists and atheists from their work in this day and age. I look forward to seeing what they can do!