(This is roughly what I said in my panel this morning at Empowering Women Through Secularism. The topic was Secular Values in Society; my fellow panelists were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, and Farhana Shakir.)
I’ve been campaigning for atheism for about 20 years now, and I have a terrible confession to make. In the beginning, I had this naive optimism that leaving religion behind would make people better people — maybe not perfect, but it would set them on the right path to reasonable lives. Obviously, I’ve been increasingly disillusioned, as it has become clear that many atheists are, well, jerks. There’s nothing about atheism that is sufficient to make a good person: atheism is not enough. But also, I would add that there’s nothing about secularism that is sufficient to make a good state. Secularism is not enough; we also have to select good secular values.
But still, secularism is necessary. It’s the floor of basic decency, it’s the start, and not the be-all and end-all.
Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism. By its very nature it imposes a vision of our interactions with each other and the world that is hierarchical and ordered and linear — the orders come from above. You will obey them. And further, the concept of faith is antithetical to transparency — you cannot question those orders, because there is no path for verification. You are expected to trust but not verify, and accept without reason.
Secularism is the rejection of the validity of divine authority as a source of any kind of values: moral, material, political, social, or intellectual. Truth and justice are not meted out by a singular authoritative source, filtered through the interpretations of priests and religious leaders, but are instead derived from we, the people, and anchored in reality by a pattern of continuous assessment against measurable real world effects: not, “how does a god feel about this decision?” but “does this decision improve human welfare?”
Secularists are often told that without a central authority in a god or gods, we lack a source of an objective morality. And I would agree with that — we don’t. I’d go further, and say that believing in divine source of truth and justice doesn’t mean it exists, so even the believers lack a source of objective morality as well. Instead, all values are personal and subjective; you can choose to believe whatever you like, and adding “in the name of God” to a belief does not make it any more valid.
This all sounds rather free-wheeling, and it is: you can have a secular tyranny or a secular democracy. In and of itself, secularism doesn’t imply a particular form of government or relationship between citizens, it only knocks away a prop that supports an authoritarian form of government. But it also says that values have empirical consequences.
As a scientist, I am of course entirely comfortable with the idea of empiricism; it’s a good thing to progress by trial and error. As an evolutionary biologist, I also recognize a metric for “progress”: does a behavior increase the viability of individuals and of a species? It’s actually rather cut and dried: we should promote values that increase the stability and success of individuals and populations, because the alternative is extinction.
And I think I can safely say that any set of values that limits the potential of half the population, that reduces the health and happiness of one gender, or race, or class, is empirically detrimental to the long-term viability of the whole. I can definitely say that there is no objective reason one could argue that being born a woman, or black, or poor should make any individual a lesser contributor to our fully shared humanity.
In short, one significant effect of secularism is that it means we have the freedom to make choices, and more: if we care about the success of individuals and of our society, it means we have an obligation to make choices that benefit humanity, all of humanity, and not just the privileged few. Secularism is about the responsibility to better ourselves, instead of simply accepting the status quo. Ultimately, secularism must be revolutionary and progressive, because it encourages change and improvement — it is an empirical model of governance that demands responsiveness to the real world consequences of our actions.
And that’s really why I am here at all. As a white middle-class American male, I am the recipient of a vast amount of privileged benefits. As an atheist and a secularist, though, I realize that I simply won the cosmic lottery — there is no objective source of my privilege, it’s not that I deserve all of my good fortune, and having a sense of fairness and justice — other good secular values — it is my choice and my obligation to advocate for greater equality of opportunity for all human beings.