The Joy Of Secularism

Joy of Secularism

The Joy of Secularism includes an essay by one of my favorite writers, Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are; and, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library). The story in the former of de Waal taking his baby with him to the zoo to see the bonobo chimpanzees, one of whom also was raising a baby of her own, was touching. She made eye contact with de Waal whom sheʼd come to know, and so she came up to the glass where de Waal was holding his baby who was looking into the ape enclosure, and she held up her own baby to the glass so that both babies could look into each othersʼ eyes. Then the bonobo mother looked into the eyes of de Waal.

Choice quotations from de Waalʼs chapter:

“I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing that stands between them and repulsive behavior.” [In response to claims by theistic moralists that there would be nothing to keep THEM from killing or raping whomever they pleased but for their belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.]

de Waal summarizes the evidence for emotional linkages between primates, including empathy and consolation, other prosocial tendencies, abundance of examples of spontaneous helping, as well as cases of reciprocity and recognition of fairness/unfairness between primates.

He ends his essay with these words:

“Humans moved from a purely socially reinforced system to one with religious backing. A big step perhaps, but not big enough to claim morality as a religious invention. Without claiming other primates as moral beings, we may assert that the seeds for a moral order seem far older than our species. Empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, fairness, and other basic tendencies were built into humanityʼs moral order based on our primate psychology.”

I first encountered de Waal years ago, after heʼd authored the following lines:

“Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or a religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates… Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order…

“When social animals are involved… antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human.”

— Frans de Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates


Echoing de Waal, the wise words of philosopher, Mary Midgley, have also stuck with me over the years:

“Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

‘Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.’
— (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

“That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

“These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt—though of course usually an unsuccessful one—to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

“If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we—being creatures subject to gravitation—could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwinʼs idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.”

Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopherʼs Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001


My definition of morality (not de Waalʼs nor Midgleyʼs but owing something to both of their views)

Morality is an agreement that takes place between two or more people concerning where to draw the line in each othersʼ behavior(s).

It is also something we may argue about with ourselves, i.e., concerning where we ought best to draw those lines. We have great intelligence, including foresight that allows us to contemplate results of our actions.

But most importantly, being a member of a social species, we interact constantly via a wealth of signals from our faces, our bodies, our speech. So we have lots of data that goes into assessing our interactions with others. And we share similar pains when physically or mentally abused. We share similar pleasures, not just physical pleasures, but intellectual/mental ones too. Unless we are absolute hermits or serial killers, we much prefer interacting with fellow members of society, enjoying living among them, communicating with them, sharing stories, goods and services, rather than ostracizing ourselves (choosing to live as an absolute hermit) or risking being ostracized by others (choosing to live as a serial killer, or other type of person who attempts to impose what we all agree is quite a lot of harm on others merely at one personʼs whim).


David Sloan Wilsonʼ chapter in The Joy of Secularism was also interesting.

He pointed out that “religion is a fuzzy set—everything that defines it also exists outside religion.”

He also points out that religious beliefs are not intrinsically “enchanting,” nor intrinsically “unenchanting.” There has been and probably will always be a “dull, bureaucratic, ham-fisted conformity-inducing side of religion, not to speak of the deception, backbiting, social climbing, and exploitation that can take place under its cloak,” his point being “that both religious and nonreligious cultural systems overlap to a large degree” when it comes to reasons to feel unenchanted. While secularism, like religion, also has its own peculiar enchantments. For instance whenever people get involved in a cause (whether religious or nonreligious), and there is much to do to advance that cause, enchantment arises.

He also cites the case of Myles Horton, a great social activist of the early twentieth century who was beaten up by racists and toughs and locked up by governors, and how he was raised a member of devout Calvinist community, but when he was young he had plenty of doubts about predestination and wondered if he believed “any of this.” His mother told him, “Donʼt bother about all that, thatʼs not important, thatʼs just preacherʼs talk. The only thing thatʼs important is that youʼve got to love your neighbor.” As Horton recalls, “She didnʼt say, ‘Love God,’ she said, ‘Love your neighbor, thatʼs all itʼs all about.’ … It was a good nondoctrinaire background [to my thoughts today], and it gave me a sense of what was right and what was wrong.”

Lastly, Wilson notes how science, like religion before it, continues to attract more rousing speakers and artists who are adorning science-based messages with the arts. Heʼs all in favor of seeing such a trend continue.

Wilson mentioned the case of Michael Dowd, an American Protestant minister who married Connie Barlow, a science writer and atheist, and together they tour the country in a van adorned with the bumper sticker image of a “Darwin fish” kissing a “Christian fish,” and Michael gives rousing Evangelical-style talks on Evolutionary Christianity, and why we should “Thank God for Evolution!” Michael communicates scientific information in a way that adds the enchantment associated with religion.

A more secular case of the same thing involves Baba Brinkmanʼs Rap Guide to Evolution, “a hip hop exploration of modern evolutionary biology.” [See poster below]

Wilson ended his essay with a personal tale about how he was invited to participate in an annual midwinter festival celebrating science and the arts in Ithica, New York, called, Light in Winter. He was paired with a musical group called Water Bear, consisting of a pianist, a violinist, a cellist, and an electric bassist. The lead member of the group, Mer Boel, had read Wilsonʼs book, Evolution for Everyone and composed music inspired by three themes: individual differences, social control, and expanding the circle of cooperation. The performance consisted of Wilsonʼs short explanation of each theme, followed by their performance while he stood on stage. For the individual difference piece, the musicians adopted shy and bold personalities in their playing style. For the social control piece, the cellist started to dominate the group by playing in Jimi Hendrix style until the electric bassist brought him back into line. For the cooperation piece, the audience was invited to join in a rhythmic chant along with the instruments. The combination of science lecture and artistic performance was followed by the audience snapping up all of Wilsonʼs books, which Wilson admitted seldom happens after his lectures.

Speaking of a scientific and secular understanding of humanity being mixed with the arts…

Thereʼs a series of popular videos titled, The Symphony of Science that mix music and auto-tuned lines from famous scientists!

Speaking of atheism and music, the most famous atheist composers in the past were Schubert, Brahms, Shostakovich, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, Hector Berlioz, Béla Bartók, Frederick Delius, Michael Tippett. Also, atheist composer, Richard Rodgers, composed the music to “The Sound of Music.”

Someone on youtube dubbed this video of the burning of the enormous “Touchdown Jesus” statue (by lightning strike) with the music of atheist composer Berlioz (his “Pandemonium” from “The Damnation of Faust“).

Today thereʼs also Secular Chorale Music, composed by Francis Poulenc.

Not to mention the works of Ned Rorem, half of whose considerable output is for chorus and the church (I work with someone whose church choir sang some of his pieces), yet Rorem happens not to believe in God (and is gay). He has produced some of his richest and most deeply affecting music for massed voices, the best of it possessing an expressive urgency that transcends the categorization of being either sacred or profane. Click here to listen.

Peter Maxwell Davies is a British atheist (and openly gay) composer of avant-garde choral, vocal and instrumental works, not to mention also being Master of the Queenʼs Music.

Most recently a new chorale composer of rare talents has appeared—one of the most popular and performed composers of his generation, Eric Whitacre. The majority of his work makes no reference to religion or God, and he professes no particular religious affiliation. It appears that beautiful choral music for its own sake is what heʼs most interested in. His music is also so enchanting that it has inspired thousands from around the world to contribute their talents to performing his pieces, their voices strung together to produce videos in which two thousand people from numerous countries sing together as a virtual super choir! Click here. (One of Whitacreʼs works, “When David Heard,” while taken from the Bible, is far less about a deity or worship than it is about the emotions of a man who has lost his son, a work of devastating power.)

Also, in Britain a godless fellow named Robin Ince has created an annual Christmas show featuring a 20-piece orchestra, a choir, assorted atheist and agnostic comedians like Ricky Gervais and Phill Jupitus, and some scientists like Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins. Itʼs called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, and is now in its third or fourth year. Says Ince, “I think Christmas is good, itʼs nice to have some time for reflection.” Some people were annoyed when they heard heʼd produced a godless show at Christmas, thinking he just wanted to rant against the holiday but thatʼs not what Ince had in mind. “When we say weʼre having a Godless celebration, that means no god at all. Itʼs not about having a go at religion – itʼs going to be a proper celebration; of the Big Bang, of evolution theory and of comedy.” Click here for the 2010 show!

SEE ALSO The Damned Sing the Damnedest Songs, a youtube list of some contemporary agnostic/atheistic pop/rock/reggae/rap tunes.

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